What Is Servant Leadership?
This chapter tells a story found in three of the gospels.[i] The story unfolds as Jesus and the disciples are traveling through Galilee toward Capernaum, where He takes a reprieve from public ministry to personally instruct the twelve. He tackles issues involving the nature of His kingdom, but in a roundabout way that first lays bare their deeply-ingrained egotism and need of heart-conversion. Only then can they appreciate the radical nature of a kingdom governed by the power of love rather than the love of power.
All They Heard Was “Jerusalem”
Matthew 17:22, Mark 9:31, Matthew 20:17-19
Jesus predicted His death three times, and none of the disciples believed him.[ii] They blew past them to siphon out what they wanted to hear. We could easily do the same.
In our story, the transfiguration has just occurred. All the disciples knew about it, and three had seen it with their own eyes. This powerful and unmistakable affirmation of Jesus’ divinity must have elevated their spirits as they trudged through the hot hours of ministry travel. But Jesus knew where this excitement would lead in their immature thinking: They would assume He’d use His recently-revealed divine power and status to blow away Israel’s enemies, restoring them to independence, and ruling over them as an earthly king. To curb their delusions, He told them that He would instead be murdered:
The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up. (Matthew 17:22-23).
In response to this, “They were sorrowful” and “did not understand” (Matthew 17:22; Mark 9:32). The disciples had one of the most remarkable cases of selective listening in human history. When Jesus later reiterated the prediction of His death, adding the detail of crucifixion, they missed that too.
Here’s what He said:
Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And the third day He will rise again (Matthew 20:18-19).
Here’s what they heard: “Jerusalem.”
And here’s what they thought:
We’re going to Jerusalem! Jesus is telling us He’s about to take the first step in conquering the Romans so that Israel can once again become a sovereign nation. No more taxes, no more oppression! No more armed guards swaggering around like they own us! Freedom straight ahead!
The disciples grossly misinterpreted Jesus, projecting their own desires onto His words, plastering their narrative over the truths He tried to share. If they had one thimble full of empathy, if they had tuned into their Lord for one moment, they’d have heard His heart. But all they heard were their preconceived ideas. All they heard was “Jerusalem.”
Given that Jesus chose the disciples on the basis of their openness to spiritual things, and that they’d left their lives and livelihoods to follow Him, we can assume these men floated to the top of the spiritual barrel. But even they completely missed the message of servant leadership—that almighty God came to lay down His life rather than dominate the lives of others. Can we not assume the same about ourselves? Are we better than they who left all to follow Jesus? Might we not be missing the whole point?
Today we’d identify the disciples’ problem as “confirmation bias.” This is the tendency to search for, screen out, and interpret information in ways that affirm, rather than challenge, our prior beliefs. Confirmation bias says: “I believe, therefore it’s true.” Because of our innate preference for being proven right, and our aversion to the vulnerability of change, overcoming confirmation bias is a distressing ordeal. Jesus would have loved to upset the disciples in small increments so that the whole waft of paradigm-shattering pain didn’t come upon them suddenly when they finally saw their political Hero lifted up on a Cross. But all they heard was “Jerusalem.”
The first step in becoming a true servant leader is to surrender false concepts of leadership. The word of God says,
If anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know (1 Corinthians 8:2).
All who follow in the footsteps of the Servant of Servants must take off their smartest-guy-in-the-room crown, and place it at the foot of the Cross.
“Core beliefs” are beliefs that lie below the surface of our intellectual reasoning, embedded somewhere between the head and heart. We can cognitively believe facts while still holding deep, unconscious untruths. To unearth our core beliefs—or misbeliefs—is the work of the Holy Spirit.
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9).
When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak (John 16:13).
- What kind of leadership has been exemplified to you through your parents, other relatives, bosses, teachers, pastors, etc.? Was it self-sacrificing or selfish and power-hungry, or something in between? Describe it here:
- Who in your life has God positioned you to lead?
- What kind of leader are you currently? Are you self-sacrificing, or selfish and power-hungry, or something in between? Describe yourself:
Speak to the people God has positioned you to lead, telling them you’re accepting this one-month experiential learning challenge, and ask them to check in with you from time to time about it.
God, help me hear Your voice rather than just hearing what I want to hear. Throughout this journey, change my core beliefs. Help me trust You to work deep within my heart and soul to bring about changes in the way I think, feel, and function. Overwrite my misconceptions about leadership with Your concepts, straight from Your word. And may those changes be felt by those I lead, so that I become a channel through which they can see a more beautiful and precise picture of You.
[i] Matthew 17:22-27; 18: 1-20; Mark 9:30-50; Luke 9: 46-48.
[ii] Matthew 16:21-29; Matthew 17:22; Matthew 20:17-19.