The Hebrew word za·qenʹ and the Greek word pre·sbyʹte·ros, both meaning “older man,” or “elder,” are used not only to refer to persons of advanced age (Ge 18:11; De 28:50; 1Sa 2:22; 1Ti 5:1, 2) or to the older of two persons (Lu 15:25) but also to apply in a special way to those holding a position of authority and responsibility in a community or nation. The latter sense is the predominant one in both the Hebrew and the Christian Greek Scriptures.
The elderly man customarily was held in esteem from ancient times forward, respected for his experience and knowledge and for the wisdom and sound judgment that such may bring. In many nations people submitted themselves to the direction of their older men, either those who were the elder members of family lines or those who were notable for their qualities of knowledge and wisdom. As a result the expression “older man” had a double sense, applying either in a physical sense or as a designation of position or office. The references to the “older men [“dignitaries,” JB] of the land of Egypt” and to “the older men of Moab and the older men of Midian” do not embrace every aged male of those nations but apply to those serving as a council for directing and guiding national affairs; they were the “princes [Heb., sa·rimʹ; “chieftains,” AT]” of those nations.—Ge 50:7; Nu 22:4, 7, 8, 13-15; Ps 105:17, 21, 22.
In the same way the expressions “older men of Israel,” “older men of the assembly,” “older men of my people,” “older men of the land,” are used in this official sense, not applying to every aged man of the nation of Israel. (Nu 16:25; Le 4:15; 1Sa 15:30; 1Ki 20:7, 8) In the relatively few cases where zeqe·nimʹ (older men) appears without some qualifying words, the context must be relied on to determine whether the application is merely to aged males or to those in the official capacity of headmen.
Older Men (Elders) of Israel. Already prior to the Exodus, the Israelites had their “older men,” who presented matters to the people, acted as their spokesmen, and reached decisions. When returning to Egypt, Moses was instructed to present his commission to these older men, and these, or at least the principal ones among them, accompanied him when he went in before Pharaoh.—Ex 3:16, 18.
When Moses, as God’s representative, presented the Law covenant to the nation, it was the official “older men” who represented the people in entering that covenant relationship with Jehovah. (Ex 19:3-8) Some time later, when the Israelites complained about the conditions in the wilderness, Moses, feeling that the administrative burden of the nation was now too great for him, confessed the problem to Jehovah. Then God commanded Moses: “Gather for me seventy men of the older men of Israel, whom you do know that they are older men of the people and officers of theirs, . . . and I shall have to take away some of the spirit that is upon you and place it upon them, and they will have to help you in carrying the load.” (Nu 11:16, 17) These “older men” were appointed theocratically to this service. (Nu 11:24, 25) Jehovah now used them to share the responsibility of leadership and administration with Moses.
In time, the nomadic Israelites conquered the Promised Land and went back to fixed dwellings in towns and cities, as had been their way of life in Egypt. The older men now became responsible for the people on a community level. They acted as a body of overseers for their respective communities, providing judges and officers for the administration of justice and the maintenance of peace, good order, and spiritual health.—De 16:18-20; 25:7-9; Jos 20:4; Ru 4:1-12.
References to “all Israel, its older men and its heads and its judges and its officers” (Jos 23:2; 24:1), “the older men of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the chieftains of the paternal houses” (2Ch 5:2), do not mean that the “heads,” “judges,” “officers,” and “chieftains” were distinct from the “older men” but, rather, indicate that those named in such a specific way held singular offices within the body of older men.—Compare 2Ki 19:2; Mr 15:1.
Those serving as “older men” on a national level are designated by the expressions “older men of Israel” (1Sa 4:3; 8:4), “older men of the land” (1Ki 20:7), “older men of the assembly” (Jg 21:16), or, after the division of the kingdom, “older men of Judah and Jerusalem,” for the southern kingdom.—2Ki 23:1.
Like many of Israel’s kings and priests, the “older men” on the whole proved unfaithful in their responsibility to God and the people. (1Ki 21:8-14; Eze 7:26; 14:1-3) Because of losing God’s support, ‘boys would become their princes,’ and the ‘lightly esteemed one would storm against the one to be honored.’ (Isa 3:1-5) Thus, the Hebrew Scriptures emphasize that age alone is not sufficient, that “gray-headedness is a crown of beauty” only when “found in the way of righteousness.” (Pr 16:31) It is not “those merely abundant in days that prove wise, nor those just old that understand judgment,” but those who, along with their experience, are guided by God’s spirit and who have gained understanding of his Word.—Job 32:8, 9; Ps 119:100; Pr 3:5-7; Ec 4:13.
