Who were the elders mentioned in Acts 12, 15, and 21? These elders had a very unique function in the church. This article looks at the relation of these elders and the apostles, and these elders and the normal elders that were appointed in each church.

Source: Ambten in de Apostolische Kerk (Kok Kampen). 11 pages. Translated by Wim Kanis.

The Elders in Jerusalem in the Book of Acts

1. The Elders and “The Seven”🔗

Reading in the book of Acts, we several times meet elders in Jerusalem. The first time is when the Christians send support from the Gentiles in Antioch for the brothers who are in Judea. They send the proceeds of their collection “to the elders” (Acts 11:30). Since Barnabas and Saul, who are transporting these gifts, are going to Jerusalem “to complete their service (or ‘mission’)” (Acts 12:25), we will find such elders in this city as well. In Jerusalem they may apparently qualify in some way for the address as “the brothers (and sisters) who dwell in Judea”.

The second time we encounter the elders, it is plain and obvious that they are to be found in Jerusalem. Antioch then again sends Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem “to the apostles and elders” to deal with the dispute that has arisen concerning the circumcision of Christians from the Gentiles. The apostles and elders met about it, arrived at a decision, and recorded it in a letter to the people who had raised the question in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23). Their decisions are later cited as “the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4). Not only do these elders live in Jerusalem, but they also appear to be on the same level with the apostles in this matter. In this they are distinguished from the congregation in Jerusalem (Acts. 15:4: “the church and the apostles and the elders” (Acts 15:22): “the apostles and the elders decided together with the whole church”).

The third time we meet these elders is in Acts 21:18. Paul returns to Jerusalem after the third missionary journey, where the brothers give him a warm welcome. The account then continues with the words, “And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.” Paul tells them what God has done among the Gentiles through his ministry, and the elders glorify God for it. After this, however, they advise Paul to bear the cost of a Nazirite sacrifice for the sake of the believing Jews. At the end of this advice they recall again what they had communicated earlier about the circumcision of Christians from the Gentiles (Acts 21:25). These are the same elders as in Acts 15. We now find them clearly linked to the person of James, so that it can be assumed that James also spoke on behalf of the elders in Acts 15. First, the apostle Peter is speaking (Acts 15:7-11) and then James (Acts 15:13-21), so that the apostles and the elders must be represented in these two persons.

The presence of these elders in Jerusalem consciously or unconsciously influences the image the interpreter forms about the office of the “seven men” chosen in Acts 6. They are not called “elders”. They are also clearly distinguished from them (Acts 21:8; 17). Unintentionally their office is then somewhat pushed aside by these elders. If we see in them a kind of elder of the church to Jerusalem, the “seven” from Acts 6 must automatically move to the position of deacons. In some commentaries the idea is sometimes put forward that the elders are nothing more than the Hebrew counterparts of the Hellenistic “seven”. The names for their functions then differ only because they give leadership to different groups or sub-churches, respectively the Hebrews and the Hellenists. In the discussion of Acts 6:1-7, however, it became clear that “the seven” could not possibly be seen as leaders of a portion of the Jerusalem church. They were servants to the whole community. But what kind of service is left for them if not only in Acts 6:3-4 they have to leave a part of the work in the church to the apostles (i.e., “the prayer and the ministry of the word”), but also in the rest of Acts they are to keep a part free for the elders. What part remains for “the seven”, and what part for the elders?

2. Apostles and Elders🔗

When — because of the importance of these questions — we now take a closer look at the elders in Jerusalem, some remarkable aspects stand out.

First, the election of these elders is not mentioned anywhere in Acts. While Luke may not be exhaustive, he does always indicate the pivotal elements in his account. As such we find the replenishment of the twelfth apostle after Judas’ betrayal in Acts 1. The new ministry of “the seven” is mentioned in Acts 6. The first designation of elders in missionary congregations does not simply get passed by quietly (Acts 14:23). But the elders in Jerusalem emerge from who knows where. Were they ever elected? If so, when? Was this before the appointment of “the seven” from Acts 6 or later? And by whom and to what were they appointed?

