Leadership on the Road to Jerusalem

Behind them were three years of world changing ministry beside the most dynamic individual they had ever known. Following in the footsteps of Jesus they had witnessed awe-inspiriting miracles, incredibly intense exchanges with religious leaders, and unbelievable claims come to pass. In front of them lay a future they could not perceive, nor could they understand in the moment they were in. As the dust filled their lungs, confusion filled their minds. Jesus had just told them for the third time[1] that he was facing death and betrayal by the hands of the religious leaders and the Roman authorities…the Gentiles. (Mark 10.33) It is on the cuff of these solemn words that the sons of Zebedee, James and John, make a request to rule at the right and the left of Jesus.

Only a short distance outside of Jerusalem where Jesus would enter as a triumphant leader, he is presented with a purely selfish and short-sighted request by these two brothers who had proven to be faithful disciples. Jesus, with his impending fate upon his mind[2], has a conversation with the brothers about the cup and the baptism he is about to partake in, and, finally, graciously lets them down by telling them it is not within his authority to grant their request. With his disciples beginning an argument about the brothers beating them to the request of honored seats in Jesus’ coming kingdom, and with the sun moving toward the horizon marking the coming end of another of his final days, Jesus begins to teach about what true leadership looks like; not in his coming kingdom, but as his disciples on earth.[3]

Leadership has been a difficult concept to understand and comprehend for Christ followers ever since his disciples tried to find their place in the coming kingdom of God. Many different models have been used throughout the ages with varying degrees of success. For instance, the Crusades were an attempt to stop the advancement of Islam and lead the rest of the world toward Christianity; unfortunately it came at the cost of thousands and thousands of lives. On the other end of the spectrum, other Christian leaders have felt leading by example was a more accurate approach and chose a more passive approach to leadership. Still others, have avoided the subject of leadership altogether and opted for solitude, devotion to prayer, and a life absent from the challenges of this fallen world. With such a broad spectrum of approaches to leadership, all in the name of obedience to the scriptures and the teachings of Jesus, it is difficult to decide which is the right approach. Yet, as Beeley and Britton point out, there seems to be an “innate sense of the importance”[4] of leadership built within mankind. Because of this innate sense of importance, there is a necessity for clarity on what Jesus expects of his disciples as they interact with the world around them, and how aggressive or passive that interaction should be. “Leadership is a complex configuration of cultural and contextual influences”[5] which requires clear understanding, and fortunately, clarity is available in the teachings of Jesus.

It is fitting to look to the Gospel of Mark for some clarity on how Christians should be leaders. Mark’s focus throughout his gospel was primarily action focused; seeking to show what Jesus did more than what he taught.[6] It is in the action-oriented, feeling-driven version of Jesus’ life that Christians are presented with a rare teaching bringing clarity to what Jesus expects of his followers as leaders. In Mark 10:42-45 Jesus tells his disciples,

“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  But 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 slave of all.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”[7]

It is here, in these words by Jesus, just before he enters the great city of Jerusalem as the triumphant leader, that Christians can gain understanding and perspective on what leadership is supposed to look like for Christ followers.

To fully understand the teaching by Jesus in Mark 10:42-45, it is necessary to look back at what prompted this teaching. Jesus and his disciples were walking along the road from Judea to Jerusalem with Jesus ahead of them all. (Mark 10:32) At some point along the way Jesus solemnly draws the twelve together and tells them for a third time of his coming betrayal, torture, and death. (Mark 10:33-34) It is possible that after telling them this, he turned and resumed his former stride in front of them on the road, leaving the disciples to ponder his words one last time. It is at this moment the Sons of Zebedee, James and John, decide to approach Jesus with a request. Their request is that Jesus would appoint these two brothers to rule in his kingdom, one on his left and one on his right. In this solemn moment that Jesus is confiding in his men about his coming demise, James and John grab the opportunity to request seats of prominence, possibly seeking opportunity from Jesus to rule after his death.

There are so many things that are strikingly in opposition to Jesus about this request. In verses 33-34 Jesus had just finished telling the disciples how those in leadership are about to treat him. He says he is going to be “delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes”, and at their hands he will be condemned to die and then handed to the Gentiles, which in this case are the Roman authorities. At the hands of the Roman leadership, Jesus is going to suffer being mocked, spit on, flogged and killed. Instead of offering solace, support, or even understanding to Jesus, James and John become opportunistic and make their request. It is clear the only thing on the mind of the brothers were “positions of power in Jesus’ coming kingdom”[8], which they perceived to be coming very soon.

