The Titles of Jesus: Jesus the Lord and Jesus the Savior/Redeemer – Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

July 19, 2012

The major titles the New Testament applies to Jesus are as follows: Prophet, Suffering Servant, High Priest, Messiah, Son of Man, Lord, Savior, Word, Son of God, and God. Far from being a mere litany of honorifics, these titles actually refer to different aspects of his work and identity. The Swiss New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann, from whom Oakes has drawn this list shows in this fourth selection that Jesus the Lord and Jesus the Savior/ Redeemer refer to Jesus’ present work.


Jesus the Lord
Because Jesus was executed as “King of the Jews” and because the title “Messiah” carried inevitable royal connotations, it might seem that no more dangerous title could be given to Jesus than that of “Christ”; but in the Hellenistic setting of the Roman Empire, the truly dangerous title was that of Lord.One sign of that danger, a kind of “distant early warning” foreboding a future conflict between Christianity and the Roman Empire, can be seen in a telling decree issued by the Emperor Tiberius in the year A.D. 16 forbidding the prediction of the coming of a new king or a new kingdom within the confines of the Empire. [See Ben Witherington III, New Testament History: A Narrative Account] But this is precisely what a confession of Jesus as Lord entailed: by raising him from the dead, said Peter on Pentecost, “God has made this Jesus … both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).

This title “Lord” was therefore no empty honorific. Rather it meant that a new king has ascended the throne, a new kingdom has been established in history, which means as well that the days of all earthly authority are numbered: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again…. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command; … Then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming” (1 Thessalonians 4:14, 16; 2 Thessalonians 2:8).

These passages would seem to imply that the title “Lord” would be better placed in the section dealing with Christ’s future work; and the prayer often on the lips of the early Christians, “Marana-tha” (“Come, Lord”), also surely indicates that in confessing Jesus as Lord, the early Christians simultaneously looked forward to his imminent coming again.

All this is true, and surely one does not want to be too hard and fast in the use of the categories; but I think Cullmann is right in assigning the primary meaning of this term to Christ’s present work in the church now rather than just to his future in bringing about the end of the world. As he rightly says, “This designation expresses as does no other the thought that Christ is exalted to God’s right hand, glorified, and now intercedes for men before the Father.” [Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament]

Probably no title given to Jesus is more significant than Lord. Paul even says that no one can confess Jesus as Lord except in the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). Furthermore, he makes the confession of Jesus as Lord the very hinge of the Christian’s salvation: “If you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and if you believe with your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

But why does so much hinge on that title “Lord”? At first glance the title might not seem all that significant, for the title was (and to some extent still is) quite common. Its basic meaning denotes anyone who has a higher position in society over another. For that reason barons and the like are still officially addressed as “lord” in contemporary Britain. Even the almost empty honorific “sir” is etymologically rooted in the word for “lord” in the Romance languages. [For example the word for "mister" in French is monsieur, literally meaning "my lord," just as the Italian monsignore means the same thing; and the German for "mister" is Herr, the German word for "Lord." Note also that the English "mister" is related to "master," which means roughly the same thing as "lord," inasmuch as it refers to anyone whose social position makes him more powerful than the one addressing him with these terms of respect.]

The same holds true of the Greek kyrios: in some contexts it is best translated as “sir” (an honorific) but at other times as “lord” (or when referring to God, “Lord”). Because Greek, German, and most Romance languages use the same term, but English distinguishes “lord” from “sir,” English translations of the Bible can often obscure an important point in the Gospels when they depict someone approaching Jesus with the title kyrios. No doubt these curious onlookers might have meant the title merely as a polite way of showing respect for a noted teacher, but the evangelists also want to point out that, perhaps unbeknownst to the speakers, they are confessing Jesus as the true Lord.

But that still does not explain why such an ordinary term could come to be so significant to the Christians who made so much of their confession of Jesus as Lord. Part of the reason for that comes from a development in Jewish piety after the Babylonian exile. The Old Testament records that God had revealed to Moses his personal name, YHWH (perhaps pronounced “Yahweh;’ although that is disputed because ancient Hebrew did not indicate vowels). The name is drawn from the Hebrew word for “to be,” which is why God also reveals his name as “I AM WHO I AM.” But after the return of the Jews during the reign of king Cyrus, pious practice forbade the pronunciation of the divine name except by the High Priest on the feast of Yom Kippur, and then only in the Holy of Holies, the inner chamber of the Temple in Jerusalem.

