Word Study #45 — Prophets

April 26, 2010

As we examine the responsibility of prophets, we arrive at a situation that is unique in two different ways. First, the New Testament provides us with a simple and concise definition of the task: (I Cor.14:3) “The one who prophesies [delivers God’s message] is speaking to people: edification, admonition, and encouragement.” And secondly, this definition departs markedly from the classical usages of the word as recorded in L/S: “the keepers and spokespeople of an oracle, who speaks for the god; the highest order of the ancient Egyptian religion; a foreteller of the future; an herbalist or quack doctor”!
The only firm parallel between these two is the idea of speaking for (a) God. The foretelling of future events was common as a part of prophetic messages under the old covenant, but even there “foretelling” was primarily connected to an exhortation to return to God’s ways, not merely the display of occult predictive powers. In the New Testament, any reference to the future had either a very practical connection to specific instructions, as when “prophets from Jerusalem” came to Antioch and warned of an impending famine, in order that these distant brethren might send relief (Ac.11:27), or a specific intention to encourage beleaguered disciples to confident faithfulness (Mt.10:18). Sadly, many who claim today to “speak in the Lord’s name” fit more clearly into the ancient pattern of purported future-telling, than the prescribed New Testament mandate for “edification, admonition, and encouragement”. Please note also that Paul’s definition makes no reference to an attempt to frighten one’s hearers into compliant submission to the speaker’s agenda!

Chronologically, the first prophet we meet in the New Testament is Zachariah (Lk.1:67), when his son John was born. He simply reported what he had been told about the child and his assignment. The second is elderly Anna, specifically identified as a “prophetess”, in the temple after Jesus’ birth (Lk.2:36-38). Besides these two, most of the gospel references are to the Old Testament prophets, relating their messages to Jesus himself, or to John the Baptist. A notable exception is Caiaphas’ cynical statement of Jesus’ fate (Jn.11:51), where John offers his opinion that the high priest had no clue of the implication of his words.

At Pentecost, however, everything changed! The gift of the Holy Spirit’s coming is related, by Peter, to the earlier prophecy of Joel (Ac.2:17-18), that now all God’s people may prophesy! Old and young, sons and daughters, share in this gracious gift, in order better to serve each other and their world. Suddenly, “prophets” seem to be cropping up all over!  Our Lord now intends to speak to all of us through all of us!
Ac.13:1 mentions “prophets and teachers” (both plural, please note) in the congregation at Antioch, having a prayer meeting when Barnabas and Saul were commissioned for their first journey by a perceived word from the Holy Spirit.
Later, in his beautiful description of a “coming together” for worship, in I Cor.14:26-33, Paul clearly assumes that everyone is eligible to participate: (v.31: “You can ALL prophesy [speak for God], one at a time, so that all may learn and all may be encouraged.”) This is not a free-for-all: in v.29, he gives very careful instructions for the evaluation and orderly control of participation. But clearly, everyone is expected to be involved.
Some folks are inclined to get bent-out-of-shape (in both directions!) over the following section about women. Please see chapter 13 of Citizens of the Kingdom for a discussion of this. Here, I will simply remind you that just a few chapters earlier (I Cor.11:4-5), their participation in the “praying and prophesying” is assumed.
In I Cor.14:39, Paul closes his treatise on prophecy by urging the whole congregation to seek earnestly for that privilege. Anyone may prophesy. But not all are called “prophets”(I Cor.12:29). Although several folks are designated “prophets” in addition to those already mentioned – Judas and Silas (Ac.15:32), Agabus (Ac.21:10), and the four daughters of Philip (Ac.21:9), among others, there is no record of anyone being chosen for the job by anyone else. They just emerge. A person seems to have acquired that label by consistent, trustworthy exercise of the gift.

