Passage: Mark 10:35-45, Jn 13:1-17
Key verse: Mark 10:45
“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
We know that Jesus called his disciples in order to raise them up as leaders for the church. So we can think of discipleship as a kind of leadership training. However, Jesus’ model of leadership has important differences with the normal worldly model of leadership. We say that Jesus taught servant leadership. It almost sounds like a contradiction in terms: “Which are you, a servant or a leader?” But a key element of discipleship is learning to be a leader through serving. Today we want to think about and understand better what kind of leadership Jesus wants us to grow in. The message has three parts.
Jesus’ definition of leadership
When the first disciples of Jesus answered his calling and began to follow him, they understood that they were being prepared for some type of leadership position or role. It’s even implied in Jesus’ calling to Peter and Andrew, when he said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And so, as we read in the first passage, after following Jesus for a while and demonstrating their loyalty, at least two of the disciples thought they needed to make a move to secure themselves a high position in Jesus’ coming kingdom. James and John came to Jesus and said, “Teacher…let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” (Mk 10:37) After all, the main theme of Jesus’ ministry was the kingdom of God, and most kingdoms, besides having a king, also have princes and dukes and duchesses and second-lord-baron-earls of something-or-other.
Of course, most people would agree that what James and John were doing here was a shameless power grab. It was not their finest moment. The other disciples, when they heard what James and John, immediately became indignant with them. Jesus told them they didn’t know what they were asking for, and when he asked them if they could also suffer like he was going to suffer, they naively said they could.
Despite this, Jesus did not disqualify James and John, but patiently taught all the disciples the true meaning of greatness. Look at Mark 10:42: “Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.’” People’s sinful nature wants to become leaders so they can enjoy the power that comes from their authority, telling others what to do, being served, having the highest salary, having their will carried out—in short, for their own power and glory. This is the way of the Gentiles, that is, the godless world kingdom. But no one wants to live in a kingdom where the leaders rule from that motive. Such rulers make their subjects’ lives very unhappy. When the Hebrews were ruled over that way by their slave-masters in Egypt, their way of life could not rise above the survival level.
Jesus taught a different way, the gospel way of leadership and true greatness. Look at Mark 10:43-44. “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” It’s a deep paradox, that the way to become great is to lower ourselves to become a servant. Jesus even uses the strong language of slavery to show how serious he is. In this way, Jesus wants to cleanse us of any selfish ambition in the way we seek greatness. Obviously, a truly great person is a person who really helps other people, who improves others’ lives in a deep way, even to help them be saved from sin. But to do that, one has to be willing to serve them.
Jesus’ concept of a servant leader has now become widely known. The idea that a leader is a servant of the people has been absorbed into our society, so that even our elected officials are called “public servants.” In fact, I think that because “servant” has become an honorable title, now some people want to be called a servant even though they don’t really want to serve. Nonetheless, it’s good that we have servanthood as an ideal.
But the greatest example is still Jesus himself. In Mark 10:45 Jesus says, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The life of Jesus shows the greatest contrast between having a high position and humbling oneself to serve, because Jesus is the Son of God. We can easily imagine that he would come to earth to receive the praise that is due him and be served by all people. But instead, he completely devoted his life to serving others. Even the way he was born shows that God sent him to serve, as Paul describes in Philippians 2:5-7. That Jesus, through “…being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” Jesus lived a life of serving, and finally he gave his own life on the cross to be our ransom and save us from sin. And so he is the greatest, because by giving his life he became the Savior of the world.
In this famous verse, Jesus set himself as an example for us. Of course, we cannot become the Savior of the world. But in fact all serving partakes of the character of Jesus’ sacrifice. All serving is giving our own life for the good of others. With this model in mind, let’s think about the practical aspects of living as a servant leader.
Servant leadership in practice
On the night before he died, Jesus showed his disciples an unforgettable expression of what it means for a leader to be a servant. It’s when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, described in John 13. John 13:3-5 says, “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” Without any announcement, Jesus simply started to do for his disciples a task that only the lowest level of household servant would do.
The disciples were totally shocked by this. It seemed awkward, out of place, inappropriate…Peter even protested. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” (6) and he tried to stop Jesus. Jesus replied to him, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Then how do we understand this act of Jesus? Definitely, it was an act that expressed Jesus’ great love for his disciples. I think it also expresses the humility of a true servant leader. It shows that there was no limit to Jesus’ humility in serving people the way they needed to be served in order for them to be saved. By this tangible, physical act of foot-washing, Jesus’ disciples could come to understand something of Jesus’ humility in coming down from heaven to serve sinners.
After Jesus finished washing his disciples’ feet, he returned to his place and said, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (14-17)
What does it mean for us to wash one another’s feet? Of course, we could just take it literally, and some churches do. But in the time of Corona, we can’t touch each other at all. I think washing each others’ feet can be taken to mean that we should be willing to serve each other in ways that seem mundane or even beneath us. Jesus would never say, “Nope, I’m not touching those feet, that’s below my pay grade.” To imitate Jesus the foot-washer, we have to let go of our high-mindedness. Seemingly “low” kinds of serving can actually have the greatest impact on people’s lives. In UBF we are blessed with a rich heritage of this kind of serving—things like giving rides, or taking someone food shopping. I remember one story about how Dr. Samuel Lee actually helped a new missionary cook when they were struggling to do it for themselves. On Mother’s Day, we can’t help but mention that mothers do this kind of serving all the time without even being asked—cleaning up their children’s puke and dirty diapers with no complaints, and enduring all their children’s sins with infinite patience.
