(The first six pictures)
Our problem in deciding what deacons are to be doing in the local church results from a paucity of references in the Bible.
We have the account of the seven men chosen by the Jerusalem church to serve groceries to the widows (Acts 6:1-7) and little else.
In the absence of Scriptural instructions on what deacons should do, unwise counselors have stepped into the void and done their dead-level best to make them church managers, business administrators, and preacher bosses. The results have almost always been disastrous.
I suggest that scripture has not been as silent on this subject as we have thought. In fact, throughout the Old Testament we find examples of men–godly, mature, adult men–who have stood by the Lord’s shepherd as his right hand, his strong arm, his defenders, his helpers and his extension.
Think of what follows as photographs of deacons at work among God’s Old Testament people. Think of these as metaphors for what deacons should do today. Think of them as plants set in place by the Holy Spirit for our instruction and edification.
Here then are twelve Old Testament pictures of deacons at work.
1. God’s Old Testament deacons lifted up the arms of His man in the middle of the battle.
Not long after God’s people had walked across the dry bed of the Red Sea, they found themselves in a battle against the Amalekites at Rephidim. Moses stood atop a hill nearby as the commanding general, while Joshua led the forces against the enemy And we read:
So it came about when Moses held his hand up, that Israel prevailed, and when he let his hand down, Amalek prevailed.
But Moses’ hands were heavy. Then they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it; and Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other. Thus his hands were steady until the sun set.
So Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.
Over the years, during the ordination of deacons, this passage has frequently been read by some veteran deacon. Then, he would turn to the incoming candidates and say, “You are to be men of prayer, always upholding your pastors in prayer that the Lord’s blessings might be upon His people and His victory be given them.”
My small grandson walked up to me in the yard where a number of people were milling around. I suspect he was overwhelmed by the crowd. “Hold me, grandpa,” he said. I lifted him up into my arms. A few minutes later, we walked inside the house and I sat down on a chair still holding him in my lap. “Hold me, grandpa,” he insisted. I said, “I am holding you.” “No,” he said. “I mean, uphold me.” I knew what he meant, and thought, “Little boy, when you are grown, you will realize grandpa has upheld you in prayer every day of your life.”
Stay near your shepherd, deacon. Uphold him in your prayers. The outcome of the battle depends on it.
2. God’s Old Testament deacons were lieutenants for God’s man.
In Exodus 18, the father-in-law of Moses, seeing how overwhelmed he was trying to meet all the needs of Israel, advised him to set up layers of counselors to assist him. These were to be the finest and wisest men available. Jethro said, “You shall select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over (the people), as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people….”
The men nearest Moses, his “leaders of thousands,” were his choice servants. His deacons, if you will.
Did you notice the qualifications of these men? They were to be able men, God-fearing men, men who speak and prize truth, men of integrity when it comes to money (a snare that has taken down many a good man).
Let the ablest men in the congregation stand near the pastor, ready to be his counselors as requested, able to give wise guidance to the membership as needed. Let them serve under his direction.
3. God’s Old Testament deacons stood in the Lord’s presence, too.
In Exodus 24, we read: Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself. Yet He did not stretch out His hand against the nobles of the sons of Israel; and they beheld God, and they ate and drank.
These men were given a privilege the rest of the nation was not allowed: to see God in a special way. However, Moses and Joshua would be going further up the mountain (Exodus 24:12ff). (We are aware Scripture says only Moses saw God face-to-face, as one friend to another. Yet, Joshua and the 73 others saw “Something” of God, something life-changing and unforgettable.)
Deacons are men who know God, who worship in His presence, men who are holy. There is still, however, a big difference in them and the man God chooses and sends as the shepherd of Israel. Many problems have occurred when God’s helpers have forgotten that difference. (Check out what happened in Numbers 12 where Moses’ brother and sister forgot, and Numbers 16 where 250 of the ablest men in the nation forgot. The news was not good for any of them.)
As a deacon, you are not a clone, not a nobody, and not like anyone else. You have a personal relationship with the living God through Jesus Christ. But you are always to serve under the leadership of God’s man.
4. God’s Old Testament deacons did the most unpleasant chores for His man, their shepherd.
As Moses and Joshua descended from Sinai after an absence of six weeks, they discovered the Israeli population debauching themselves, worshiping a golden calf, and violating everything God stood for. The details are not given, but clearly it was X-rated behavior.
An incensed Moses called out, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me!”
One group, the sons of Levi, walked out of the crowd to him.
And Moses said to them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Every man of you put his sword upon his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill….'” (Exodus 32:26-27). The Levites were agents of God’s judgement that day.
