The apostles and the casting of lots in the book of Acts

The apostles and of casting lots in the book of Acts                            by Jack Kettler

“And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.” (Acts 1:26 ESV)

What is the casting of lots? Is it the equivalent of voting? Is this a practice that should continue today? If not, why did it cease?  

An overview of lots from a theological dictionary will be helpful.

From the Holman Bible Dictionary, an overview of lots:
“(lahtss) Objects of unknown shape and material used to determine the divine will. Often in the Ancient Near East people, especially priests, made difficult and significant decisions by casting lots on the ground or drawing them from a receptacle. Several times Scripture mentions the practice. We do not know exactly what the lots looked like. Nor do we know how they were interpreted. We do know that people of the Old and New Testaments believed God (or gods in the case of non-Israelites or non-Christians) influenced the fall or outcome of the lots (Proverbs 16:33). Thus, casting lots was a way of determining God’s will.

One of the best examples of this use of lots is in Acts. Matthias was chosen to be Judas’ successor by lot (Acts 1:26). The apostles’ prayer immediately before shows the belief that God would express His will through this method. In the Old Testament Saul was chosen as Israel’s first king through the use of lots (1 Samuel 10:20-24).

In a similar fashion God communicated knowledge unknown to human beings through lots. Saul called for the casting of lots to determine who sinned during his day-long battle with the Philistines. Specifically, he called for the use of the Urim and Thummim (1 Samuel 14:41-42; See Joshua 7:10-15).

Lots helped God’s people make a fair decision in complicated situations. God commanded that the Promised Land be divided by lot (Numbers 26:52-56). Later, lots established the Temple priests’ order of service (1 Chronicles 24:5-19). This practice continued into Jesus’ day. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was burning incense in the holy place when the angel spoke to him. Zechariah was there because the lot fell to him (Luke 1:9). The awful picture of soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ garments was this kind of “fair play” use of lots (Matthew 27:35). Proverbs teaches that the use of lots is one way to put an end to a dispute when decisions are difficult (Proverbs 18:18).

Lots are memorialized in the Jewish Feast of Purim. Purim, the Akkadian word for lots, celebrates the frustration of Haman’s plan to destroy the Jews in Persia. Haman had used lots to find the best day for the destruction (Esther 3:7).

Finally, the word lot came to refer to one’s portion or circumstance of life. The righteous could confess that God was their lot (Psalm 16:5). The lot of those who violated the people of God was terror and annihilation (Isaiah 17:14). See Oracles; Urim and Thummim.” – Albert Bean (1)

To answer the first question, what is the casting of lots?
“Question: What was the practice of casting lots?

Answer: The practice of casting lots is mentioned seventy times in the Old Testament and seven times in the New Testament. In spite of the many references to casting lots in the Old Testament, nothing is known about the actual lots themselves. They could have been sticks of various lengths, flat stones like coins, or some kind of dice; but their exact nature is unknown. The closest modern practice to casting lots is likely flipping a coin.

The practice of casting lots occurs most often in connection with the division of the land under Joshua (Joshua chapters 14-21), a procedure that God instructed the Israelites on several times in the book of Numbers (Numbers 26:55; 33:54; 34:13; 36:2). God allowed the Israelites to cast lots in order to determine His will for a given situation (Joshua 18:6-10; 1 Chronicles 24:5,31). Various offices and functions in the temple were also determined by lot (1 Chronicles 24:5, 31; 25:8-9; 26:13-14). The sailors on Jonah’s ship (Jonah 1:7) also cast lots to determine who had brought God’s wrath upon their ship. The eleven apostles cast lots to determine who would replace Judas (Acts 1:26). Casting lots eventually became a game people played and made wagers on. This is seen in the Roman soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ garments (Matthew 27:35).” *

 On the second question, was the casting of lots equivalent to voting?

 The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary says that lots are to be understood as voting:  “26. was numbered – “voted in” by general suffrage.

with the eleven apostles—completing the broken Twelve.” (2)

 The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown commentators see the action of lots by the Apostles as voting.

 However, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible disagrees. Consider:  “And they gave forth their lots – Some have supposed that this means they voted. But to this interpretation there are insuperable objections:

1. The word “lots,” κλήρους klērous, is not used to express votes, or suffrage.

2. The expression “the lot fell upon” is not consistent with the notion of voting. It is commonly expressive of casting lots.

