Historical Perspective on Romans 10:9
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)
“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 and then live according to that confession. 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 and stick to that confession with our lives. 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’. This started with Octavian Augustus; people made sacrifices to him 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, p 357; P.Oxy. 1.81). To early Christians, to confess Jesus as Lord took on a whole different meaning than we might think today.
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, 13.2)
“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, Roman History, 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/or even death. Josephus records that about 70 AD some Jewish people died simply for refusing to call Caesar Lord. We have a quote below:
“Moreover, it came to pass that many Jews were slain at Alexandria in Egypt after this…For though all sorts of torture and ill-treatment of their bodies were devised, they could not get any of them to confess or be willing to say that the emperor was their lord, though that was all that was required of them, but they maintained their own opinion in spite of all the distress they were brought to, as if they received these torments and fire itself with bodies insensible of pain, and with a soul that all but rejoiced under them. But what was most of all astonishing to the spectators was the courage of the children; for not one of these children was so far overcome as to call the emperor lord.” (Jewish Wars, 7.10.1; Shilleto’s version, pp 168-169).
When we look at these facts, we can see that Paul’s exhortation in Romans 10:9 has a much deeper meaning. To the early 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 suffer and even die for Jesus.
One specific example from the pages of history is Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John. He was martyred around 155 AD. This occurred during the reign of the Emperor Antoninus who also was called lord by people (P.Oxy., 2.174). A brief account of his death 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 Caesar, 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, 4.15.15-24).
Polycarp requested to be burned with fire and died a great hero of the Lord. He was also martyred on the Sabbath.
Another example is from the Silitian Martyrs, who were put to death in about 180 AD. Saturninus was the Roman proconsul and he interrogated Speratus and other Christians in an effort to convince them to give up the faith. We have an excerpt below:
“Saturninus, the [Roman] proconsul, said: ‘We, too, are religious, and our religion is simple; and we swear by the genius of our lord the Emperor, and pray for his welfare, which also ye, too, ought to do.’
Speratus said: ‘If thou wilt peaceably lend me thine ears, I will tell thee the mystery of simplicity.’
Saturninus said: ‘I will not lend my ears to thee, when thou beginnest to speak evil things of our sacred rites; but rather do thou swear by the genius of our lord the Emperor?’
Speratus said: ‘The empire of this world I know not; but rather I serve that God whom no man hath seen nor with these eyes can see. [I Tim. 6:16.] I have committed no theft; but if I have bought anything I pay the tax; because I know my Lord, the King of kings and Emperor of all nations…’ (English from Joseph Ayer, A Source Book for Ancient Church History (1913), pp 66-68).
The Roman proconsul ordered Speratus and his friends to be put to death. Polycarp, Speratus, and other martyrs, refused to call a man their Lord. Paul’s words come to life with these examples.
We live in a time 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 admit that we have no other lords or masters in our lives. We are confessing that He is our source, provider, and protector – not human governments and their rulers. It is to confess that we are willing to suffer and die for our Lord, as He was willing to do the same for us.
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President www.biblesabbath.org