dianoigo blog

Sunday 26 September 2021

Christian Submission to Governing Authorities in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic

In this article, we look at the Christian's obligation to submit to governing authorities, particularly in the context of government regulations put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the sections of certain New Testament epistles that provide instructions on the believer's obligations within the household, a central theme is submission to authority. In Ephesians 5-6, for instance, the general principle "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" (v. 21) is followed by specific contexts in which subjection is required:
"Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord...Children, obey your parents in the Lord...Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling" (Eph. 5:22, 6:1, 6:5)1 
Colossians follows much the same template: 
"Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord... Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord... Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything" (Col. 3:18-22)
Each of these three relationships is depicted as an authority structure, with the "lower" party (wife/child/slave) obliged to submit to or obey the "higher" party (husband/parents/master). To be sure, obligations are also placed on the "higher" party, but these obligations do not include subjection or obedience; they largely have to do with correct use of the authority vested in them. Importantly, however, neither of these passages makes the "lower" party's obligation of subjection/obedience contingent on the goodness of the "higher" party. The inspired author probably would have granted that exceptional circumstances might arise in each of these relationships in which the obligation did not apply (e.g., a parent ordering a child to steal for them). However, the writer apparently did not consider such exceptions common enough even to mention.

Moreover, in a third such passage, the writer explicitly enjoins subjection/obedience even when the "higher" party is not good (and need we add that slavery is an intrinsically unjust institution!) This passage is in 1 Peter 2-3, and rather than addressing obligations within the household, it speaks to the principle, "Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles [i.e., unbelievers], so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge." (1 Pet. 2:12). How is this principle to be applied? Again, by submitting to authority:
"For the Lord’s sake be subject to every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right... Slaves, be subject to your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh... Wives, in the same way, be subject to your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct" (1 Peter 2:13, 2:18, 3:1).2
This text introduces a new authority hierarchy not mentioned in Ephesians and Colossians (which only focus on the household level): civilian/government. It is this obligation to "be subject to every human institution" that concerns us here. 1 Peter does not, as with masters and husbands, add a proviso to obey "even those who are harsh/do not obey the word." This is obviously not because the writer believes one must only obey good government officials. Rather, it goes without saying that government officials are no paragons of virtue. Remember, this letter was written in the age of emperors like Caligula (who had people killed for fun and made his horse a priest), Nero (who used Christians as garden torches and had Peter and Paul executed), and Titus (who sacked the holy city of Jerusalem and burned the temple).

The overall picture that emerges from these epistles is clear. These apostolic writers expect their charges to exercise subjection and obedience to their social superiors. This was not to be done only when or because those superiors treated them justly. Instead, the Christian obligation to submit to authority was to bear witness to Christians' submission to the Lord as the true Master from whom all earthly authorities received their power.

It is perhaps obvious, but needs to be emphasised, that submission to a higher authority entails not only granting respect to that authority and acknowledging its legitimacy, but also obeying its orders, and not only when one likes them! Should a child be considered obedient if she obeys only the parental rules that she likes? Would a slave be considered obedient if he obeyed only those instructions from the master that seemed wise and reasonable? The letter 1 Timothy makes a similar point when it observes that "law does not exist for the righteous, but for the lawless and insubordinate" (1 Tim. 1:9, my translation). The Greek word translated "insubordinate" here is anhypotaktos, a negative cognate of the verb translated "be subject to" used in 1 Peter 2-3 and elsewhere.3 

If an authority provided a suggestion and we thought it wise, we might follow it; but this would not be submission or obedience. The real test of submission or obedience is whether one follows instructions from the authority even when one disagrees with them. And it is precisely because some are disinclined to do this that laws (with penalties for disobedience attached) are required.

Books of the Old Testament written during or after the exile of Israel and Judah, such as Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel, contain much precedent for submitting to governing authorities, including those of idolatrous Gentile powers. This pattern continues in the New Testament, with explicit instructions to this effect given not only in 1 Peter 2:13-14 (discussed above), but in several other passages.

