It is well known that the primary and most important name for God in the Old Testament is YHWH, which means “Lord.” The four Hebrew letters of this word, known to scholars as the Tetragrammaton, were (and still are today) regarded by Jews as too holy to pronounce. In combination with the Hebrew word for “God” (Elohim), “Lord God” characterizes the sovereignty, majesty, and supremacy of Israel’s God. We also know that the earliest and most succinct title of Jesus in the Greek New Testament is kyrios Iesous, “Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 12:3), and that the earliest Aramaic prayer of the church is marana tha, “Come, Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 16:22). These two titles––“Lord God,” “Lord Jesus”––are the special subject of this article. I wish to consider two supremely important questions in relation to them: First, why did the early church, which was Jewish and hence as monotheistic as its Old Testament forebears, choose to bestow its most sacred name for God on Jesus of Nazareth? Second, what precedent did the early church find in the testimony to YHWH in the Old Testament for ascribing this title to Jesus of Nazareth?
I. Why did the early church ascribe the name YHWH to Jesus? There are two major characteristics of YHWH in the Old Testament, the first of which is God’s majesty and might. “The heavens are telling the glory of God (Ps. 19:1), says the Psalmist. The number of ways the Old Testament recounts God’s glory and might are manifold and manifest. God is enthroned above the cherubim (2 Kgs. 19:15), enthroned in heaven itself (Ps. 123:1), with “light as a garment” (Ps. 104:2). The prophet Micaiah saw “the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the armies of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left” (1 Kgs. 22:19).
The prophet Ezekiel commences his prophecy with plethora of images––wind, fire and burning coals, winged beasts, flashes of lightening, brilliant and precious stones, and the vastness of space––all of which convey God’s glory (Ezek. 1).
The concluding Psalms forsake human laments, prayers for vindication, and prayers for the king in order to focus supremely on God’s majesty and might: “On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works I will meditate. They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds, and I will declare your greatness” (Ps. 145:5–6). The shortest Psalm in the Bible depicts God’s glory and faithfulness thus: “Praise the Lord, all nations! Extol him, all peoples! For great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. Praise the Lord!” (Ps. 117).
God’s majesty and might are not his only essential properties, however. The second major characteristic of YHWH in the Old Testament is his self-revelation. God is not remote, unknowable, and capricious, but imminent and knowable. God is partially knowable because he is the creator of heaven and earth, and creation itself––the sun, moon, stars, and the abundance of the earth––bears his fingerprints. “How majestic is your name in all the earth” (Ps. 8:1); heavens and earth “proclaim his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1); “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof” (Ps. 24:1).
God’s knowability in creation is not a final or sufficient witness in itself, however. Creation reflects its Creator, and as such leaves a sense of God, but this sense is not personal or complete. God’s revelation in history is more complete and personal than his revelation in nature, for God’s historical revelation reveals God’s person. The most important means by which YHWH reveals himself in human history is through his word. God creates the world itself by the word (Gen. 1). God delivers the moral law through the “Ten Words,” as Jews refers to the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:1–17; Deut. 5:1–20). The compilation of God’s teaching in the Old Testament is known in Hebrew as “Torah,” the root for which is the verb “to teach.” Torah instructs God’s people who he is, how they may know and love him, how they should treat others and the world in which they live, and how to experience wellbeing in human community and work. So massive is the quantum of God’s teaching in the Old Testament that it has occupied Judaism to the present day in further elaboration in the Mishnah, Gemara, the two Talmuds, and rabbinic commentary. “The law of the Lord is perfect, … reviving the soul, … making wise the simple, … rejoicing the heart, … enlightening the eyes,” declares the Psalmist (Ps. 19:7–8). If the shortest Psalm (Ps. 117) speaks of God’s glory and majesty, the longest Psalm (Ps. 119), like the Jewish rabbinic tradition itself, extols the commandments of God. Psalm 119 is divided into twenty-two sections, one for each successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each section is comprised of eight verses, each verse beginning with the corresponding letter of the section. The most frequent reference in Psalm 119 is to God’s teachings, his “precepts,” which God “commands to be kept diligently” (Ps. 119:4).
