Accounts of early church history often vary, but one well-documented challenge Christians faced during the first few centuries had to do with something called the emperor cult. Back then, people in the Roman Empire would regularly worship their leader, Caesar. They believed him to be a divine figure. Leaders also reinforced this, often claiming to be related to the gods. This presented an obvious challenge for early Christians since they instead worshipped Christ alone. To worship the Roman leader was completely counter to following Jesus Christ.
A classic example of believing Roman leaders were divine is how the they minted coins back in the day. Currency often depicted the head of a Roman ruler, as well as words like peace, security, or protection inscribed upon them. The above coin from an emperor named Caracalla has the word security on it with a reclined figure on the back. In the ancient context this arguably presented a message of something like, “You have security and comfort, all because of me.” That’s how it would have sounded to people in the ancient world.
Another example is Philip II, where on the back of the coin, the emperor is holding a globe in his right hand. This signified the belief that the Roman emperor ruled and controlled the entire world. (Thats a rather bold statement to make, Mr. Caesar!)
In addition to coins, emperor worship was often a very public practice among the Romans. A common tradition among citizens of the Empire was to enter into a local temple, burn a pinch of incense, and recite the phrase, “Caesar is lord.” This seemingly simple phrase was actually a sort of “test” to see who was loyal to the political and religious system, versus who might be a problem.
Instead of saying “Caesar is lord,” Christians had their own subversive phrase: “Jesus is Lord.” This is found throughout several passages in the New Testament, perhaps most notably in Romans 10:9–“If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” As you can probably guess, Christians were often in a bit of trouble during this time, simply because they did not go along with this practice. Persecution was well-documented during this time, where following Jesus might actually cost you your life. It was a dangerous game to reject Caesar and worship Christ alone.
We all need a reminder of this straightforward confession of the Christian faith. Jesus is Lord. Caesar isn’t the true lord.
There are actually many “caesars” in our life–this is not just limited to pagan figures in ancient history. Caesar ultimately constituted a false god, and on Sunday, we explored how these are still all around us. In my seminary studies, I read about many New Testament scholars and theologians who have explored this concept further. What are the false gods or “caesars” in our life? What is demanding our worship? What do we often forsake God for? Think about these confessions of faith for a moment. Perhaps one or a couple resonate with you…
If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not.
If Jesus is Lord, then all those other false gods in my life are not.
If Jesus is Lord, then my favorite sports team is not.
If Jesus is Lord, then my desire for popularity is not.
If Jesus is Lord, then Republican, Democrat, or Independent political leaders are not.
If Jesus is Lord, then my family is not.
If Jesus is Lord, then my pride and desire to always be right are not.
If Jesus is Lord, then fear is not.
If Jesus is Lord, then my money and resources are not.
If Jesus is Lord, then I am not.
Jesus is Lord. He alone must be the object of our devotion and worship.
It is so incredibly tempting to deny Jesus’ lordship with how we live our life. While we might not “deny” Jesus as our savior with our words, often our actions prove otherwise. We serve the false gods of personality, power, and personal resources rather than God alone. Anything we worship other than God is indeed a false god. Is Jesus truly Lord for you?