Word of the Week
September 9, 2023
Presbuteros: How to Treat Your Elders
For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you.
Titus 1:5 NASB
For once in my life, I got a pleasant surprise as I recently went through airport security. A sign announced, “Anyone over 75 does NOT have to take off their shoes or jacket.” Finally, a bonus for getting older!
Senior citizens get other perks like cheap coffee at McDonalds and discounts on admissions to the zoo, but they also have to endure birthday cards like the one that said, “At your age, it’s important to remember one thing – and if you can remember two things, you’re way ahead of the rest of us.”
How should we view old age?
Cultures like Japan hold elders in high esteem; other societies disregard them as liabilities. However, followers of Jesus take our cues from the Word of God. As a first step in mastering the teaching of Scripture on aging, let’s find out what the Bible says about “elders.”
The Greek word for “elder” in the New Testament is presbuteros, which occurs 66 times. Like most words, this one can be used in more than one way.
- Sometimes it is a matter of age. It simply describes someone who has lived more years than others.
- Luke 15:25 mentions the Prodigal Son’s older brother.
- When Jesus wrote on the ground, the Jewish leaders who had dragged an adulterous woman before Him for judgment slipped away one by one, “beginning with the older ones” (John 8:9).
- At Pentecost, Peter cited the prophecy that “your young men will see visions and your old men will have dreams” (Acts 2:17).
- It can be a matter of antiquity. The elders are ancestors who lived long ago.
- The scribes and Pharisees once hassled Jesus about the way His disciples failed to follow “the tradition of the elders” that required ceremonial hand washing (Matthew 15:2; Mark 7:3, 5).
- More often “elder” is a matter of authority. It describes a person who holds a position of responsibility, based on the idea that leaders should have a deep background of experience and wisdom. Seasoned maturity is an essential for guiding a community.
Even in the classical Greek/Roman world, a presbuteros was the title for the leaders of a city, of a group of priests, or of other important groups. There was no negative connotation to the word; old age was seen as a credential for leadership.
Elders play a major role in the story of Old Testament Israel. Moses met with the elders as he executed God’s program for the Exodus. Elders witnessed miracles and saw the glory of God at Mount Sinai. Elders lightened the load Moses carried, handling the issues that arose among the people (see Exodus 24 and Numbers 11). They were the lay leaders who worked alongside the priesthood in overseeing the affairs of the nation. Even after the Babylonian conquest, elders provided local oversight both in Judea (Ezekiel 8:1) and Babylon (Jeremiah 29:1).
In the New Testament, we find three different kinds of elders mentioned:
- Jewish elders
Elders continued to play an important role in the New Testament period. The Sanhedrin was the council that administered the religious and internal affairs of the Jews under Roman rule, and its membership consisted of priests, scribes and elders. The elders represent the lay, non-priestly leaders of the community (Matthew 16:21; 21:23; 26:47, etc.). Besides these elders who operated in Jerusalem, the local leaders of small-town synagogues were also called elders (Luke 7:3).
- Christian elders
The early church also had elders. When Paul and Barnabas came to Jerusalem to settle a dispute about applying Jewish law to Gentile believers, “they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders” (Acts 15:4). Only a select few were designated as apostles, but other mature believers took the leadership role of elder.
As the Gospel spread, new churches developed under the leadership of elders. When Paul came to Crete, he commissioned his associate Titus to appoint elders in every city where there was a group of believers (Titus 1:5). The apostle gave specific instructions on dealing with elders in passages like I Timothy 5:17-19.
Even the apostles described themselves as “elders.” John introduced himself as “the elder” in 2 John 1 and 3 John 1, and Peter called himself “a fellow elder” in 1 Peter 5:1.
- Heavenly elders
As God pulls back the curtain to allow a glimpse of His heavenly throneroom in the book of Revelation, we find a group of twenty-four elders surrounding the throne, wearing golden crowns (Revelation 4:4). Only the four living creatures are closer to God, and these elders worship the Lord continually (Revelation 4:9-11). I won’t even speculate here about the details of their identity, but it is clear that a group of elders hold the highest imaginable role in God’s eternal kingdom.
How should we think about elders?
Scripture clearly teaches that we should show respect to those who are “up there” in years.
It makes it clear that we should also honor those who serve as leaders in the local church.
And the day will come when we will worship God together with the ultimate council of elders in God’s very throne room!
The New Testament uses at least three different words to describe the leaders of local churches. We should look at all three to get a comprehensive picture:
Presbuteros (“elder”) emphasizes the spiritual maturity required for leadership.
Episkopos (“overseer”) describes the task of a church leader, keeping an eye on the condition of the congregation.
Note: Both terms are used interchangeably in Titus 1:5, 7.
Poimēn (“shepherd”) reminds us that the task of a leader is like that of a shepherd, doing anything need to ensure the safety and nourishment of his flock.
Note: 1 Peter 5:1-4 reminds us that Jesus Christ is the Chief Shepherd over all His people. Human leaders simply care for the people entrusted to them.
Q – I heard a Bible teacher talk about some ancient writings called Targums. What are they and are they important?
A – The Old Testament was originally written in the Hebrew language, but as the Jewish people spread across the ancient Near East, many of them adopted the languages of their new homes. Like immigrants today, each generation had to work harder to maintain fluency in their mother tongue. Even as early as Nehemiah 8:8, those who read the Bible had to provide a translation or explanation to make the meaning clear.
By the time of Christ, most Jews spoke the Aramaic language in daily life. Aramaic is similar to Hebrew, using the same alphabet, but a Hebrew-speaker would stumble over the Aramaic words and grammar. Synagogue leaders would often read a passage in Hebrew, then follow up with a paraphrase in Aramaic. Some of these Aramaic renderings were written down and have been uncovered by archaeologists. These written versions are called Targums. They are loose translations which include a little commentary, not the direct text of the Old Testament, but they can provide fascinating insights into the way that Jewish scholars understood the Word of the Lord.
Theologians often use the term “sanctify” to describe the process by which a person moves away from sinful patterns of thought and behavior, becoming more like God. But that definition doesn’t seem to fit 1 Peter 3:15, which tells us to “sanctify Christ” as Lord in our hearts. What’s going on? Next week we will take a closer look to find an answer for this question.
©Ezra Project 2023