Secondly, it is striking that they come into the picture so late: not until Acts 11. When in chapters 2-9 Luke described the history of the church in Jerusalem, there would have been sufficient occasion to briefly mention the elders. Were they as yet not present? Or does the nature of their position imply that they did not play a meaningful role in the account of chapters 2-9?

In the third place it is striking that the elders, appearing at such a late stage, suddenly have a disproportionate amount of influence. Their authority appears to be on a par with that of the apostles! They are so distinct from the congregation that we can hardly imagine them functioning as “representatives” of that church or as “chosen people from within it”. As colleagues of the apostles they appear to have authority over all the churches, even as far as Cilicia. That distinguishes them very clearly from the elders who are always appointed in specific places on the mission field and who also receive their responsibility for that one place only (“in every church” — Acts 14:23); the elders of the church [at Ephesus]” — Acts 20:17, 28-36).

Fourth, it is noteworthy that the elders have a special connection with James. He is one of the brothers of the Lord Jesus (Matt. 13:55 and Mark 6:3 mention him as the first of Jesus’ brothers so he may have been the oldest).

In his Gospel, Luke always mentions James and John together (6:14; 8:51; 9:28, 54). Since the first time when mentioning these two names he had informed them that they were sons of Zebedee (Luke 5:10), he can suffice later on with the single name “James” next to the single name “John”. In Acts 1:13 the same applies. Whenever another James is mentioned in the list of apostles, he is given a distinctive designation (“James, the son of Alphaeus” — Luke 6:15). James, the son of Zebedee, was killed by Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:2). He is then distinctively referred to as “the brother of John” to avoid confusion with James the son of Alphaeus (Acts 1:13). So when the same chapter speaks of “James and the brothers” (Acts 12:17), it is no longer possible to think of the son of Zebedee who was put to death. Theoretically, one could think of the other James, the son of Alphaeus, but Luke never refers to this James without any further qualification. A different James was not mentioned in Luke or Acts until now. We must assume therefore that it was clear to Theophilus which James would be meant here. This is only clear if the Christians in Theophilus’ time were generally acquainted with a certain James in Jerusalem. In Acts 15:13 and 21:18 the same James appears, now closely associated with the elders. When we read Galatians 1:19, “James the brother of the Lord” appears to be in Jerusalem and he also appears to be a person who was not unknown to the readers in Galatia. The same James must also be meant in the sequel (Gal. 2:9) when it says that James, Cephas, and John, “who seemed to be pillars,” extended the brotherly hand to Paul and Barnabas. James, Jesus’ brother, was apparently a respected and well-known person to all Christians. Therefore in writing his book of Acts Luke may assume that Theophilus will also know which James is meant in Acts 12:17f. Earlier in Acts Luke already noted the presence of Jesus’ brothers in the earliest church: “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:14).

When we consider the four points mentioned above it is understandable that there is often a hesitation to consider the elders in Jerusalem as leaders of the local church (at Jerusalem), parallel to similar elders in the newly instituted churches on the mission field.

3. James and the Elders🔗

In his booklet “Jakobus en de oudsten (James and the Elders)’’ Dr. H. Mulder has made an attempt to give the elders their proper place based on their relationship with James. He regards them as a council of advisors, established by James, who assisted him in his efforts to ensure that law-abiding Christians would retain a place within Judaism.

Mulder takes his starting point in the fact that Luke apparently cannot ignore James’ presence in Jerusalem, but on the other hand he gives little attention to it. Parallel to this, is the way in which the elders is discussed. Mulder then designs the following, highly hypothetical, situation: After the expulsion of the Hellenistic Christians from Jerusalem, the Hebrew element rapidly increased there. James then recognized it as his task to remove any Jewish distrust of the Christians. He organized a law-abiding Jewish Christianity and chose — as Jesus had done — a group of helpers. These are the elders. In doing this he also followed the example of his ancestors, David and his successors: they too deliberated with the elders of Israel. James, as a descendant of David, being a Christian, now becomes the representative of the called people of Abraham. While John the Baptist combined the priesthood and Jesus being a Nazarene, with James we find the Nazarene associated with an expectation of kingship. James therefore, gave his own interpretation to the decree of the apostles: the Christians from the Gentiles, who only keep the “easy commandments” are the second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. James assumed the supremacy of the Jewish people, sanctified in Jesus the Messiah, and expected a speedy restoration of David’s reign on earth when Jesus returned. However, “James’ illusions disappeared as did the walls of Jerusalem under the violence of the battering rams of Titus and Hadrian.” There was therefore, no room in Luke’s book for the ideals James advocated. He and the elders are mentioned, but only in passing!

