Leaders are Servants

Ecclesiastes 12:12 tells us, “Of making many books there is no end…” That is true for all genres, but especially for leadership. There is no shortage of books, articles, websites, and conferences on leadership. While many of these resources are good, it can often be wearisome to try to take it all in and know where to turn. As Christians, our authority is in the Word of God, and we should turn to it regarding leadership advice as well. While Scripture gives us numerous examples both of godly and ungodly leaders, there is no greater example than the one who is the perfect example of a leader, Jesus. Jesus perfectly models leadership by service. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus laying down his life through sacrifice. We see through his life that the way of leadership is the way of service. While the world proclaims the way of leadership is a ladder of self-promotion, Jesus proclaims the way of leadership is a cross of self-denial.

Jesus Teaches Servanthood

How exactly is Jesus an example of a servant-leader for us? For starters, Jesus teaches us to be servants. In Matthew 20, we read of a riveting conversation between a mother and our Lord. The mother, who is said to be kneeling before Jesus, wants her sons to have quite a high position in the kingdom of Heaven—she wants one to sit at the right hand of Jesus, and the other at the left. What a request! Jesus replies by asking if they are able to suffer in the way he will, and by telling them that he cannot grant such a thing. Listen to his words:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:26-28 ESV)

These two “sons of Zebedee” and their mother wanted to be great, but Jesus has a different definition of that word. So what does this have to do with leadership for us today? To be great in the kingdom of Heaven is not to hold a powerful or lofty position. It’s not about us acquiring all that we can for ourselves, seeking glory and honor for ourselves, or “lording” over people, promoting ourselves. It’s quite the opposite. To be great in God’s economy means we must become a servant. If you want to be a leader of people, be their servant. Do the little things. Serve them and be faithful in the little things, in the things that no one else wants to do. Jesus even went so far as to say even he came not to be served. More on that later, but here I want us to see that Jesus is teaching us a very important lesson: to be great is not to be great in the sense that the world defines it. It means servanthood. To be a leader is to be a servant. Jesus teaches us servanthood.

Jesus Models Servanthood

Jesus not only teaches servanthood, he models it. There are numerous Gospel accounts we could turn to for examples of Jesus serving others. In fact, that’s what the Gospels are—accounts of Jesus’ servanthood. That was Jesus’ life. Perhaps one of the foremost stories of the display of Jesus’ servanthood on display though comes from John 13, where Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. Maybe this doesn’t sound like a big deal to us now, because, you know, we have closed shoes. In first century Palestine however, this was huge. They walked in sandals on dirt roads everywhere they went. For Jesus to have washed his disciples’ feet was for him to stoop and do the dirtiest and lowliest job of them all. The disciples should have been washing his feet! The God of the universe was washing the dirt and muck off feet! Let this offend you a little bit. It should. When this passage offends you, then you know you are beginning to understand the magnitude of what is going on. It offended Peter. In fact, he objected. But Jesus rebuked him.

Jesus answered him, ‘What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ (John 13:7-9)

Maybe Peter realized this was perhaps a sign of some greater cleansing to come when he exclaimed for the Lord to wash more of him, but the sheer nature of the servant heart of our Master is on full display here. If we want to be a leader, we must serve like this. We must be an observer in this Upper Room. We must learn and follow Jesus’ teachings, but we must also follow Jesus’ life. We must follow his model. Our hands must get dirty and do the things we ask our people to do. We must care and love our people, more than they love ourselves. Do you see this in Jesus’ care for his disciples? Don’t leave the room until you do.

Jesus Humbled Himself

If Jesus taught and modeled service as leadership, how exactly did he serve? He humbled himself to be servant. Philippians 2:5-11 shows us how. If you want to fall in love with the beautiful Christ, read this passage over and over again:

Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross. For this reason God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow—in heaven and on earth and under the earth—and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (CSB).

Jesus is not just an example to us for humility and servant-leadership, he is our servant in our place. He is the servant who has saved us. He is the substitute who emptied himself, taking our humanity and sinfulness upon him, paying the punishment for our sin, and humbling himself to the worst death in the history of humankind. With nails driven in his hands and feet, he died for humans who had rebelled against humans—humans who were unlovable, but who he loved anyway. He defeated death, and having been raised, is now exalted! This is how Jesus was the ultimate servant. The only way you and I will ever be a good leader is by communing with and trusting the God who became a servant to sinners like us. By humbling ourselves and letting ourselves be led by the King who served us we can become servant-leaders to those who God has given us. Let’s keep our eyes focused on God’s Word, and on Jesus’ teachings and examples. By relying on his grace, may we serve and lead others the way he has done for us.