I am most definitely not suggesting God will ask deacons to kill anyone. However, they may be asked to go into the membership and do unpleasant tasks for the Lord’s sake, in obedience to Him, under the leadership of the minister. At various times, I have known deacons to visit in the homes of members in order to rebuke trouble-makers, stop gossips, head off heresies, and put down divisions within the congregation.
It is for good reason that deacons are required to be able men without glaring sin problems of their own, otherwise they will never have the courage or the moral authority to confront and deal with sources of trouble.
If a pastor has strong, faithful men of the Lord whom he can call on for this most unpleasant of all tasks, he is blessed indeed and the church is the stronger for it.
Since diakonos literally means “through the dust,” it is no stretch to see that deacons may sometimes be asked to do the “dirty work” in the church, the unpleasant chores no one else wants to touch.
(I am keenly aware that using these Levites as role models–as they waded into the camp and hacked their neighbors to death–is risky, and some readers will not be able to get past the image. You have our permission to ignore this and hasten on to point 5. Meanwhile, we give thanks that not one word of the New Testament calls for behavior of this sort! We are to be Christlike.)
5. God’s Old Testament deacons stood in readiness for whatever odd tasks needed to be done.
An unusual drama which played out on the Day of Atonement was the taking of two goats as sin offerings, but in unusual ways (Leviticus 16:8). The priests pronounced the sins of Israel upon both goats, and sacrificed one on the altar to the Lord. The other one, a scapegoat it was called, had the sins of the people placed on its head, so to speak, and then it was taken deep into the wilderness and released.
Notice how it reads: Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgressions; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. (Lev. 16:21)
A man who stands in readiness.
There is no more apt description of a deacon than that. He stands near God’s man, ready to serve in whatever way he’s needed.
At a concert in a major arena, you will notice a group of people running around taking care of behind-the-scene details. These are not the performers, their names appear nowhere on the program, and they do not command high prices for their services. The back of their shirts reads: “Event staff.”
Those are like deacons. They work in the background to enhance the ministries of people God calls to teach, preach, sing, counsel, etc. As with the arena concert, without this support team, the event would be a miserable failure. When the support staff serves well, few people notice them, but the evening is a great success in every way.
Former NFL great and contemporary evangelist Bill Glass says when he began playing football as a youngster, his father advised him, “Keep your helmet on.” He explained, “In the middle of the game when things get tough, the coach looks around for someone to send in. If you are paying attention to what’s happening and you have your helmet on–if you are ready–he will call on you.”
Keep your helmet on, deacon. Be ready.
6. God’s Old Testament deacons were burden-bearers.
Moses was tired and weary. The fickleness of the people was weighing heavily upon him and he was ready to throw in the towel. He prayed, “Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, would you please kill me?” (Really. That’s what he prayed. Numbers 11:15).
But God knows His man. He knew Moses was fatigued and needed helpers. The Lord therefore said to Moses, ‘Gather for me seventy men from the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and their officers and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. Then I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit who is upon you, and will put Him upon them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you shall not bear it all alone. (Numbers 11:16-17)
These hand-selected elders shall bear the burden of the people with you.
That’s what deacons do. Thank God for deacons.
Note they did not do Moses’ work for him. They did not tell him how to do his work. They faced the congregation and, working under the direction of God’s chosen shepherd, took over some of the burdens of leadership. No specifics are given as to what these men did, although we can see by the context the “burdens” Moses dealt with on a daily basis was the constant griping and complaining of the people.
I like to think these elders, these hand-chosen servants, went into the tents of the families and dealt with the murmuring which was undermining God’s leaders, poisoning the atmosphere, weakening the faith of everyone, and insulting God.
In the racially tense days of the late 1960’s, I was serving a church in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, an area noted for racial injustice and tension. On one occasion, as several of our men and I drove home from the state penitentiary where we had been ministering, I told them of the trouble a few members were causing me because of the racial stand I was taking. From the back seat, one of the men–I still recall exactly who it was, over 40 years later–said, “Preacher, I want you to know that we are behind you all the way.”
I said, “I appreciate that, my brother. But, I don’t want you behind me; I want you up on the front line with me.” (I suspect that was an attempt to be clever, a particular failing of mine. However, I’m glad to report these men were indeed faithful and stood by their pastor.)
The unity of the Lord’s church is a huge matter to Him. Ephesians chapter 4 goes into detail on the subject of unity. Deacons can do more than almost any group in the church toward achieving and conserving unity by dealing with disunity and complaining when it arises.
Once again we need to point out: not just anyone can be such a servant of the Lord’s people. It takes choice disciples whose lives are exemplary and who have the courage to walk into the lion’s den on the Lord’s business.