Elders and Spiritual Vision

“Where there is no vision the people perish; but he that keepeth the law , happy is he.”
Proverbs 29:18

The Lord has placed stringent demands on those that are called to be elders. He has called them to a spiritual work and rigorous labor for the Lord. Paul charges the Thessalonian assembly that the elders were to be recognized on the basis of their “labor” in the assembly. The word translated “labor” in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 is the Greek word “kopiao”. This is a strong word, which means to toil to the point of weariness and exhaustion. Regarding this word, author G. Campbell Morgan writes,

“Paul has in mind the kind of toil that has in it the red blood of sacrifice, that kind of toil that wears and weakens by the way.” (1)

The “Labor” of Eldership

An elder in the local assembly must realize that eldership is not merely an important title, but rather an indispensable work. The work of the Lord in the church of God must not be neglected. Sadly, this is often not the case in many New Testament churches. The shepherding of the flock is left unattended, the ministry of the Word is mishandled, and outreach to the lost is frequently forgotten. True elders set the spiritual tone in a church. Where there are elders who are godly men, who put the Lord first in there lives, who radiate the grace of the Lord Jesus, one can expect to find a healthy, spiritual church; on the other hand, where elders are taken up in the affairs of the world, overly occupied with outside interests, too busy to read the Word of God or to pray, one can expect to find coldness and deadness among the flock. Such men are not true elders. Yet, when the Word of God speaks of the work of an elder, it describes men who “watch over your souls” (Hebrews 13:17), “rule over you, who have spoken the word of God” (Hebrews 13:7), “labor in the word and doctrine” (1 Timothy 5:17), and “desire a good work” (1 Timothy 3:1). Indeed, many are carrying on this strenuous work; yet how desperately our assemblies need more committed men to labor sacrificially among the Lord’s people. Biblical eldership necessitates weariness, loneliness, criticism, sleepless nights, and tears. May we realize that the work of the Lord requires our sacrifice, time and hard work. An assembly cannot flourish without the arduous work and commitment of the elders. If the elders fail, people may resort to unbiblical methods, bringing spiritual harm to many. However, in all areas of the work of oversight in the local assembly, there is one indispensable aspect which must not be neglected, and that is : spiritual vision.

What is Spiritual Vision?

Spiritual vision might be defined as that which God puts in our hearts to do when the spiritual need is great and our hearts are filled with the concerns of God. A few years ago an elder gave verbal expression to spiritual vision when he prayed, “Lord, break my heart with the concerns that break the heart of God.” A leader with vision does not see with mere human eyes, but with transformed vision. As he passes by a hotel that is for sale, he sees the potential for a missionary training center; when he sees a store front for rent, he envisions a future Christian bookstore; when he sees new neighborhoods, he sees thriving home Bible studies; when he see new growth in a town, he longs to see a new assembly established in that area. This was the burden of church leaders in the New Testament. The apostle Paul wrote, “I have made it my aim to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build on another man’s foundation, but as it is written: to whom He was not announced, they shall see; and those who have not heard shall understand” (Romans 15:21).

Spiritual Vision in Antioch

After the stoning of Steven, a few disciples of Cyprus and Cyrene entered the city of Antioch in Syria to make Christ known in the preaching of the gospel. At that time, Antioch, situated on the Orontes River, was a cosmopolitan city of 500,000 people, the third largest city of the ancient world. Antioch was a city renown for its immorality and idolatry. Juvenal, the Roman writer, rebuked the morals of Antioch by saying:

“The sewage of the Orontes has for long been discharged into the Tiber.” (2)

His point, which would not be missed on his readers, was that the immorality of Antioch was so great that it was even polluting the depraved morals of Rome, more than 1,300 miles away!

