May 8th saw widespread, but subdued celebrations to mark VE Day, the 75th Anniversary of Victory in Europe. June 1st passed in a more subdued way. It was however a significant time and might be recorded as ‘R’ day. Here in Wales, the ‘Release of Lockdown’ began in a significant way as one family was free to visit another family as long as they maintained social distancing and remained in the garden. In England it was ‘Return to School’ day for many children. Over both of these events there was the fear of the ‘R’ number – that the rate of infection might go up as a result of these changes.
For me personally it was more of the ‘r’ day. We, as a church, had been discussing my retirement for a number of years and it had been decided that Sunday 31st May should have been my final day as pastor of Emmanuel. Then Covid-19 and lockdown happened, so it was agreed that I continue in ministry until the church was in a position to meet for a church members’ meeting.
Retirement is one of the ‘elephants in the room’ of evangelicalism. People constantly say to me that retirement is not found in the Bible. Others like to say, ‘There is no retirement for the Christian.’ Sadly many Christians have gone well past their ‘Best Before’ date and in effect have undone much of the good work that God enabled them to do. So how does the Christian and in particular the full-time Christian worker approach retirement? Let’s see how the Bible helps us.
It is true to say there is no mention of retirement in Scripture. The same argument can be made concerning the Trinity, but because of the whole revelation of Scripture we are agreed that we worship one God in three Persons. We do not give equal weight and significance to work and retirement as we do to the Person and Work of our God, but we can use the same principle of learning from the spread of revealed Scripture.
In order to do that I want us to consider the position of the Old Testament priests, an Old Testament king and New Testament apostles. That said, I do not see the New Testament pastor/elder/minister as either priest or king. Both of those ministries have been completed in Christ, but there are principles that can be argued from practice.
Withdraw from the duty
Numbers 8 clearly spells out principles that the Lord gave for service amongst the Levites. There was a starting age of 25 (v24) and there was a specific workplace, ‘the tent of meeting’. God also stipulated a clear requirement to withdraw from public service: ‘From the age of fifty years they shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more’ (v25). That did not mean being ‘put out to grass’ with nothing to do. They were to remain available to serve and support their fellow Levites (v26).
We grow weary
We don’t always recognise that we’re slowing down, but it hit me one day building Lego with a grandson. For years I had sorted out the next piece while he was placing the previous. Suddenly he was placing a piece, reading the plan and finding the next piece before me! Not an easy lesson to learn.
David, like all of us, was a human being and grew weary (2 Sam. 21:15). He actually became a liability on the battlefield. Recognising this ‘David’s men swore to him, “You shall no longer go out with us to battle, lest you quench the lamp of Israel”’ (2 Sam. 21:17). A similar decision was made in 2 Samuel 18, when David’s men said, ‘You shall not go out. For if we flee, they will not care about us. If half of us die, they will not care about us. … Therefore it is better that you send us help from the city’(v3). David saw the wisdom and said to them, ‘“Whatever seems best to you I will do.” So the king stood at the side of the gate, while all the army marched out’ (v4). In considering David we should not forget the fact that he actually appointed his successor before he died (1 Kings 1 especially vv. 32-35).
Finish the course
In the New Testament both our Lord and the apostle Paul lived conscious of specific tasks that God gave them to do. In Acts 20, Paul knew that he was probably facing death, but one of his big concerns was ‘if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus’ (v24). He lived conscious of a specific ministry required of him. Similarly writing his final letter he says, ‘I have finished the race’ (2 Tim. 4:7). He knew that his place in the work of God was limited.
On the night of his betrayal the Lord Jesus Christ said, ‘I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do’ (John 17:4). He had lived a holy life in place of his people, but he was to go on to die in their place and subsequently said, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30).
You’re never too old to learn
We should not read any of these accounts as mandatory, but there are lessons and principles that we can draw from them.
- There is an age or time when it is right both to begin full-time Christian work, but also to retire. Remember that the Lord began his public ministry when he was about 30 (Luke 3:23).
- Age produces fatigue. We don’t always notice that in ourselves, therefore should be guided by others and accept that we can become a liability to the ongoing ministry.
- Stepping down from frontline ministry does not mean being put out to grass; there is still ministry that can be exercised in supporting others. The Levites supported their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard. David did a similar thing when he stood by to encourage his men going out to battle (2 Sam. 18:4).
- The fact that David appointed Solomon when he was still alive indicates that it is good to step down from responsibility so that others might step up. Paul expected the men he had trained to be teaching and appointing others (2 Tim. 2:2).
- Writing to Timothy, Paul was also aware that he had completed the work that God required of him. There was no need for him to remain. Likewise, our Lord knew that he had done what God required of him, and it was only necessary for him to step out of the way, in order that the Holy Spirit might continue God’s work (John 16:7).