The historical revelation of YHWH is not limited to legal precepts, however. God’s self-disclosure is also, and perhaps more importantly, manifested in prophecy. At the zenith of the Israelite monarchies, both the northern monarchy of Israel and the southern monarchy of Judah, the Hebrew prophets fused the truths of God with the imminence of God. The God who is radically present in human prophecy calls for obedience to the word and will of God in the present Kairos––the decisive moment of God’s redemptive activity.
The “Lord God’s” defining characteristics—his majesty and might, and his self-revelation in Torah and prophecy––were personified in the three great offices of Israel: kingship, priesthood, and prophecy. Each of the modes of revelation we have noted above was exemplified and represented in one of these offices: God’s majesty and might in kingship, God’s precepts in the priesthood, and God’s particular will in prophecy. The early church appropriated these three offices for its understanding and proclamation of Jesus as prophet, priest, and king. The offices were a theological viaduct that spanned from Israel to the church, from “Lord God” to “Lord Jesus.” Each of these offices is referenced to God in the Old Testament and each is referenced to Jesus Christ in the New Testament. The Transfiguration of Jesus––an event, incidentally, for which there is no precedent or counterpart in either Israel or in other religious traditions––depicts this transferal from “Lord God” to “Lord Jesus.” Jesus had already revealed his fulfillment of Torah, for in saying, “Take my yoke upon yourselves and learn from me” (Matt. 11:29), he employs “yoke”––a common metaphor for “Torah” in Judaism––to signify that he fulfills Torah. Jesus had also donned the prophetic mantel in speaking of himself as “a prophet without honor” (Mark 6:4), and of Jerusalem as a place “that kills the prophets” (Matt. 23:37). When, therefore, Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet present themselves to Jesus at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:31), their announcement of Jesus’ “exodus”––his Passion––is a declaration of the consummation of salvation history.
It is remarkable how purposefully and completely the nature and mission of “Lord God” is ascribed to “Lord Jesus” in the New Testament––and in all levels of its transmission.
Synoptic Gospels. Jesus declares, “All things were delivered to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the Son and to whom the Son desires to make him known” (Matt. 11:27; Luke 10:22).
Fourth Gospel. Jesus declares: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). “One” here recalls the uncompromising emphasis of monotheism from the Shema, “Hear Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). Perhaps the fullest and most revealing transferal of “Lord God” to “Lord Jesus” occurs in John 5, where Jesus’s opponents charge that “he not only breaks the sabbath, but says that God is his Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). Jesus responds by citing God’s unique works in the Old Testament, including authority to raise the dead and execute judgment, which he––Jesus––executes (John 5:19–29).
The Apostle Paul. The Pauline Epistles contain the two most outstanding hymns in all Scripture equating Jesus with God.
Think among yourselves as Jesus himself thought. For he existed in the form of God, but he did not count equality with God something to be seized greedily; rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, assuming human likeness. And, being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death by crucifixion. Therefore, God exalted him and freely gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:5–11).
Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, things seen and things unseen, whether thrones or lordships or rulers or authorities. All things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things and all things hold together in him, for he himself is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn of the dead, so that he may become preeminent in all things, for in him all fullness was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile all things to himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross, whether for things on earth or in heaven (Col. 1:15–20).
Pastoral Letters. Five terse and bold Christological hymns of similar nature appear in 1 Tim. 2:5–6; 3:16; 6:15–16; 2 Tim. 1:9-10; 2:11–13. 1 Tim. 6:1–16 describes Jesus Christ as the manifestation of God, “he who is King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no human has seen or is able to see, to whom be honor and eternal dominion.”
The Revelation of John. The fourth chapter of Revelation acclaims the celestial glory and majesty of God, which in the following chapter is ascribed equally to both God and Jesus Christ: “To the One who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and dominion, for ever and ever” (Rev. 5:13). We may summarize this peerless witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ by recalling that the kerygma, the earliest known summary of the gospel proclamation of early Christianity, is a brief, memorable, and public announcement of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of salvation history.
I. The Messiah promised in the Old Testament has come.
II. He is Jesus of Nazareth, who
A. Did good and executed mighty works by the
power of God.