Memorably, when some opponents tried to ensnare Jesus with a question about paying tax to Caesar, he responded, "Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God" (Mark 12:17 NABRE). Jesus is under no illusion that the imperial government (under Tiberius during his ministry; probably under Nero when Mark wrote his Gospel) was a just system that would use tax revenues effectively for the common good. Some of it, yes; other funds might be used to build a temple to Jupiter, or pay the salaries of the legions that patrolled (and later sacked) Jerusalem. Yet Jesus does not vacillate on these grounds; he affirms that Caesar has—for the present—a legitimate domain of God-given authority in the land and that the Jews are obliged to submit to it.

Paul goes into more detail about the believer's obligations to the government in Romans 13 (see also Titus 3:1):
1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Romans 13:1-7)
As in 1 Peter 2:13-14, there is a blanket commandment to be subject to the governing authorities, and Paul goes on to justify the commandment by arguing that all governing authorities that exist have their power from God and exist for God's purposes, namely to promote the common good.

Observe that in none of the New Testament passages that command believers to "be subject to" or "obey" some authority is there a condition attached, such as "provided that their decision and orders are reasonable and agreeable." This shows that exceptions to the "submit to authority" ethic are rare (indeed, as already stated, one is only really submitting to an authority when one obeys orders despite disagreeing with them). Nevertheless, exceptions do exist. In the case of governing authorities, we have several biblical examples. These include Daniel's friends' refusal to bow down to the statue of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3), Daniel's refusal to stop petitioning God (Daniel 6), and the apostles' disobedience of the Sanhedrin's order to stop teaching in the name of Jesus (Acts 4-5). The principle is simple: when one's obligations to government contradict one's obligations to God, God's authority trumps Caesar's (Acts 5:29). 

Importantly, though, exceptions are precisely that. They are not a loophole allowing Christians to disobey laws or regulations that they deem to be, or in fact are, unreasonable. The Christian must disobey laws or regulations when obeying them would directly contravene the law of God—for instance, an order to worship an idol or stop praying to God (as in Daniel) or to stop preaching the gospel (as in Acts). Or an order to take innocent life (e.g., a doctor who is compelled by law to perform abortions.) But a Christian who disobeys laws and regulations simply because s/he thinks they are ill-advised or unscientific or counterproductive is in fact sinning, by disobeying God's commandment to be subject to governing authorities.

Let us apply the moral principles developed above to the concrete and globally relevant case of regulations that governments have introduced over the past 18 months in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We will deal with three categories of regulations: mask mandates, vaccine regulations, and restrictions on social gatherings.

Before doing so, we must acknowledge that most of the world's Christians today live under governments that are far better, in many respects, to the Roman government that existed at the time of the apostles. Many Christians live in democratic countries, where the people can influence government decisions and hold government authorities accountable. Most such countries have constitutions that uphold human rights and freedoms—above all the right to life—and offer a judicial recourse for challenging unjust laws, regulations, and decisions by government. Thus, while the Christian cannot disobey the law (apart from the rare exceptions discussed above), s/he does have recourses for inducing positive change in the government and its laws.

Secondly, the Roman government perceived very little responsibility in the area of public health. This was the domain of private physicians (and religious healers), who of course understood relatively very little about the human body or illness. Today, public health is a major priority for virtually all governments, and most of these governments rely on the latest scientific research to guide law and policy. Therefore, while no government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been perfect, Christians today have a lot to be grateful for! Thankfully, all of the kinds of regulations discussed below are intended by governments to protect human life—a bedrock Christian value.

An a fortiori argument therefore applies. If the apostles commanded Christians to be subject to even unjust human authorities (e.g., unbelieving husbands, harsh slave masters, and cruel Roman emperors), how much more must Christians today be subject to governments as they seek to protect the population from a pandemic? At any rate, even if we consider today's governments to be harsh or unjust in their handling of the pandemic, this does not justify disobedience or disrespect of those governments.

