It was the day of Pentecost, and Peter and the apostles had suddenly and miraculously had the Holy Spirit come upon them and Peter stood up in the middle of the Temple courtyard, where fifty days earlier Jesus had been led through on his way to Golgotha to be crucified. Peter began to speak to the thousands of Jews who were gathered there wondering what was happening. He began to tell them about Jesus.
Now, they all were aware of what had happened fifty days earlier on the eve of the Passover, when the chief priests had dragged Jesus before Pilate, and they had all found themselves caught up in the heat of the moment shouting “Crucify him! Crucify him!” And then they had watched Jesus be scourged and led through the streets carrying his cross and then they had followed and watched Jesus be nailed to that cross and be crucified with common criminals. They remembered how, about the sixth hour, darkness had come over the city and Jesus’ heartrending cry, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtheni!” and then those who were close enough had heard him whisper, “It is finished.”
It was firmly imprinted in their memory – they would never forget it, and for many of them, the guilt was so overpowering that they were haunted by the memory of that innocent man being brutally murdered.
And now Peter was telling them about this Jesus who had been crucified. He wasn’t just a good man or a brilliant teacher. He was the one whom all the OT writers prophesied would come to deliver his people from their sin. And now Peter says, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2:36)
God has made him both Lord and Christ. We often use the two terms interchangeably, but Peter wasn’t being redundant. He chose his words carefully – both Lord and Christ. They are two of the most significant titles assigned to Jesus. One embodies the hope and the salvation of all mankind, the other proclaims his worthiness to rule in our lives.
Both are such significant titles that I don’t want to shortchange either one, so let’s take our time this week to talk about Lord and next week to talk about Christ.
The title Lord was one that came out of the slave market. It designated one who owned another person and had complete authority in his or her life. Now obviously, how that authority was exercised spoke both to the character of the lord, and the relationship between the two, and we’ll notice in just a little while, how Jesus transformed that earthly relationship in a positive, powerful way. But the title lord didn’t really speak to the quality of the authority, but that the person who wore the title had it – it was complete and all encompassing.
In the ancient world, the owner of a slave owned him completely – his time, his energy, his body. What the lord said to do, the slave did, or suffered the consequences. If a lord chose to put his slave to death, that was his prerogative – he was sovereign over his slave. There were no “slaves bill of rights” or rights of appeal, or rights of any kind. The lord owned the slave completely.
A slave had no personal possessions, no free time, owned nothing. Everything he had and was belonged to his master. As such, to call a man “lord” was to acknowledge his position and authority over you, and to submit yourself to him.
This language obviously grates against our modern sensibilities toward slavery, and rightly so, but it was a common and accepted part of the life of citizens in every culture of the ancient world, from Greece to Rome to Judea. And so, when Peter said “Jesus is Lord;” when Paul later used the language of slave and master in his letters, their readers and listeners understood exactly what they were saying.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he challenges us to consider the implications of the choices we make, as well as the results of those choices: Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.
I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:16-23)
We like to think that we are absolutely free – after all, isn’t that one of our “inalienable human rights”? But the truth is, we are all slaves to someone, or something. Before we belonged to Christ and had the Holy Spirit empowering us, we didn’t really have any choice in the matter. We were slaves to sin and to Satan – he had an unbreakable grip on our life and controlled us like a puppet on strings. When he said sin, we sinned, because we had no power to say “no.” And the result (or the wages) of that sin is death – eternal death.
We had the illusion of freedom – we did whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted, with whomever we wanted. It felt like we were free – but it was Satan telling us “That’s what freedom looks like. All of the time, though, he was in control, leading us further and further into spiritual bondage. We weren’t free at all! But when Christ died upon the cross for our sins, we were given a choice, not a choice between slave and free, but to whom we would be a slave, whom we would call lord.
When you make that choice to call Jesus Lord, he breaks Satan’s grip on you. Sin is no longer your master, though Paul says, some of you still act like he rules your life. But if Jesus is your lord, you no longer have to listen to Satan – he no longer has a death-grip on your life. Now, when temptation comes, you don’t have to answer. The reason, Paul says, is because you have died to sin. It’s no longer you living, but Christ living in you. Jesus is Lord, and if Jesus is Lord, sin is powerless over you.
The ironic thing is that, when Jesus becomes our Lord – when we become a slave to righteousness instead of sin – something remarkable happens: we experience true freedom.
There are actually two Greek words for lord – one is despotes (which you may recognize from the English word, “despot”) which describes a tyrannical, malevolent, self-serving ruler who has no interest or care for those he rules. His only really interest is power. The other word is kurios, the word which is used to describe Jesus, who rules with authority, but an authority that wills the best for his subjects; who not only gives them what they need, but more than they need; who is self-sacrificing and compassionate in pouring himself out for those he rules.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he is exasperated – and for good reason. There are some who had become followers of Christ, and then decided to go back to their old lives of sin and of self-reliance as they tried to justify themselves by keeping the law. And Paul writes: It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Gal. 5:1)
It is as though Christ has come and released you from prison and set you free, and you give it some thought and say, “No thanks, I would rather be back behind bars.” It is as though Christ has cured you of deadly cancer, and you tell him, “No thanks, I want the cancer cells injected back into my body.”
Why would anyone who has been set free from sin and Satan choose to go back to the tyrannical despot who desires only to hurt and destroy and condemn to hell?
It is interesting to see how becoming believers changed the relationships between masters and slaves, and those places where NT writers address that relationship, though obviously no longer applying to actual slaves and masters still have a powerful relevance in our lives today.
In Paul’s letter to Philemon, we learn of Onesimus, a runaway slave from the household of Philemon. Onesimus had found refuge with Paul and had become a Christian as well as a trusted friend and fellow-servant. But the thing is, back in Colossae, where Philemon lived, Philemon was also a Christian. Paul realizes there is an unresolved issue involved. And so he sends Onesimus back to Philemon with the letter we have in our NT. In that letter, he writes: I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. (I don’t want you to miss the play on words Paul is making here, because the name Onesimus is the Greek word for “useful”) I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. (Phm. 1:10-18)
Philemon and Onesimus, a master and his slave – no longer just master and slave, but brothers in Christ – and Paul says that changes everything.
When Paul wrote to the churches, there were slaves and masters in the same congregations, sitting side by side with each other, and that changes everything:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (Eph. 6:5-9)
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. (Col. 3:22-24)
Though none of us are slaves or own slaves, the principles are the same in our relationships with the people we serve or the people we lead. Jesus Christ is ultimately our lord, and we serve as though we are serving Christ, or we lead, knowing that Christ is our master.
When we acknowledge Jesus as Lord, we are putting ourselves under his sovereign rule. Like a slave of old, everything we are and own belongs to him. We turn over our time and energy and possessions. Our love and our loyalty belongs to him. There is nothing we withhold – it all comes under his rule.
Juan Carlos Ortiz, in his book Disciple, describes a man who desires to follow Jesus – in the words of the parable, he wants to purchase the pearl of great price. (Illustration – Disciple, pp. 34-35)
That’s what it means to call Jesus “Lord” – that’s what it means to become his slave. We are familiar with the language of calling Jesus Lord, but very unfamiliar with what the lifestyle of letting Jesus be our Lord should look like. But Jesus’ promise is that when you truly live like Jesus is your Lord, you will experience freedom as you have never imagined it before.