Prophecy appears on all the lists of gifts of the Holy Spirit (see W.S.#25) – Rom.12:6, I Cor.12:10, Eph.4:11, and I Pet.4:10-11. Clearly, it was expected that both the brotherhood as a whole (Ac.13:1-3) and individuals (I Tim.4:14) would receive the Lord’s instructions through the carefully evaluated exercise of prophetic gifts in the group.
One does not “decide”, “plan”, or choose to prophesy. Please notice that in no instance is a “prophecy” represented as a carefully prepared study-paper or sermon. “God’s message [prophecy] didn’t come from a person’s own desire, but people spoke from God, as they were borne along by the Holy Spirit” (II Pet.1:21). That is not to deprecate the value of study or sermons: these belong more in the category of “teaching” – see the next posting – which is also necessary, and may include a prophetic word on occasion, but is an entirely different form of contribution. Likewise, “preaching” (see previous post) is not prophecy, although it may, on occasion, contain it.
In I Cor.14:6, Paul lists “a revelation, knowledge, prophecy [a message from God], and teaching” as useful contributions to the welfare of a brotherhood. All are necessary for healthy growth – a “balanced diet” for the Body of Christ.
Prophets and teachers, although occasionally itinerant, are the only functionaries besides the ubiquitous elders, who are assumed to exist in every congregation.

Claiming to “prophesy in Jesus’ name” is no guarantee of authenticity (Mt.7:2). Jesus, Peter, and John all warned the faithful to be discerning of false prophets (Mt.7:15, 24:11, 24; Lk.6:26, Ac.13:6, II Pet.2:1, I Jn.4:1, Rev.16:13, 19:20, 20:10). Counterfeits are easily detected by people who are well acquainted with the genuine article. The counsel and wisdom of experienced elders is extremely valuable in such situations.
It behooves us to heed that wisdom, rather than, as some have done, to conclude out of sheer frustration that “the time of prophecy has passed.” True, this gift is not permanent (I Cor.13:9), and it is only partial – but it will only be superseded when we are all directly with the Lord.
Perhaps it is just such a dilemma that Paul had in mind when he wrote (I Th.5:20) “Do not scorn prophesying [messages from God].” A faithful brotherhood must evaluate, not automatically discard, what may be a prophetic word.

Paul’s definition with which we began, serves as a valuable measuring tool. Genuine prophecy [messages directly from God] speaks to people for
– edification – being “built” into the Body the Lord intends,
– admonition – instructions for faithful life and interaction, and
– encouragement – sometimes translated “comfort”; I frequently use “coaching”.
Any message that does not meet these criteria may safely be discarded, with confidence that it is not from God!
But don’t forget that Paul admonished the entire group at Corinth (I Cor.14:1) “Strive for spiritual things – especially that you all may prophesy [speak for God]!”
Hearing our Master’s voice, and sharing the insight thus received, as we interact with our brethren, is a large and much needed part of the Lord’s plan for the faithful functioning of his Body in the world.

May we determine to handle it faithfully!

Word Study #44 — Preachers, Priests

April 19, 2010

The word kerux, “preacher”, like “evangelist” in W.S.#43, appears in the New Testament only three times! I am convinced that this constitutes confirming evidence that the New Testament focus is upon the functions that need to be performed in the brotherhood, and not upon any ranking or titles conferred upon its participants. Paul refers to himself twice as a “preacher” – I Tim.2:7 and II Tim.2:11 – and Peter (II Pet.2:5) calls Noah a “preacher of justice”. That is all. Consequently, as before, clues to the “job description” need to be gleaned from the verb (action) forms of the words.

Liddell/Scott identifies a kerux as “a herald, a public messenger, a crier who made proclamations and kept order at assemblies, an auctioneer, or a messenger between nations at war.” This latter description is interesting in a Kingdom context. Is a “preacher” a messenger from the Prince of Peace to any who had been “at war” with his Kingdom?
In their reference to the verb form, kerusso, L/S add, “to invite people to become colonists”! Both Herodotus and Plutarch use it that way. This historical reference, along with the New Testament contexts, tends toward a parallel to the evangelistic task. In no instance is this “job” described as a hierarchical function within a single congregation. “Preachers”, like “evangelists” and”apostles”, seem to have been primarily itinerant, proclaiming Jesus to the previously ignorant.

