As a new believer, I remember reading Romans 10: 9-10 for the first time. At first glance, it seemed a bit weak compared to the other passages in the New Testament that call for total commitment…
…that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Yeshua and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart, one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth, confession is made unto salvation. (Romans 10: 9-10)
That is it? Just confess with your mouth? This interpretation didn’t line up with the radical living that I saw in the book of Acts. Peter demanded repentance (Acts 2). Paul demanded that the pagan turn from his idols (Acts 14). All the disciples, save John died as martyrs. Most of the people I knew while growing up in Virginia had at one time uttered the words “Jesus is Lord,”—yet were not living anything like New Testament believers. Were they saved? What was Paul talking about?
Romans Would Understand
However, that was before I understood the Roman mindset of what it meant to confess someone as Lord. Paul, being a Roman citizen himself, knew that the Romans would see this in the light in which it was meant…which is quite radical.
Background: The Roman Empire was quite tolerant of most religions. In fact, they were proud of the fact that there were so many gods to be worshiped. All this was fine as long as you pledged your ultimate allegiance to Caesar. Over a period of time, the Romans decided that the earthly Caesar was actually a god, and inhabitants of the Empire must worship him as one.
In truth, Caesar-worship was only reluctantly embraced by Rome. Initially, it was discouraged. That was until it became clear that Caesar-worship could be the unifying element that had the potential to bring all peoples of the vast and growing Roman Empire together. Soon Caesar-worship was not only tolerated, but it became law.
“So, in the end, the worship of the Emperor became, not voluntary, but compulsory. Once a year a man had to go and burn a pinch of incense to the godhead of Caesar and say, ‘Caesar is Lord.’” (William Barkley)
Did you get that? Once a year, every inhabitant of the Roman Empire had to burn incense to Caesar and confess him as Lord. In this light, we see why the Jewish leaders (not the masses of Jewish people, many of whom followed Yeshua) pit Yeshua against Caesar in order to pressure Pilate to crucify Him.
From then on, Pilate sought to release Him, but the Jews cried out, saying, “If you let this Man go, you are not Caesar’s friend. Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar.”… But they cried out, “Away with Him, away with Him! Crucify Him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar!” (John 19:12, 15)
Caesar is Lord vs. Yeshua is Lord
Whenever a Roman citizen declared, “Caesar is Lord,” he was confessing his ultimate loyalty to Rome. He was not merely saying words, he was saying that there was none greater than Rome, and his life was committed to serving the Roman world. If someone refused to honor Caesar as god and confess him as Lord, he was risking his very life. Read the words of Pastor Norman Lao: (the wording below does not sound right in places – is it a direct quote?)
Everyone who pledged allegiance to Caesar by doing this was issued a certificate [with which he could participate in commerce]. Anyone who will not do this was either imprisoned or killed or both. So, during the first century, when Christians said, “Jesus is Lord,” it was already a life and death decision! Today, the phrase “Jesus is Lord” has become a meaningless expression for many people. It has become a catchphrase.
The word confess in Roman 10:9 (If you confess with your mouth) has a creedal tone to it. In other words, it was probably something that was confessed publicly, possibly during immersion in water, which, in the New Testament, was immediate and part of the salvation experience (that is not to say that immersion is essential for salvation) (see Acts 2:41; 8:12; 10:48). I believe that it was just as public as the yearly confession that the Empire’s inhabitants had to make to Caesar.
It becomes clear that what can be viewed as a weak statement through the lens of western culture, where words are cheap, was actually the exact opposite. When Paul says that we must confess, “Yeshua is Lord,” he is not referring to something we do at an altar in a congregation or even in the privacy of our own home. It is something that we proclaim boldly to the world as part of “taking membership,” along with immersion, into the worldwide body of believers. The responders to Peter’s evangelistic message in Acts 2 most likely were immersed and made confession of Yeshua’s Messiah-ship in or near the temple courts in full view of non-believers (as there were many mikvot [ritual cleansing baths] in the temple courts and the temple itself).
Furthermore, his use of the phrase “Yeshua is Lord” was most likely chosen by Paul to make it certain to the would-be believer that Caesar is no longer (Lord). Unlike so many who use this very verse to make it easy to enter the kingdom, the Roman man would have understood that Paul was demanding that he risk his very life to enter the kingdom.
While the willingness to be martyred for the kingdom is not a very popular subject in today’s believing community, it was a major theme of the Bible. We see it with Moses as he marches into Pharaoh’s court and with Esther as she pleads to her King. We read of Daniel going into the Lion’s den and of the three Hebrew young men who were thrown into the furnace when they refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar.
Many scholars believe that the book of Revelation was not written primarily as an end-times outline but as an encouragement to be willing to die for the faith. (see Rev. 14:12 and 12:10-12) (Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 805-809 and Irenaeus, Against Heresies, c.170 C.E.) Yes, the phrase, “Jesus is Lord,” could be deadly! It attacked Rome on every level.
The Roman world proclaimed, “Caesar is Lord!” When Christians proclaimed, “Jesus is Lord!” they were on a collision course with Roman culture, Roman religion, and Roman politics. (Rob Shearer, Did Paul Betray Jesus?)
The Apostle James referred to Barnabas and Paul as “men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah.” (Acts 15:26) This again would be in contrast to the name of Caesar or some other god.
This creed can be seen at the very first spontaneous outreach in Acts 2:
“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Yeshua, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” (Acts 2:36)
And surely Paul had this mind when he wrote Philippians 2:10-11, “and that every tongue will confess that Yeshua the Messiah is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” This passage, many scholars believe, was actually part of an early church hymn that illustrated the humility of Yeshua (God became a servant). The confession was taken from Isaiah, where the context goes way beyond verbal assent that Yeshua is Lord to complete allegiance.
“I have sworn by Myself, the word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness and will not turn back, that to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance. (Isaiah 45:23)
Yeshua Himself demands such allegiance from His followers:
“Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 10:32)
In closing, Romans 10:9-10 has been grossly misused into convincing prospective believers that they can receive salvation by simply repeating some words. It is no wonder that in modern, western evangelistic campaigns, more than ninety percent of those who make public professions of faith fall away in the first year.
The Expositors Bible Commentary says it well:
Paul’s statement in vv.9, 10 is misunderstood…in this passage, Paul is speaking of the objective lordship of Christ, which is the very cornerstone for faith, something without which no one could be saved.
Yeshua is Lord! Amen.