Historical Perspective on Romans 10:9 and I Cor. 8:6
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
“…because if thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus as Lord, and shalt believe in thy heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved…” (Romans 10:9, ASV)
“6 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…” (I Cor. 8:6, NIV).
Being a Christian is more than just going to church. It is something that we must confess. According to the Strong’s Concordance, the Greek word translated as confess means to “assent, covenant, confession, or promise.”
When we turn away from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of Light, we must learn to confess Jesus as our Lord. When our old friends try to pull us back into the world, we must confess Jesus is Lord. We must learn to testify as to what He has done for us as Lord and Savior. He is our source!
In the first century AD, to confess Jesus as Lord had an entirely different meaning. The Romans called their Emperors ‘savior, god and lord’. Really this started with Julius Caesar, but it continued as it was applied to his nephew Octavian Augustus. They made sacrifices to Octavian as they honored him with these titles.
This continued for many years afterwards, including (but not limited to) the reigns of Claudius (41-54 AD), Nero (54-68) and Domitian (81-96) (Deissmann, vol 1, 357; Oxyrhynchus papyri, vol 1, p 81). To believers in these time periods, to confess Jesus as Lord took on a whole different meaning than we might think.
Here are two quotes about Domitian: “With no less arrogance he began as follows in issuing a circular letter in the name of his procurators, “Our Master and our God bids that this be done.” And so the custom arose of henceforth addressing him in no other way even in writing or in conversation…” (Suetonius “On Domitian” chp. 13, sec. 2)
“For he even insisted upon being regarded as a god and took vast pride in being called “master” and “god.” These titles were used not merely in speech but also in written documents.” (Cassius Dio, book 67, 4:7)
Some Roman emperors required that subjects of the empire confess that Caesar is their Lord! The alternative could be imprisonment, torture, and even death. Josephus records that about 70 AD some Jewish people died simply for refusing to call Caesar Lord (Jewish Wars, Book VII, ch. 10, sec 1).
When we look at these facts, we can see that Paul’s exhortations in Romans 10:9 and I Cor. 8:6 have a much deeper meaning. To the first century Christians, to confess Jesus as Lord was more than just a saying. It was the confession that you only acknowledged one Lord. This meant your life was in danger. It was a confession that you were willing to die for Jesus.
One specific example from the pages of history is Polycarp. He was a disciple of the Apostle John, who was martyred around 155 AD. This occurred during the reign of the Emperor Antoninus who also was called lord by people (Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol 2, p 174). A brief account is given below:
“…it being a great Sabbath, and he was met by Herod, the captain of police, and by his father Nicetes, who took him into their carriage, and sitting beside him endeavored to persuade him, saying, ‘For what harm is there in saying, Lord Cæsar, and sacrificing and saving your life?’ He at first did not answer; but when they persisted, he said, ‘I am not going to do what you advise me.’…Polycarp said, ‘Eighty Six years have I been serving him, and he has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?’…But the proconsul said, ‘I have wild beasts; I will throw you to them unless you repent.’ But he said, ‘Call them; for repentance from better to worse is a change we cannot make. But it is a noble thing to turn from wickedness to righteousness.’… “24. But he [the Roman proconsul] again said to him, ‘If you despise the wild beasts, I will cause you to be consumed by fire, unless you repent.’ But Polycarp said, ‘You threaten a fire which burns for an hour, and after a little is quenched; for you know not the fire of the future judgment and of the eternal punishment which is reserved for the impious. But why do you delay? Do what you will.’ (Eusebius, Church History, Book 4, Chapter 15, Sections 15, 20, 23-24; He wrote a church history in the 300s AD.)
Polycarp, like the other martyrs, refused to call a man his Lord. Paul’s words once again come to life in our minds. Polycarp requested to be burned with fire and died a great hero of the Lord. He was also martyred on the Sabbath.
We live in an age where so many are cheapening the grace of God. This has caused many to proclaim that Jesus is their Lord, yet living as if He is not their Lord. These historical examples help us to realize that to confess “Jesus is Lord” is a very serious and sober action. To confess Jesus as our Lord is to confess that we have no other lords or masters in our lives. We are confessing that He is our source, provider, and protector, not the governments of man. It is to confess that we are willing to die for our Lord, as He was willing to die for us.
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President www.biblesabbath.org