This issue can be treated briefly and decisively. There is nothing about a requirement to wear a cloth mask in public spaces that in any conceivable way violates any law of God. Christians must therefore comply cheerfully with all mask mandates. Any Christian who deliberately violates a mask mandate, or encourages others to do so, is rebelling against their sacred Christian duty to submit to governing authorities. Even if one believes that masks are ineffective at preventing transmission, or that a mask mandate seems unnecessary due to a drop in local transmission rates, this does not justify a contravention of government regulations. For Christians to violate or rail against mask mandates frankly makes a mockery of the overriding principle in 1 Peter 2:12. 

Like mask wearing, coronavirus vaccines are a measure intended to protect human life from COVID-19. Like masks, they apply at the individual level. In most countries, certain COVID-19 vaccines have been approved by government authorities for use by the general public. Public health officials have then launched campaigns that encourage, but do not compel, members of the public to be vaccinated. Thus, in most jurisdictions it is a matter of free prudential judgment whether a person receives a vaccine. It is consequently not an act of insubordination to government per se to decline to be vaccinated. Factors to be considered include, inter alia, the effectiveness of the vaccine, the risk of side effects, and whether or not cells from aborted fetuses were used in the development of the vaccine (on which see here).

That said, compliance with non-compulsory public health advisories (such as calls to be vaccinated against COVID-19) is at least congruent with the Christian's obligation to reverence governing authorities. It may also be a bad moral decision not to be vaccinated, if for instance one has failed to exercise discretion in one's sources of information about the vaccines. Certainly, when Christians become associated with "anti-vax" conspiracy theories, it does not make it easier for the world to regard the Church as "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15).

Many governments as well as private entities have placed restrictions on unvaccinated individuals. These include restrictions on travel, restrictions on being in certain public spaces (e.g., a workplace or school), and even making continued employment conditional on vaccination. Since private companies do exercise a legitimate domain of authority over their employees and customers, they are among those "human institutions" (1 Pet. 2:13) to whom subjection is obligatory for Christians. Unvaccinated Christians therefore cannot break such restrictions without shirking this sacred duty. Christians may, of course, exercise their democratic rights to speak or litigate against such restrictions if they believe them to be unjust. They cannot, however, violate laws or regulations or deny the legitimate authority of the institutions who issued them.  

Because the coronavirus spreads person-to-person, governments have placed restrictions on the number of people who can assemble in one place, and at times forbidden public gatherings, including religious ones, entirely. This is a more complicated issue than mask mandates, because it interferes with a sacred Christian obligation to God, namely communal worship (Heb. 10:25). May Christians therefore defy government prohibitions on religious gatherings to fulfill their duty to worship God together?

Assembling for worship is a Christian duty, but so is protecting human life. Since Christians assembling for worship on Sunday is analogous to—if not equivalent to—Jewish Sabbath observance, Mark 3:1-6 is highly relevant here. Jesus' opponents wanted to accuse him of violating his religious obligations because he healed a man on the Sabbath. Jesus' response was not that Sabbath observance was unimportant, but that protecting human life was more important: "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?" (Mark 3:4) In the same vein, he gave the memorable chiasm, "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath" (Mark 2:27). Sunday worship is very important for Christians, but not as important as protecting life. Since government restrictions on public gatherings are designed precisely to protect human life (without interfering with communal life more than necessary), these regulations are consonant with the law of God and must be complied with. Thankfully, technology allows for communal worship and fellowship to continue virtually in a limited way while physical gatherings are not possible.

We should note that secular government officials may place a lower valuation on the importance of religious gatherings than religious believers do. It is, therefore, important for religious leaders and communities to engage with government officials to influence them against setting restrictions that are unreasonable and excessive. Such engagement, along with litigation if deemed necessary, are ways of challenging restrictions on religious gatherings that may be unfair. Violating the regulations, however, is inconsonant with the Christian duty to be subject to the governing authorities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought much tragedy and difficulty on the world, Christians included. With numerous government regulations restricting what we used to know as normal life, it has also tested Christians' resolve to obey the apostolic commandment to "be subject to the governing authorities" (Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 2:13). My hope for Christian readers is that, having read this article, you will be better informed about how to do so. My hope for non-Christian readers is that, having read this article, you will be better informed about how Christians ought to be conducting themselves, and will join with me in condemning all disobedience and disrespect of governing authorities that claims to uphold "Christian values."