It is important to note that in Matthew’s handling of this event, he notes that it is the brothers’ mother, Salome, who is pushing such a request of Jesus. (Matthew 20:20-21) According to other passages throughout the gospels (Matt. 27:56, Mark 15:40, John 19.25), it seems quite likely that Salome was the sister of Mary, Jesus’ mother, which would have made her Jesus’ aunt and the brothers his cousins.[9] Not only is James and John missing the fact that Jesus was about to face a cruel death, they were trying to capitalize on their family ties with Jesus. Warren Wiersbe points out that the request was actually strong act of faith by Salome and her sons. Jesus had told the disciples they would be in seats of authority in his coming kingdom, and despite just telling them he was about to die, they made the request in faith to claim the promise Jesus had previously given them.[10] Unfortunately, Wiersbe’s perspective may be a little optimistic of James and John, or possibly he is giving them the benefit of the doubt. Either way, the request reveals the perspective these two men had on leadership.

Having been ruled harshly by the Roman Empire, and watching the corrupt nature of the religious officials and how they held onto power, it had become apparent to James and John that leadership was about position, connection, and opportunity. If they could capitalize on their current connection with Jesus, and seize the opportunity of his coming death, then they could find themselves in a position to make changes and shape their world how they saw it needed to be. If they could convince Jesus to grant this request of theirs, then they could rule instead of be ruled.

Before the other disciples are let off the hook, or before judgment is passed too quickly upon James and John, verse 41 points out the other ten were “indignant at James and John”[11]. According to John Grassmick, this jealous reaction by the other disciples indicates a selfish ambition harbored by the others as well.[12] It is only that the brothers had beat the others to making the request that drew out their anger. Grassmick also points out that the disciples were seeing leadership only one way, good and bad, but that Jesus was about to give them a new perspective on leadership altogether.[13]

The perspective the disciples had about power and authority had been derived from the world around them rather than the God they served. Authority had become about position and ruler ship and being able to do what one wanted to do without consequence. It was about being at the top where there was no one else to answer to. The first to the top was the one who got to make the rules, and as far as the ten were concerned, James and John were about to be at the top and rule over them. An argument broke out among this band of brothers.

As one may imagine, Jesus is a few paces away from the disciples watching them argue over who is more prominent in his coming kingdom, which will only come to be after he has died. While the weight of Jesus’ path rested upon his shoulders as he prepares to sacrificially offer himself for the sins of others on a cross, he is subject to this display of selfishness from the closest people to him on the earth.[14] It causes the reader to wonder if in this moment, so close to the end and after so much investment into the lives of these men, was Jesus struck with sadness and despair that these were the men who would lead his church once he was gone.

As the disciples are arguing among themselves, verse 42 says “Jesus called them to him” and he begins to teach them about authority and leadership. It is necessary that he redefine their understanding of leadership before he leaves the fate of the world in their hands. He starts by saying; “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.”[15] In his opening sentence, Jesus establishes the level of authority the earthly rulers possess is temporary and somewhat insignificant to the authority held by God himself. [16] He is also putting the disciples in their place a little bit, because the very argument they are having about position and leadership is a pursuit for this same temporal authority held by earthly leaders. This is in contrast to the positions of authority Jesus had promised them before in his eternal kingdom. The disciples had spent their lives in oppression of Roman authority, but still in admiration of the glory they had, these “men who loved position and authority”.[17] The disciples were seeing “leadership as status and privilege”[18] but Jesus wants to change that in order to prepare them for the task of establishing his church. In his opening words Jesus is getting their minds right before he goes into the heart of what he is trying to teach them.

Once Jesus had established the low level of authority held by earthly leaders, he says in verse 43-44, “But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”[19] Jesus goes right to what he expects from his disciples: to be different from the world, and establish authority and leadership differently than the world does. Jesus had already told them what the earthly leaders are about to do to him, he has reframed the level of authority earthly leaders actually possess in contrast to the heavenly authority he has promised the disciples, and now Jesus comes directly at the men and tell them to do it differently. Not because he is asking, but because that is what he expects of them.

After Jesus had clearly made his point, he begins to reframe leadership and authority for the disciples. This is a lesson for all leaders to heed. It is easy to be directive with followers and simply expect obedience, but that is how earthly leadership operates. Jesus’ call to heavenly leadership goes beyond simply being directive; it is a calling of relationship between leader and follower, which he demonstrates in verses 43-44. Jesus has given them his directive, but he then begins to unpack what he means and teach how he expects his people to lead. That leadership is through service.