B. Was crucified according to the purpose of God.
C. Was raised from the dead by the power of God,
D. Is now exalted as “Lord” to the right hand of God,
E. Will come again in judgment to restore all things.
III. Let all who hear believe this message, repent, and be baptized.
It is worth adding that the fulfillment of the prophetic promises of the Old Testament in the kerygmatic proclamation of the New Testament is carried forth without diminishment by the Apostolic Fathers. The First Epistle of Clement (ch. 16), for instance, walks readers through each strophe of Isaiah 53, showing how each ascription of the Servant of the Lord is likewise an ascription of Jesus as Lord. Again, Ignatius of Antioch emphasizes the reality of Jesus as the incarnate God through a dramatic repetition of the Greek word alethos (“really” or “truly”):
Be deaf, therefore, whenever anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David, who was the son of Mary; who really was born, who both ate and drank; who really was persecuted under Pontius Pilate, who really was crucified and died while those in heaven and on earth and under the earth looked on; who, moreover, really was raised from the dead when his Father raised him up. In the same way his Father will likewise also raise up in Christ Jesus us who believe in him. Apart from him we have no real life (Trall. 9).
The foregoing summary brings us to the point where we can answer our first question, namely, why the early church, which was Jewish and hence as monotheistic as its Old Testament forbears, chose to bestow its most sacred name for God, YHWH, on Jesus of Nazareth? The panoply of evidence we have surveyed in the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers provides the unequivocal answer to this question: Jesus Christ, in his life, teaching, death, and resurrection, exhibited himself to be the incarnation of Israel’s “Lord God.” For this reason, from the earliest days of the church, Jesus Christ was understood and proclaimed as “Lord Jesus.” “Lord Jesus” is understandable only as a human manifestation of “Lord God.” Since the nature and revelation of “Lord God” is essential for understanding “Lord Jesus,” the early church fundamentally interpreted the Christ-event in light of its manifestation of YHWH, and in so doing interpreted the New Covenant in light of the Old.
Statistical evidence within the New Testament makes this claim irrefutably evident, for the New Testament preserves more than 3,500 references or allusions to the Old Testament and other Jewish scriptural traditions such as the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. This signifies in the strongest possible way that the New Covenant of Jesus Christ cannot be properly understood without reference to the Old Covenant of Israel. Two comparisons with other bodies of relevant literature underscore the significance of the above statistic. First, the early church came of age in the Greco-Roman world as much as in the Jewish world, yet there are only four references or allusions to (non-Jewish Greek) classical Greek literature in the New Testament! This remarkable statistic indicates how insignificant prototypes of the Greco-Roman world were for understanding and transmitting the Christian gospel in comparison with prototypes from the Israelite world. A second comparative statistic comes from the Qur’an, which, because it too stands in a tradition related to the Old Covenant, and particularly to Abraham, is also relevant for our inquiry. The Qur’an preserves roughly one hundred allusions to the Old Testament. This statistic also throws the organic relation of the New Covenant with the Old Covenant into stark relief, for every reference to the Old Testament in the Qur’an is matched by thirty-five references in the New Testament. These statistics reveal, first, that the early church understood its saving proclamation, and hence is own nature, as essentially related to the story of Israel in the Old Testament rather than to classical antiquity; and second, they reveal that the bond of early Christianity with the Old Testament is far stronger than the bond of the Qur’an with the Old Testament.
One important clarification is necessary on the relationship of the New Testament to the Old Testament before we leave our first question. Among the plethora of references in the New Testament to the Old Testament, references to the Psalms and especially the prophets are cited more often and with greater emphasis than are references to the Torah and legal tradition. The early church thus understood itself and the gospel to be more essentially determined by the prophetic tradition than by Torah. Salvation history was, above all, the fulfillment of the prophetic promises in Israel rather than an elucidation of its legal tradition.
II. I wish to turn now to the second question I posed at the outset of this article, namely, what precedent did the early Christians find in the Old Testament for interpretating “Lord God” in terms of “Lord Jesus”?