  • 1 All Scripture quotations are taken from the NRSV unless otherwise indicated.
  • 2 I have italicised "be subject to" in each case because I have altered the NRSV's translation, "accept the authority of." To "accept authority" is too abstract; the passive form of the verb hypotassō, literally to be put in place under, denotes a submissive relationship (see BDAG lexicon).
  • 3 BDAG define anhypotaktos here as, "pertaining to refusing submission to authority" (p. 91). The verb hypotassō is used for subjection to government authorities in 1 Peter 2:13, Romans 13:1, 5, and Titus 3:1. It is used for subjection to other authorities (parents, husbands, or masters) in Luke 2:51, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5, 8, and 1 Peter 2:18, 3:1, 3:5.

Sunday 5 September 2021

"Lord of lords" and "King of kings" as Hebraic Superlatives


This article delves briefly into the meaning of the expression "Lord of lords" as used in Scripture and, in particular, draws out the Christological implications of its application to Christ in two passages (Rev. 17:14; 19:16).

The New Testament books were all composed in Greek. However, because nearly all of their authors were Jews and they contain frequent quotations and echoes from the Hebrew Scriptures, an understanding of Hebrew can sometimes shed light on the meaning of New Testament expressions. The argument of this article is that "Lord of lords" is a Hebraism and should be understood as a superlative with a sense equivalent to "greatest Lord" or "supreme Lord." Before turning to the New Testament, we need some background on the construct chain superlative in biblical Hebrew.

Construct Chain Superlatives in the Hebrew Bible

Coulter H. George, Professor of Classics at the University of Virginia, explains an important difference between modern English and biblical Hebrew:
For, in contrast to English, where adjectives are inflected for three different degrees—positive (old), comparative (older), superlative (oldest)—Hebrew adjectives do not have this option, so the comparative or, as here, superlative has to be expressed differently, with the phrase 'X of Xs' being a favored way of getting across the idea 'the most X.' But since this is a structure that requires a plural and a construct chain, and therefore works better with nouns, we can see part of what it means for Hebrew to be a language that lets nouns do a little more work relative to adjectives than would be the case in English.1
Thus, a singular noun in construct state followed by the same noun in the plural is one way of expressing a superlative in biblical Hebrew.2 Bruce K. Waltke and M. O'Connor note that the construction need not to repeat the same noun but may consist of two similar nouns.3

Let us look at a few examples from the Hebrew Bible.4 In Noah's curse on Canaan in Genesis 9:25, he declares that Canaan will be a "slave of slaves" (עבד עבדים) to his brothers. "Slave of slaves" is a literal ("formally equivalent") translation of the Hebrew, but a dynamically equivalent translation, one that conveys the sense, would be "lowest of slaves" (NRSV).5 

The Torah's instructions for the tabernacle in Exodus 26:33-34 distinguish an area designated "the holy" (הקדש) from an area designated the "holy of holies" (קדש הקדשים). The latter place could only be accessed by the high priest, and even then only once per year, on the Day of Atonement. "Holy of holies" here conveys the sense, "most holy" (NRSV).

In Qoheleth [Ecclesiastes] 1:2, Qoheleth famously declares, "Vanity of vanities!" (הבל הבלים). Again, a dynamically equivalent translation would be, "Absolutely futile" (NET) or "Utter vanity!" Another book traditionally attributed to Solomon uses a construct chain superlative in its title: "The Song of Songs" (שיר השירים, Song of Solomon 1:1). The sense here is, "the greatest song," "the most wonderful song."6

In Isaiah 34:10, an oracle against Edom foretells that no one will pass through it for "perpetuity of perpetuities" (לנצח נצחים). The sense is "forever and ever," "for all eternity." A similar construction occurs in Daniel 7:18 (composed in Aramaic), where Daniel is told that the holy ones of the Most High would possess the kingdom for "perpetuity of perpetuities" (עלם עלמיא). The Old Greek version of Daniel renders this expression into Greek as eōs tou aiōnos tōn aiōnōn ("until the age of ages"), and a nearly identical phrase occurs in Greek Daniel 3:90. This construct chain superlative may therefore have influenced the phrase eis tous aiōnas tōn aiōnōn ("to the ages of ages"), which occurs frequently in the Greek New Testament (especially in the Book of Revelation) with the sense, "forever and ever."7