These disciples who have been under Roman rule have sought greatness, and on some level probably thought Jesus was their ticket to that worldly greatness. Though it is not wrong for the disciples, or any follower of Jesus, to aspire to greatness, it is a matter of how greatness is defined and the motivation behind its aspiration.[20] So when Jesus tells them that in order to be great, they would need to be servants, it flips their whole world upside down. Their perspective of authority coming from the Gentile rulers was one of ruler ship, domination, and oppression of their followers to the point of exploitation.[21] The word choice is very important in this part of Jesus’ teaching. Servant was a familiar term to the disciples, meaning a house servant[22], which none of them would have considered a desirable state of life, but not detestable. Jesus raises the stakes a bit more though and equates servant with slave. This is hard for the disciples to come to grips with because no one wanted to be a slave.

For the disciples, being a slave “represented a complete loss of autonomy and status”.[23] This was below their current status, not above where they were aspiring to reach. By calling them to be slaves, Jesus was calling the disciples to forfeit their own rights to serve all others voluntarily and sacrificially; not their own interests.[24] But, before they thought Jesus was unjustly calling them to a difficult life, he follows it up with his final statement.

Jesus by this time has told the disciples three times he was going to his death. Not once did it seem the disciples understood the gravity of what Jesus was saying, so in this moment he drives this reality into their minds packaged with the harsh reality they are called to be slaves. Jesus ends his teaching by saying in verse 44, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” [25] Somehow through the actions of Jesus, his words, and how he interacted with people, the disciples missed this simple fact: Jesus was serving others. The perspective of the disciples was always looking up at authority and greatness rather than up at God and his ways. If they had paid attention to their scriptures they would have seen God’s pattern of leadership was through service evidenced by Joseph, Moses, and Joshua.[26] It took Jesus, on the road to Jerusalem for his triumphal entry, to bring everything home for the disciples: Jesus came to serve, to die as a ransom, and they were to be slaves. That is the king they had been following, that is where their three years had led them. His kingdom was not one of might and authority on this earth, which they were focused on. Jesus’ sacrifice would be an example of selflessness that he expected his disciples to emulate, and it is through their sacrifice and service they will find greatness and inspire others.[27]

John Grassmick points out Jesus is the supreme example of greatness as he voluntarily veiled his glory and came to this earth as a servant.[28] Jesus stood among his disciples as the only one of them who had any right to true authority, contrasted with James and John’s feeble attempt to weasel their way into prominence. Jesus, the Son of God, walks among his disciples as one who serves and not exercising an “overbearing domination” over them.[29] It is through his service that Jesus shows his supremacy, proving that “power is shown in service”[30] rather than domination. Leadership currency in the Kingdom of God is found in the sacrificial giving of one’s self to others, as is evidenced by the example Jesus set for all of his disciples.

Leadership is challenging for Christians to fully understand and exercise. Jesus understands this because he saw it first-hand in his disciples on the road to Jerusalem. Jesus saw their selfishness, their confusion, their appetite for power and authority. He knew it would be the same for all his disciples. Jesus was one of these men, having lived in the same world, grew up in the same situation as them, and dealt with the same oppression from the earthly authorities as they did. Then, he went further and suffered at their hands, voluntarily. Jesus was the Son of God, but he was also fully a man of this earth. It was Jesus’ choices, and ultimately his perspective, to live as a servant that elevated him to be the supreme example of a leader for all his disciples to follow.

Interestingly enough, in recent years a new model of leadership study is arising. Though not fully understood, the model of authentic leadership, young in its research body, is a growing interest among leadership studies. What makes this relevant to this discussion of Mark 10: 42-45 is that, this new model of leadership research seems to line up with what Jesus was calling his disciples to on the road to Jerusalem. The strengths of authentic leadership presented by Peter Northouse seem to line up with what Jesus lived and called his disciples to.

First, authentic leadership “fulfills an expressed need for trustworthy leadership in society. Second, authentic leadership provides broad guidelines for individuals who want to become authentic leaders.”[31] Jesus’ disciples had seen this modeled for them over the three years with Jesus, and as Jesus is calling them to be servants to everyone, he calls his disciples to leadership that is trustworthy and exercised within the model that Jesus has laid out as opposed to the model the earthly rulers had presented.

Third, authentic leadership has an “explicit moral dimension”[32] which is in alignment with the very reason Jesus had come, and the core of his teachings. Even in this instance of calling his disciples to follow him in servant leadership, there is a moral imperative Jesus is giving his students.

Finally, there is an expectation that the values and behaviors necessary to be am authentic leader can be developed over time[33], which is apparent Jesus was expecting such a development in his men. The disciples were not where they needed to be, which was made apparent by their argument over personal position in the face of Jesus’ impending death. But, Jesus trusted the necessary values and behaviors that he modeled and taught to the disciples would eventually become a reality and they would lead his church forward.

