Editor’s Note: This is the first article we have written by Kenneth. He utilized two Bible translations that will be new to some readers. The KNT is the abbreviation for the Kingdom New Testament translated by New Testament scholar N.T. Wright. The KGV is The Kingdom of God Version: The New Testament: God’s Message to Mankind translated by Raymond C. Faircloth.
In Matthew, in the context of Jesus dealing with the mother of the sons of Zebedee and with James and John themselves – regarding the prestige of possible future leadership roles, Jesus responded to the reaction of disgruntled disciples in an insightful way.
When the other ten heard this they were annoyed with the two brothers. But Jesus called them together.
Matthew 20:24-28 (KNT)
“You know how it is among pagan rulers,” he said. “They lord it over their subjects. They get all high and mighty and let everybody know it. But that is not how it is to be with you. If any of you wants to be great, he must be your servant. If any of you wants to be first, he must be the slave of all. That’s how it is with the son of man: he didn’t come to have servants obey him, but to be a servant – and to give his life as ‘a ransom for many.’”
For those (since the first century) who have made excuses for coercive, bossy, ecclesiastical “leadership” tactics, thinking that it is acceptable to badger folks into being “right” instead of being “wrong” – what about the Jesus model presented here in Matthew? If Gentile methods of “getting all high and mighty” and lording it over their “subjects” is okay with Jesus, why did he contrast it sharply with the essence of a humble servant? Why did Jesus effectively prohibit bullying among his students when he said, “But that is not how it is to be with you?”
Keep in mind that Jesus gave such crystal clear commands to his genuinely commissioned Apostles, who were (and are) still to inherit special rulership roles in the future Kingdom. In the 21st century church there are none who have literally seen the risen lord and been sent personally by him (despite some modern bombastic claims.) If it were obligatory that authentic first century Apostles not allow leadership styles to drift into careless, worldly ways, how greatly does it behoove any ministers nowadays to avoid demanding leadership methods?
Of course, one can readily see in the gospels that Jesus did not mince words with hypocritical religious leaders, nor was he reluctant, at times, to boldly rebuke the immature responses of his own disciples; but he did not produce any “tough love” rhetoric as a pagan-styled leader, brashly lording impatient, egotistical anger over anyone. Obviously, he was never a coward, never reluctant to wisely take on any relevant topic. But if there were not in existence an important difference between the style of “my way or the highway” arrogance – and humble, loving service, Jesus would not have pointed out the truths we can ponder in Matthew 20 and many other passages. To disregard and downplay the significance of these “leadership” truths is a very serious error.
In endeavoring to emulate Jesus’ own model of service, we need to humbly realize that we are viewing a man who always got the balance right in terms of communicating unadulterated truth from God (John 8:26-29) and exemplifying appropriately wise dealings with people (John 2:24, 25). There exists a wide berth between his flawless model and our relatively inept track records – as we potentially grow in learning precise truths – while also implementing godly interactions with our neighbors. Making mistakes in our efforts to pursue a proper equilibrium is surely common to us all. Nevertheless, despite our human blind spots and fallibility, I believe we can be greatly heartened by the fact that Jesus did successfully transfer authentic leadership norms (or standards of service) to his naturally weak, sometimes slow to learn disciples – whose constant flaws (including a perpetual, carnal lust to be “in charge”) are not hidden in Scriptures.
Jesus often reiterated this service model theme, which he himself exemplified perfectly!
Matthew 23:8-12 (KNT)
“You [true followers] mustn’t be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have one teacher, and you are all one family. And you shouldn’t call anyone ‘Father’ on earth, because you have one father, in heaven. Nor should you be called ‘Teacher,’ because you have one teacher, the Messiah.
The greatest among you should be your servant. People who make themselves great will be humbled; and people who humble themselves will become great.”
Matthew 18:1-5 (KNT)
At that time the disciples came to Jesus.
“So then,” they said, “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Jesus called a child and stood her in the middle of them.