There are other examples,8 but our main interest lies in construct chain superlatives that are used of God. Certain human emperors such as Artaxerxes and Nebuchadnezzar are referred to (by themselves, and even by God) as "king of kings" (מלך מלכיא in Ezra 7:12, Dan. 2:37 Aramaic; מלך מלכים in Ezek. 26:7). Recognised as a construct chain superlative, this title can be dynamically translated, "greatest king" or "supreme king." In similar fashion, the biblical writers refer to Yahweh himself as אל(הי) אלהים ("God of gods", Deut. 10:17; Josh. 22:22; Ps. 50:1; 84:8; 136:2; Dan. 2:47)9 and אדני האדנים ("Lord of lords," Deut. 10:17; Ps. 136:3).10 Daniel is informed via a vision of a wicked future king who would rise against the שר שרים ("Prince of princes," Dan. 8:25); scholars debate whether this title refers to God himself or to Michael.11 The Hebrew Bible thus uses superlative constructions to describe Yahweh as "the greatest God" and "the supreme Lord."12 The title "king of kings" is also applied to God in Second Temple Jewish literature, though not in the Hebrew Bible itself.13 Notably, in the Old Greek version of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar qualifies his use of "king of kings" as a self-reference by acknowledging (after his seven-year humiliation) that it is the Most High, "God of gods and Lord of lords and Lord of kings," who has established him on his throne.

To summarise, then, the Hebrew Bible can refer to powerful human rulers as "king of kings," and (possibly) to an archangel as "prince of princes," but the titles "God of gods" and "Lord of lords" are reserved exclusively for Yahweh. All of these titles should be understood as superlatives, i.e. "supreme God," "supreme Lord," "supreme king," etc. Subsequent Jewish literature increasingly uses "King of kings" for God, applying the title to human rulers only in a qualified manner.

King of kings and Lord of lords in the New Testament

With this background in hand, we can turn to the New Testament. The expression "God of gods" does not occur, but "Lord of lords" and "King of kings" occur thrice each, always together (1 Tim. 6:15; Rev. 17:14; 19:16). In the first instance, the referent is God:
I charge you 14 to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. 16 It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. (1 Tim. 6:14-16 NRSV)
This passage is plainly emphasising God's exclusive divine status: note the repeated use of the adjective monos ("only"; "alone"). We should understand the author to be using the titles "King of kings" (ho basileus tōn basileuontōn) and "Lord of lords" (kyrios tōn kurieuontōn) as Hebraic superlatives; hence "supreme King" and "supreme Lord." These titles emphatically convey God's unique divine status and power.

Within the wider context of the Hebrew Bible, Second Temple literature and this text from 1 Timothy, it is therefore remarkable to find that in the Book of Revelation, the Jewish Christian author uses the titles "Lord of lords" and "King of kings" for Christ. In Revelation 17, John sees a vision that has obvious resonances with Daniel (e.g., evil kings represented by horns on a beast). An angel explains part of the vision to John, stating that these kings "will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords (kyrios kyriōn) and King of kings (basileus basileōn) ." In view of the Danielic connections, it is impossible not to see here an allusion to the "God of gods and Lord of kings" of Daniel 2:47, as well as to occurrences of the exact title "Lord of lords" in Deuteronomy 10:17 and Psalm 136:3.14 The author of Revelation therefore deliberately assigns a divine title to the Lamb, with meaning equivalent to "the Supreme Lord and King." Not content to do so once, the titles are repeated in Revelation 19:16, as the climax of a fearsome Christological vision.15

Christological Implications

What are the Christological implications of Jesus Christ being designated as "the supreme Lord and King," using a title ("Lord of lords") that is reserved exclusively for God in the Hebrew Bible? Two implications will be drawn out here: one concerning the Christological significance of the title kyrios and the other concerning the idea of Christ's supremacy.