If the scenario that Mulder constructs were correct, it would be expected that Luke would not have mentioned James in passing, but in an antithetical sense. However, there is no evidence of any such antithesis. Paul would certainly not have been seeking to help out the elders and James in Acts 21 if their request had been in the service of an ideal that was entirely at odds with the gospel he preached. Galatians 2 also shows that James’ assent was an important point for Paul. And why would the Christians from the Gentiles at Antioch in Acts 15 deliberately turn to “the elders” for advice, if these elders were organized precisely as an institution whose purpose it was to preserve the Jewish element in the Christian church? It also became clear to us in our discussion of Acts 6 that there were no doctrinal differences between the Hellenists and the Hebrews in the earliest church.

In characterizing the way Mulder fills in the pattern of James and the elders with hypotheses as incorrect and contrary to the historical facts known to us, we do not deny however, that this pattern needs its own interpretation. We can agree with Mulder that the connection and position of James and the elders must have been exceptional.

4. The Elders Among the Believers🔗

Many rightly point to the fact that Luke does not mention the election of the elders in Jerusalem. However, it seems wrong for us to suspect that he more or less glosses over this election on account of the fact that he actually did not know what to do with these elders. After all, Luke could have remained silent about them without causing any difficulty. He is silent about other things which must have had their place in the period he describes, such as the collection for Jerusalem by the churches in Macedonia and Achaia, the rise of opposition and heresy in the churches the apostles founded, the work of Titus, etc. If Luke had not mentioned the elders in Jerusalem at all, we would not have noticed anything of them in the accounts of Acts 11, 15 and 21. However, the fact that Luke does mention them has to imply that he must not have noted any difficulties concerning these persons. It was not inevitable for Luke to make mention of these elders. This also means, now that he does mention them with honour more than once, that the failure to note their election must be due to some other reason. While Luke accurately mentions the election of the apostle in Judas’ place, the appointment of “the seven” and the appointment of elders in the missionary congregations, he manages to say nothing about an election of the elders who nevertheless, stand out in the central church of the apostles and “the seven” in Jerusalem. It is plausible therefore, that these elders were never elected or appointed. They are there without question, just as the apostles (with the exception of Matthias) are there without question in Acts. This would mean that the elders in Jerusalem were a group that was already in existence before Pentecost!

Another fact points in this same direction. We should then pay attention to when these elders appear on the scene. This is not in Luke’s account of the formation of the large congregation in Jerusalem after Pentecost and the significance of that congregation for the spread of the gospel in and beyond Palestine. Acts 2-11 shows us the advance of the gospel. There we encounter the preaching apostles and later on also the evangelists. Starting from Jerusalem we get to the Gentiles in Caesarea and Antioch. There is then apparently no need to mention the elders. However, they come into view repeatedly in the next stage. Then Jerusalem is no longer the centre for the spread of the gospel. That role is taken over by the church at Antioch. This does not mean that Jerusalem is forgotten. It remains the base from which one departed. It is where it all began. That is where one finds the earliest leads. Jerusalem now becomes the place that one remembers with reverence and gratitude (see Rom. 15:26-27). And this explains how the elders now comer into the picture: every time when one returns from elsewhere to the base. In Acts 11 we read how the church at Antioch deliberately sent support to Jerusalem, because in this way they wish to express unity with the “mother church”. In Acts 15 an authoritative ruling is needed. In Acts 21 Paul returns to the home church of the gospel preaching. And it is in those situations that we encounter the elders. Not because they were not there before, or were somehow elected in the interim, but because they are only now coming into their own and deserve to be mentioned. Apparently they are not the out-going preachers, but rather the people who have experienced everything from the beginning and can thus speak with authority. This authority must have something to do with a presence before Pentecost.