“I’m telling you the truth,” he said. “Unless you turn inside out and become like children, you will never, ever, get into the kingdom of heaven. So if any of you make yourselves humble like this child, you will be great in the kingdom of heaven. And if anyone welcomes one such child in my name, they welcome me.”
Jesus even reiterated this emphatic truth of a servant attitude during the solemn event of the last supper, at which occasion he also modeled his prominent servant’s heart by washing the disciples’ feet – and exhorting them to carefully do likewise [John 13:1-17].
Luke 22: 24-30 (KGV)
Then a quarrel broke out among them over which of them was to be considered the greatest. So he said to them, “The kings of the pagan nations lord it over them, and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ It’s not to be like this with you; instead the one who is greatest among you must become as the youngest, and the leader as the one who serves. Who is greater; is it the one reclining at the table, or the one who serves? Isn’t it the one who is reclining at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves. You have continued to stand by me throughout my trials; so I covenant with you, just as my Father covenanted with me, for a Kingdom. This means that you may eat and drink at my table, in my Kingdom, and you will sit on thrones, governing in justice the twelve tribes of Israel.”
Without exaggerating, the new covenant, with its future Kingdom focus, was covenanted to his faithful disciples (and hence, ultimately, to all of us incorporated into Messiah’s new covenant) in a way in which humble, loving service is starkly contrasted with the abrasive mindset and bossy character of Gentile manipulators – who metaphorically snap their fingers to demand table service. In other words, this humble, Jesus-styled service itself is absolutely integral to the new covenant itself!
One could certainly cite many more passages from the gospels that indicate that this servant attitude of heart was not a superfluous issue for Jesus, incidental to other major topics. The loving servant model (in stark contrast with proud, pagan bullying) was of primary importance.
Another relevant passage in the New Testament demonstrates that Peter eventually got the point of the Jesus service model. Even though he failed to see it clearly (while Jesus was washing their feet [John 13:6-10]), years later, he could communicate lucidly from the heart about these pertinent truths.
I Peter 5: 1-4 (KGV)
So then, I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the Messiah’s sufferings, as well as one who will share in the glory that is going to be revealed. Take care of and guide the flock of God that He has entrusted to you. You should serve, not grudgingly, but willingly, as God wants; not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve. You should not domineer over those assigned to your care, but lead the flock by your own good example. Then, when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.
The First Peter passage goes on with encouragements that elders stay humble towards one another and towards God Himself. Along with many New Testament reminders, it seems that selfish, coercive, domineering strategies are repeatedly prohibited by Jesus and his genuine followers. Even sharp rebukes in the Bible and warnings about dangerous influences are very often communicated in a context of ultimate forgiveness within reasonable, honest back-and-forth dialogues.
To totally disregard Jesus’ loving servant model when conflicts arise (as if Jesus had merely offered some mild suggestions about superficial personality styles) is to blatantly disobey Jesus. If one believes that he / she is compelled to act urgently and abrasively to obviate the dangers of heresy, a more patient attitude might be much more in line with Jesus’ actual approach. To rapidly assume that calm, slow, gentle decisions and assertions are always wimpy, wishy-washy, and cowardly is often evidence of hasty, misguided zeal, and not of forthright honesty. What about being quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry?
We might want to keep in mind that our modern western world is very unlike the ancient world in many ways. Folks nowadays, by and large, through experiences with traditional, cultural awareness, tend to think they have already heard the supposed Christian gospel, even if they never really have. Getting their attention about monotheistic thinking within an accurate Kingdom of God framework can be painstakingly challenging. To hastily resort, as a general rule, to quick caustic rebuttal or sarcastic quips can do a lot more harm than good in helping folks get to the place of considering important truths.