Servant of the Lord
One of the most important––and for Christians inescapable––linkages between the New Testament and Old Testament is the similarity between the depiction of the ministry and mission of Jesus and that of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 40–55. We have noted how 1 Clement exegetes Isaiah 53 from first to last with reference to Jesus Christ. Isaiah does not name the Servant of the Lord, nor does the Servant reappear elsewhere in the Old Testament except in Isaiah 40–55. Jewish scholars have historically given only cursory attention to the Servant of the Lord, other than regarding the Servant as a symbol of Israel. Consider the difficulties of that interpretation, however, in light of what Isaiah says of the Servant: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). The Servant here is not equated with Israel, but declared a redeemer of Israel. In the long Old Testament story, when does “Israel” ever save Israel? When does “Israel” take the light of salvation to the nations? The early church rightly saw no fulfillment of the enigmatic Servant of the Lord in the Old Testament. Only in the life, ministry, passion, and death of Jesus of Nazareth did Isaiah’s visions of the Servant became a historical reality. The same Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy of the “young woman who shall conceive and bear a son, Immanuel” (Isa 7:14). Jesus was, as Isaiah further foresaw, “Mighty God,” “Prince of Peace,” who established and upheld the throne of David “with justice and righteousness from this time forth and forever more” (Isa. 9:6–7).
The Messianic expectation is older than the eighth-century Israelite prophets, however. Genesis 14 records a Middle East war in which Mesopotamian superpowers invade Israel. After the war, a recondite figure named Melchizedek appears to bless Abram. Melchizedek is given no prescript and no postscript. Other than three brief verses (Gen. 14:18–20), he is never again mentioned in the Old Testament except in Psalm 110:4, where he appears as the model of Israel’s quintessential king, “a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” Melchizedek, whose name means “Righteous King,” is “King of Salem (= peace)” who meets Abram with “bread and wine” and blesses him in the name of “God Most High,” the God whom Abram worships. We are not told how it is that Melchizedek worships the same God that Abram worships. Not until the New Testament is there a canonical interpretation of this preternatural walk-on at the dawn of salvation history. The Book of Hebrews exegetes the gospel story in light of the Old Testament and sees in Melchizedek an incarnational prototype, a foreshadowing in the Old Covenant of the Son of God who is the true “King of Peace” and “King of Righteousness,” whose Last Supper of “bread and wine” represents his body and blood offered for the salvation of the world.
The correlation of “Lord God” and “Lord Jesus” is further adumbrated in less recognized ways. No Christian doctrine is more essential to a proper understanding of the gospel than the doctrine of the two natures of Jesus Christ. The Vienna Christological Formula of 1976 has succeeded in drafting a Christological formulation that for the first time in Christian history has been affirmed as orthodox by all major sects of Christianity, including the Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Syriac, Church of the East, and Coptic traditions. It states simply that Jesus Christ is “perfect in his divinity, perfect in his humanity.” The two natures doctrine––one divine and one human––is usually considered the least Hebraic and most Hellenized of Christian doctrines, indebted primarily or even wholly to Greek philosophical influence. But is it? Is there not a mysterious, undefined, yet virtual two-natured figure that visits random Israelites unexpectedly? Prior to Israel’s conquest of Canaan, Joshua is confronted by a “man” (Heb. ish) with a drawn sword, before whom Joshua falls on his face and worships as Lord (Josh. 5:13–14). A half-millennium earlier, Jacob wrestles with a “man” (Heb. ish) at the ford of the Jabbok River, after which he confesses, “I have seen God face-to-face” (Gen. 32:22–30). In both instances, a human appearance conveys a divine revelation. Earlier still, a “malak of the Lord” meets Hagar in the wilderness after she has fled from Sarai. In Hebrew, malak can mean either a human or divine messenger. This malak has all the properties of a human being, yet Hagar responds, “You are a God of seeing” (Gen. 16:7–13).
