[Heb., za·qenʹ; Gr., pre·sbyʹte·ros].
These terms are not only used of persons of advanced age (Gen. 18:11; Deut. 28:50; 1 Sam. 2:22; 1 Tim. 5:1, 2), or the older of two persons (Luke 15:25), but also apply in a special way to those holding a position of authority and responsibility in a community or nation. The use of these terms in this latter sense by far predominates in both the Hebrew and the 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. Elihu reflected this respectful attitude in saying to Job’s three companions: “Young I am in days and you men are aged. That is why I drew back and was afraid to declare my knowledge to you men. I said, ‘Days themselves should speak, and a multitude of years are what should make wisdom known.’” (Job 32:6, 7; compare Job 12:12, 20.) In the Law covenant, God gave the command: “Before gray hair you should rise up, and you must show consideration for the person of an old man, and you must be in fear of your God. I am Jehovah.” (Lev. 19:32; compare Proverbs 20:29.) Jehovah God himself is referred to as “the Ancient of Days,” for, though ageless in the sense of being eternal, he has lived longer than any other in the universe.—Dan. 7:9, 13, 22; Ps. 90:2; Hab. 1:12.
Recognizing the advantage of the older man over the younger man, people of many nations submitted themselves to the direction of their older men, either those who were the elder members of family lines or those who were more 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. Thus, the Arabic word sheikh, the Latin senator, and the Anglo-Saxon alderman all basically mean “older man” but were used beyond their ordinary meaning to serve as designations of those who exercised headship among the people. So, too, the context in the Bible indicates that the references to the “older men [“dignitaries,” JB] of the land of Egypt,” “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 [sa·rimʹ; “chieftains,” AT]” of those nations.—Gen. 50:7; Num. 22:4, 7, 8, 13-15; Ps. 105:17, 21, 22; compare Joshua 9:3-6, 11.
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 single aged man of the nation of Israel. (Num. 16:25; Lev. 4:15; 1 Sam. 15:30; 1 Ki. 20:7, 8) In the relatively few cases where zeqe·nimʹ (“older men”) appears without some qualifying words, the context must be relied upon to determine whether the application is merely to aged males or to those in the official capacity of headmen.
OLDER MEN OF ISRAEL
In Egypt, Jacob’s descendants became very numerous, evidently reaching into the millions. (See EXODUS, page 543.) Already prior to the Exodus the people had representative members, their “older men,” who presented matters to them, acted as their spokesmen and reached decisions. Moses was instructed to present his commission to these “older men” when returning to Egypt, and these, or at least the principal ones among them, accompanied him when he went in before Pharaoh. (Ex. 3:16, 18) Obviously this did not include all the elderly Israelite men in a physical sense. (Compare Exodus 12:21; 18:12.) Illustrating the distinction between the physical and the official sense is God’s command to 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,” in order that God might take some of the spirit that was upon Moses and place it upon the seventy. (Num. 11:16, 17, 24, 25) 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) Seventy of such “older men,” along with Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, witnessed a vision of Jehovah’s glory in connection with the inauguration of that covenant.—Ex. 24:1-11; Deut. 5:23.
References to “all Israel, its older men and its heads and its judges and its officers” (Josh. 23:2; 24:1), “the older men of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the chieftains of the paternal houses” (2 Chron. 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 specific way held singular offices within the body of older men.—Compare Exodus 18:24-27; 2 Kings 19:2.
It appears that the scope of authority of the “older men” varied, even as in the wilderness there were “chiefs” of tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands. (Ex. 18:25) Once located in Canaan, bodies of “older men” functioned in each city. (Josh. 20:4; Judg. 8:14, 16) Doubtless, not all of these served as “older men” for the tribes (Deut. 31:28; 1 Sam. 30:26; 2 Sam. 19:11) or for the nation as a whole. Those serving on a national basis may be designated by the expressions “older men of Israel” (1 Sam. 4:3; 8:4), “older men of the land” (1 Ki. 20:7), “older men of the assembly” (Judg. 21:16), or, after the division of the kingdom, “older men of Judah and Jerusalem,” for the southern kingdom. (2 Ki. 23:1) Some of the duties of the “older men” were outlined in the Law covenant; they acted as a body of overseers for their respective communities, providing judges and officers for the administering of justice and the maintenance of peace, good order and spiritual health of the community.—Deut. 16:18-20; 19:12; 21:2-7, 19, 20; 22:15; 25:7-9; 27:1; 31:9; compare Ruth 4:1-11; 1 Samuel 16:4, 5.