Jesus and his genuine followers were proactive to approach others with loving enthusiasm, using friendly persuasion while inviting others to compare the apostles’ declarations with Scriptures themselves – in obedience to Jesus’ servant model. They respected the free will choices of the audiences involved, just as God always respects free will decision-making. It might take a lot longer to be involved in gentle, persuasive conversations than to dish out abrupt, edgy demands toward others, but the difference is vastly significant! It is the difference between obeying Jesus and being on board with the bullying agenda of pagan leadership.
If folks we deal with cannot be readily inclined to merely engage in calm, persuasive dialogues, it is time to shake the dust off our sandals, so to speak, and be careful not to cast pearls before swine. It is not the time to badger them, intimidate them, insult them, gossip about them, and then angrily chalk them off as incorrigible. If some people have failed to heed our particular attention-getting efforts, we can still pray for them, and forgive them as is appropriate. Then we can move on and gently reach others without any rancor at all in our hearts!
Jesus himself (who knew human nature deeply) never made the mistake of confusing the false prophets (wolves disguised as sheep) with possibly receptive sheep who had been previously hurt and scattered by false influences. The attitude of heart with which we deal with one another in “iron sharpening iron” interactions counts in terms of ultimate fruit production before God. If we aggressively drive hungry hearts (of possible sheep) away from the truth, while patting ourselves on the back for “taking a stand” against their errors, our Father God is not at all honored. No good fruit results from such bombastic contention and strife.
Paul wisely discerned these realities concerning Jesus’ bona fide, patient service model, rooted in self-sacrificial love, as opposed to the presumptuous, counterfeit leadership motives and strategies of those who don’t spare the flock! Paul could speak frankly about never having had “fleeced the flock” for personal gain; he worked hard with his own hands (to provide for his needs) with humility and tears, while keeping nothing back that would be helpful to them, as he fully disclosed the gospel of the Kingdom of God.
Acts 20: 26-31 (KGV)
“That’s why I must declare to you today, that I am innocent of the blood of you all, since I didn’t hold back from disclosing to you the whole of God’s purpose.
Pay attention to yourselves and to the entire flock of which the holy spirit has placed you as overseers, for you to take care of and guide the community of God which He purchased with the blood of His own [Son]. I know that after I leave, vicious wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Even from among yourselves men will push themselves forward, saying distorted things to draw the disciples away after them. So be on the alert, remembering that, night and day, for three years I never stopped warning each of you with tears.”
On top of Paul’s extremely careful imitation of Jesus, many exhortations in Paul’s writings exhibit the heart of Jesus, the humble servant whom we should all emulate.
II Timothy 2:23-26 (KNT)
Avoid silly and unprofitable disputes, because you know that they produce fights, and the Lord’s servant mustn’t be a fighter, but must be gentle to all people, able to teach, able to bear evil without resentment, able to correct opponents with a meek spirit. It may be that God will give them repentance so that they can arrive at a knowledge of the truth and, in coming to their senses, escape the devil’s snare, after having been held captive by him and made to do his will.
Notice the stark differences here; coercive tactics, in which unprofitable disputes lead to unfruitful fights, are not at all acceptable behaviors of “the Lord’s servant.” In contrast, “being gentle to all people, able to teach, able to bear evil without resentment, able to correct opponents with a meek [not hostile] spirit” is the non-fighter approach that is capable of bearing godly fruit! The patient Jesus model can powerfully produce the fruit of folks repenting, potentially escaping from devilish bondage, and coming to their senses – arriving at the knowledge of the truth!
Trying to cut corners through edgy pushiness yields only a state of confusion and strife. Furthermore, as possible role models, we should cautiously ask ourselves, if we herald non-violent obedience to Jesus, but then disobey Jesus (Matthew 5:21, 22) through unrelenting grudges (exhibited by constant, scathing put-downs), is a biblical example of non-violence authentically in place?
Even if “the Jesus model” is a slower approach, and one that requires more prayerful, thoughtful consideration, (and one that includes the risk of suffering bizarre persecutions), let’s be determined to follow Jesus in this all-important lifestyle rooted in the humble servant attitude!