Firstly, the application of this title to Jesus gives the lie to those who—to preserve a "low" Christology (or a confessional commitment to unitarianism)—downplay the Christological significance of the title kyrios. Such interpreters insist that, as used of Jesus Christ in the New Testament, kyrios designates master or ruler in an earthly sense.16 They emphasise that "God" (theos) is very rarely used of Christ in the New Testament, but overlook that "Lord" (kyrios)—one of the most common New Testament titles for Jesus—is just as lofty a title. Not only is kyrios the usual Greek translation of the Hebrew divine title אדני (which unitarians acknowledge is used only for God), but it is also the word usually used in the Septuagint to render the divine Name itself, יהוה, into Greek! If Christ, then, can be described as "the supreme Lord," can this be anything other than a divine claim? (This is not to deny, of course, that kyrios can be used in a mundane sense like "sir," "lord," "master," and is sometimes used of Jesus in this sense in the Gospels. But it is precisely texts like Revelation 17:14 and 19:16 that show conclusively that a much loftier sense is in view.)

It appears to this writer that, rather than the New Testament writers shying away from calling Christ theos and opting for what they saw as an inferior title, kyrios, they witness to the emergence of a pattern whereby the Father is typically designated theos and the Son kyrios (with some exceptions on both counts), these both being divine titles.17 The most striking occurrence of this pattern occurs in 1 Corinthians 8:6, where Paul quotes a creedal tradition that—according to the majority of New Testament scholars—splits the language of the Shema` (Deut. 6:4) between "one God, the Father" and "one Lord, Jesus Christ."18 It is remarkable that this text (like Ephesians 4:4-6) can profess belief in "one Lord" alongside "one God," without any qualification in light of the fact that Second Temple Judaism professed belief that God is the one Lord.19

Secondly, let us move beyond titles and reflect on what "supreme Lord and King" conveys conceptually about Christ's majesty and power. I am reminded of a post from several years ago on a unitarian apologetics Facebook page that commented on a 6th-century Byzantine depiction of Jesus as "Christ Pantokrator." The writer notes, "'Pantoraktor' [sic] is the Greek word for 'almighty.' Note that Scripture never refers to Jesus in this way; it is a title reserved exclusively for God." He goes on to observe that, in the painting, Christ looks beyond and away from the viewer, which "reflects the imperial aloofness with which Jesus was now associated. He is no longer a man: he is a god-emperor, like the original Caesars."

There are several problems with this argument. It presupposes a false dilemma, as though Jesus can either be human shepherd or divine emperor but not both, and that an artist who depicts him as one denies the other. If we take scenes from the New Testament, would we expect an artist painting the Transfiguration or the Ascension—or Jesus as envisioned in Revelation 1:12-15, for that matter—to depict him as making relatable eye contact with the viewer? A second problem with the argument is that it dwells too much on the title Pantokrator. While it is true that pantokratōr ("almighty"; "omnipotent") is not used of Christ in the New Testament, it is not a common word there (occurring only ten times, and in two books). Further undermining this argument from silence is the observation that the concept conveyed by pantokratōr is applied to Christ. Pantokratōr is a compound formed from pas ("all") and kratos ("might"; "power"; "sovereignty"). The operative question, therefore, is whether the New Testament ascribes universal power to Jesus. In the title "supreme Lord and King," we already have our answer. Of course, the evidence goes far beyond this. Since nine of the ten NT occurrences of pantokratōr for God are in Revelation, it is significant that this book twice ascribes kratos ("might") to the exalted Christ.20 Moreover, if we consider the occurrences of pantokratōr in Revelation, it is unlikely that the word is intended to emphasise God's power as distinct from Christ's.21 Meanwhile, other New Testament writings describe the exalted Christ as having been given "All authority in heaven and on earth" (Matt. 28:18), as "Lord of all" (Acts 10:36), as having "power that enables him...to bring all things into subjection to himself" (Phil. 3:21), as "before all things" (Col. 1:17), and as sustaining "all things by his powerful word" (Heb. 1:3). The question arises: what power is lacking in Christ, exactly, that he must be not be called Pantokratōr?22


In conclusion, then, with the Christological title "Lord of lords and King of kings" properly understood as designating Jesus the supreme Lord and King, we can recognise that the Book of Revelation offers a high Christology, in which Christ shares in the exclusive prerogatives of deity, such as absolute sovereignty over the cosmos. While this title is unparalleled in other New Testament texts, it is congruent with the high Christology that emerges from the letters of Paul and the letter to the Hebrews.