3. Casting lots was common among the Jews on important and difficult occasions, and it was natural that the apostles should resort to it in this.” (3)

 Barnes is supported in his understanding of the Greek from Thayer’s Greek Lexicon commenting on Strong’s NT 2819 κλῆρος: κλῆρος, κλήρου, ὁ, from Homer down; the Sept. mostly for גּורָל and נַחֲלָה; a lot; i. e.:

1. an object used in casting or drawing lots, which was either a pebble, or a potsherd, or a bit of wood (hence, κλῆρος is to be derived from κλάω (cf. Ellicott on Colossians 1:12)): Acts 1:26 (see below); βάλλοντες κλῆρον, Matthew 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:24 (Psalm 21:19 (); Jonah 1:7, etc.); the lots of the several persons concerned, inscribed with their names, were thrown together into a vase, which was then shaken, and he whose lot first fell out upon the ground was the one chosen (Homer, Iliad 3, 316, 325; 7, 175, etc.; Livy 23, 3 (but cf. B. D. American edition, under the word Lot)); hence, ὁ κλῆρος πίπτει ἐπί τινα, Acts 1:26 (Ezekiel 24:6; Jonah 1:7).

2. what is obtained by lot, allotted portion: λαγχάνειν and λαμβάνειν τόν κλῆρον τῆς διακονίας, a prrtion in the ministry common to the apostles, Acts 1:17, 25 R G; ἐστι μοι κλῆρος ἐν τίνι, dative of the thing, Acts 8:21; like κληρονομία (which see) it is used of the part which one will have in eternal salvation, λαμβάνειντόν κλῆρον ἐν τοῖς ἡγιασμένοις, among the sanctified, Acts 26:18 (Wis. 5:5); of eternal salvation itself, κλῆρος τῶν ἁγίων, i. e. the eternal salvation which God has assigned to the saints, Colossians 1:12 (where cf. Lightfoot). of persons, οἱ κλῆροι, those whose care and oversight has been assigned to one (allotted charge), used of Christian churches, the administration of which falls to the lot of the presbyters: 1 Peter 5:3, cf. Acts 17:4; (for patristic usage see Sophocles Lexicon, under the word; cf. Lightfoot on Philippians, p. 246f).” (4)

 The final question about the continuation of casting lots is answered in the next commentary entry.

 From the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges on Acts 1:26:  “26. And they gave forth their lots] Better, And they gave lots for them, in accordance with MSS. The process probably was that each member of the company wrote on a tablet or ticket the name of one of the chosen two; the whole were then placed in some vessel and shaken together, and that tablet which was first drawn out decided the election. The casting of lots, though not now permitted to the Jews (see Shulkhan Aruch Joreh Deah par. 179. 1), was used by a provision of the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 16:8) for the selection of one out of the two goats for the Lord. “The goat upon which the Lord’s lot fell” was offered for a sin offering. The Apostles had not yet received the Spirit which was to “guide them into all truth.” When the Holy Ghost had been given, they, as St Chrysostom notices (In Act. Ap. Hom. III.), used no more casting of lots.” (5)

 In closing:

 In some churches today, elders and deacons are chosen by casting lots.

 In the New Testament, there are qualifications for elders. For example, 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6–9 these qualifications are listed.

 In the New Testament, there are qualifications for deacons. For example, in 1 Timothy 3:8–13, the qualifications for deacons are listed.

 How are these qualifications evaluated? The vetting of deacons and elders in terms of the Word of God’s requirements inspires more confidence than the casting of lots. Why? The casting of lots today is problematic in the light of the closed canon of Scripture. If God is still speaking today through the casting of lots, maybe He is still giving other revelations also. If so, say goodbye to the doctrine of a completed Bible. For those, today, using the casting of lots. Is the casting of lots infallible? If not, serious theological questions can be asked, like does God make mistakes.   

 From the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is a good example of how this process of evaluation and choosing deacons and elders have developed in New Testament times.
Chapter X

Ruling Elders

1. Christ who has instituted government in his church has furnished some men, beside the ministers of the Word, with gifts for government, and with commission to execute the same when called thereto. Such officers, chosen by the people from among their number, are to join with the ministers in the government of the church, and are properly called ruling elders.