The dirtiness of feet can also be an analogy for sin. Of course, Jesus already cleansed us of all our sin once and for all on the cross. That’s why Jesus said to Peter, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean.” So washing one another’s feet can also mean helping each other overcome sins in a small way. Once when my Bible teacher realized I was having a hard time focusing on my studies, he had me sit in his office with him and study. It wasn’t for a long time, maybe half an hour while we were in between meetings and I couldn’t go home. But I got things done in that half hour that I had been putting off for days, because when my Bible teacher was there, I couldn’t goof off and do something else. I feel that he washed my feet through doing that, and also I learned something about myself.
Between coworkers, washing feet can simply be to apply extra grace to compensate for their shortcomings, not always trying to hold others up to our own standard. Everybody has shortcomings. 1 Peter 4:8 says, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”
One last thing to point out about this passage is that in John 13 verse 3 it says Jesus did this foot-washing because he “knew that the Father had put all things under his power.” That shows that Jesus could humble himself because he was confident that with God, he actually had a very high position that no one could take away. Because of Jesus’ perfect confidence in his relationship to God, he didn’t need to prove himself to anybody; he didn’t need to try to look like someone who was too important to do a low-level job. It’s not easy to serve like Jesus did; but the power source of it is to have a strong inner confidence of our own importance to God. Let’s pray we may practice servant leadership like Jesus the foot-washer.
Leadership roles in the church
A great thing about servant leadership is that it can be put into practice without any formal leadership role at all. Everybody can serve others from whatever position they are in. We can be a powerful good influence on others, and even shape the people around us to be more like Christ without any official position.
However, there are still leadership roles and positions in the church. The church is an organization, and as such it should probably be organized to some extent at least. Also, people have different gifts, and their gifts can be best put to use within the definition of a specific role. But we have to be very careful not to let the attitude of self-glory seeking creep back into our hearts when we have a chance to move to some more prominent role in the church. How can we steer clear of that temptation? I think the best way is to not forget where those roles came from in the first place.
What Paul wrote in Ephesians Chapter 4 is very relevant to that. Ephesians 4:11 says, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers…” The first four words of that verse are so important: “So Christ himself gave…” and then Paul lists some of the roles in the church. What does that teach us? It means that the roles in the church are not just something that somebody made up to give somebody else something to do. They are more than just a matter of human organization. They are given by Christ, according to the gifts of the Holy Spirit that each one received. When we know that our role in the church was given by Christ, then we fulfill it faithfully, as a holy trust. We know that if we try to obtain such a position just to get recognition from people, we will not get any reward from Christ.
Paul continues in Ephesians 4:12-13: “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” This tells us that, even though the roles in the church are different, the goal of them is all the same: first, it’s to equip God’s people for works of service. In our discipleship ministry, we try out giving disciples opportunities to try different ways of serving in the church, so they can be equipped for works of service. Then, when everyone is equipped to serve others, the body of Christ can be built up until we reach unity. That unity is unity in faith and the knowledge of Christ, and it happens when every member of the body becomes mature and is filled with the fullness of Christ.
When we know this is the goal in the church, we know that no role or leadership position exists to exalt anyone over anyone else. It’s unavoidable that some roles are more visible than others and so tend to get more praise and recognition from people. But when everyone knows that the goal is to help everyone else grow, and when the leaders know that they are servant leaders, there is no problem.
A good example of servant leadership in a leadership role within the church is shown by Peter at the very beginning of the book of Acts. It involved the difficult issue of Judas’ betrayal and how the body of believers could deal with it and be healed from the wound it caused. A leader with less faith might have tried to ignore the issue, maybe hoping everyone forgot about it, but Peter stood up among the leaders and dealt with it. He said in Acts 1:16-17, “Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. 17 He was one of our number and shared in our ministry.” Here, as a leader, Peter is first of all helping the people understand what had happened based on the Scripture. Though a great work of evil had happened in their fellowship, it was not outside of God’s care and sovereignty; it was prophesied in the Scripture.
Peter then quoted some of those scriptures. He said, “For it is written in the Book of Psalms: ‘May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,’ and, ‘May another take his place of leadership.’” These scriptures also showed the way to deal with the loss, by choosing another of the disciples to take Judas’ place and restore the twelve as witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. The work of restoration from loss is one of the most important that a church leader can do.
So, the church nominated two people to take over the apostolic role, Joseph and Matthias. At that point, Peter could easily have just chosen the one he liked best without consulting anybody. But instead, the whole church prayed together. They said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen 25 to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” (Ac 1:24-25) What a great example of how a servant leader’s goal is not to have their own will done, but to serve the church to come together and find God’s will.
In conclusion, when a person does have a leadership role in the church, such that they are overseeing others spiritually, they have a most sacred trust to fulfill. Several years after this event in Acts, when Apostle Peter had served the church for a long time, he had some serious directions for such people, whom he called “elders”. In 1 Peter Chapter 5 he wrote,
“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.” Here, Peter uses the analogy of the leader as shepherd, whose concern is only for the good of the flock. Growing as a leader is really just growing in the image of Jesus, the good shepherd.
So far we haven’t talked about any reward of practicing servant leadership—just that we should do it because it’s the right way to build up the church. But there is a reward. Jesus, the Chief Shepherd, knows everything we go through in the life of serving. When he appears, those who have served with a pure heart will receive a crown of glory that will never fade away.
Today we thought about bad and good ways to try to be a leader, and how to practice the servant leadership that Jesus exemplified for us. Servant leadership is totally different from worldly leadership. To really practice servant leadership, we need to be transformed on the inside so that our genuine desire is to please Jesus and become like him. May God bless you to practice servant leadership in your family, your workplace, in the church, and in your mission field until all God’s people reach maturity.