Like Israel’s kings and priests, the “older men” on the whole proved unfaithful in their responsibility toward God and the people. (1 Ki. 21:8-14; Isa. 9:15, 16; Ezek. 7:26; 14:1-3) Due to 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.” (Prov. 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; Prov. 3:5-7; Eccl. 4:13.
Continuance of arrangement
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; Ezra 6:7; 10:7, 8, 14) When Jesus was on earth, “older men” (pre·sbyʹte·roi) were active in public affairs, in cities (Luke 7:3-5) and on a national basis. It was the “assembly of older men” (pre·sby·teʹri·on) at Jerusalem that constituted a major source of opposition to the preaching of Jesus and his disciples. (Matt. 16:21; 21:23; Acts 4:5, 8, 23; 22:5; 25:14-16) Again, it is likely that references to “the older men and chief priests and scribes” do not mean that the chief priests and scribes were not themselves counted as “older men,” but, rather, that they are distinguished by their particular office, whereas the others are covered by the general designation of “older men.” At Jerusalem, older men, chief priests and scribes together formed the Sanhedrin or Jewish supreme court that judged Jesus (Mark 15:1; Luke 22:52, 66) and Stephen.—Acts 6:12-15.
“OLDER MEN” OF SPIRITUAL ISRAEL
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” were those responsible for the direction of the congregation. And, as with za·qenʹ in the Hebrew Scriptures, so in the Christian Greek Scriptures the sense of the term pre·sbyʹte·ros (“older man”) depends upon the context. In a few cases the term is used in contrast with younger men or parallel to older women with no indication of congregational government involved; hence it then refers simply to men of mature age. (Acts 2:17, 18; 1 Tim. 5:1, 2) It is also used to refer to “men of old times.” (Heb. 11:2) In the vast majority of cases, however, it is used in a governmental sense, describing the office or position of those directing the congregation.
Thus, in a few texts the “older men” are called e·piʹsko·poi or “overseers” (“bishops,” AV). 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. (Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5, 7) The two terms, therefore, both 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.
Referring to the use of these terms in the early centuries of the Common Era, M’Clintock and Strong’s Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Cyclopaedia (Vol. I, pp. 819, 820) states: “The age which followed that of the apostles witnessed a gradual change in the application of the words, and in the epistles of Ignatius, even in their least interpolated or most mutilated form, the bishop [e·piʹsko·pos] is recognised as distinct from, and superior to, the presbyters [older men] . . . In those of Clement of Rome, however, the two words are still dealt with as interchangeable.”
Qualifications for the position
That age (in the physical sense of years lived) was a factor for qualifying to serve as an “older man” in fleshly Israel is evident. (Compare 1 Kings 12:6-13; Isaiah 3:4, 5.) So, too, the “older men” or “overseers” in spiritual Israel were not mere boys, as evidenced by the apostle’s reference to their having wives and children. (1 Tim. 3:2, 4, 5; Titus 1:5, 6; compare also 1 Peter 5:5.) Nevertheless, physical age was not the sole or primary factor, as seen by the other qualifications set forth (1 Tim. 3:2-7; Titus 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 comparatively young from the point of view of those times.—1 Tim. 4:12.