2. Those who fill this office should be sound in the faith and of exemplary Christian life, men of wisdom and discretion, worthy of the esteem of the congregation as spiritual fathers.

3. Ruling elders, individually and jointly with the pastor in the session, are to lead the church in the service of Christ. They are to watch diligently over the people committed to their charge to prevent corruption of doctrine or morals. Evils which they cannot correct by private admonition they should bring to the notice of the session. They should visit the people, especially the sick, instruct the ignorant, comfort the mourning, and nourish and guard the children of the covenant. They should pray with and for the people. They should have particular concern for the doctrine and conduct of the minister of the Word and help him in his labors.

Chapter XI

Deacons

1. The Scriptures designate the office of deacon as distinct and perpetual in the church. Deacons are called to show forth the compassion of Christ in a manifold ministry of mercy toward the saints and strangers on behalf of the church. To this end they exercise, in the fellowship of the church, a recognized stewardship of care and of gifts for those in need or distress. This service is distinct from that of rule in the church.

2. Those chosen to this office should be of great faith, exemplary lives, honest repute, brotherly love, warm sympathies, and sound judgment.

3. In order to facilitate the performance of the duties of their office the deacons of each particular church shall be constituted a board of deacons. The board shall choose its own officers from its membership.

4. The board shall oversee the ministry of mercy in the church and shall collect and disburse funds for the relief of the needy. Other forms of service for the church may also be committed to the deacons.

5. In the discharge of their duties the deacons shall be under the supervision and authority of the session. Accordingly, the board shall keep a record of its proceedings and of all funds and their distribution, and shall submit its records to the session once every three months, and at other times upon request of the session. If it seems to be for the best interest of the church, the session may require the board of deacons to reconsider any action, or may, if necessary, overrule it.

6. It is desirable that the session and the board of deacons meet together at regular intervals to confer on matters of common responsibility.

7. In a church in which there are no deacons, the duties of the office shall devolve upon the session.

Chapter XXV

Electing, Ordaining, and Installing

Ruling Elders and Deacons

1. Every congregation shall elect ruling elders and deacons, except in extraordinary circumstances. Those elected must be male communicant members in good and regular standing in the church in which they are to exercise their office.

2. Each congregation shall determine, by vote of communicant members in good and regular standing, to choose elders or deacons for either lifetime service or limited terms of service on the session or board of deacons. In a congregation that has determined to choose ruling elders or deacons for limited terms of service a full term shall be three years. When there are three or more ruling elders or three or more deacons the session or board of deacons shall consist of three classes, one of which shall be elected each year. A person may be elected for a full term or partial term. Ruling elders, once ordained, when they are not reelected to a term of service, shall not thereby be divested of the office, but may be commissioned to higher judicatories by the session or the presbytery, and may perform other functions of the office when so appointed by an appropriate judicatory. Similarly deacons, when not elected to a term of service in the congregation, may be commissioned by an appropriate judicatory to perform specific diaconal functions.

3. In order that these sacred offices not be committed to weak or unworthy men, and that the congregations shall have an opportunity to form a better judgment respecting the gifts of those by whom they are to be governed and served, no one shall normally be eligible for election to office until he has been a communicant member in good standing for at least one year, shall have received appropriate training under the direction of or with the approval of the session, and shall have served the church in functions requiring responsible leadership. Men of ability and piety in the congregation shall be encouraged by the session to prepare themselves for the offices of ruling elder or deacon so that their study and opportunities for service may be provided for in a systematic and orderly way.

4. Any member of the congregation who is entitled to vote may propose to the session nominations for these offices. The session shall certify those nominees whom, upon examination, it judges to possess the necessary qualifications for office. At least one Lord’s Day preceding the date appointed for the election the session shall announce to the congregation the names of those it has certified. Election shall be from among those certified.

5. After a person has been elected to the office of ruling elder or deacon the session shall determine a time for his ordination. The person elected shall be put in actual possession of his office only by ordination whereby he is solemnly set apart for the labor to which he has been called.

