A Word For Today - Kyrios
Brian Clatworthy, Newton Abbot, Devon, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
It must appear somewhat ironic to those who do not live in the United Kingdom that the mother of Parliaments has an unelected second chamber. Even more curious perhaps is the fact that this second house consists of Lords Temporal and Lords Spiritual plus Law Lords, who cannot strictly prevent legislation from being implemented other than in exceptional circumstances. What they can do, however, is to delay legislation or ask the House of Commons to consider revising legislation. In the main, they act independently or as overlords of the executive, by holding it to account through rigorous checks and balances. And it is this sense of being ‘over’ or an ‘overlord’ that is an intuitive feature of the Greek word kyrios, which occurs over 700 times in the Greek New Testament, mainly in respect of Jesus Christ.
In the Septuagint (LXX), kyrios is used some 6,000 times to translate the Hebrew name for God, the so-called Tetragrammaton, or four Hebrew consonants which spell out the name of God, YHWH. This was invariably written as Yahweh, but, following the exilic period, i.e., after 539 BC, Jews became extremely superstitious about pronouncing the term Yahweh, and so used the term Adonai instead.1 In later translations of the Bible, e.g., NKJV, the term used is normally ‘Lord’ with a footnote confirming the translation of the Tetragrammaton, as in Genesis chapter 22 verse 14, YHWH Yireh -‘The Lord-Will-Provide’. Exceptionally, the Greek synonym, despotes, was also used to translate the name of God, but, since this word often carried the idea of ‘tyrant’, i.e., someone with uncontrolled power, kyrios was considered more appropriate to explain the nature of God and His relationship with His creation.2 This is an important point as it indicates that the LXX translators were keen to equate the word kyrios with the Hebrew word for God,3 even though kyrios in general usage can often relate to human lords or masters, or simply be used as a mark of respect for someone, e.g., sir.4
In Exodus chapter 5 verse 1, Moses confronts Pharaoh for the first time by requesting that God’s people should be permitted leave of absence to celebrate a feast to their God in the wilderness with Moses. The request is made in the name of ‘the Lord, the God of Israel’. Pharaoh shows his contempt for this request by demonstrating his ignorance of the living God, and, consequently, God reveals Himself and His character to Moses through the revelation of His name, Exod. 6 et seq. Throughout these chapters, kyrios and other related forms of the word are used in the LXX to translate the name of the Lord. Similarly, in the LXX translation of the Shematic statement ‘Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God is one Lord’ in Deuteronomy chapter 6 verse 4, the term ‘Lord’ is again translated by kyrios, and is set in immediate juxtaposition with the word for ‘God’ to emphasize the uniqueness of Israel’s God, i.e., the text could be literally rendered, ‘The Lord is our God, the Lord alone’ (my underlining). The LXX usage here of kyrios may suggest that the word stands for the one and only God. The divine epithet ‘Lord (God) of Hosts’ (kyrios Sabaoth) is used throughout the Old Testament, e.g., Isa. 10. 23, Hag. 1. 2, and emphasizes the superiority of God over all human beings. Kyrios is also the word used in Micah chapter 4 verse 13 to underline the fact that the wealth of nations belongs to the Lord. As G. Quell writes, ‘The term Lord states in practice who God is and what he means for us as the one whose personal will intervenes with all the force that is the distinctive mark of the name Yahweh’.5 Such is the authority of the term that even Michael the archangel in his dispute with the devil over the body of Moses needs to invoke kyrios by way of aid to rule out the calumnies of the adversary, Jude 9, cp. Zech. 3. 2.
Some of the Greek papyri found by archeologists in ancient Egyptian towns and villages during the nineteenth century AD reveal significant uses of the word kyrios in the period just prior to the birth of the New Testament. In an inscription from Alexandria of 52 BC, Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra are called oi kyrios theoi megistoi, ‘the lords, the most great gods’.6 Later, kyrios became the title bestowed upon Roman Emperors, especially during Nero’s reign, thus, as we turn to the New Testament, we see that the use of the Kyrios-title in respect of Jesus by His disciples is a very loaded term, and one that clearly would be viewed by the state as having political undertones. Hence, to acknowledge that ‘Jesus is Lord (kyrios)’, 1 Cor. 12. 3, brought Christians into sharp focus with the Roman authorities, and considerable risk of persecution.