For that reason, whenever the divine name appeared in the text, the Hebrew word for “Lord,” Adonai, was substituted when the text was being read aloud; so when the Jews living in Alexandria two to three centuries before Christ commissioned a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek (called the Septuagint), the word kyrios was always used whenever the Hebrew text read YHWH. In other words, for the Jews of Alexandria, the title “Lord” became the divine name par excellence, a connotation of the title that then started to hold true for all the Greek-speaking Jews of the Roman Empire, given the enormous prestige of the Septuagint for them. [This linguistic substitution also made sense against the background of the non-monotheistic religions of the Greek-speaking parts of the Roman Empire, where the gods and goddesses (Serapis, Osiris, Isis, and so forth) were addressed as kyrios or kyria. See Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament, pp. 196-97 for details and bibliography.]

Little wonder, then, that the Christians were persecuted by the Romans specifically because they refused to address the Roman emperor by the title “lord” in the civic rites required of all “patriotic” members of the Empire. [The Roman emperors might well have maintained republican fictions in Rome and in those lands absorbed by Rome before the fall of the Republic; but in the East they became increasingly insistent that the populace honor the emperor by more religiously exalted titles that implied divinity in the pagan pantheon.]This the Christians could not do, because their confession of Jesus as Lord meant that he was the only one before whom “every knee should bend” (Philemon 2:10). Obeisance offered to any other reputed or putative “lord” would thereby represent a denial of the very faith that was their salvation.

Only one other point needs to be stressed about this title: the ambiguity in this word — that is, whether “Lord” (when applied to Jesus) means mere respect (“sir”) or is a confession of his divine status (“one Lord”) — only applies to his earthly life. After Easter, Jesus is confessed as Lord exclusively in its religious meaning. Indeed, it is because of Easter that he becomes Lord. Such is the testimony of the earliest strata of the New Testament. Peter, in his first sermon on Pentecost, says, “God raised this Jesus to life…. Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:32, 36); and Paul says that Jesus was “established with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:4).

The significance of the resurrection for Christology can only be discussed in the next chapter, but here we can at least note that it is because of the resurrection that the title of “Lord” refers primarily to Jesus’ present work in the church, as Cullmann explains so well:

We must above all ask why, after the death of Christ, a particular community was founded at all. If the very early Church really had only a future expectation, if only the coming Son of Man was Christologically significant for it, then it would be impossible to explain the impulse to form a Church in which enthusiasm ruled and the working of the Spirit determined the whole of life…. On the basis of the conviction that with Christ’s resurrection the end had already begun, the first Christians could no longer think of him only as the coming Son of Man. He must mean something also for the present, for time already fulfilled. The intense hope that the end is near is thus not the foundation but the consequence of the Easter faith…. He has died and is risen, and he will come again. But he must have a task to fulfill also between these two salvation-events. His work cannot simply cease in the meantime.
Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament

The present activity of the Lord Jesus in these “between times” comes through most clearly in a passage from Paul dealing with the tricky issue of eating meat from animals that had first been sacrificed to idols, to which question Paul replies with this answer: since the “gods” the pagans worship do not in fact exist, no harm is done provided the Christian not get seduced by appearances. At this point, Paul adds this crucial justification:

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” [in pagan religions]), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
(1 Corinthians 8:4-6)

As the renowned New Testament scholar N. T. Wright points out, this passage could not possibly be more revolutionary for later doctrinal development for its rhetorical parallelism rests on an allusion to the most basic Jewish confession of faith, called the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Paul uses the same structure but now incorporates Jesus himself into the confession:

The Lord our God = One God — the Father…

The Lord is One = One Lord — Jesus Christ .. .