The remarkable fact that the elders, like the apostles, are always somewhat distinguished from the congregation in Jerusalem also points in this direction. They are also not referred to as “elders of the congregation” anywhere in Acts. This is in contrast to the elders in Ephesus (Acts 20:17: “the elders of the church”). When it comes to the elected elders of the church in Jerusalem, it is strange that they are never referred to as such and are, on the contrary, somewhat separate from the congregation. This is understandable, however, if they belonged together with the apostles to the period before the church in Jerusalem was built up from the day of Pentecost and before it obtained its own leaders of the community in Acts 6 (“the seven”). The term ekklesia (church) is not used in the book of Acts until after Pentecost (Acts 5:11; 8:1, 3; 9:31 et al.). The believers who were already united before Pentecost and persevered in prayer are called “apostles” (Acts 1:2, 14) and “brothers” (“disciples”, KJV; Acts 1:15): a group of about one hundred and twenty persons.

Now it is remarkable that James, around whom the elders are apparently grouped, belonged to the circle of believers before Pentecost. We read that with the apostles were also gathered “the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:14). Immediately afterwards, in Acts 1:15, we hear about the approximately one hundred and twenty persons who were with them in Jerusalem as believers. The separate mention of the women, Mary and the brothers of Jesus, in the preceding verse, distinguishes them somewhat from that larger group. James was among these brothers. Right away he is very close to the apostles. And he is not alone; there is quite a number of other believers present. It is obvious then to connect the later position of James with his place in Acts 1. But this means it is also obvious to look for the elders connected with him first of all in this same period. They may well represent the ones who were present from the first hour, the earliest generation, and the front rank.

The term presbyteroi does not oblige us to think of elected leaders or elders. If we confine ourselves to Luke’s use of this word in Acts, we see the following meanings: “elderly people” (as opposed to “young people”: Acts 2:17); “prominent persons” (the elders in the Sanhedrin: Acts 4:5, 8, 23; 6:12; 23:14; 24:1; 25:15); “appointed leaders” (Acts 14:23; 20:17). In the latter verses (see 20:28) the element of appointment can be inferred from the context. In the texts about the elders of the Sanhedrin this element plays no role. Now, when we pay attention to the elders in Jerusalem, they occur in a connection (“the apostles and the elders”) that is more parallel to the connection “rulers and elders” (“chief priests and elders”; “the elders and the scribes”) than to the texts in which the elder and the congregation are closely linked together. Just as the elders in the Sanhedrin had their own claim to this title, so the elders in Jerusalem apparently have their own and natural right to their special place. It is possible to think in Acts of the parallel situation at the entry into the promised land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. In the Greek translation of Joshua 24:31 and Judges 2:7 we find the men who had experienced the situation before the entry also called presbyteroi. Together with Joshua they are the men who “knew all the deeds the LORD had done for Israel”. They therefore had their own authority. During their lives the people served the LORD, but after their death they went astray. Then a generation arises that does not know the LORD or the work he had done for Israel (Jdg. 2:10). The situation in Acts is comparable to this: there is a group of people, the apostles foremost, who themselves have experienced that the Son of God lived, worked and taught on earth. It was an even greater work than the LORD did than before and during the entry. Having seen this great work for themselves gives the apostles a right to testify. But it also gives others, like James, their own place in the New Testament church. In that place, in addition to the apostles, are all the elders who are not elected overseers, but who, because of their history, have their own right to speak in the church. Especially as men of the second hour, when the young Christian churches from the Gentiles look back to Jerusalem, their voices reinforce the word of the apostles!

