By J. Oswald Sanders

In light of the tremendous stress laid upon the leadership role in both secular and religious worlds, it is surprising to discover that in the King James version of the Bible, for example, the term leader occurs only six times, three times in the singular and three in the plural. That is not to say that the theme is not prominent in the Bible. But it is usually referred to in different terms, the most prominent being “servant.” It is not “Moses, my leader,” but “Moses, my servant.” The emphasis is consonant with Christ’s teaching on the subject.

Although Jesus was not a revolutionary in the political sense, many of His teachings were startling and revolutionary, and none more so than those on leadership. In the contemporary world, the term servant has a very lowly connotation, but that was not so as Jesus used it. Indeed, He elevated it, equating it with greatness, and that was certainly a revolutionary concept. Most of us would have no objection to being masters, but servanthood holds little attraction.

Christ’s view of His Kingdom was that of a community of members serving one another – mutual service. Paul advocates the same idea: “Serve one another in love” (Gal. 5:13). And of course our loving service is to spread to the needy world around us. But in the life of the Church today, it usually the few who serve the many.

Jesus well knew that such an otherworldly concept would not be welcomed by a self-pleasing world of men. But he required nothing less of those who desired to rise to leadership in His kingdom.

The contrast between the world’s idea of leadership and that of Christ is brought into sharp focus in Mk 10:42-43: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” It was a lesson James and John had not mastered. They had, however taken seriously the Master’s promise, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Mt. 19:28). In selfish ambition they used their doting mother in an endeavor to forestall their colleagues and preempt the prime positions in the coming Kingdom.

But Jesus would have none of it. There must be no lobbying for office. “You don’t know what you are asking,” was the reply. Nor did they. They wanted the glory, but not the shame; the crown, but not the cross; to be masters, not servants.

Their requests afforded Jesus the occasion to present two leadership principles of permanent relevance.

Prerequisites for Leadership

There is sovereignty in spiritual leadership. “To sit at my right [hand] or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared” (Mk. 10:40).

Our emphasis would probably have been, “It is for those who have prepared themselves for it.” But Jesus emphasized the fundamental difference in leadership principles. “It is not so among you.” Places of spiritual ministry and leadership are sovereignly assigned by God. The Good News Bible translation of verse 40 is: “It is God who will give these places to those for whom he has prepared them.”

No theological training or leadership course will automatically confer spiritual leadership or qualify one for an effective ministry. Jesus was later to tell them, “You did not choose me,-but I chose you and appointed you” (Jn. 15:16). To be able to affirm, “I am not here by selection of a man or the election of a group, but by the sovereign appointment of God,” gives great confidence to the Christian worker.

There is suffering in spiritual leadership. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” (Mk. 10:38).

Jesus was too straightforward and honest to conceal the cost of service for the kingdom. For the fulfillment of the stupendous task entrusted to Him, He needed men and women of quality, with eyes wide open, who would follow Him to the death.

To the Lord’s probing question, they returned the glib answer, “We can”-thus betraying a tragic lack of self-knowledge. Jesus told them that they would indeed drink the cup and experience the baptism. They must learn that for an influential spiritual ministry they would pay a steep price, and that it cannot be paid in a lump sum. In the end, it cost James his head, and John finished his days in a concentration camp.

They desired to attain leadership “on the cheap,” but Jesus’ words soon disillusioned them. The fundamental lessons that greatness comes only by way of servanthood, and that first place in leadership is gained only by becoming everybody’s slave, must have come as a great and unwelcome shock It is noteworthy that only once did Jesus say that He was leaving His disciples an example, and that was when He washed their feet (Jn. 13:15). And that example was servanthood. Only once did any other writer say that He had left an example-and that was an example of suffering (1 Pet. 2:21). Thus the thoughts of suffering and servanthood are linked, even as they were in the life of the Lord. And the servant greater than his Lord?

The Spirit of Servanthood

In stating that primacy in leadership comes way of primacy in servanthood, Jesus did not have in mind mere acts of service, for those can be performed from very dubious motives. He meant the spirit of servanthood, which He expressed when He claimed, “I am among you as he that serves.”

Isaiah 42:1-5, a messianic passage, reveals what the spirit of servanthood means and outlines in this prophetic foreview the features that would qualify the coming Messiah as the ideal Servant of the Lord.

Israel had been chosen by God to be His servant through whom He could reveal Himself to the world. But the nation failed Him dismally at every turn. However, where Israel failed, Jesus succeeded gloriously, and the principles of His life must be the pattern for ours. Here are some of those principles.


“Here is my servant, whom I uphold” (v.1), a statement with Messianic significance. In fulfilling this prophetic intimation, Jesus voluntarily “made himself nothing” (Phil. 2:7), surrendering His privileges and the independent exercise of His will. Though possessing all the powers and prerogatives of deity, He voluntarily became dependent upon His Father. Though He upheld “all things by his powerful word” (Heb. 1:3), so fully did He identify Himself with the sinless infirmities of our humanity, that in His manhood He Himself needed to be upheld. That divine paradox is one of the staggering aspects of Christ’s condescension. In the measure in which we adopt the same attitude will the Holy Spirit be able to use us.


“My chosen one in whom I delight” (v.1). The delight of Jehovah in His ideal Servant was warmly reciprocated, for in another Messianic reference the Son says, “I desire to do your will, 0 my God” (Ps. 40:8).


“He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets” (v.2). The ministry of God’s Servant would not be strident and flamboyant, but modest and self-effacing. In this day of blatant and arrogant self-advertisement, that is a most desirable quality.

The devil tempted Jesus on that point when he challenged Him to create a stir by making a miraculous leap from the parapet of the Temple. But He did not fall to the tempter’s wile.

God’s Servant works so quietly and unobtrusively that many even doubt His existence. His method justifies the statement, “Truly you are a God who hides himself” (Is. 45:15). It is recorded of the cherubim, those angelic servants of the Lord, that they used four of their six wings to conceal their faces and their feet-a graphic representation of contentment with hidden service (Is. 6:2).


“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out” (v.3). The Lord’s Servant would be sympathetic and understanding with the weak and erring. Failing men and women are
often crushed under the callous tread of their fellowmen, but not so with the ideal Servant. He was to specialize in mending bruised reeds and fanning the smoking wick into a flame.

Many, even Christian workers, ignore those who have failed and “pass by on the other side.” They want a ministry more rewarding and more worthy of their powers-something more spectacular than bearing with the relapses and backslidings of frail humanity-but it is a noble work to reclaim those whom the world despises. How dimly Peter’s wick burned in the judgment hall, but what a brilliant flame blazed on the day of Pentecost! His interview with God’s ideal Servant put everything right.


“He will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth” (v.4). God’s Servant would be undiscourageable. A pessimist never makes an inspiring leader. Hope and optimism are essential qualities for the servant of God as he battles with the powers of darkness for the souls of men. God’s Servant would be optimistic until His full objective is attained.


“I will put my Spirit on him” (v.1). By themselves, the preceding five qualities would be insufficient for His tremendous task. A touch of the supernatural was required, and that was supplied in the anointing of the Spirit. “You know how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good” (Acts 10:38).

The same anointing that God’s ideal Servant received is available for us. Until the Spirit descended upon Him at His baptism, Jesus created no stir in Nazareth, but then events of world-shaking importance began to happen. Is the servant greater than his Lord! Can we dispense with that which as the prime essential for the effectiveness of His ministry on earth?

(The above material was published by the DISCIPLESHIP JOURNAL, 1993)

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