The capital instance of this preternatural phenomenon occurs in Genesis 18 with reference to “three men” (v. 3; Heb. anashim [plu. of ish]) who come upon Abraham unforeseen as he sits in the door of his tent at Mamre. Abraham and Sarah extend unsparing hospitality to the visitors, who, after the meal, announce the birth of a son to them. This announcement repeats earlier announce-ments of the same to Abraham and Sarah by YHWH; indeed, the “three men” are shortly identified as “YHWH” (v. 13). Remarkably, this same narrative evolution repeats itself in the second half of Genesis 18, where once again the three “men” (v. 16, Heb. anashim) set out for Sodom along with Abraham, and in their conversation with him they are once again identified as “YHWH” (vv. 17-20). Genesis 18 repeats with greater explicitness the same phenomenon we see regarding Melchizedek, Joshua, Jacob, and Hagar. The Creator not only instructs his creatures and makes promises to them and covenants with them, but at critical junctures of their history he becomes one of them. The Playwright scripts himself into the drama and appears momentarily on stage. The appearance necessarily entails two natures, for in entering the creation the Creator does not cease being God, but in order authentically to enter creation the Creator must also become human. Leaks of Christianity’s two-natures doctrine are already evident in the Old Testament.
The Christian doctrine of a Trinitarian deity––one God in three Persons—is also typically regarded as a Greek philosophical concept rather than a concept evidenced within the Old Testament. Is this the only––or best––explanation, however? Like the embryonic “two-natures” doctrine that we detect in the Old Testament, a “threeness” of God is proleptically present as well. Genesis 18, as we have just seen, twice records the appearance of the three men who presently are identified as YHWH. In neither instance is this remarkable transposition explained. It is simply presupposed: three persons, one God. Nor is this the only intimation of such in the Old Testament, for on more than one instance, God speaks self-referentially in first-person plural. “Let us make man in our image and likeness” (Gen. 1:26). “Come, let us go down and confuse their language” (Gen. 11:7). “And I heard the word of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (Isa. 6:8). Nor is the Old Testament alone in this phenomenon. Islam understands itself as dogmatically monotheistic as Judaism does, and yet the Qur’an, which consists entirely of first-person narrative of God, frequently casts the first person in the plural––“We.”
In light of this, is Jesus’s declaration, “I and the Father are One” (John 10:30), really best understood as a late Hellenistic worldview transposed onto the words of the Galilean rabbi? Or is it, rather, like all the titles ascribe to Jesus, both by himself and by others––teacher, prophet, high priest, servant of God, Messiah, Son of Man, Word, Son of God—more properly understood with reference God’s revelation in the history of Israel. It is, after all, God’s unique self-reference as YHWH (“I Am”) that Jesus claims for himself fully twenty-five times in the Gospel of John. As we noted in the Introduction, the earliest title for Jesus is also the most exalted of Old Testament titles for God––“Jesus is Lord (YHWH).”
It might be asked at this point why Christians saw a “high Christology” prefigured in the Old Testament, but that Jews did not? The answer––surprisingly perhaps––appears to be that many Jews did see such a prefigurement. In the second and third centuries of the Christian era, Jewish rabbis (often in debate with Christian apologists) made claims for a slate of Old Testament figures that rivaled the claims that Christians made for Jesus of Nazareth. The least surprising of these was David, who was increasingly identified as a divine king. More important was Enoch, who is reported not to have died (Gen. 5:24). Enoch was ascribed several divine epithets, the most remarkable of which was YHWH! Other epithets also indicate Judaism’s ability to entertain something approximating a “two-natures” doctrine. In this respect, Enoch was identified as Metatron, a divine figure who guided the Israelites through the wilderness (Exod. 23:20–22). Furthermore, the enigmatic Servant of the Lord of Isaiah 40–55 was identified as Ephraim, who was acknowledged as a suffering Messiah. Jewish rabbis, obviously, did not want to acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah and Son of God, but I note the foregoing as evidence that they too found within the Old Testament prefigurements for the kinds of claims that the early church made for Jesus.
The Apostle Paul admonished the elders of the church in Ephesus to “declare the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). “Lord God, Lord Jesus” is the sum and essence of the whole counsel of God. Both Testaments––the Old and New––are required to declare the whole counsel of God, the one story of salvation, for both Testaments bear witness to the one essential and saving truth, that “in the fulness of time, God sent his son, both of a woman, born under the law, so that he might redeem those who were under the law, so that we might inherit sonship with God” (Gal. 4:4–5).