  • 1 Coulter H. George, How Dead Languages Work [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020], 211.
  • 2 This is by no means the only way that superlatives are expressed in biblical Hebrew. For a broader discussion, see D. Winton Thomas, "A Consideration of Some Unusual Ways of Expressing the Superlative in Hebrew," Vetus Testamentum 3 (1953): 209-24.
  • 3 Bruce K. Waltke and M. O'Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 267.
  • 4 Most of these are drawn from Waltke and O'Connor, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 267.
  • 5 The Septuagint translator has also understood the expression to be idiomatic and has rendered it with pais oiketēs ("house slave"), which perhaps represents the lowest rank among slaves.
  • 6 The New Living Translation conveys the superlative sense with a gloss: "This is Solomon’s song of songs, more wonderful than any other."
  • 7 E.g., Gal. 1:5; Eph. 3:21; Phil. 4:20; 1 Tim. 1:17; 2 Tim. 4:18; Heb. 13:21; 1 Pet. 4:11; Rev. 1:6; 1:18; 4:9-10; 5:13; 7:12; 10:6; 11:15; 15:7; 19:3; 20:10; 22:5. Revelation 14:11 uses the anarthrous construction aiōnas aiōnōn. That this verse departs from the ordinary usage in Revelation is interesting, since Revelation 14:11 alludes to Isaiah 34:10, where a construct chain superlative occurs. The phrase eis tous aiōnas tōn aiōnōn is attested once in the Greek Old Testament, in Psalm 83:5. However, Psalm 84:5 MT does not have a construct chain superlative. The concept of a future eternity is nearly absent from the Hebrew Bible.
  • 8 Jeremiah 3:19 is an interesting case. The KJV renders, "How shall I put thee among the children, and give thee a pleasant land, a goodly heritage of the hosts of nations?" It follows the MT, which has צבי צבאות, literally, "beauty of hosts" of nations. However, many scholars argue that this should be emended to צבי צבות, literally "beauty of beauties." R. Abma states, "The word צבאות in the apposition צבי צבאות גוים is, in spite of the א, to be understood as a plural of the noun צבי ('beauty') rather than of the noun צבא ('host'). This is the only case that the noun צבי is found in the plural, so that this plural form may be an unconscious adjustment to the common plural צבאות (cf. the expression 'Yhwh of hosts'). The construction of two identical nouns with the second in the plural expresses a 'superlative idea'... which explains the translation 'an inheritance most beauteous among the nations." (Bonds of love: Methodic Studies of Prophetic Texts with Marriage Imagery (Isaiah 50:1-3 and 54:1-10, Hosea 1-3, Jeremiah 2-3) [Assen: Van Gorcum, 1999],  231). Hence, the NRSV has, "the most beautiful heritage of all the nations." In Jeremiah 6:28, Yahweh describes his people as סרי סוררים (literally, "rebels of rebels"). A dynamically equivalent translation would be, "the most stubborn of rebels" (NET).
  • 9 Daniel 2:47 (composed in Aramaic) reads אלה אלהין. The Old Greek version of Daniel adds several further references to God as the "God of gods" ([ὁ θεὸς τῶν θεῶν] in 3:90, 4:30a, 4:30c, 4:34, and 11:36.
  • 10 The nearly equivalent expression מרא מלכין ("Lord of kings") occurs in the Aramaic of Daniel 2:47, while the Old Greek version of Daniel 4:34 refers to the Most High as "God of gods and Lord of lords and Lord of kings."
  • 11 See Amy C. Merrill Willis, "Heavenly Bodies: God and the Body in the Visions of Daniel," in S. Tamar Kamionkowski and Wonil Kim (eds.), Bodies, Embodiment, and Theology of the Hebrew Bible (London: T&T Clark, 2010), 29-30 n. 63.
  • 12 The expression "the greatest God" (like its literal rendering, "God of gods") might seem to undermine monotheism, since it implies the existence of other gods. However, it is clear that monotheism is a concept that develops through the course of biblical revelation. In earlier strata of biblical literature one finds Israel called to monolatry (exclusive worship of God), who is understood as the highest member of a council of divine beings. The status of these other "gods" is gradually degraded until they are reduced to sub-divine beings like angels or demons.
