by Syd Hielema
This article is part of The Third Third of Life Toolkit—a collection of resources for ministry to and with people ages 55 and over, brought to you by two ministries of the Christian Reformed Church in North America: Disability Concerns and Faith Formation Ministries.
It’s a powerfully evocative scene. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees drag a woman caught in the act of adultery into the temple courts and ask Jesus if she should be stoned, as the law commands. Jesus ignores them for a time, and then finally responds: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).
They are stunned into silence. And then we read, “At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there” (v. 9).
“The older ones first.”
Gospel writer John, a true poet, prefers to imply rather than explain directly. He doesn’t tell us why the older ones left first. But the narrative suggests that the older ones are more reflective, are more self-aware (especially of their own sinfulness), and, in this case, have a greater capacity for spiritual honesty.
I like to think that by leaving first, the older ones here began to show that their hearts were softening toward Jesus, and that through their example, some of the hearts of their younger mentees began to soften as well.
The fact that this narrative mentions discipleship in the third third of life vaguely, in passing, is consistent with the rest of Scripture. Today we live in a generationally segmented society, but the biblical world was not that way. There were children, there were adults, and that was it. We cannot find an explicit articulation of a “third third of life theology” in the Bible.
But we can find threads woven through the Scriptures that look like this:
1. “Elders” are a group respected for their wisdom
The first reference to “elders” as a specific group in the community comes when the Lord speaks to Moses out of the burning bush:
“Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘The LORD , the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—appeared to me and said: I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt.’” (Ex. 3:16)
The final references are found in descriptions of 24 elders surrounding the throne in the book of Revelation, representing the 12 tribes of the Old Testament and the 12 apostles of the New Testament. In between these examples, the term “elders” consistently refers to leaders of a community that needs their wisdom, fortitude, life experience, and ability to trust in God, especially in difficult circumstances.
Individual stories bear this out. The Lord chose elderly, childless Abram and Sarai as the parents of the Old Testament chosen people. God appeared to Moses at the burning bush when Moses was 80 years old. The New Testament begins as Zechariah and Elizabeth (another elderly, childless couple) are called to give birth to John the Baptist. The infant Jesus is presented at the temple in the presence of Simeon and Anna, two very old saints who pronounce prophecies and blessings over the Messiah.
If we formed a collage containing all the portraits of elderly saints, the composite picture would display a community of faithful people who continue to learn to trust amid significant difficulties and who embody authenticity and hope.
At no point do the Scriptures suggest that the elderly are a problem to be solved or a burden to be borne. Instead, they are a gift to be treasured and honored.
2. Growing in Christlikeness is a lifelong calling
Only one reference to retirement can be found in the entire Scriptures, and it concerns the work of the Levites:
“Men twenty-five years old or more shall come to take part in the work at the tent of meeting, but at the age of fifty, they must retire from their regular service and work no longer.” (Num. 8:24)
This requirement is a declaration of grace: the work of preparing sacrifices involved (literally) heavy lifting, and at that time the average male life expectancy was probably less than 50 years. The few who reached the age of 50 were mercifully given lighter duties.
What might the Bible’s almost complete silence concerning retirement mean for us?
What matters most is that one never retires from growing in Christ. In Philippians, one of his later letters, Paul testifies:
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. (Phil. 3:10-12)
When we first meet Paul (Saul) in Acts 7, he is a young Pharisee wracked with angry discontent. As an old man, he testifies to the power of the Spirit maturing him into the secret of contentment. Elderly Paul embodies the beauty of Psalm 92:
The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD , they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him. (Ps. 92:12-15)
3. All the generations need each other
As mentioned above, the biblical world was aware of only two life seasons, childhood and adulthood, and these generations needed each other. We’ve already noted how older adults are needed. In addition, Jesus declares, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3), and Isaiah prophesies that through the Branch of Jesse, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).
Paul’s teaching on the unity and diversity of the church as the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12 strengthens this “generations needing each other” principle. The church in Corinth was beset with toxic conflict, and Paul challenges them to enfold their many differences within the unity of the Spirit, so that their differences would be transformed from liabilities to assets:
God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. . . . There are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. . . . There should be no division in the body. . . . If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. (1 Cor. 12:18-27)
Today we speak of the “intergenerational church” of all ages, and the one body/many parts principle works itself out as follows:
- Every generation needs the blessings of all the other generations.
- Every generation has blessings to share with all the other generations.
- The congregation that intentionally cultivates a deeper awareness of the blessings and needs of each generation and develops practices for intergenerational sharing based on this awareness is faithfully living out the call and gift of 1 Corinthians 12 (which, for very good reason, is followed by the powerful love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13).
The Third Third of Life toolkit uses these three biblical themes as a foundation for suggesting dozens of practices and ideas to reflect and act upon as we “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). What a gift we have that we live in a day when the church needs sound theology and practices for faith formation in the third third of life! And what challenges we face in navigating complex end-of-life dynamics that were unknown in the biblical world.
Times may have changed, but the fundamental call has not: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Heb. 12:1-2).
Syd Hielema serves as director of the CRC Connections II project. He and his wife, Evelyn, experience daily awareness of living within the second of four generations, as they care for very elderly parents and enjoy the graces of a young grandson.
If you’re part of the Christian Reformed Church in North America and you have questions about how to strengthen your church’s ministry to and with people in the third third of life, one of Faith Formation Ministries’ Regional Catalyzers would love to talk with you about ideas and strategies.