6. The person elected shall be ordained and installed, in the presence of the congregation, in the following manner:

a. The minister, in the following or similar language, shall state the warrant and nature of the office of ruling elder or deacon, the character to be sustained by the officer, and duties to be fulfilled:

i. In the case of a ruling elder:

The office of ruling elder is based upon the kingship of our Lord Jesus Christ, who provided for his church officers who should rule in his name. Paul and Barnabas “appointed . . . elders in every church”; and Paul commanded that those who “rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and in teaching.” In this passage the Scriptures distinguish between elders who labor particularly in the Word and in doctrine—usually called ministers or pastors—and elders who join with the minister in the government and discipline of the church—generally called ruling elders.

It is the duty and privilege of ruling elders, in the name and by the authority of our ascended king, to rule over particular churches, and, as servants of our great shepherd, to care for his flock. Holy Scripture enjoins them: “Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit hath made you bishops, to feed the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood.” As a consequence, ruling elders must be zealous in maintaining the purity of the ministration of the Word and sacraments. They must conscientiously exercise discipline and uphold the good order and peace of the church. With love and humility they should promote faithfulness on the part of both elders and deacons in the discharge of their duties. Moreover, they should have particular regard to the doctrine and conduct of the minister of the Word, in order that the church may be edified, and may manifest itself as the pillar and ground of the truth.

If they are to fill worthily so sacred an office, ruling elders must adorn sound doctrine by holy living, setting an example of godliness in all their relations with men. Let them walk with exemplary piety and diligently discharge the obligations of their office; and “when the chief shepherd shall be manifested,” they “shall receive the crown of glory that fadeth not away.”

ii. In the case of a deacon:

The office of deacon is based upon the solicitude and love of Christ for his own people. So tender is our Lord’s interest in their temporal needs that he considers what is done unto one of the least of his brethren as done unto him. For he will say to those who have ministered to his little ones: “I was hungry, and ye gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.”

In the beginning the apostles themselves ministered to the poor, but subsequently, in order that they might be able to devote themselves wholly to prayer and the ministry of the Word, they committed that responsibility to others, having directed the people to choose men of good report, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom. Since the days of the apostles the church has recognized the care of the poor as a distinct ministry of the church committed to deacons.

The duties of deacons consist of encouraging members of the church to provide for those who are in want, seeking to prevent poverty, making discreet and cheerful distribution to the needy, praying with the distressed and reminding them of the consolations of Holy Scripture.

If they are to fill worthily so sacred an office, deacons must adorn sound doctrine by holy living, setting an example of godliness in all their relations with men. Let them walk with exemplary piety and diligently discharge the obligations of their office; and “when the chief shepherd shall be manifested,” they “shall receive the crown of glory that fadeth not away.”

b. He shall then propose to the candidate the following questions:

(1) Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice?

(2) Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures?

(3) Do you approve of the government, discipline, and worship of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church?

(4) Do you promise to seek the purity, the peace, and the unity of the church?

(5) Do you accept the office of ruling elder (or deacon) in this congregation and promise, in reliance on the grace of God, faithfully to perform all the duties thereof?

c. When each of these questions has been answered in the affirmative, the minister shall address to the members of the congregation the following question:

Do you, the members of this church, acknowledge and receive this brother as a ruling elder (or deacon), and do you promise to yield him all that honor, encouragement, and obedience in the Lord, to which his office, according to the Word of God and the constitution of this Church, entitles him?

d. When the members of the church have answered this question in the affirmative, by holding up their right hands, the candidate shall kneel and be ordained by prayer and with the laying on of hands to the office of ruling elder or deacon.

e. The minister shall then declare:

I now declare that ___________________ has been regularly elected, ordained, and installed a ruling elder (or deacon) in this church, agreeably to the Word of God, and according to the constitution of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church; and that he is entitled to all that honor, encouragement, and obedience in the Lord to which his office entitles him.

f. After this the minister shall give to him and to the congregation an exhortation suited to the occasion.

g. When there is an existing session, it is proper that the members of that body, in the face of the congregation, take the newly ordained elder by the hand, saying, in words to this purpose, “We give you the right hand of fellowship, to take part of this office with us.”