In the gospels, John the Baptist, Jesus, and his disciples are said to be “preaching.” In the case of Jesus and the disciples, the word is sometimes combined with “teaching” (Mt.9:35), “healing” (Lk.9:2), and “casting out demons” (Mk.1:38, 3:14). By far the most common reference is to “preaching/announcing the Kingdom” (Mt.4:17, 23; Mt.9:35, 10:7, 24:14; Lk.8:1, 9:2). It is primarily John the Baptist, not Jesus, who emphasizes “repentance” and “forgiveness” in his preaching (Mt.3:1, Mk.1:4,7; Lk.3:3). Please see also the previous post (#43), as some of these usages overlap.

The account of the early church in Acts, and Paul’s epistles, continues in the vein of an introductory proclamation to people or groups, and considerably broadens the base of “proclaimers.” Here, too, the subject matter is expanded to include Jesus’ resurrection (Ac.4:2, 17:3; I Cor.15:11-12 – actually the whole chapter). It also parallels the subjects listed in W.S.#43. “Preaching Jesus”, or “preaching Christ”, predominates, as well as “preaching the Word.” In contrast, again, to modern emphasis, “cross/crucified/crucifixion” is mentioned as the subject only once (I Cor.1:18-23). How, then, did that come to be the only acceptable focus for so many people? Folks who claim to “preach Christ” need to look again at all the wonderful things that such “preaching” includes: “Jesus Christ as the Son of God (II Cor.1:19), “the message of faithfulness”(Rom.10:8), “explaining about the resurrection” (Ac.17:3), “admonishing and teaching every person, in order that we may present every person mature in Christ” (Col.1:28), and persisting, like brother Paul imprisoned in Rome, in “preaching the Kingdom of God” (Ac.28:31)! “Inviting people to become colonists” (see above) of the Kingdom, seems to describe the task quite delightfully!
Do not neglect to note the warnings in II Cor.11:4 and much of Galatians, concerning the acceptance or propagation of “another gospel” – an erroneous or distorted version of the one Paul had proclaimed. The “real thing” comes (I Cor.2:4) not in fancy rhetoric and eloquent language, but in the simple demonstration of the power of God!
How carefully do you sift and evaluate what purports to be the “preaching of the gospel”?

At about this stage of a survey of the “job descriptions” in the New Testament church, someone frequently protests, “But if “pastors” and “bishops” represent just two of the tasks of “elders/old people”, and “preachers” are itinerant evangelists, then who’s in charge at home in the local congregation?”
The short answer is, NOBODY BUT THE LORD JESUS, through his Holy Spirit, with the elder members providing a degree of oversight and evaluation of the contributions of all the members!

Some groups, under the mistaken impression that they need “official” human leadership (to mediate – or replace? – the Holy Spirit?) have decided to pick out an individual – or several – whom they then elevate above the rest and call them “ministers,” (see W.S.#40), or “priests.” Sorry, but that doesn’t work in a New Testament church. Hiereus, “priest”, does not appear at all in Paul’s epistles. In the Gospels and Acts, it refers exclusively to the Jewish officials who uniformly opposed everything that Jesus did or said, except for one single reference (Ac.6:7) to a few individuals who had come to faith. The writer to the Hebrews spends considerable time in chapters 7, 8, and 9, reviewing the responsibilities of priests under the old covenant, and explaining Jesus’ superiority, noting that he has removed all need for their intricate ceremonies. Jesus’ position is compared to that of Melchizedek, who had no connection to the Levitical priesthood, but is called “a priest forever.”

The discussion in Hebrews also incorporates the word archiereus, “high” or “chief priests,”who, in the Gospels and Acts accounts, are also uniformly mentioned as Jesus’ opponents. Chapters 2 through 6 proclaim Jesus himself as the ultimate “high priest”, and the only mediator who is needed, in contrast to the multiplicity of the ancient hierarchy.

There are only two places where any form of “priesthood” refers to contemporary followers of Jesus, and none of these singles out any individual. I Peter 2:5 and 2:9 speak of the entire brotherhood of believers as “priests”: “You yourselves, also, as living stones, be continually built (into) a spiritual household, into a dedicated priesthood, to bring to God spiritual sacrifices that will be well-received because of Jesus Christ.” and “You all are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a set-apart [holy] nation, a people especially reserved for the purpose of sending out messages about the excellence of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light!”
Likewise, in the Revelation, (1:6, 5:10, 20:6), referring to the crowds singing praises around the throne, all of God’s people are proclaimed to be his “priests.”