Leadership is a central theme to Jesus’ teaching, but a specific kind of leadership. Leadership that is focused on service to others and selfless sacrifice, as was modeled by Jesus himself, is the model of leadership Jesus expects from his disciples. The mystery of leadership for Christians, and how Jesus expects his people to exercise it, was answered on his way to his final days on a dusty road to Jerusalem.

References 

Barry, John D., Michael S. Heiser, and Miles Custis. 2012. Faithful Study Bible. Logos Bible Software. Bellingham, WA.

Beeley, Christopher A., and J.H. Britton. 2009. “Introduction: Toward a Theology of Leadership.” Anglican Theological Review 91 (1): 3–10.

Crossway Bibles. 2007. ESV: Study Bible: English Standard Version. ESV text ed. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles.

Dallas Theological Seminary. 1983. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. Wheaton, Ill: Victor Books.

Huizing, Russell L. 2011. “Bringing Christ to the Table of Leadership: Moving towards a Theology of Leadership.” Journal of Applied Christian Leadership 5 (2): 58–75.

Kittel, Gerhard, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey William Bromiley, eds. 1985. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans.

Knowles, Andrew. 2001. The Bible Guide. Minneapolis, MN: 1st Augsberg Books.

McFadyen, Phillip. 1997. Open Door on Mark: His Gospel Explained. London: Triangle.

Northouse, Peter Guy. 2013. Leadership: Theory and Practice. 6th ed. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

Richards, Larry. 1987. The Teacher’s Commentary. Wheaton, Ill: Victor Books.

Wiersbe, Warren. 2008. Bible Exposition Commentary. [Place of publication not identified]: David C Cook.

Wuest, Kenneth Samuel. 1973. Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament: For the English Reader. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.

Footnotes

[1] John D. Grassmick, “Mark” In , in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), Mk 10:32b–34.

[2] Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament: For the English Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), Mk 10:32–33.

[3] Larry Richards and Lawrence O. Richards, The Teacher’s Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1987), 618.

[4] Beeley, C. A., & Britton, J. H. (2009). Introduction: Toward a theology of leadership. Anglican Theological Review, 91(1), 3.

[5] Huizing, R. L. (2011). Bringing Christ to the table of leadership: moving towards a theology of leadership. Journal of Applied Christian Leadership, 5(2), 68.

[6] Larry Richards and Lawrence O. Richards, The Teacher’s Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1987), 600.

[7] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mk 10:42-45.

[8] Larry Richards and Lawrence O. Richards, The Teacher’s Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1987), 623.

[9] John D. Grassmick, “Mark” In , in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), Mk 10:35–37.

[10] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), Mk 10:32–45.

[11] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mk 10:41.

[12] John D. Grassmick, “Mark” In , in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), Mk 10:41–44.

[13] John D. Grassmick, “Mark” In , in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), Mk 10:41–44.

[14] Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament: For the English Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), Mk 10:35.

[15] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mk 10:42.

[16] Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol.1, ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Gerhard Friedrich, electronic ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964-), 478.

[17] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), Mk 10:32–45.

[18] Phillip McFadyen, Open Door on Mark: His Gospel Explored (London: Triangle, 1997), 66.

[19] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mk 10:43–44.

[20] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), Mk 10:32–45.

[21] John D. Grassmick, “Mark” In , in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), Mk 10:41–44.

[22] John D. Grassmick, “Mark” In , in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), Mk 10:41–44.

[23] John D. Barry, Michael S. Heiser, Miles Custis et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012), Mk 10:44.

[24] John D. Grassmick, “Mark” In , in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), Mk 10:41–44.

[25] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mk 10:45.

[26] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), Mk 10:32–45.

[27] Phillip McFadyen, Open Door on Mark: His Gospel Explored (London: Triangle, 1997), 67.

[28] John D. Grassmick, “Mark” In , in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), Mk 10:45.

[29] Phillip McFadyen, Open Door on Mark: His Gospel Explored (London: Triangle, 1997), 66.

[30] Andrew Knowles, The Bible Guide, 1st Augsburg books ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 2001), 460.

[31] Northouse, Peter G. (2012-02-02). Leadership: Theory and Practice (Kindle Location 5055-5058). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

[32] Northouse, Peter G. (2012-02-02). Leadership: Theory and Practice (Kindle Location 5063). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

[33] Northouse, Peter G. (2012-02-02). Leadership: Theory and Practice (Kindle Location 5066). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.


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