Thus, spiritual maturity was the initial factor, for only those so qualified could begin to fulfill the pattern set by the “older men” of fleshly Israel in the new spiritual nation. Many in the early Christian congregation were spiritually as “babes in Christ,” not yet “full-grown in powers of understanding.” They might have knowledge of the basic teachings of repentance from dead works, faith toward God, baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection, and everlasting judgment, but they were not yet qualified to serve as teachers of others in the congregation. (1 Cor. 3:1, 2; 14:20; Heb. 5:10-14; 6:1, 2; compare Ephesians 4:11-16.) Over and above one’s having attained spiritual maturity, the ability to teach, to exhort and to reprove clearly played a major part in one’s being accredited as an “older man” in the congregation. (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9) As “shepherds,” the “older men” would be principally responsible for the spiritual feeding of the flock, as well as for caring for those spiritually ill and for protecting the flock against invasion by wolfish elements.—Acts 20:28-35; Jas. 5:14, 15; 1 Pet. 5:2-4.
Governmental structure and authority
Following Jesus’ death the apostles remained at Jerusalem, as possibly did many (if not all) of the seventy disciples selected by Jesus. Doubtless all of them were there at Pentecost when the holy spirit was poured out on about 120 (this number including some women). (Acts 1:1-4, 14, 15; 2:1-4) Already, prior to that event, action had been taken to replace unfaithful Judas so that the number of twelves apostles was restored, the replacement likely coming from among the seventy disciples of Jesus’ selection. (Acts 1:21, 22) Thus, the new nation of spiritual Israel began with some similarity to fleshly Israel and its twelve tribal heads.
On the day of Pentecost the apostles acted as a body, with Peter serving as spokesman by the operation of God’s outpoured spirit. (Acts 2:14, 37-42) They were clearly “older men” in the spiritual sense by virtue of their early and intimate association with Jesus and as ones commissioned to teach. (Matt. 28:18-20; compare Acts 2:42; 5:18-21, 40-42.) The attitude of those becoming believers shows that they acknowledged the apostles as having governing authority in the new nation under Christ (Acts 2:42; 4:32-37; 5:1-11) and as having authority to make appointments to service, either directly as a body or through representatives, the apostle Paul being a notable example. (Acts 6:1-6; 14:19-23) To what extent others shared with the apostles in serving as a governing body of “older men” during this initial period is not known. However, by the time 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. (Acts 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.—Acts 21:15-26.
Paul and Peter, as “older men” with apostolic authority, at times exercised oversight toward other “older men” in certain congregations (compare 1 Corinthians 4:18-21; 5:1-5, 9-13; Philippians 1:1; 2:12; 1 Peter 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. (1 Cor. 4:17; Phil. 2:19, 20; 1 Tim. 1:3, 4; 5:1-21; Titus 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.
Even as each city in Israel had its “older men” who guided and judged, so each city-congregation of spiritual Israel had its body of “older men” or “overseers,” these regularly being mentioned in the plural, as at Jerusalem (Acts 11:30; 15:4, 6; 21:18), at Ephesus (Acts 20:17, 28), at Philippi (Phil. 1:1), and with regard to the ‘laying of hands’ on Timothy. (1 Tim. 4:14) On this point, the earlier-mentioned Cyclopaedia comments: “Some . . . have imagined that the arrangement in the larger cities included several congregations, while, however, each of these had but one elder or bishop; that the principle of congregation polity [governmental form or constitution] thus from the beginning was . . . monarchical. But this view is contradicted by the passages [such as those quoted above], in which the presbyters [“older men”] appear as a college, . . . Whether a full parity reigned among these collegiate presbyters, or whether one, say the eldest, constantly presided over the rest, or whether, finally, one followed another in such presidency as primus inter pares [first among equals] by some certain rotation, cannot be decisively determined by the N.T. The analogy of the Jewish synagogue leads here to no entirely sure result, since it is questionable whether a particular presidency belonged to its eldership as early as the time of Christ.” Reference is then made to Christian writings of the early centuries to confirm this point.—Vol. III, p. 117.
The “older men,” as the overseers of the congregation, ‘presided’ over their brothers. (Rom. 12:8; 1 Thess. 5:12-15; 1 Tim. 3:4, 5; 5:17) Doubtless at each congregational meeting one or more of their number presided so that everything might “take place decently and by arrangement,” with good order. (1 Cor. 14:26-32, 39, 40) Such individual presiding or chairmanship, whether permanent or rotational, may also have been employed in the meetings of the body of overseers of the congregation to assure good order and effectual discussion.
