Often in the study of Scriptures we come to concepts and doctrines that many in the church believe arise de novo in the New Testament (NT). One such teaching concerns the office of deacon. Many read the book of Acts and see that deacons are for the first time appointed in chapter 6 and then of course they see Paul giving the qualifications for deacons in 1 Tim 3.8-13. The assumption is that the office of deacon never existed prior to Acts chapter 6 and Paul’s explanation of the qualifications for office is unique to the NT. Yet, as St. Augustine once explained, what is revealed in the NT is hidden in the Old, and what is hidden in the Old Testament (OT) is revealed in the New. If Augustine’s little aphorism is true, then there is a case to be made that we can find the office of deacon in the OT. Let us therefore turn to the OT so that we can see where the office of deacon begins, see how that office finds its fulfillment in Christ, and then, of course, see how these things come to bear upon those who hold the office of deacon.
Deacons in the OT
When we first turn to the OT, we might think that we will search in vain for the office of deacon, because as we all know, the word deacon is never mentioned. While it may be so that the term never appears in our English Bibles, at the same time we should recognize that the function existed in the OT. If we begin with the term itself, deacon, we know that it is a Greek word that can be translated as servant, helper, or minister. The office of deacon, as we all know, is one primarily marked by service for the church. If we keep this in mind, then it should come as no surprise that we can find the term deacon in the Greek translation of the OT, the Septuagint: “Then the king’s deacons said, ‘Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king’” (cf. 6.3, 5; LXX). Artaxerxes was attended by deacons, or servants, those who took care of his needs. If we therefore understand a deacon in this manner, as one who cares for the needs of another, then in particular it is to the OT Levitical priests that we should focus.
It was the OT Levites, of course, who served God in his temple, whether in the desert tabernacle or in the Solomonic temple. The Levitical priests were supposed to serve in God’s temple, offer sacrifices on behalf of the people, and tend to the physical needs of the temple. Their duties included keeping the menorah lit, both day and night, ensuring that the show bread was replaced on a regular basis, they were to keep the fires lit on the bronze altar, ensure that there was oil for the lamps, assist the high priest in his duties, see that there was incense to burn, and make certain that the bronze basin was always filled with water so that the priests could wash and cleanse themselves to perform their duties. In other words, we see that the Levites had the responsibility of seeing to the physical needs of the temple. In this sense, then, we can say that the Levites were deacons, servants, both to the Lord and to their fellow Israelites, because if the daily work of the temple was left undone, and there was no water for the basin, no incense, no oil for the candles, no fires in the altars, then there would be no sacrifices and God’s people would have been alienated from their Lord.
Jesus Christ the supreme deacon
It is without question that we know that the OT priests, especially the high priest, find fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The author of Hebrews, for example, famously writes that Jesus is “the apostle and high priest of our confession” (Heb 3.1) and that he “appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come” (Heb 9.11). Christ’s priestly service, however, was not exhausted in his sacrificial offering of his life on our behalf. Yes, to be sure, Christ’s sacrifice of his life, both in his obedience to the law on our behalf, and his suffering the penalty of sin, his active and passive obedience, are a major part of Christ’s priestly work. There are other elements of Christ’s priestly work, such as his famous high priestly prayer in John 17, or his high priestly intercession for us right now at the right hand of the Father. There is, however, another aspect of Christ’s priestly office that is of particular relevance as we consider the office of deacon against the backdrop of the diaconal service of the Levitical priests.
Just as the OT priests cared for the physical needs of the temple, so too, Christ our great high priest cares for the physical needs of the church, we who are God’s final dwelling place, the eschatological temple. We, both Jew and Gentile, both slave and free, man and woman are being joined together into a holy temple in the Lord, a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph 2.20ff). Christ, our great high priest, and our great servant, one who serves the church, his bride also serves the church, the eschatological temple, as our great deacon: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20.26-28). It should also not surprise us that Paul states, “For I tell you that Christ became a deacon to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Rom 15.8-9).