As Dan noted in his response to W.S.#42, Martin Luther and other “reformers” had a lot to say about “the priesthood of all believers” – but somehow, both they and their descendents have neglected to treat that concept as a practical reality. Indeed, reference to “the priesthood of believers” has become nothing but a hollow buzz-word, if the privilege and responsibility to teach the word, proclaim the Kingdom, and organize the observance of its symbols is restricted to a narrow hierarchy of individuals, as it was before the arrival of our King!
These are tasks assigned to every citizen, for the benefit of every other such citizen, and for the glory of the Lord who has called us all!
“He has made US a kingdom – priests to God his Father! Glory and power to him forever!
Amen!” (Rev.1:6)

Amen indeed!

Word Study #43 — Evangelists

April 12, 2010

I strongly suspect that most of you will be as surprised as I was, to discover that the word “evangelist” – euaggelistes – exists only three times in the whole New Testament! It is applied to Philip (Ac.21:8) who is identified as having been “one of the seven” (who were also called diakonoi – see w.s. #40); it appears on the list of service-gifts to the church mentioned previously (Eph.4:11-12); and is part of Paul’s final admonition to Timothy (II Tim.4:5). This discovery, while startling, in conjunction with the 51 uses of the verb form euaggelizo, serves to confirm the principle that the New Testament focus, as we have seen before, is upon function, and not upon the individuals who perform it, or any titles, or positions of status ascribed to them. So it makes sense that we must look at the activity of these folks, and the content of their message, in order to understand the concept.

Liddell/Scott has relatively little to say about this family of words. Euaggelistes was used of any bearer of welcome news or a favorable oracular message. It was often used of a priestess of Hera (Juno). Euaggelios, not used in the NT at all, had a similar meaning, but was usually used of Zeus or Hermes. Euaggelion – the message so borne, and traditionally translated “gospel”, also could refer to a reward given to the messenger. The verb, euaggelizo (from the earlier euaggeleo), or the middle voice form euaggelizomai, referred to the act of delivering the message. It is often translated “preach the gospel”, but there are eight other words also rendered “to preach”, which will be considered later. Here we will only deal with this one.

In the gospels, Jesus is the only subject of the verb, except in the Luke 2 announcement of his birth, and the Lk.3:18 account of John the Baptist’s introduction of his ministry. The disciples sometimes “preach,” as do some of the healed individuals, but other words are used on those occasions. Therefore, since Jesus seems to have “invented” the idea of “preaching the gospel”, he is the logical one to consult about what that entails.
Out of the 17 times that Jesus is said to be “preaching the gospel”, or making direct reference to it, six are specifically identified as “the gospel of the Kingdom” (Lk.4:43, 16:16; Mt.4:23, 9:35, 24:14; and Mk.1:14). Please refer to Word Studies 19-20-21 for this subject. In three instances, the recipients of the gospel/ “good news” are the poor (Mt.11:5, Lk.4:18, 7:22). Elsewhere, it is combined with healing (Lk.9:6), teaching (Lk.20:1), changing one’s life orientation in favor of faithfulness to the Kingdom (Mk.1:15) – see w.s.#6 , the “loss” of one’s self-centered life or possessions (Mt.8:35, 10:29), the permanent inclusion of the incident of the extravagant gift of perfume in any future “gospel” narrative (Mt.26:13, Mk.14:9), and Jesus’ post-resurrection mandate that it be preached to “every creature” (Mk.16:15) – interesting that Mark says “creature” instead of “person”. Does this have implications for other creatures as well?
Most of these incidents may be seen as simply manifestations of Jesus’ Kingdom – solid evidence for his opening statement, “The time has been fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has arrived (Mk.1:15). Note that both of these verbs are perfect tenses (see appendix to Translation Notes). This is not a prediction, but an announcement!
Modern day “evangelists” or “preachers of the gospel” will search in vain for their strident accusations of “sinfulness” and guilt, or purported demands for human sacrifice. Jesus never said that, folks! He simply graciously invited all who would, to become a part of the Kingdom that he had come to establish.

