Acknowledging Jesus Christ as “our Lord and Savior”, for first century followers, was a far cry from the creedal recitation that it has become in subsequent generations. It was a powerful declaration of allegiance to Jesus’ new Kingdom — one that could, and frequently did, cost the life of the person involved! These were titles that the Roman emperors, drunk with power, had reserved for themselves, as symbols of their self-proclaimed deity! The two words in combination appear less than a dozen times in the New Testament, but used individually, they carry the same freight.
Kurios — Lord — in first century usage, could be as non-threatening as the polite form of address, “sir” or “mister”. It could refer to the master of a household, the head of a family, or any person with authority over another. It was common in both masculine and feminine forms, as the respectful way to address any person of social standing, beyond their mid-teens. It could also, of course, refer to the master of slaves or servants, over whom he had absolute power — even that of life or death. He offered protection and care, but at the price of absolute and unquestioning obedience.
Throughout history, it also referred to government officials, guardians or trustees, or to those who held sovereign power over a city or state. By the first century BC, it also referred to the deified rulers of nations or empires. “Caesar is Lord” was the commonly required oath of allegiance in the Roman Empire.
This casts a glaring light on Paul’s statement in I Corinthians 12:3, that “No one can say, “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.” A person on trial for his life could only escape the death sentence by replacing that confession with “Caesar is Lord; Jesus is cursed,” and burning incense at the imperial temple. A choice had to be made, which kingdom one would serve.
Soter, “savior”, likewise started out as a relatively low-key term. (Its related words will be considered in another posting.) “Savior,” “deliverer,” or “rescuer” might designate anyone who protected another from disease, death, or other disaster. It, too, however, as early as the writings of Homer, began to be applied, first to Zeus, and then to other gods, who were honored with temple sacrifices after a military victory or perilous sea journey, by those who had returned safely. Nearly every harbor town had a shrine available for such a purpose.
In both the LXX and the New Testament, God is called “savior”, in acknowledging the deliverance of his people.
Consequently, it was not a stretch for the emperors to adopt that title as well. Jesus hinted at that practice when he noted that “The kings of the nations … who flaunt their authority, are called benefactors…” (Luke 22:25). Eventually, only the emperor dared lay claim to that title.
It is interesting that the later New Testament epistles — Timothy, Titus, and II Peter — are the setting for most of the uses of the combined terms “Lord and Savior.” These were written at a time when persecution had become extremely intense, and lives were on the line daily: the ultimate test of loyalty to the King of Kings lay in that statement.
When will folks who weekly repeat declarations that Jesus is “Lord and Savior” — while displaying in their places of “worship” the symbols of “Caesar” (their earthly nation)! — dare to consider the far-reaching implications of making a faithful –and fate-ful –choice? Who is your King?