The foregoing is supported by what we read in Acts 1:21-22. Peter addresses the assembly of about one hundred and twenty disciples and declares that one man should be appointed apostle from among those who “accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day that he was taken up from us”. Two people are then put forward, but this does not mean that there were only two individuals who met this condition. In that case Peter could have presented these two persons for election without question. However, he assumes a larger number of people from which one must now be chosen as a witness to the resurrection. This confirms the idea of the presence of a group of former disciples of Jesus from the period of his activity on earth. When one person from that group becomes an apostle, the other members of that group do not lose their significance. They retain that as candidate-apostles from Acts 1 when they later act as “elders” alongside the apostles. Their ability to bear witness to what has happened since John the Baptist gives them the right, later in Acts, to test the developments on the mission field against the intentions of the Master.

It could be objected that the readers of the book of Acts would no longer have understood all this, because the word presbyteros would soon get an exclusively technical connotation as meaning an elected elder. However, the reverse is true. While in later times we may have become somewhat insensitive to the possibility that there was a different kind of elder present in Jerusalem than in the missionary churches, that sensitivity is still fully present in the period following the conclusion of Acts. In the earliest Christian parlance, the term presbyteros is not yet exclusively a technical term for a local leader. Bornkamm, in his contribution on the term presbyteros in the Theologisches Worterbuch zum Neuen Testament, has accurately described how varied the meanings of the word still are among people like Papias, Irenaeus, Clemens Alexandrinus, and Origenes. However, there is not only an open meaning of the word, but we can even observe that at the beginning of the second century the word presbyteros could be used for exactly such people as we find in Acts 1: the eye-and-ear witnesses of the resurrection. Papias (early second century) tells how he and others, in their search for authentic and reliable tradition, always asked about the message of those who had followed the Lord himself on earth. He was looking for the words of the presbyteroi: “what did Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John, Matthew, or any other of the disciples of the Lord say, and what do Aristion and the presbyteros John say?” (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. III 39.3-4). Names of apostles and other names are mentioned interchangeably. They are grouped together under the term presbyteroi and this term here specifically designates the disciples who followed Jesus even before Easter. One finds here with Papias a use of words that is fully in keeping with the use of presbyteros for the earliest disciples in Jerusalem and with their functioning in Acts: the elders are the source of information for those who came later.

5. The Elders In the Epistles🔗

Is there any indication outside of the book of Acts for the presence of elders in Jerusalem? When we read Galatians 1:18-19, we find Paul’s visit to Jerusalem in order to speak to Cephas. During the fifteen days that he stays there he does not see anyone else of the apostles, except James, the brother of the Lord. The mention of James here is somewhat strange. Is he an apostle? Precisely by the addition “the brother of the Lord” this is denied. Yet he is mentioned in the same breath as these apostles. That is not surprising when he belonged to the elders who, precisely when it comes to providing information (Gal. 1:18: historèsai Kèphan), are in fact equal to them and act together with them. Similarly, in Galatians 2:9 we even find him mentioned first (James and Cephas and John) when an official approval is pronounced on Paul’s preaching among the Gentiles. These three are considered “pillars” in the church. However, they are not alone in Jerusalem. Paul presented his gospel there separately to those who were held in esteem (Gal. 2:2). These are not only the apostles: soon James, the brother of the Lord, will also come forward. The “influential ones” in Jerusalem will have to be the apostles and elders, who here, as in Acts 15, have an authoritative and evaluative function. It is therefore not correct to think of a kind of knee-jerk reaction by Paul in Galatians 2 to a local church in Jerusalem. He seeks the consent of those who have heard Jesus on earth and ascertains that there is agreement between “Jesus and Paul”. In doing so, the theologian Paul is not ashamed to acknowledge the authority of the simple people whom Jesus Christ made into disciples of the first hour, without regard to person and thus into people who carried weight in these matters (Gal. 2:6).

