This topic examines how Jesus views the world’s ideas about leadership and examines how  this is the exact opposite of how leadership works in the Kingdom of God.  Leadership modelled on Jesus is not about position, status or power but humility and servanthood. We see the struggles that the disciples had in coming to terms with Jesus teaching. The key Bible Passages in this topic are:

  • Matthew 23:1-12
  • Matthew 18:1-4
  • Matthew 20:20-28

In the Kingdom Leadership is Different

As with most things Jesus turned leadership upside down. His view of leadership was radically different than that which he saw in the world. His instruction to the Disciples that in the Kingdom it wasn’t to be that way, it was to be different. Jesus taught, modelled and coached the Disciples in  being leaders. It was their calling for a time when Jesus had left them in the world to fulfil God’s Kingdom purpose.

The leadership that Jesus taught and modelled was not about command and control, nor was it about status and power. His model was servanthood.  More than this it is not so much about technique but the expression of his character,. A character that Christians are called to develop .  From the Kingdom perspective, this makes servant leadership modelled on Jesus and centred on his indwelling character superior to all secular techniques. More than this it is the way that Christian’s should lead, not because it works but because Christ-centred servant leadership means to lead the way Jesus led.

The World’s Idea of Leadership A Counter-example (Matthew 23:1-12)

The irony hung in the air “Practice and observe what they tell you but not what they do”.

Jesus was not at all impressed by the Scribes and the Pharisees, these leaders of the people. It was said that they “sat on Moses’ seat” [1]  which was a figurative recognition of their teaching authority, somewhat similar to the idea of a “professorial chair” at universities today.  Their role was to expound and teach the application of God’s Laws, as given through Moses, seeking to enable them to be applied in practical day to day circumstances.  However, they understood righteousness in terms of the ridged observation of the law and developed this into a system of minute detail, all of which must be observed. This was the source of their complaint about the disciples picking and eating an ear of corn on the Sabbath (Luke 6:1), it resulted from the attempt by the Pharisees to define what was permissible on the Sabbath and was not a direct command of God. They did not distinguish it clearly from the Law given by God through Moses and so they added to God’s word.

The result was that the Pharisees made it hard for people to live righteously and bring glory to God. Their original motive may have been to help, but all they did was pile up burden upon burden upon the people. Instead of helping they made it more difficult for people to live for God, this was the first issue that Jesus had with these leaders of the people.

The second one was hypocrisy, which showed itself in two ways. The first was that they did not comply with their own teaching. This was not about honest attempts to comply and simple, human failure. No, it was a situation lacking integrity. One of imposition on the people to do what they declared as lawful, and then they went ahead and pleased themselves.  They considered themselves to be above the people and demonstrated that their values were wrong. They valued themselves and their position above others.

Thirdly, whilst making it hard for the people, the Scribes and Pharisees also sought first their own benefit and ease as a result of their position. They did not act to glorify God but to gain the glory for themselves. They used their style and position to elevate their status and celebrity to gain recognition in the streets, get the best seats at feasts and receive honorific titles. They used their leadership position to serve themselves.

Here, as in other episodes, Jesus shows that the ways of the Kingdom of God are not these ways.  God exalts those who humble themselves and those who exalt themselves will be humbled. He is teaching that leadership is not about power, domination, status, greatness and receiving honour. In fact, there are only three positions that are relevant, all people are equal as brothers before God,  God is our Father and Jesus is our Teacher.  The greatest among the people were those who served others.

This is radical because servants were lowly people in Jewish society whose job was to work for the benefit of others not self.  It is not egalitarian idealism, rather it is how the Kingdom of God works and Jesus was the example.  So, leaders were to be focused on others not self and to serve them. They were not to use their status and those that they led to serve themselves.  This is a matter of humility and choice on the part of the leader.

How different the way of the Scribes and Pharisees would have been had they understood this and how different the lot of the people would have been. The Scribes and the Pharisees would have been interested in genuinely helping others to live lives that glorified God. How different it is to be for the leader who belongs to Christ.

Jesus has declared a Kingdom principle, one that he lives out. As such it was as alien to Jewish society and culture as it is different to and challenges all societies and cultures today.

  • Take a Moment: Review this passage and identify the leadership qualities that were important to Jesus.
  • Take a Moment: What is the world’s view of greatness?  What is it that makes someone great? Take a moment to compile your list.

Who is the Greatest? (Matthew 18:1-4)

If we followed the game show formula and asked 100 people we would come up with a list that would probably include factors like: wealth, status, achievement, success, authority level, power, magnitude of one’s responsibilities, spirituality, number of followers, how many books one had authored etc. etc.