  • 13 E.g., as (ὁ) βασιλεὺς (τῶν) βασιλέων in 2 Maccabees 13:4, 3 Maccabees 5:35.
  • 14 The Septuagint of both of these passages has the title in the form (ho) kyrios (tōn) kyriōn.
  • 15 That the one seen in this vision is Christ is evident not only from his wearing a robe dipped in blood, and the allusion to Psalm 2:9 ("he will rule them with a rod of iron"), but also from the correspondences with the vision in Revelation 1:12-18, where one who likewise has eyes like a flame of fire and a sharp sword coming from his mouth identifies himself to John as the one who lives and had been dead.
  • 16 See, for instance, my recent review of a unitarian polemical work, Review of and Response to The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity's Self-Inflicted Wound, especially pp. 9-10, 25-27.
  • 17 The Father is more commonly called kyrios than the Son theos, but this is to be expected due to (a) it being the established practice in Hellenistic Judaism to use kyrios for God, and (b) the application to the Father of biblical quotations containing the word kyrios.
  • 18 See further discussion of this text on pp. 16-18 of my recent Review and Response.
  • 19 See Deuteronomy 6:4 and Zechariah 14:9 (both MT and LXX). Note also the Old Greek version of Daniel 3:17, where Daniel's three friends testify, "there is one God who is in heaven, our one Lord, whom we fear, who is able to deliver us from the furnace of fire" (New English Translation of the Septuagint).
  • 20 "To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion (kratos) forever and ever. Amen." (Rev. 1:6 NRSV). A hymn in the throne vision of chapter 5 ascribes "blessing and honour and glory and might (kratos) forever and ever" "to the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb" (5:13). In 1 Peter 4:11 and 5:11, two doxologies ascribe kratos to Christ and to God, respectively.
  • 21 For instance, in the first instance (Rev. 1:8), the Lord God introduces himself as "the Alpha and Omega...the one who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty." "Alpha and Omega" (or its semantic equivalent, "first and last," drawn from deutero-Isaiah) are applied repeatedly to Christ in this book (1:17-18; 2:8; 22:13). In another instance, heavenly saints sing to "Lord God Almighty...king of the nations," in what is described as "the song of Moses...and the song of the Lamb." Since Revelation contains other songs sung about the Lamb but none sung by the Lamb, some scholars take the second genitive as objective: "the song about the Lamb" (see David E. Aune, Revelation 6-16 [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998], 872-73; Keith T. Marriner, Following the Lamb: The Theme of Discipleship in the Book of Revelation [Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016], 174 n. 447). If so, the Lamb is at least indirectly included in the title pantokratōr. Moreover, God's "almighty" status is characterised in terms of his being "king of the nations," which is equivalent to what the book says elsewhere about Jesus, who is "ruler of the kings of the earth" (Rev. 1:5). In Revelation 19:15, it is Christ who treads out in the wine press the wrath of God Almighty. In Revelation 21:22, the new Jerusalem has the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb jointly as its temple.
  • 22 Note that the Church Fathers applied the title Pantokratōr to Jesus long before the famous sixth-century painting. According to Lampe's Patristic Greek Lexicon, the term is applied to the Son or the Logos already by second- and third-century writers like Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Hippolytus of Rome (G.W.H. Lampe, Patristic Greek Lexicon [Oxford: Clarendon, 1961], 1005.