7. A ruling elder or deacon who has been installed for a limited term of service may be elected to additional terms of service in the same or another congregation in accordance with the provisions of Section 2 of this chapter. When such a person is elected to further service he shall be publicly installed in the following manner:

a. The minister shall review before the congregation, in the following or similar language, the warrant and nature of the office of ruling elder or deacon, the character to be sustained by the officer, and the duties to be fulfilled:

i. In the case of a ruling elder:

The office of ruling elder is based upon the kingship of our Lord Jesus Christ, who provided for his church officers who should rule in his name. Paul and Barnabas “appointed . . . elders in every church”; and Paul commanded that those who “rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and in teaching.” In this passage the Scriptures distinguish between elders who labor particularly in the Word and in doctrine—usually called ministers or pastors—and elders who join with the minister in the government and discipline of the church—generally called ruling elders.

It is the duty and privilege of ruling elders, in the name and by the authority of our ascended king, to rule over particular churches, and, as servants of our great shepherd, to care for his flock. Holy Scripture enjoins them: “Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit hath made you bishops, to feed the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood.” As a consequence, ruling elders must be zealous in maintaining the purity of the ministration of the Word and sacraments. They must conscientiously exercise discipline and uphold the good order and peace of the church. With love and humility they should promote faithfulness on the part of both elders and deacons in the discharge of their duties. Moreover, they should have particular regard to the doctrine and conduct of the minister of the Word, in order that the church may be edified, and may manifest itself as the pillar and ground of the truth.

If they are to fill worthily so sacred an office, ruling elders must adorn sound doctrine by holy living, setting an example of godliness in all their relations with men. Let them walk with exemplary piety and diligently discharge the obligations of their office; and “when the chief shepherd shall be manifested,” they “shall receive the crown of glory that fadeth not away.”

ii. In the case of a deacon:

The office of deacon is based upon the solicitude and love of Christ for his own people. So tender is our Lord’s interest in their temporal needs that he considers what is done unto one of the least of his brethren as done unto him. For he will say to those who have ministered to his little ones: “I was hungry, and ye gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.”

In the beginning the apostles themselves ministered to the poor, but subsequently, in order that they might be able to devote themselves wholly to prayer and the ministry of the Word, they committed that responsibility to others, having directed the people to choose men of good report, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom. Since the days of the apostles the church has recognized the care of the poor as a distinct ministry of the church committed to deacons.

The duties of deacons consist of encouraging members of the church to provide for those who are in want, seeking to prevent poverty, making discreet and cheerful distribution to the needy, praying with the distressed and reminding them of the consolations of Holy Scripture.

If they are to fill worthily so sacred an office, deacons must adorn sound doctrine by holy living, setting an example of godliness in all their relations with men. Let them walk with exemplary piety and diligently discharge the obligations of their office; and “when the chief shepherd shall be manifested,” they “shall receive the crown of glory that fadeth not away.”

b. He shall then propose to the officer the following question:

Do you agree to serve as a ruling elder (or deacon) in this congregation, and promise, in reliance on the grace of God, faithfully to perform all the duties thereof?

c. When the question has been answered in the affirmative the minister shall address to the members of the congregation the following question:

Do you, the members of this church, acknowledge and receive this brother as a ruling elder (or deacon), and do you promise to yield him all that honor, encouragement, and obedience in the Lord, to which his office, according to the Word of God and the constitution of this Church, entitles him?

d. When a majority of the members of the church who are present have answered this question in the affirmative, by holding up their right hands, the minister shall then declare:

I now declare that ______________ has been regularly elected and installed a ruling elder (or deacon) in this church, agreeably to the Word of God, and according to the constitution of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church; and that he is entitled to all that honor, encouragement, and obedience in the Lord to which his office entitles him.

e. After this the minister shall give to him and to the congregation an exhortation suited to the occasion.**

 “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)  “To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)

Notes:

 1.      Holman Bible Dictionary, Trent C. Butler, Author, Editor, (Nashville, TN, Holman Bible Publishers, 1991), online resource.

2.      Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, Commentary on the Whole Bible, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, 1977), p. 1083.

3.      Albert Barnes, THE AGES DIGITAL LIBRARYCOMMENTARY, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Acts, Vol. 5 p. 1417.

4.      J. H. Thayer, The New Thayer’s Greek English Lexicon, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers), p. 349.

5.      Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, J. RAWSON LUMBY, D.D., Acts, Vol. 1, (Cambridge University Press, 1898), p. 14.** The OPC Book of Order https://opc.org/BCO/FG.html Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks. Other books by Mr. Kettler can be found at, Jack Kettler .com

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