While John 3:16 is the most famous verse in the Bible, it is fair to say that in the Old Testament, the most well-known words are found in what the Jews call the Sh’ma, found in Deuteronomy 6:4. There in English we read these words, “Hear O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” This is nothing less than a creed for the people of Israel that was recited daily. It clearly affirms mono-theism – the belief in one God.
Jesus quotes the Sh’ma in Mark 12 (v.29):
28 One of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, “What commandment is the foremost of all?”
29 Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD;
30 AND YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH.’
31 The second is this, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’
Even in our own day, one Jewish theological website refers to the Sh’ma as “the centerpiece of the daily morning and evening prayer services and is considered by some the most essential prayer in all of Judaism. An affirmation of God’s singularity and kingship, its daily recitation is regarded by traditionally observant Jews as a biblical commandment… It is recited at the climactic moment of the final prayer of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, and traditionally as the last words before death. Traditionally, it is recited with the hand placed over the eyes.” (Source: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-shema/)
Through the many centuries of Israel’s history, the regular, repetitive reciting of the Sh’ma has kept many generations of Jews away from the gross idolatry that surrounded them. That was not always the case, of course, and yet this creed was used to keep Israel distinct and separate as God’s people.
When we come to the New Testament, Romans 10:9 outlines a simple creed of the early church – “Jesus is Lord.” The verse reads, “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved…”
To get the full impact of what this entails we need to understand something about what it meant to live in the Roman Empire in the first century.
The Romans were polytheists, believing in many gods and all people in the Empire, without exception, had to acknowledge the divine nature of the Emperor, Caesar. There was an affirmation to affirm – two simple words, “Kaiser Kurios” which meant “Caesar is Lord.” As and when demanded, this creed had to be affirmed by all under Roman rule. Not to say this could well mean instant death. Many Christians were fed to the lions and wild animals in the Coliseum in Rome because of their stubborn, heroic refusal to recite this simple affirmation to Caesar.
This scenario is so foreign to us in our day and time that perhaps I have to spell it out so that we all grasp the true reality of all this. As they entered the dreaded arena, the Christians had only to say two words and they could live: “Kaiser Kurios” – “Caesar is Lord”. Instead they proclaimed, “Iesous ho Kurios” or “Jesus is Lord”, and paid for the privilege with their blood.
Story after story could be told of the brave Christians who, under the certain threat of death, would not renounce their Master, men and women who would not bow their knee to Caesar, acknowledging him as a god. Instead, they confessed the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It therefore meant something… really meant something, to recite this early creed.
1 Corinthians 12:3
This is the historical background for the statement in 1 Corinthians 12:3 – “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” This early creed “Jesus is Lord” was therefore supremely precious to the people of God. Allegiance to the creed was a matter of life and death. The Christians would rather die than, by their words, renounce Jesus Christ.
This confession of the Lord Jesus was admittedly basic and it is very evident that as Christians grew in their knowledge of God and of Scripture, so their creeds and confessions expanded and grew, and over time, became more broad and comprehensive. As novel (new) ideas and heresies spread in and around the church, the true Christians needed to expand the vocabulary of their creeds in order to stem the tide of the false doctrines.
1 Corinthians 8:6
The Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, affirms the monotheistic foundation of the Sh’ma while also acknowledging the full deity of Christ. Jesus is the Lord, Creator and Sustainer of all things.
“There is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” – 1 Corinthians 8:6
Here we see a confession that affirms our unity in Christ between Jews and Gentiles.
The Apostle Paul writes, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
While physical differences remain in that males remain males, females remain females, and the ethnic distinctions of Jew and Gentile and color still exist, the dividing wall of hostility between them has been broken down and abolished forever (Ephesians 2:11-18). Though we are not all not identical, we are all one in Christ Jesus. While there are still Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, no division between these two groups should exist in the church. We are united in Christ.
1 Timothy 3:16
Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 3 were a confessional statement against the raging heresies of the day, as well as an affirmation of the truth:
“By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness:
He (God) who was revealed in the flesh,
Was vindicated in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory.” – 1 Timothy 3:16
Concerning this verse, Pastor Tom Hicks writes, “This confession was written as the church faced a number of additional heresies, including Gnosticism, Asceticism and Paganism. It confronted these newer heresies even as it also confronted the older errors of Judaism. We learn from this that the older errors don’t go away, which is why the church must keep adding to its confession. The church needed to confess that Christ is Lord, contrary to Judaism. It needed to declare the full humanity of Christ over and against Gnosticism. It needed to affirm the sufficiency of Christ’s work to save, contrary to Asceticism. And it needed to confess that God is one, over and against the polytheism of Paganism.” (Source: https://founders.org/2018/04/12/a-case-for-robust-confessions-of-faith-in-the-churches/)
From the Garden of Eden to our own day, truth has always been under attack. Throughout Israel’s history and through to the time of the early Church, God has used the short creeds and confessions found in Scripture as a means to keep the faithful sound in doctrine.