In Acts and the epistles, the list of people doing the “evangelizing” broadens considerably. It includes Peter and John (Ac.5:42), Philip (see discussion in w.s. #41, and adds his identifying “label” in Ac.21:8), Paul (most of his letters, but especially numerous references in Romans, Galatians Ephesians, and Thessalonians), “all those scattered after the martyrdom of Stephen” (Ac.8:4), and many others.
It is worthy of note that while Paul asserts several times (note especially the extensive discussion in I Cor.9) that it is reasonable to expect that people carrying the Word to places “where Christ is not known” be supported by other brethren, he is so deeply concerned that the gospel message be offered without charge, that he considers self-support to be a matter of integrity.

The more significant question concerns the content of their message, which is easily identifiable by the phrase, “the gospel of —”. By far the most common is “the gospel of Jesus, the gospel of Christ, the gospel of Jesus Christ, or of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (I counted 21, but may have missed a few). It is reasonable to assume, especially in light of the accusations leveled against apostles on several occasions, that this involved a reporting upon Jesus’ life, activity, and teaching; at least 3 or 4 times, the phrase “Jesus and the resurrection” is noted (see the centrality of this event in the gospel message in w.s.#35). “The gospel of God” to which Paul refers in I Cor.11:7, Rom.1:1, and I Thes.2:2, 2:8-9, may sound a bit more generic, but is probably little different, since that notably verbose brother seldom fails to expound on distinctions when he thinks elaboration is required!
“The word of the gospel” or “the word of the Lord” (Ac.8:4, 15:7, 15:35) would appear to refer more directly to Jesus’ teachings. “The word of truth of the gospel” (Col.1:5) stands in sharp contrast to the competing philosophies and cosmologies that Paul is trying to counteract, as does his reference to the “truth of the gospel” in Gal.2:5.
Another phrase used multiple times, “the gospel of peace” (Ac.10:36, Rom.10:15, Eph.2:17, 6:15) usually appears in the context of the bringing together of Jewish and Gentile believers. Please see chapter 2 of Citizens of the Kingdom on “unity”, and chapter 7 for discussion of Eph.2 and its effect on the Body of believers. Ever since the announcement by the heavenly hosts in Lk.2, It is no gospel which does not include the creation of peace among formerly hostile people who join the Kingdom.

Paul also makes reference to competitors seeking to impose “another gospel” (Gal.1:6-9,2:14; I Cor.9:18, 15:12-18; Phil.1:12-18, Col.1:23), as does Peter (I Pet.4:17). Most of these are individuals seeking either to impose legal regulations as a condition of acceptance (Col.2:16), or, conversely, to revert to pagan licentiousness (Col.2:8, I Pet.4:4).

It is one thing to hear the proclamation of a new Kingdom – a completely new way of living – and quite another to adopt it as one’s own: to become a citizen of that Kingdom. Jesus spoke of it as a complete re-orientation of life – metanoia– (See w.s.#6), and urged “becoming faithful to (others translate it merely “believe”) the gospel” (See w.s.#1). His later followers spoke of “obeying the gospel” (Rom.10:16, II Thess.1:8, 3:14; Heb.4:9, I Pet.4:17).
Paul also wrote of people “serving together in the gospel” (I Thes.3:2, Phil. 1:7, 1:17, 1:27, 2:22, 4:3.), and sharing in the hassles occasioned by that service (II Tim.1:8).

The familiar advertising of “fire insurance” and rhetoric about a “free one-way ticket to glory” did not come from the New Testament! The genuine gospel message is far more beautiful, and more far-reaching, than that. Paul hearkens back to the original “good news” announced even before Jesus’ birth (Mt.1:23), of “Emmanuel – God with us”– when he characterizes the “mystery of the gospel” (Col.1:27) as “Christ among [in] you all: your hope [expectation] of glory!”
A true “evangelist”, at his Master’s command, extends “to every creature” (Mk.16:15) the gracious invitation to become a part of the Body – a citizen of the Kingdom – of the Lord of Glory!
May that tribe increase!

Word Study #42 — Elders, Overseers, Shepherds

April 6, 2010

Let’s begin this one by understanding what “elders” are NOT. Nowhere in the New Testament are “elders” represented as members of a rotating, democratically elected committee, demographically varied in proportion to its congregation, and commissioned to direct the affairs (either “temporal” or “spiritual”) of the group, and to hire or fire its “leadership.”  Neither are they scrubbed and eager young men fulfilling a “mission” requirement!

