“And as they did not study to have knowledge of God, God delivered them to a worthless mind to do what is not lawful, being filled with all kinds of unrighteousness, wickedness, greediness, and evil. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and meanness. They are gossipers, slanderers, and haters of God. They are insolent, proud, boastful, inventors of evil, and disobeyers of parents. They are without understanding, covenant breakers, without affections, and without mercy. They know the decrees of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do them, but also approve of those who do them.”
Simply spoken, many in the western church today assume that the church is a kind of democracy — or perhaps a democratic republic for those who practice presbyterian forms of government. In a democracy, people have the right to vote or the privilege of voting (depending on the structure of said government). In some cases, voting may need to be earned, but the principle remains the same: the people have a say in the decisions that are made by the body and majority rules. Similarly, in a democratic republic, the citizens elect representatives who, in turn, vote on behalf of those who elected them into office. Contrary to much of the rhetoric in America, our country is structured as a democratic republic, not as a democracy.
Yet, while the church does have elected officers who are charged with various roles and tasks, she is not, nor has ever been, a democracy or a republic. The church is a monarchy with Christ as the King. The role of those elected Elders and Deacons in the church is not to rule but to serve (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-5). Indeed, there is a reason that Elders are called ἐπισκόποι (episkopoi) or “overseers,” for an overseer has the responsibility to safeguard a task or a group of people so that things are done in accordance with the wishes of the King.
One of the important descriptive uses of the term ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos — the singular of episkopoι) is found in the Greek translation of 2 Kings 11:18. In context, after the death of King Ahaziah of Judah, his mother, Athaliah, ordered that all of Ahaziah’s sons were to be killed, allowing her to assume the throne. Joash, one of Ahaziah’s sons was rescued by his aunt and his nurse and hidden away for six years, until the priest Jehoiada could organize the temple guard and anoint the young Joash to be the King. There is much more to the story than this, as court intrigue fills the pages of the history of the Israeli monarchy, nevertheless, these temple guards (who were mature Levitical priests) played an essential role in protecting Joash (as well as the Temple) and then seeing that temple reforms took place (like the destruction of the altars of Ba’al).
After the coronation of Joash and the execution of his grandmother, the priest, Jehoiada made a covenant between God, the King, and the people that committed the people once again to being “the Lord’s” (2 Kings 11:17). When the altars of Ba’al were torn down, “watchmen” — episkopoi were posted over the house of the Lord. Further, in 2 Kings 12:11, it is to these same watchmen that the offerings for the temple repairs needed were given and it was by these same men that those funds were dispersed. Thus, what was the role of these overseers? It was not to rule in the manner that they saw fit. Nor, was it to rule in a democratic fashion. They were called upon to protect and facilitate the worship of God. Is that not what Elders in the Christian church are called upon to do? Is this not why Elders are to be able to instruct in sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict said doctrine (Titus 1:9)? And note, the doctrine that they protect is not simply that which they happen to like, but it is that doctrine that has been decreed by the King of the Church…namely by Christ Jesus himself. If a church’s Elders are not capable theologians and apologists in their own right, how will the church sail a straight path through the storms brought about by antichrists in this world (Ephesians 4:11-15)? If church Elders simply exist to manage the business of the church, how are they fulfilling their Biblical task?
Friends, if you desire as I do, that the church be a transformative influence on the world around us, as it was during the first three centuries and as it was during the Reformation and the century thereafter, then the church must repent of its worldliness. It must repent of functioning more like a country-club or a civic organization. It must repent of convenience and it must repent of its comfort. It must be willing to obey Christ in each and every manner that the Scriptures set forth and it must call its people to do the same. It must stop thinking like a business and it must start thinking like a military outpost in enemy territory. It must stop worrying about its programs and activities and start asking, “how do these programs and activities prepare us for worship?” They must stop telling people that God loves them just the way they are and start telling people to “repent and believe.” They must begin caring more about God and his decrees and be willing to put self to death.
Indeed, Elders — real, Biblical Elders, must gird up the loins of their mind not just to refute the errors found in the world, but also those errors found in the church and her worship. Like in the days of Joash, the idols need to be torn down and Biblical worship needs to be rebuilt. Then, maybe, just maybe, the church will stop rejecting the decrees and commands of God, start honoring God in worship (not self), and finally become relevant.
“And it came to pass in several days time that the Sons of Ammon fought with Israel. And as the Sons of Ammon fought with Israel, the Elders of Gilead went to take Jephthah from the land of Tob.”
And thus, the thing predicted took place: The Ammonites wage war in Gilead and the leaders of Gilead send for Jephthah. I find it interesting, typically in conversations with those outside of the Reformed movement, how often people think of the office of Elder as a New Testament construct. Yet, that could not be any further from the truth. Here we see one of many examples where the Elders of the community are making decisions that will affect the welfare of all within. Even Moses was instructed to address the Elders of Israel (Exodus 3:16). In fact, if you happen to read the Greek translation of Exodus 3:16 found in the ancient Septuagint, you will discover that Moses is instructed to speak to “the Council of the Sons of Israel.” The simple principle that we must always keep in the forefront of our minds is that the church considered themselves not to be something entirely new, but to be the continuation of the work God had begun in the Garden of Eden. Thus, they chose titles and offices familiar to the Jewish people. The Christians were the continuing Jewish church amongst a Jewish nation that had apostatized in their rejection of Jesus.