The letter of James — for various reasons not to be elaborated upon here — should be dated to the period before the first mission to the Gentiles. That is the time period described in Acts 2-9. After the death of Stephen the church in Jerusalem has been scattered throughout Palestine. In this situation, she receives a letter from James. This could be the apostle, the son of Zebedee. According to tradition, however, it is James, the brother of Jesus, or in any case, a man of the first hour and a letter from the earliest period. In James 5:14 the author mentions the “elders of the church”. In case someone was sick people should call them, so that they would pray as well as anoint the sick person with oil in the name of the Lord. One has often wondered what these words might mean in connection with the office of the elders. In Paul’s letters we find nothing that points in this direction in the description of the tasks of elders. However, one has to take into account that the presbyteroi in James 5:14 are to be identified with the elders in Jerusalem because of the dating and location of the letter. The church in which they are functioning is the congregation of Jerusalem, scattered throughout Palestine. Until now it is the only church: the church in those days. While Luke writes in a later situation and has to distinguish the elders in Jerusalem from the later elders in the mission churches, this problem does not yet exist for James. Thus, he can use the connection “the elders of the church”, which Luke later avoids when elected elders and leaders have now also come about in other congregations. In James 5:14 the phrase “elders of the church” says no more than that there are elders in the church and that they belong to that church and bear significance for that church. The element of “election by the congregation or from within the congregation” does not need to be present and neither can it be present given the historical situation of the letter. When the writer (James) can be identified with the brother of Jesus, we find James and the circle of elders around him in this letter. If the apostle James would be the author, then he is referring to the elders in the congregation in general. Their activity (praying and anointing with oil in the name of the Lord) can now also be better explained. It represents the power and authority granted by the Lord to the apostles and others who were involved in spreading the gospel throughout the world. We read in Luke 10:8-9 that the seventy disciples sent out were allowed to heal the sick in cities where they were received. When the twelve were sent out, it was already clear that this healing was accompanied by the use of ointment oil (Mark 6:13). That this was not a temporary or incidental power to heal, limited to the mission during Jesus’ stay, is clear from Mark 16:17-20. There we read the promise that signs (also of healing) would accompany those who came to faith. The disciples who came to faith, and those who were brought to faith by their word, would find themselves surrounded by a large number of accompanying signs that the Lord had them perform. Since this promise was given to the eleven and to those who were with them, one may also look for its realization primarily through the hands of the elders, Jesus’ own disciples, the witnesses of his life, death and resurrection. Through their hands, Jesus himself is shown to continue to be active as before. This particular confirmation was what the early church needed when the gospel went out throughout Israel and into the whole world (see also chapter I par. 5.3). By these signs the faith of the first church in Judea was also sustained during its scattering by the persecution after Stephen’s death. Apparently the elders were not only allowed to help the churches in the world with a word of authority (Acts 15), but they were also allowed to encourage the church in Palestine with acts of restoration. Thus that church grew in number through the encouragement and comfort of the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:31). We can also find a practical application of the command in James 5:14 in Acts 9:36-43. When Tabitha dies, the Christians in Lydda call for an elder of the congregation. In this case it is an elder who is also an apostle: Peter. The fact that this is an apostle does not alter the fact that we find here a Christian community that at that time did not resign itself to the death of a sister in the church, but turned to a follower of Jesus from the time before Easter. The practice of James 5:14 changed later not because the elders could no longer do what they could before, but because the elders in the missionary churches did not receive the same promises and capabilities as the earliest disciples with their unique place in the early church.

Because the place of Jerusalem hardly plays a role in the historical sense in the rest of the New Testament writings, it is not surprising that we notice little else of the elders in Jerusalem. However, we can also think of them when we read 2 and 3 John. Both letters were written by “the elder/the presbyter”. In 1 John 1:1-4 the same writer puts great emphasis on the fact that he and others were ear-and-eye witnesses to Jesus’ presence and work on earth. The letters give no reason to regard the writer as an elder of a local church. Also, the definite article in his self-designation (the presbyter) does not suggest any presbyter from a ruling body. The readers know who the author is. They know him. He now presents himself with the term “presbyteros” as one of those who belong to the earliest age. This gives him the right to speak. If the author is the apostle John, he also belongs as an apostle to the (wider) circle of elders and that is precisely the way he wants to introduce himself; more extensively in the first letter, more concisely in the two others.