We see Christ’s diaconal service, then, throughout his ministry not only in his active and passive obedience on our behalf, but even in caring for the physical needs of those he came to save. He healed many from sickness, disease, and even death, restoring health and life to people’s ailing and dead bodies. He fed the hungry not only with the bread from heaven but also with physical bread. He also took of his robe, and performed the most menial task of washing the feet of his disciples: “Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13.16).
Deacons in the NT
Given the diaconal function of the Levitical priests and Christ’s great diaconal service to and for the church, what might we conclude about the office of deacon in the NT? We know that as a body, the church, we are a holy nation, a kingdom of priests, so there is a sense in which every Christian should manifest the qualities and characteristics of a deacon. All of us should be concerned not only with the spiritual needs of the body of Christ and therefore pray for one another, encourage one another with hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs, and stir one another up to love and good works, encouraging one another, but we should also be concerned with the physical needs of the eschatological temple, the church (James 5.16; Col 23.16; Heb 10.24-25). We see that at points the NT is quite direct regarding caring for the physical needs of the eschatological temple: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1.27). Or, recall the words of Christ: “And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward” (Matt 10.42). All of us therefore, as a kingdom of priests, should be mindful of the diaconal aspect of our priestly service. We know this because Jesus Christ our great high priest and deacon, is renewing us in his image. We therefore shine forth the love of Christ we have received both in word and in deed.
There is, however, a certain class of individual within the church to whom the Holy Spirit gives the gift of service, this is the man who serves in the office of deacon. We know from the book of Acts that the first deacons the apostles chose were selected to care for the physical needs of the church, the physical needs of the eschatological temple. They saw to the distribution of food to the widows who were unintentionally bypassed in the food distribution (Acts 6.1-7). Some might think that this type of work is menial, as the apostles were doing the “real work” of preaching and teaching whereas the deacons were only waiting on tables. Yet, just as in the OT tabernacle and Solomon’s temple, there is no such thing as menial service in the eschatological temple. If the candles were not lit, the basins filled, the altars burning, oil for the candles the daily sacrificial offerings that had to be given to the Lord would not have been offered. The functions of the temple would have collapsed and the people would have immediately been alienated from their covenant Lord. Likewise, if the people in Acts 6 were not fed, then there would have been unrest and no one would have paid attention to the preaching of the apostles.
Just as the Levites tended to the physical needs of the temple so too the deacons tend to the physical needs of the church so that the church may worship Christ and propagate the gospel throughout the world. Diaconal labor, therefore, is in no way menial or less important, say, than the labors of the elders of the church, or the labors of anyone in the church for that matter. As Paul writes, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12.4-7).
Keeping these things in mind, when we come to Paul’s qualifications for deacons, we should recognize that 1 Tim 3.8-13 is merely a capstone, if you will, to what the Bible has to say about deacons. Therefore, when we read that a deacon must be dignified, not double-tongued, and not addicted to much wine (v. 8), we are not simply reading moral qualifications but rather the concrete ways in which the Holy Spirit manifests the righteousness of Christ in the life of one who is called to be a deacon. Indeed, the deacon, with his wife, and family, paint a portrait of Christ and his bride, the church. The deacon is faithful to his bride; he loves her, and cares for her physical needs. The deacon is able to manage his own household well, just as Christ manages his household, the church. Moreover, the deacon, Paul says, must not be greedy for dishonest gain (v. 8), because the deacon must see to the physical needs of the church, which often involves oversight of financial matters. The deacon uses the finances of the church to see to the physical needs of the corporate body, the church, as well as the individual members of the corporate body. In all of these things, then, we may say that the one who is called and gifted by the Holy Spirit to serve in the capacity as a deacon, is the hands of Christ that serve to meet the physical needs of the final temple, the church.
Far from arising de novo out of the NT, the functions of the deacon originate in the priestly service of the Levites, find fulfillment in the diaconal service of Christ, our great high priest, and are manifest in the diaconal service of the body of Christ, but especially in those men who are called to serve in the office of deacon.