Interestingly, the term that is used to refer to the way that the Elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from Tob implies that they used force to bring him to Gilead. Most commonly, לקח (laqach) means to grasp or seize something or to take by force. These leaders were not taking a casual stroll in the country. They sought a great warrior to deliver them and Jephthah was the man they chose; he was going to deliver them one way or another. And so, they took him from the land of Tob to bring him to Gilead.
One of the themes that is found regularly in the Bible is the theme of waiting on the Lord. True, the idea can sometimes be a hard one because, how does one know for sure that the Lord has opened a door for you in this direction or in that direction. At the same time, it is easy to see examples of the catastrophes that ensue when one does not wait upon the Lord’s timing. Here is one of those examples. Rather wait for the Lord to relent at the repentance of his people, the people seek out a leader after their own image — Jephthah the son of a prostitute who grew up in a pagan land with pagan friends who had no good character. Folks, it shouldn’t take too much to figure out that very little good is going to come from this arrangement. It never does.
“Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus, to all the holy ones in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.”
Finally, we see that Paul not only addresses this letter to the people of the church, but to its leadership — the overseers and the deacons. It is certainly true that Paul speaks of other sorts of servants in the church…administrators, teachers, evangelists, etc… (1 Corinthians 12:27-30; Ephesians 4:11), but it would seem that these two offices serve as broader categories within which the other offices find their definition and qualification. Thus, however many offices in the church that a particular group happens to hold to, offices fall under the broad category of oversight or service.
What should also be noted — and is arguably more significant — is the reminder that the church itself does not exist as a broad and extended group of individuals. Believers are not autonomous, to put it another way. God has brought us together as one body — a larger institution — under the leadership and direction of officers. Like the Roman Centurion (Matthew 8:9), we are all men and women under authority…one of which is the godly leadership of the church that God the Father has raised up to honor his Son. True, there has been much wicked leadership through the generations — the unfaithful shepherds that God condemns (Ezekiel 34:1-6) — and while these wicked shepherds are often the ones that sear themselves into our memories, history has been filled with many, many faithful shepherds who labor in quiet obscurity amongst their flock. Though we like our independence, when we wander independently, we wander astray.
Thus, Paul addresses the entire church, a unified body of Christ, called and purposed to tear down the strongholds of the devil in this world (2 Corinthians 10:4-6) and making disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:19-20), all that the Father draws to the Son (John 6:44). This is a body made up of believers in covenant with one another under the leadership of Elders and Deacons, all to God’s glory. Were more of our congregations to think this way, I imagine that we would not have as many struggles within our churches and we would be quicker to weed out false shepherds from our midst.
“Then he was seen by James, next by all of the apostles.” (1 Corinthians 15:7)
There is some discussion amongst scholars as to just who these other “apostles” are, given that Paul has already made mention of “the twelve” (verse 5). It is fairly clear that the James mentioned here is James the half-brother of our Lord (see context in Galatians 1, for example) who wrote the letter that bears his name. But, if the “twelve” have already been mentioned, who are these apostles and is James one of them? Oceans of ink have been spilled debating this subject.
The term ajpo/vstoloß (apostolos), from which we get the term “apostle,” refers to someone who is an emissary or an envoy of another. The apostle is given the authority to speak and act with the authority of the one who sent them. It was a commonly used term in ancient times and is found throughout extra-Biblical as well as Biblical literature.
Yet, Jesus seemed to have appropriated this term in a special way. He called the original twelve disciples to himself and renamed them “apostles” (Mark 3:14). We also know that the office of Apostle was never meant to be a continuing office, given that by the time we reach the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), we see elders and apostles discussing together the issues of the church. Also, much later on, by the time we reach 1 Peter 5:1, Peter refers to himself as a “fellow elder.”
So, what is going on here? I want to suggest two uses of the term “apostle”—one with a capital “A” and one with a lower case “a.” The “Apostles” were the 11 original ones which Jesus called and commissioned (Judas not included), plus Paul. Matthias replaced Judas, but was not called personally by Christ for the task of Apostle. Paul was called by Christ and sent by Christ as well. These Apostles are those who were sent out on the direct authority of Christ to build his church. The “apostles,” then were those commissioned by the Church for her work. They carry the direct authority of the church, not of Christ. Though there are many in modern scholarship who would disagree with this distinction, assuming this is an accurate definition of the term, “apostles,” than Paul is speaking in this passage of those who have been sent specifically by the church.
Either way, what should we learn from this passage? Once again, God is consistent in witnessing his glory to mankind. Jesus appeared to these men to encourage them and to proclaim his resurrection to them. Jesus could have limited his appearance to only the twelve, but Jesus interacted with over 500 people to offer them concrete proof that he was who he said he was—even in appearing before his half-brother who was not a follower of Christ until after his death and resurrection.
Friends, we may not have the benefit of a personal visitation from the risen Lord to anchor our faith, but we do have scripture, which was attested to by those who saw Jesus for themselves. And the testimony we are given in scripture is not limited to the witness of a handful, but it is built on the witness of hundreds. Loved ones, cling to the scriptures, do not compromise them, and study them as you would study any other history book—in fact, study them more than a history book, for they are God’s words spoken through inspired writers—they are truth and life—and those who knew Jesus more clearly than you or I have blessed us with them.