Elders – presbutes – are, most basically, (are you ready for this?) “old people”!
“Elder” is a term of respect: the respect accruing from age and experience!
The term was applied to ambassadors, because it was elder, experienced statesmen who served in that capacity. A “council of elders” often directed the affairs of a city or state.
The elders in the New Testament church, likewise, had to have been older folks: in letters to both Timothy and Titus (I Tim.3:4-5 and Titus 1:6), Paul lists among their qualifications, “Look how their kids turned out!” to see if they were capable of proper leadership.

In the Gospel narratives, and through Acts 6, “elders” referred to the ruling council of the Jews, or, more generically, to their ancestors (“the traditions of the elders” Mk.7:3). Until this point, and occasionally thereafter, they are represented as antagonistic to Jesus and his message, and viewed as powerful adversaries.
Beginning in Ac.11:30, however, “elders” are mentioned in leadership roles in the church. They are always spoken of in the plural, and share advisory duties with the apostles (Ac.15), but interestingly, not one of them is ever individually named. Notice also that their duties were not at all dictatorial: the decision reached in Ac.15:22 was made by “the apostles and elders and the whole church”, although the resulting letter was authored by “the apostles and elders” (v.23).
In each city where a new fellowship formed, the founding apostles “appointed elders (plural) for them in every church” (Ac.14:23). Although the participle cheirotonesantes was used in the ancient Greek democracies (5th and 6th centuries BC) of elections by raised hands (the literal meaning of the word), by the first century it was used of any appointment or assignment. In neither case was a permanent position or title conferred.
Paul uses the same word to refer to his own work (II Cor.5:20) – traditionally translated “ambassador”, as it is in Eph.6:20, although there is no apparent reason for the change. It is the same word.

The most specific information we have about elders in the New Testament comes from Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus. Timothy, a young man who seems to have served a kind of apprenticeship with Paul (Ac.16), and later was sent as Paul’s deputy into a number of difficult situations, is reminded that while his youth should not inhibit the contribution he can make to the brotherhood, (I Tim.4:12), he must be careful to treat local elders – both men and women (5:1-2) – with deference and respect – even, or perhaps especially, when correction is needed.
It is interesting, and should be instructive, that the qualifications detailed in I Tim.3:1-7 for “oversight” – episkopes – (the English term “bishop”, used 4 times, doubtless derived from the 16-17th century clerical structure, not from the lexical meaning of the word) – are identical to the qualifications posted to Titus (1:5-10) for the “elders” – presbuterous – that he was to establish in the congregations of Crete. Oversight is mentioned there also in 1:7. Cross-check the two lists. The order varies, but they match.
This parallel, as well as the use of the same terms in Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders (Ac.20:17-38), “Watch out for yourselves, and for all the flock in which the Holy Spirit set you as overseers (episkopous, to shepherd (poimainein) the church of God,” indicates clearly that “oversight”and “shepherding” are simply two of the tasks entrusted to the elders of a group. They are not titles, or separate assignments to separate individuals.
L/S lists the lexical definitions of episkopes as: an overseer, guardian, tutor, supervisor, or inspector. It appears only five times in the entire New Testament, and its derivative terms a total of six. The verb form, episkopeo, in I Pet.5:2, also addressed to “elders”, similarly includes an admonition to “tend” or shepherd the flock (poimanate).