Appointment and tenure of office
Paul, Barnabas, Titus, and evidently Timothy, are recorded as taking part in appointing persons to the position of “older men” in the congregations. (Acts 14:21-23; 1 Tim. 5:22; Titus 1:5) There is no record of such appointments by congregations independently. In relating Paul and Barnabas’ revisiting of Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, Acts 14:21-23 states that “they appointed older men to office [khei·ro·to·neʹsan·tes] for them in the congregation” (“in each of these churches they appointed elders” JB; “they had appointed elders for them in every church,” RS; it may be noted that in this text the original Greek does not include any separate term for “office”). Other translations, such as those by Rotherham and by Young, render khei·ro·to·neʹsan·tes as referring to an ‘appointing by vote.’ The Greek verb khei·ro·to·neʹo (from kheir, “the hand,” and teiʹno “to stretch”) means to ‘elect or appoint by stretching out of the hand,’ and, while the idea of voting may be conveyed, this is not a required or inherent sense of the word. A Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell and Scott (Ninth ed., 1968, p. 1986), after first giving common definitions to khei·ro·to·neʹo, says: “later, generally, appoint, . . . appoint to an office in the Church.” Likewise, A Greek and English Lexicon to the New Testament by John Parkhurst (1845 ed., p. 673) says under definition IV: “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 men.” No other office is indicated. This does not preclude the possibility that, as some special need might exist or arise, appointments could be made to care for specific offices or particular duties. This was true in ancient Israel where certain ones among the “older men” served as “chiefs” or “officers” in varying capacities as the situation might demand.
The idea of the congregation’s voting in the appointment of these “older men,” as referred to in Acts 14:21-23, goes contrary to the grammatical structure of the Greek in the text, which shows that it was Paul and Barnabas, not the assembly or congregation, who appointed by the stretching out of the hands. It may be noted that the Jewish historian (writing in Greek) refers to King Saul as being ordained (khei·ro·to·neʹo) by God (Antiquities of the Jews, Book VI, chap. IV, par. 2; chap. XIII, par. 9), and it is apparent that no voting was called for prior to God’s making such appointment. So, in the Christian congregation this Greek verb was evidently used in referring to appointment of individuals to office by proper authority, without any supporting votes by others stretching forth their hands.—Compare Acts 10:41 where the compound form pro·khei·ro·to·neʹo (to appoint beforehand) is used.
Nothing is said of any term or period being assigned to the holding of the position of “older man.” Since the appointment was an acknowledgment of the person’s spiritual qualifications, it would appear that the “older men” continued to be accredited as such as long as they did not prove unfaithful.
“WORTHY OF DOUBLE HONOR”
Paul wrote Timothy: “Let the older men who preside in a fine way be reckoned worthy of double honor [“double reward,” NW, ftn., 1950 ed.; “double consideration,” JB], especially those who work hard in speaking and teaching.” (1 Tim. 5:17) In view of the following verse (18) and also the preceding discussion of honoring widows through material aid (verses 3-16), this “double honor” evidently included consideration and reward in a material way.
“TWENTY-FOUR OLDER PERSONS”
In the book of Revelation the term pre·sbyʹte·roi is applied (some twelve times) 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 twenty-four lesser thrones upon which were seated twenty-four older persons dressed in white outer garments and having golden crowns upon their heads. (Rev. 4:1-4) As the vision continued, John saw the twenty-four not only repeatedly falling down in worship before Jehovah’s throne, but also observed them taking an active part in the various features of the vision as it progressed. (Rev. 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.—Rev. 11:15-18.
Being a Jew, John was familiar with the fact that “older men of Israel” represented and spoke for the entire nation. (Ex. 3:16, 18; 19:7) In the same way Christian “older men” may stand for or represent the entire congregation of spiritual Israel. According to this rule, the twenty-four older persons 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. (Compare Revelation 3:21.) The number twenty-four is also significant, for this was the number of the divisions into which King David divided the priests to serve at Jerusalem’s temple. The Christian congregation is to be a “royal priesthood.”—1 Chron. 24:1-19; Luke 1:5-23, 57-66; 1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 20:6; see OVERSEER.