Direction by the body of “older men” continued throughout the history of the nation, even during the Babylonian exile and after the restoration to Judah. (Jer 29:1; Ezr 6:7; 10:7, 8, 14) When Jesus was on earth, “older men” (Gr., pre·sbyʹte·roi) were active in public affairs, both on a community level (Lu 7:3-5) and on a national level. “The assembly of older men” (Gr., pre·sby·teʹri·on) at Jerusalem constituted a major source of opposition to Jesus and his disciples.—Lu 22:66; Ac 22:5.
Elders in Christian Congregation. Viewed against this background, it is not difficult to understand the references to “older men” (pre·sbyʹte·roi) of the Christian congregation. As in fleshly Israel, so in spiritual Israel, the “older men,” or elders, were those responsible for the direction of the congregation.
On the day of Pentecost, the apostles acted as a body, with Peter serving as spokesman by the operation of God’s outpoured spirit. (Ac 2:14, 37-42) They were clearly “older men” in the spiritual sense by virtue of their early and intimate association with Jesus and their having been personally commissioned by him to teach. (Mt 28:18-20; Eph 4:11, 12; compare Ac 2:42.) The attitude of those becoming believers shows that they acknowledged that the apostles had governing authority in the new nation under Christ (Ac 2:42; 4:32-37; 5:1-11) and had authority to make appointments to service, either directly as a body or through representatives, the apostle Paul being a notable example. (Ac 6:1-6; 14:19-23) When the issue of circumcision came to the fore, “older men” along with the apostles met in assembly to consider the matter. Their decision was made known to congregations in all places and was accepted as authoritative. (Ac 15:1-31; 16:1-5) Thus, even as some “older men” served Israel on a national basis, so it is evident that these “older men” with the apostles formed a governing body for the entire Christian congregation in all lands. At a later date, Paul went to Jerusalem and met with James and “all the older men,” relating to them the results of his work and receiving their counsel on certain matters.—Ac 21:15-26.
In a few cases the term “older men” is used in contrast with younger men or in parallel with older women with no indication of congregational responsibility being involved. In such cases, the term refers simply to men of mature age. (Ac 2:17, 18; 1Ti 5:1, 2) It is also used to refer to “men of old times.” (Heb 11:2) However, in most cases in the Christian Greek Scriptures, the “older men” were those responsible for the direction of the congregation. In a few texts the “older men” are called “overseers” (Gr., e·piʹsko·poi; ‘bishops,’ KJ). Paul used this term in speaking to the “older men” from the one congregation of Ephesus, and he applied it to such ones in his letter to Titus. (Ac 20:17, 28; Tit 1:5, 7) Both terms, therefore, refer to the same position, pre·sbyʹte·ros indicating the mature qualities of the one so appointed, and e·piʹsko·pos the duties inherent with the appointment.
Regarding the Greek word pre·sbyʹte·ros, Manuel Guerra y Gomez noted: “The precise translation of the term [pre·sbyʹte·ros] in almost the majority of the Hellenistic texts, that have survived until now, is that of older man synonym of mature man. Maturity of judgment and guiding criterion is its distinctive note. . . . Whether or not it has a technical sense the term [pre·sbyʹte·ros] both in the Hellenistic and the Israelite worlds designates, not the ailing elderly, but rather the mature man, suitable by his experience and prudence for the ruling of his family or of his people.”—Episcopos y Presbyteros, Burgos, Spain, 1962, pp. 117, 257.
That age, in the physical sense of years lived, was a factor for qualifying to serve as an “older man” in ancient Israel is evident. (1Ki 12:6-13) So, too, the “older men,” or overseers, in the Christian congregation were not young men, as is evidenced by the apostle’s reference to their having wives and children. (Tit 1:5, 6; 1Ti 3:2, 4, 5) Nevertheless, physical age was not the sole or primary factor, as is seen by the other qualifications set forth (1Ti 3:2-7; Tit 1:6-9), nor is any specific age level stipulated. Timothy, who had to do with appointing “older men,” was obviously also recognized as one himself, though relatively young.—1Ti 4:12.
The requirements for the position as an “older man” in the Christian congregation included a high standard of conduct and spirituality. The ability to teach, to exhort, and to reprove played a major part in one’s being accredited as an “older man.” (1Ti 3:2; Tit 1:9) Paul solemnly charged Timothy to “preach the word, be at it urgently in favorable season, in troublesome season, reprove, reprimand, exhort, with all long-suffering and art of teaching.” (2Ti 4:2) As “shepherds,” the “older men” are responsible for the spiritual feeding of the flock, as well as for caring for those spiritually ill and for protecting the flock against wolfish elements. (Ac 20:28-35; Jas 5:14, 15; 1Pe 5:2-4) Additionally, Paul, who had himself been zealous in teaching “publicly and from house to house,” reminded Timothy of his responsibility to “do the work of an evangelizer, fully accomplish your ministry.”—Ac 20:20; 2Ti 4:5.