This brings us to another task of the elders: “shepherding.” Jesus himself of course, is “exhibit A” of a “shepherd”, by his own testimony (Jn.10). In fact, well over half the references are to Jesus (9 out of 16). After his resurrection, Jesus assigned this task to Peter (Jn.21:6). Peter himself, having learned by sometimes hard experience, described what is necessary for faithful shepherding (I Pet.5:2-5).
How this pattern of self-giving care, “shepherding”, on the part of plural elders, morphed into the image of a singular “pastor” as an employee, or a corporate CEO, is a tragic puzzle.
L/S defines poimaino, in virtually all references after Homer, as “to herd or tend flocks, or, in the case of people, to tend and cherish, guide and govern.” Four of the references appear in the Revelation, representing Jesus’ continuing care for his people (2:27, 7:17, 12:15, 19:15). Poimaino‘s appearance with the Old Testament image of a “rod” in the hand of the shepherd, (since we know who the Shepherd is), should convey a sense of security and protection from harm, rather than the threat with which it is so often associated.
Only once in traditional translations is poimen rendered “pastor” (the Latin-derived word), and that is in Eph.4:11, which translators and commentators have mistakenly represented as members of their accustomed organizational hierarchy, and therefore employed the labels of that system. I consider the listing to be chronological rather than hierarchical, with gifted persons being supplied by the Holy Spirit to the group as they are needed. Please notice that here also, all the terms are plural.

They all describe the function of the elders – always plural, and of both genders (see I Tim.5:2 and Titus 2:2-5) – in each congregation. Their characteristics and duties include:
Ac.15 – mediating conflicts
I Tim.3:2-7 – exemplary personal and family life
I Tim.3:7 – faithfully represent the church to outsiders
I Tim.4:14 – conferring responsibility upon younger members
Titus 1:9 – able to teach the Word, and refute opponents
James 5:14 – praying for the sick/weak
I Peter 5:1-5 – no status-tripping! Set an example; not working for profit.
There is much speculation, and little solid information about the passage in I Timothy 5:9-15 regarding the support of elderly (over 60) widows. Some think it may have been a sort of an order; but considering the qualifications listed – good deeds, having raised children, welcomed strangers, relieved suffering, washed the saints’ feet – it may have been simply to support them, after the death of their husbands, so that they could continue this same sort of service.

Comparing these assorted duties to Paul’s description of his own activity (Ac.20:17-38), may lead one to conclude that elders are simply charged with responsibilities on the local level, similar to those required of apostles in their more itinerant work: “for the purpose of equipping God’s people to do work of service, and to build up the Body of Christ, until we all arrive into the unity of faithfulness, and of intimate acquaintance with the Son of God: (that is) into mature adulthood – into a measure of the maturity (whose source is) the completeness of Christ!” (Eph.4:12-13)
A worthy goal for any of the faithful!

Word Study #41 — Apostles

April 1, 2010

This will be the first of a series of postings dealing with the various functions, frequently mistakenly labeled “offices”, served by different folks at different times in the New Testament church. They were simply jobs that needed to be done, for which the Lord, by the Holy Spirit, assigned responsibility “as he pleased.” A good introduction to the subject would be for you to review chapters 6, 7, and 8 of Citizens of the Kingdom, which deal with a distinctly different approach to “leadership” in the New Testament church from the one that is common in the 20-21st century corporate structures that carry the name of “churches.”
Notice from the outset, that except when referring to a specific, named individual, every function is plural. Notice also that different people appear to have served different functions at different times. This should make it clear that IN NO CASE was any of these viewed as a lifetime position, assignment, title, office, or rank. Remember that Jesus himself had strictly forbidden that (Mt.23:1-12).
I choose to deal with these functions in alphabetical order, in order to avoid any appearance of hierarchical classification.

We will begin with apostles: generally the first persons from whom a new group would have heard about the Lord Jesus and his Kingdom.
Apostolos is one of those words that, through the centuries, has acquired a somewhat mystical aura that never existed in its linguistic etymology. Classically, it referred to anyone sent anywhere for any purpose! This could be the ambassador or envoy of some royal personage, the commander of a military (usually naval) force, an export license for a business, or a slave sent on an errand. The verb, apostello, was similarly inclusive: simply, “to send.” In the New Testament, it was used of everything from Jesus “sending” the Holy Spirit, to his promise to return [“send back”] the donkey he borrowed on Palm Sunday! (So much for “status”!)

The synoptic gospels refer to the 12 original disciples as “apostles”, usually in the context of Jesus’ sending them out as his representatives. “Ambassadors” or “envoys” would be a logical choice here, given that the burden of Jesus’ message concerned the Kingdom he had come to establish (See word studies 19, 20, and 21.) This may have been the thought behind Peter’s eagerness (note that this was his own idea, before Pentecost) to replace Judas as a “witness to Jesus’ resurrection.” The group took this action on their own: Jesus had told them simply to wait for the Holy Spirit. And while they were not scolded for the choice of Matthias as an “apostle”, we never hear of him again.

