Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Semi-Random Musings (14)

Numbers 4 states repeatedly that only men from the tribe of Levi between the ages of thirty and fifty were to be engaged in the service of the tabernacle. Upon reaching fifty, they were to “withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more.”

On this basis I have heard it suggested that local church elders should be careful not to stay in the saddle too long, and that age fifty is a logical time to pass the torch to the next generation. Presumably then, these men — still fifteen years too young to collect a government pension — should make their way back to the pews to spend their next thirty or forty years grinding their teeth at the spectacle of younger men making all the mistakes they have learned to avoid. Or else start spending all their winters in Florida.

This cannot be quite right. It isn’t.

A couple of reasons:
  1. One of the listed qualifications of local church elders is having “faithful children” who are not open to the charge of debauchery [asōtia] or insubordination [anypotaktos]. I have never known a Christian man about whom this could honestly be said much before the age of forty. You can only pretend a thirty-year-old is eligible for church oversight by redefining Greek words.*
  2. The Levite analogy really doesn’t fit. Though some of our Bibles refer to this “withdrawing” as the equivalent of retirement, the Law plainly says the Levites aged fifty and older were to “minister to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard, but they shall do no service.” At age fifty these men still had a job, and as it turns out, their new role corresponds far better to the actual biblical responsibilities of a local church elder than does the role of a younger Levite.
In other words, Levites older than fifty were no longer to be found assembling and disassembling the tabernacle, carrying sacred objects around on poles, cleaning firepans, forks and shovels, collecting bases, pegs and cords, and so on — acts of service that (not incidentally) correspond rather well to the New Testament work of a church deacon. Their new job was that of a sentry. They were to keep watch, which is exactly how Paul described the role of an elder, also known as an overseer.

Biblical elders are older men. Not ancient, not decrepit, not out-of-touch, but definitely a tad more venerable than is currently in vogue. Young seminarians are not great at keeping watch, trust me. They are too busy trying to raise families, shake hands and prepare next week’s three sermons. They rarely see the bad stuff coming. Some of them actually welcome it.

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The kind of questions you ask tell us a great deal about who you are. For example, Jesus didn’t do “gotcha” questions.

A search of this comprehensive list of questions asked by the Lord throughout the four gospels turns up only a single instance in which the Lord required his adversaries to choose between two pre-selected options. He was not interested in embarrassing or discrediting those with whom he engaged. Rather, his questions were designed to provoke serious reflection, humility, appreciation, obedience, repentance, and a bunch of other good things.

On the other hand, almost everything out of the mouths of the Pharisees and Jewish religious authorities was an attempt to trap the Lord Jesus. Their questions were uniformly disingenuous (“In the resurrection, whose wife shall she be?”), weaselly (“And who is my neighbor?”) and polemical (“Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”), not to mention occasionally stupid (“Are we blind also?”). Above all, they loved “gotcha” questions, such as “Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?” and “Why did then Moses command to give a writing of divorcement?”

This second list provides an entertaining and intriguing summary of the various questions asked the Lord Jesus by his fans, disciples and detractors. Some of these inquiries will undoubtedly resurface at the Great White Throne, much to the chagrin of those who asked them.

* Strong’s renders the word asōtia as “incorrigible”, “dissolute” and “profligate”. It defines anypotaktos as the quality of being impossible to subject to external control. Paul uses the latter word to describe the Jewish legalists in the early church. These are not qualities anyone could reasonably ascribe to small children, but to mid- to late teens at the earliest. I have met primary school children who are a handful. I have yet to meet one who is sensual, drunken, lawless, debauched or given to attending orgies.

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