Jesus had been teaching the disciples about authority (Matthew 17: 25 & 26) and this had obviously led them to ponder the issue of greatness and authority in the Kingdom of God. Judging by Jesus’ response, the disciples seemed to be thinking in the world’s terms when they asked him the question “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

The way authority and leadership works in the Kingdom of God is radically different to that of the world. Jesus illustrated this with a child’s humility as the model of Kingdom greatness  and in so doing he challenges the disciples to think quite differently about it. The Kingdom is diametrically opposed to the world.

In Jewish society, apart from the need to care for them, a child was of little consequence, they were under adult and parental authority and not taken seriously except as a dependent responsibility[2].  “Turn and become like children” is a radical challenge to how we naturally see greatness, authority and power and it is clearly placed in the context of the organisational fabric of society. It is a simple childlike humility, dependent upon their parent, that is the key to greatness in the Kingdom. It is not based on anything on that list of the attributes of worldly greatness. It’s not about rank, position or status.   The challenge is identical for all, regardless of the society and culture in which we live.

  • Take a Moment: How does humility work with leadership?

Not Like Worldly Leaders (Matt 20:20-28)

A short time after the Matthew 18 episode James and John still seem not to have grasped the issue of authority and power in the Kingdom.  Earlier (Matthew 19), Jesus had explained how, once he had been reinstated to his heavenly throne the disciples would each occupy a throne. Now James and John evidently wanted a more superior position than the other disciples; to sit at Jesus’ left and right hand.

  • Take a Moment: How were they looking at things? What motivated them to think this way?

Plainly they had not absorbed Jesus’ teaching on greatness. Did they feel superior to the other disciples? (With Peter they are recorded as being closer to Jesus than the others and he seemed to spend more time coaching them.) Did they think that Peter may be OK but who would want to be led by such a raw and impetuous man who was always “putting his foot in his mouth”; opening his mouth and making mistakes?  Did they feel that extra status was deserved? Did they want power and authority? Were they control freaks?

Whilst we will never know until we can ask them, our own knowledge of people can make us sure it was something along those lines. They wanted that position that was above the rest. That is why the others were offended when they found out and some of them will have been upset because they had similar thoughts and desires. So, Jesus has a team meeting. He calls them all together and turns things upside down, making plain again that the Kingdom does not work like the world. To be fitted for the Kingdom they must change radically how they look at leadership, position, power and authority.

He speaks of how Gentile rulers lord[3]it over them and exercise authority, most likely alluding to the Romans. The disciples would have a very clear understanding of the structure and manner of their authoritarian military governance.  He then gives them a very direct instruction with strong language “It shall not be so among you”.  I can hear a parent taking their child to task “Don’t do it”.

Jesus goes on to show that this way of thinking is diametrically opposed to Kingdom culture. In the Kingdom the great will be servants and those who aspire to be first, at the top of the heap won’t be; they will be last. Earlier he had told the disciples that children, who were not considered much in society, were the model to which they should aspire. Then, a little while later, he graphically highlights the “first and last” principle by washing the disciple’s feet. Soon after that he takes the Scribes and Pharisees to task for their abusive leadership. He highlights then, that servants, who were at the bottom of society, and slaves, who were even lower, were models of greatness in the Kingdom.

He seeks to drive home that the disciples as leaders are to serve those they lead. They are not to adopt the worldly perspective that leads them to seek power and authority over people for the sake of their own position and status.

He underlines this with his own example. He, the Son of God, gave up all that being God entailed in order to serve. Not to be served as a despotic ruler or even a benign God, but to serve others in the most humiliating way one could conceive. Nailed naked to a cross to suffer the torture of most cruel, painful and filthy death that man could conceive. Not because he was unable to resist but because he chose not to, so as to serve by giving his life as a ransom for many. To serve others that they (we) might receive the benefit and reach the true pinnacle, to be made into a kingdom for God (Revelation 5:10)

The model of the child, the servant and the slave are potent illustrations that shatter cultural norms. However, they do not come close to the concept of God himself as servant. It triple underlines that the way of the Kingdom of God is NOT based upon the way of the world; it is radically different.  If we aspire to true greatness, as measured by God, or roles of leadership in his Kingdom service, then we must be radically different to the world which forms our natural outlook. We need our thinking transformed (Romans 12:2) to understand that greatness and leadership in the Kingdom is not about power, position and status but it is first about others; serving others so that they can be what God has called them to be.

  • Take a Moment: How does this reversal challenge your views of leadership? What would you add to your list of Kingdom leadership characteristics? What might you need to change?

[1] After the first century the front seat in the synagogue was often referred to as “Moses Seat” derived from this figurative use. France pp327

[2] France pp274

[3] The Greek verb translated “Lording it over” does not have the critical connotation that we read in the English phrase. It would be better translated “exercise lordship over” a parallel to “exercise authority over”. The comment is not about abuse of power but that the world’s structures of power do not apply to the Kingdom. Carson pp432, France pp296