Each Christian congregation had its body of “older men,” or “overseers,” these regularly being mentioned in the plural, as at Jerusalem (Ac 11:30; 15:4, 6; 21:18), at Ephesus (Ac 20:17, 28), at Philippi (Php 1:1). “The body of older men” (Gr., pre·sby·teʹri·on) is mentioned with regard to the ‘laying of hands’ on Timothy. (1Ti 4:14) “The older men,” as the overseers of the congregation, ‘presided’ over their brothers.—Ro 12:8; 1Th 5:12-15; 1Ti 3:4, 5; 5:17.
Paul and Peter, as “older men” with apostolic authority, at times exercised oversight over other “older men” in certain congregations (compare 1Co 4:18-21; 5:1-5, 9-13; Php 1:1; 2:12; 1Pe 1:1; 5:1-5), as did the apostle John and the disciples James and Jude—all writers of letters to congregations. Paul assigned Timothy and Titus to represent him in certain places. (1Co 4:17; Php 2:19, 20; 1Ti 1:3, 4; 5:1-21; Tit 1:5) In many cases, these men were dealing with newly established congregations of believers; Titus’ commission was to “correct the things that were defective [or wanting, lacking]” in the congregations in Crete.
Paul, Barnabas, Titus, and evidently Timothy are recorded as taking part in appointing persons as “older men” in the congregations. (Ac 14:21-23; 1Ti 5:22; Tit 1:5) There is no record of such appointments by the congregations independently. In relating Paul and Barnabas’ revisiting of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, Acts 14:23 states that “they appointed older men [Gr., khei·ro·to·neʹsan·tes] for them in each congregation” (“in each of these churches they appointed elders,” JB; “they had appointed elders for them in every church,” RS). Regarding the meaning of the Greek verb khei·ro·to·neʹo, the following remark is found in The Acts of the Apostles, by F. F. Bruce (1970, p. 286): “Although the etymological sense of [khei·ro·to·neʹo] is ‘to elect by show of hands’, it came to be used in the sense ‘designate’, ‘appoint’: cf. the same word with prefix [pro, “before”] in x. 41.” Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, after first giving common definitions to khei·ro·to·neʹo, says: “later, generally, appoint, . . . appoint to an office in the Church.” (Revised by H. Jones, Oxford, 1968, p. 1986) Likewise, Parkhurst’s Greek and English Lexicon to the New Testament (London, 1845, p. 673) says: “With an accusative following, to appoint or constitute to an office, though without suffrages or votes.” The office to which these Christian men were appointed was that of “older man,” or elder, without any supporting votes by others stretching forth their hands.
When writing to Timothy, Paul said: “Let the older men who preside in a fine way be reckoned worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard in speaking and teaching.” (1Ti 5:17) In view of the following verse (18) and also the preceding discussion of honoring widows in a material way (vss 3-16), this “double honor” evidently included material aid.
Who are the “twenty-four elders” on heavenly thrones?
In the book of Revelation, the term pre·sbyʹte·roi occurs 12 times and is applied to spirit creatures. Their surroundings, dress, and actions give a clue as to their identity.
The apostle John had a vision of Jehovah’s throne in heaven, surrounded by 24 lesser thrones upon which were seated 24 elders dressed in white outer garments and having golden crowns upon their heads. (Re 4:1-4) As the vision continued, John saw the 24 elders not only repeatedly falling down in worship before Jehovah’s throne but also taking part in the various features of the vision as it progressed. (Re 4:9-11; 5:4-14; 7:9-17; 14:3; 19:4) Especially were they observed joining in the Kingdom proclamation to the effect that Jehovah had taken up his great power and had begun to rule as king.—Re 11:15-18.
In ancient Israel, “older men [elders] of Israel” represented and spoke for the entire nation. (Ex 3:16; 19:7) In the same way “elders” may stand for, or represent, the entire congregation of spiritual Israel. Therefore, the 24 elders seated on thrones about God might well represent the entire body of anointed Christians who, proving faithful till death, receive the promised reward of a heavenly resurrection and thrones near that of Jehovah. (Re 3:21) The number 24 is also significant, for this was the number of the divisions into which King David organized the priests to serve at Jerusalem’s temple. The anointed Christians are to be “a royal priesthood.”—1Pe 2:9; 1Ch 24:1-19; Lu 1:5-23, 57-66; Re 20:6; see OVERSEER.