As the church took root and grew, understandably, the experience of the men who had spent those three years walking and working with Jesus was respected. After all, they had “been there, done that.” But it was not long before the work – and the authority – needed to be shared more widely. Some of the original 12 may have filled multiple roles: we do not know, for example, if the “Philip” chosen as a “deacon” in Ac.6 (see previous post), the “apostle” of that name (Mt.10:3, Jn.14), and the “evangelist” who went first to Samaria and then to Gaza (Ac.8), are the same person, or two, or three. It was not an uncommon name. “Elders” (see next post) shared the mediator role with “apostles” at the Jerusalem Conference (Ac.15), and Paul and Barnabas (Ac.13:3), Judas and Silas (Ac.15:27 and 32) are also included with that label in Luke’s account. In various epistles, Paul adds Andronicus and Junia (Rom.16:7), Epaphroditus (Phil.2:25), Titus and other brethren (II Cor.8:23), and Tychicus (II Tim.4:12). The same word is applied to all, though translators reluctant to use “apostle” for any but those traditionally so labeled have changed it to “messenger” in some cases.

So – what makes a person an “apostle”? Paul speaks of a number of things which he labels “signs of an apostle”: endurance, signs and wonders [demonstrations of the power of God] (II Cor.12:12), having seen Jesus, and the conversion of a brotherhood (I Cor.9:1-2), Jesus’ appearance to him despite his former career as a persecutor (I Cor.15:7-9), and his (Paul’s) choice neither to flatter nor dominate them, his self-giving and self-support. He notes in I Cor.9:5-13 that as an apostle, he had a right to take along a wife on his travels as Peter and the others did, and to expect support, but he deliberately failed to claim those rights, as evidence that he was not working for his own gain. He had some rather caustic things to say about “false apostles” who had no such scruples (II Cor.11:5-13.)

Apostles, one of God’s gifts to the church (Eph.4:11), are usually itinerant, but they are not independent or free-lancers! Notice how Peter (Ac.10), following the explicit instructions of the Spirit in his visit to Cornelius, nevertheless took along other brethren as witnesses (10:23 and 11:2), and carefully reported back to the others in Jerusalem. Likewise, Paul and Barnabas (Ac.12:25 and 14:26) and later Paul and Silas (18:22) reported back to the church at Antioch, from which they had been sent out. Paul writes in Gal.2:7-9 about his own checking out of his message and activity with those who had served as apostles for longer than he.

The work of an apostle is likewise quite varied. It includes evangelizing (the many “missionary journeys”), strengthening and encouraging the young congregations (Ac.14:22, 16:40, 18:11, 20:1), correcting errors (Galatians and Corinthians), teaching (Ac.15:35, 18:11, Timothy and Titus), and moderating/mediating disputes (Ac.15, and much of both Corinthian letters).
Perhaps the best description of the work of a faithful apostle can be found in Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders (Ac.20:17-35). He reminds them of his behavior among them: refraining from pulling rank, teaching publicly and in homes, completing his assignment from the Lord Jesus to bear testimony to the grace of God, urging them to conform their lives to God’s plan, and setting an example of doing honest work in order to care for the weak.
It is hard to read such a statement, and then accept the ideas advanced by those who insist that there is no longer any need for apostles! There is no such nonsense in the New Testament! Faithful apostolic teaching will continue to be needed until the Lord comes!

Even Jesus himself is called an “apostle” (Heb.3:1), and he spoke often of having been “sent” by the Father with an assignment to fulfill. This is sprinkled like a refrain throughout the gospel of John. Paul, in most of his letters, describes his task as having been “sent by Jesus, according to the will of God.” Others were chosen and sent by the Holy Spirit through the agency of a gathered congregation.
When was the last time you enjoyed a prayer meeting like the one described in Ac.13:1-3? Dare we assume that the Spirit has not spoken, just because we have not heard him? Or must we admit that maybe we just weren’t listening?
We impoverish ourselves if we refuse to continue that pattern.