The reason this parallelism is so revolutionary is that it shows that Paul was already establishing the basis for later doctrinal development, as Wright so lucidly sees:

Faced with that astonishing statement, one would have to say that if the early Fathers of the church hadn’t existed it would be necessary to invent them. Paul has redefined the very meaning of the words that Jews used, every day in their regular prayers, to denote the one true God. The whole argument of the chapter hinges precisely on his being a Jewish-style monotheist, over against pagan polytheism, and, as the lynchpin of the argument, he has quoted the most central and holy confession of that monotheism and has placed Jesus firmly in the middle of it. Lots of Pauline scholars have tried to edge their way round this one, but it can’t be done. The nettle must be grasped. Somehow, Paul believes, the one and only God is now known in terms, at least, of “father” and “lord.” All things are made by the one; all things are made through the other.
[N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?]

In other words, when Christians confessed Jesus as Lord, they confessed his divinity, yet without abandoning their monotheism.

Jesus the Savior/Redeemer
Billboards in the Bible Belt of the United States often proclaim “Jesus saves,” and some evangelicals and/or fundamentalists still approach the unchurched with the question, “Are you saved?” For that reason it might come as some surprise to learn that “Savior” does not figure prominently in the New Testament as a title for Jesus; and when it does occur, it comes from relatively late strata. But the term still functions as an important confession, for what the title points to is not only a present work of Jesus but a work of his that is correlative to a plight of ours. No one needs to be saved who is not already in some situation of desperation, who is in some sense “lost.” Only someone who is drowning needs a life-saver; and only those who feel lost on this earth, orphaned from their true home, will be on the lookout for a savior.

So the question becomes, what did Jesus save us from? In other words, in what does salvation consist? The answer is simple: Jesus is Savior because he saves people from their sins and from the death that has swept into the world as a consequence of sin (Romans 5:12). For that reason the title “Savior” accomplishes something that the title “Lord” on its own does not: it stresses Jesus’ role as the one who has atoned for our sins. “Lord” after all is applied not just to God, who, so to speak, “owns” the name most of all; but it can also be applied (legitimately and illegitimately) to any number of others who have assumed a social role of power and domination (“domination” comes from the Latin word  , for “lord”), and so in that sense can be ambiguous.

But “Savior” stresses something much more specific, a unique work of Jesus: his atoning death on the cross. [The New Testament does in fact once call God (rather than Jesus specifically) "Savior" but only in the rarely quoted Letter of Jude: "To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy -- to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore" (Jude 24-25). But even here God is "Savior" through Christ, that is, through his work of atonement.]

That said, “Savior” still shares an important feature with “Lord”: just as the Lordship of Jesus is universal, so too does the salvation effected by Jesus extend to the whole world, a point stressed most of all in the First Letter of John: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world…. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world” (1 John 2:2; 4:14).

The Greek word for “savior” (soter) is sometimes translated as “redeemer;’ but the two words in English bring out different features of the word not available in Greek (just as “sir” and “lord” bring out different meanings not available when .translating the single Greek term kyrios). Redemption is primarily an economic concept (as in redeeming coupons for the purchase of goods) and implies an exchange or purchase. The religious application of that word in the New Testament is due to the institution of slavery, where an owner could purchase a slave from the slave-market and then set him free if  he so chose.

For Paul the slavery from which we have been purchased was the slavery of sin (Romans 6:19-23), and the purchase price was the blood of Christ (Romans 3:25). But because the Greek soter does not make that distinction, [Except in the verb forms, where the distinction applies: sozo means "to save" (from a plight, like drowning) while hilaskomai means "to redeem" (in the Pauline sense of redeem from the slavery of sin by the atoning blood of Christ). But hilaskomai has no nominal form in the New Testament, so "Redeemer" as distinct from "Savior" could never become one of the titles of Jesus in New Testament Greek.]“redeemer” and “savior” cover the same semantic range for the most part, differing only slightly in their (English) connotations.

Finally, one must recall that the name “Jesus” itself in Hebrew means “the Lord saves,” which perhaps accounts for the late appearance of the title “Savior” in the New Testament and for its more prevalent usage in Christianity later on, when the name “Jesus” would sound purely as a proper noun (analogous to the way the name “Christ” became attached as a kind of last name). [One example of the favored use of the term “Savior” later on to describe Jesus can be seen in the image of a fish as a symbol for Christianity. The word for fish in Greek is ichthus, which can also form a Greek anagram, Iesous Christos Theou Dios Soter: “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.”

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