Yet these few disciples would not be deterred from preaching the Lord Jesus. The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord (Acts. 11:20-21). These men were men of God with vision. These disciples, who were armed with the gospel of God and equipped with the commandment to go into all the world, preached and served Christ valiantly. However, not only did these few disciples have vision to see cities won for Christ, but the persecuted assembly at Jerusalem also shared this vision. “Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch” (Acts 11:22). The assembly at Jerusalem sent one of their best men to help establish the new work in Antioch. Barnabas was sent to Antioch and labored there as a teacher, exhorting the believers that “with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord” (Acts 11:23). As the work in Antioch grew mightily , there was now a need for another worker. Barnabas went to Tarsus to encourage Paul to come help in the work at Antioch. Barnabas sought out a man of God—this man of vision sought a man who likewise possessed a vision for establishing New Testament churches throughout Asia Minor, Syria, and Galatia. “When he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch” (Acts 11:26).

The Cost of Spiritual Vision

Those who have most powerfully impacted the world for Christ were men of vision. Spiritual vision and commitment are strands of a cord used to raise high the banner of the cross. These men of God laboring at Antioch were men of vision and were men of tireless zeal and unflagging committment. Their charge was the Word of God and their commission was that it must go forth at all costs. The work of God and the assembly of God must not suffer loss. Personal loss, financial expense, physical persecution, stonings, and the whipping post were all part of the high cost of spiritual vision. New Testament leadership always exacts a heavy toll on men and women of God. Amy Carmichael, who labored and sacrificed greatly to reach the lost masses of India wrote,

” No wound, no scar.
Yes, as the master shall the servant be,
And pierced are the feet that follow Me;
But thine are whole.
Can he have followed far—who has no wound? No scar? ”

H. A. Ironside was once told by a man, “I would give my all to have the knowledge and ability to preach the Scriptures as you do.” Ironside replied, “That is exactly what it has cost me.” The Lord Himself knew much of self-sacrifice in service. Christ, when speaking of the humble character of his labors for the Father, said, “Whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. Even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:44-45). John writes, “He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16).

Spiritual Vision and Spiritual Focus

Men of vision are also those who see with the eyes of faith and with eyes fixed upon the power and glory of God. These men have usually seen more clearly the importance of the work of God and have seen farther concerning the glory of God than most others. This was true of many of God’s choicest servants in the Word of God. The Scriptures tell us regarding Moses, one of the great servants of God, that he “endured as seeing Him who was invisible”. Moses was able to see what the crowds could not see. He saw more fully, more deeply, more powerfully than many around him the ways and desires of God. But spiritual vision encompasses not only insight, but also godly foresight. Spiritual vision is the spiritual ability to sense and anticipate what lies ahead. These godly leaders can envision the results of inappropriate methods or the rash decisions of others. These men see far out on the horizons the dire consequences and the withering effects of unwise personal choices, petty theological squabbles, and ill-advised assembly decisions, and seek to avoid them. A leader of spiritual vision sees difficulties ahead, but also possibilities, potential, and opportunities that lie in the future. Faith, boldness, and wisdom are all ready weapons in his arsenal. The bold vision of godly elders and spiritual leaders within the local assembly is the great need of today. The church needs men of God who possess wisdom, insight, foresight, and a heart for the glory of God; men who work hard and esteem the work of Christ in the local church worth the cost; men who step out in faith, seeing firstly God, and also that which God desires to accomplish through the church. May there be more like the “children of Issachar, who were men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do…” (1 Chron. 12:32). Harry Ironside sets forth the necessity of vision writing,

“By vision is meant spiritual enlightenment and insight into divine things…when this ministry is lacking among the people of God and the assemblies of His saints, they soon become lawless, substituting for the Spirit’s energy the mere busy meddling of nature, and the opening the door to what is simply of man in the flesh…but the anointed eye is needed to discern what has been therein revealed… lack of vision will be manifested in a cold, dry, theological, or philosophical, treatment of the Scriptures, as though given to exercise the intellect, rather than the heart and the conscience.” (3)

(1) G. Campbell Morgan, The Corinthian Letters, (Old Tappan, NJ : Revell, 1946), p. 207
(2) F. F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame, (Grand Rapids, MI : Eerdmans, 1979), p. 141
(3) Harry Ironside, Proverbs, (New York: NY: Loizeaux Brothers, 1977) p. 425-426