Turning then to the New Testament, we find that kyrios is used in at least three different ways. It is used generally of masters or slave owners as part of the household code, as in Ephesians chapter 6 verse 5, cp. Col. 4. 1. Second, as a common term of respect or politeness, as in the case of the Greeks who requested an audience with Jesus through Philip, John. 12. 21, cp. John 4. 11, or the respect a wife should show to her husband as exemplified in the case of Sarah who ‘obeyed Abraham, calling him lord’, 1 Pet. 3. 6. But it is when the term is applied by New Testament writers to significant Old Testament texts that the word becomes a designation of deity. These writers intend us to make this connection following on from the name of God in the Old Testament, and the table below provides some examples of this important interplay:
|Old Testament Text||New Testament Text|
|Deuteronomy 6. 5||Matthew 22. 37|
|Deuteronomy 6. 16||Luke 4. 12|
|Exodus 3. 5||Acts 7. 33|
|Psalm 135. 14||Hebrews 10. 30|
These examples also provide us with an understanding as to why, when kyrios was used to address Jesus, it was in recognition that He was divine. This title is given to Him on something like 500 occasions, and is therefore one of the most powerful indications in the whole of the New Testament that Jesus of Nazareth was truly God incarnate, the Son of the living God, Matt. 16. 16. For Paul, kyrios is ‘the name which is above every name’, Phil. 2. 9, and a term that He was so committed to that he was prepared to die ‘on behalf of the name of the Lord (kyriou) Jesus’, Acts 21. 13. It is worth quoting C. E. Cranfield here, ‘Paul applies to Christ, without – apparently – the least sense of inappropriateness, the kyrios of LXX passages in which it is perfectly clear that the kyrios referred to God Himself (e.g. 10. 13; 1 Thes. 5. 2; 2 Thes. 2.2)’.7
Earlier mention was made of the synonym despotes, which only occurs ten times in the New Testament. In the main, the word was used to describe the absolute power of God as in Revelation chapter 6 verse 10, where, following the opening of the fifth seal, the martyrs make an imprecatory cry to the sovereign Lord to bring judgement and vengeance on those who dwell on the earth. Similarly, in Jude 4, false teachers are not only guilty of perverting the grace of God, but also of denying the sovereignty of ‘our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ’, ESV.
In terms, then, the import of kyrios in the New Testament is both theological in the sense that it is a major Christological title used especially by the apostle Paul as well as being a dynamic relational term for Christians. To publicly attest that ‘Jesus is Lord (kyrios)’ is to accept His divine sovereignty over our lives, Rom. 10. 9, and to resolve that He alone is worthy of our allegiance, 1 Cor. 8. 6. Are we watching, then, for our Lord’s return, Mark 13. 35?
For further reading/study
- Vincent Taylor, ‘The Lord’ in The Names of Jesus, Macmillan and Co, Ltd, pp. 38-51.
- Gerald Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, Daniel G. Reid (Eds.), ‘Lord’ in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters - A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, IVP, pp. 560-569.
1 ‘The word Jehovah is an artificial term dating to the 16th cent. and is a combination of the four consonants of the T with the vowels of the Hebrew word Adonai; it is found in early editions of the KJV, in the ASV, et al’. ‘Tetragrammaton’, Richard N. Soulen, Handbook of Biblical Criticism, Lutterworth Press, pg. 160.
2 The philosopher Plato distinguished these synonyms by stating that a man was despotes in respect of his slaves, but kyrios in respect of his wife and children, Plato, Legg, vi.756e. This suggests that in making such a distinction, Greeks thought that kyrios was a more endearing term and took into account the wellbeing of those over whom lordship was exercised. See the later comments on the use of despotes in the New Testament.
3 W. Foerster III suggests that ‘the LXX probably chooses kyrios because it stresses the fact that as the Liberator from Egypt, or as the Creator, God has a valid right to control over his people and the universe. He is sovereign in the absolute sense’. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament - Abridged in One Volume, pg. 491.
4 See, for example, the Letter from Apion, an Egyptian soldier in the Roman navy, to his father Epimachus, where kyrios is used as a courtesy title or a title of respect, Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East’, Wipf and Stock, pg.180 note 3.
5 ‘Lord’ as a Designation for Yahweh’. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament - Abridged in One Volume, Eerdmans, pg. 489.
6 Berl. Sitzungsberichte, 1902, pg. 1096.
7 C. E. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, vol. 2, T&T Clark International, pg. 529.
AUTHOR PROFILE: He is an elder and active member of a pioneer assembly work in Newton Abbott. For many years he has been welcomed as a ministering brother in the south of England and has written a number of articles for the magazine. He is married and has two children.