Michael O. Wise is professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Languages at University of Northwestern – St. Paul. His area of focus is ancient Judaism as a background to the rise of Christianity. He has studied the Semitic languages in order to immerse himself in rabbinic texts and in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Wise is ordained as a minister in the Evangelical Free Church of America. He received a B.A. and a Ph.D. from University of Minnesota, an M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Ph.D. from University of Chicago.
The Bible contains numerous succession stories that we might look to for guidance in our own contexts. One thinks immediately of David succeeding Saul, and of Solomon succeeding David. The Books of Samuel and Kings present a concentrated series of stories of the rise and fall of good and bad leaders. Here we find not only kings, but also prophets, such as Elisha as he succeeds Elijah.
In these narratives a midrashic approach (a 2nd-century Jewish interpretation) will discover a variety of “principles,” and one might list them and draw the requisite conclusions. For example, the story of David’s family and the harem-conspiracy conflict that erupted after his death could suggest to the midrashist that before a succession event, the organization needs to be healthy or else the event will go badly. But is this “principle” really taught by Scripture as a principle, or is it the case that historically this was simply what happened?
Safer than such midrash (still sometimes attempted today) is to examine a succession situation that is explicitly pursuing divine principles. I am thinking, of course, of Jesus.
Preparing the Leaders Who Follow
The same sorts of questions that attend most successions attended our Lord’s ministry as he began to look to the cross. Jesus had always intended that his ministry continue after him. From the outset of his public ministry he associated with himself 12 apprentices (disciples). He chose them specifically for the purpose of succession.
Many others also came to follow Jesus, and we know from Scripture that over 500 followers witnessed his resurrection in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 15). All of them would go on to tell of their time with Jesus and spread his teaching and declare the kingdom. But the 12 were a special subgroup, and Jesus especially poured himself into their lives so that they could become the people they would need to be. Herein a principle: ideally, a good leader personally prepares his successors.
Jesus did more than let the disciples learn by observing him and walking with him and talking with him privately without the public riddles. Jesus gave them the very Spirit by whom his own public ministry was empowered. He gave them the Holy Spirit, called in the New Testament the “Spirit of Christ” (Romans 8:9). And Jesus let them gain some experience in doing what he did, a bit at a time. He sent them out to heal, confront evil and proclaim the kingdom, then debriefed (Luke 9–10). But as Calvary loomed Jesus specifically addressed with them the issue of succession. We find two passages in particular in the Gospel of John.
The first passage, John 14:8–20, is set on the night when Jesus was betrayed and arrested. He engages in a very intimate, loving, yet wistful discussion with these disciples with whom he has shared his earthly life these last three years. Philip asks him a question that demonstrates that he and the others still don’t really understand Jesus.
Jesus directs their attention to the mighty deeds that he has done as evidence of his status as God’s Son. Then he says something very important: “He who believes in me will do the mighty deeds I do — and he will do greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (14:12). He further promises a new power in prayer because his successors will now pray in Jesus’ name.
Then Jesus explains how these things will become possible. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Comforter, that he might be with you to the end of the age: the Spirit of Truth.” This presence is what will make succession possible. Jesus further says that he will not leave his disciples as orphans but will come to them and be with them always. This reality, too, will be by the Comforter (14:20). Jesus is explicitly describing how succession will work. Herein another principle for Christian organizations: proper succession, succession that will live, requires the Spirit of Jesus.
Succession planning is never ours alone. Christian organizations are themselves successors to Jesus. In a very real sense, they will not be orphaned as the current leader departs, for that person was never truly the leader. Jesus was and is, and he will be present.
Empowerment and Authority
The second pertinent John passage appears at 20:19–23. It recounts what occurs on Easter evening, the first time that most of Jesus’ followers have seen him alive again. Jesus delivers words of outright succession commission: “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Implicit also is commission for future generations of successors. In important ways the disciples were to be for future men and women the leaders that Jesus had been to them.
The next words underline the link: “And after saying this he breathed upon them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit! Whosoever sins you forgive shall stand forgiven; whosoever you do not forgive shall stand unforgiven.’” One may argue about the precise meaning of these last words, but this much is clear: They confer Jesus’ own authority. Herein the third principle: a good leader publicly empowers the successors and openly confers upon them his or her own authority.
Almost immediately after reading John’s words, the reader of Scripture encounters the Book of Acts. Here Luke presents (among others) first Peter and then Paul acting as Jesus’ successors. They preach the kingdom, heal the sick and deliver those held captive by the enemy, just as the Master had done. They even raise the dead by the Spirit of Jesus. This would be the pattern of the next generations as well.
The eminent Yale church historian Ramsay MacMullen, describing the process by which those successors Christianized the Roman Empire by the 4th century, concluded that the gospel spread even more by the power of the Spirit’s deeds than by the power of his words. This living, empowered, biblical succession continues to our own day.
This article originally appeared in Evangelicals magazine.