Even though the term presbyteroi is not used in 1 Corinthians 15, we do find a special group designated there, which because of the given description can easily be identical with “the elders in Jerusalem”. The apostle mentions a number of people and groups to whom the Saviour showed himself alive after his resurrection. He then mentions James (15:7), who was apparently sufficiently known to the church at Corinth as an authoritative brother of the Lord. In 1 Corinthians 9:5 the “brothers of the Lord” are mentioned as a known group alongside the “apostles”. They were able to take along a sister as their wife (see footnote in the ESV) on their travels. The way Paul alludes in passing to this married state of the other apostles and the brothers of Jesus presupposes familiarity with those groups in Corinth. It should not be surprising then that James can be mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15 without any further designation. However, if they knew of James, then the Corinthians must also have known more about the elders in Jerusalem. Are these the same elders as identified in 1 Corinthians 15:6? We read there about an appearance of Christ to “more than 500 brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive though some have fallen asleep”. This mention betrays the existence of a separate group that was aware of its own identity after Easter. They are the brothers, who are not apostles and who are not among the brothers of Jesus, yet like them they came to faith even before Pentecost and they too are witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. This is a group that has no successors. Over time it will die out — but only after it has served its own function, even up to Corinth. If this group coincides with the group that is elsewhere called “the elders” we know that there were initially more than 500 of them. This number is in the order of magnitude that we found in Acts 1, where 120 people were gathered in Jerusalem around Peter. The 500 came predominantly from Galilee, and it is plausible that only a portion of them were in a position to travel from Galilee back to Jerusalem between Easter and Pentecost. When the church greatly increased after Pentecost, the original disciples were soon counted one by one and as the earliest witnesses they were given their own place within the multitudes of those who later came to faith without having seen.

It would carry us too far to discuss in this context also the twenty-four elders in Revelation. However, it is worth considering whether they too are not also “elders” or “first leaders”. This explains their role as exegetes for the one who receives the vision (Rev. 7:13-17) and their place of priority (Rev. 4:4; 5:8-10). The church enters the second generation. The ancient elders, who have seen the work of Christ on earth, are disappearing. So it seems. But then it turns out that they are leaders—in a glorious state. Just as Hebrews 11:2 cites the presbyteroi (“the ancients”) from the Old Covenant (the people of the earlier dispensation lived by faith), so Revelation might symbolically designate the elders of the New Testament church in the number of the 24 elders. The same book of Revelation also mentions the apostles and the martyrs, so that it is at least possible to examine whether the 24 elders can legitimately be thought of as representatives of the elders who already followed Jesus on earth, i.e., the same ones of whom Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:6 notes that some of them have already fallen asleep.

At the conclusion of this discussion, a few words should still be said about Acts 11:30. In other places in Acts, the mention of the elders alongside the apostles or around James is clearly motivated by their authoritative place in the church. Is there perhaps a particular reason why the Christians from Antioch send their gifts for the brothers in Judea precisely to the elders? We believe that in doing so they did not want to ignore “the seven”. However, their gift is more than financial aid only. It is first of all a token of recognition. A group of Christians from the Gentiles, consisting of people who before their conversion looked down on Jerusalem and despised the Jews, now recognizes that the true gospel and prophecy has come to them from Jerusalem (see Rom. 15:26-27). They honour the source. And then the most representative figures are those who were with Jesus even before Easter and who are witnesses to the resurrection. The gospel is honoured by placing the gifts in the hands of the earliest believers and witnesses. This is how the funds are passed on to the brothers (and sisters): as a tribute to the Saviour, the Master, placed in the hands of the first disciples and from there distributed, perhaps with the involvement of “the seven”.


Luke mentions in Acts the elders in Jerusalem as the authoritative eye-and-ear witnesses, acting alongside the apostles and James, the brother of the Lord. They derive their authority not from a specific appointment, like the elders in the later missionary churches, but from their past as disciples of Jesus and from the authority granted to them by him (Matt. 16 and 18). Their position is not one where they were replaced when they were frail or had died. Their word, found among others in the so-called apostolic decree, remains valid for all the churches of Jesus.

For the activity of “the seven” one can draw the conclusion that their field of operation was not limited by the presence of the elders in Jerusalem. “The seven” are not colleagues of these elders. And these elders, in turn, did not have a primary or special assignment for the church in Jerusalem, but their significance extended to all churches in general.

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