What Is a Bishop?

R.C. Sproul

In the New Testament, the Greek word for bishop is the term episcopus. The word episcopus has a rich and fascinating history. It is made up of a prefix epi and a root scopus. We get the English word scope from this root. A scope is an instrument we use to look at things. We have microscopes to look at little things and telescopes to look at things that are far away. The prefix epi serves simply to intensify a root. There is, for example, knowledge (gnosis) and profound knowledge (epignosis). There is desire (thumia) and passionate desire or lust (epithumia).

We see then that an episcopus is a person who looks at something intensely. In the ancient Greek world, an episcopus could be a military general who periodically visited various units of the army to make them stand inspection. If the troops were alert, sharp, and battle-ready, then they received the commendation of the episcopus. If the troops were slovenly and ill-prepared, then they received a stinging rebuke from the episcopus.

A strange twist of word usage is found in the verb form of the Greek episcopus. The verb form means "to visit." The type of visit that is in view, though, is not that of a casual drop-in appearance but a visit that involves a careful scrutiny of the situation. This kind of visit is by one who exercises profound care of the one he is visiting. Bishops are called bishops because they are the overseers of the flock of God. They are called to visit the sick, the imprisoned, the hungry, and so on. They are given the care of the people of God.

In the Bible, the Supreme Bishop is God Himself. God has all men under His constant scrutiny. His eye scrutinizes each one of us intensely. He numbers the very hairs of our heads and is cognizant of every idle word that escapes our lips.

Taken from "Reflecting on Our Episcopus" by Ligonier Ministries (used by permission).

Originally published June 11, 2010.

Editors' Picks

  • "The Bible Has So Many Contradictions!"
    "The Bible Has So Many Contradictions!"
  • Is it Biblical for Christians to Get Tattoos?
    Is it Biblical for Christians to Get Tattoos?
  • How Did Lucifer Fall and Become Satan?
    How Did Lucifer Fall and Become Satan?