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(Part 16)


In the world, leaders are not servants but lords. Leaders assume a high profile, and the most natural thing is for them to be served, to be exalted, to be looked up to. They are looked up to because they are up there. Even the apostles were not spared from this, as they argued among themselves about who was the greatest (Mk 9:33-34).

Jesus turned all of this topsy-turvy. He said that he came not to be served but to serve. He even washed the feet of the apostles. When he did so, they were no longer looking up at him but physically looking down on him.

Jesus said to the apostles: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” (Mk 9:35).

What does this say about our proper posture as servant leaders? If it is the most natural thing in the world for leaders to be exalted and looked up to, how do we assume the posture of the lowest place as servant? The leader is up and the servant is down, so how are we to act as servant leaders?

Well, we can wish to be first. Jesus did not say that one is not to wish to be first. To wish to be first is to desire to lead, for the purpose of serving Jesus and his people. It can be a very noble desire. Our hearts must be pure in seeking only to serve.

So we can wish to be first, but then, we must not wish to be great. We must not look to adulation, acclaim, recognition, awards, titles of honor, and the like. We must not, like the Pharisees, seek places of honor. We must recognize that pride lurks and waits to devour us. We must humble ourselves, especially as God does great things through us. We not only shun honors and recognition, but we rejoice whenever we are not honored and not recognized. We take to heart Jesus’ words: “Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’” (Lk 17:9-10). The privilege and honor of serving Jesus and God’s people should be reward enough for us.

The way we do these is to be the last of all and the servant of all.

To be the last is to be the least. To be the least is to recognize our own sinfulness and unworthiness. Those who are appointed to servant leadership are often those who have already displayed some measure of spiritual maturity, and thus can be considered as less sinful. But the greatest saints always considered themselves the greatest sinners. Why? Because much had been given them and so much more was expected of them by God. Because they were much more aware of the heights of holiness that God required, and they could see that they fell so short of God’s standards.

To be the last is also to be at the far end of the line, as people move forward on their way to heaven. It is to be able to see that none of the flock is lost. It is to help ensure that before we receive our reward, those we care for have already received theirs. Thus the servant leader is first because he leads, and last because he serves. As Jesus said, “whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” (Mk 10:44).

To be the servant of all is to have that posture of Jesus who, even as he was the Master, took the task of the lowest slave and washed the feet of his apostles. It is to serve according to God’s direction, whether such service eventually leads to exaltation or debasement by others. It is simply to give of oneself, not counting the cost or the shame. It is seeing Jesus in others, and looking on serving them as the opportunity to serve Jesus. It is considering the interests of others before our own. As Paul said: “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but everyone for those of others.” (Phil 2:3-4).

Now it is not wrong for servant leaders to be exalted because of their service. Gratitude, admiration, recognition are all proper responses by those who have experienced loving service. When such is given, simply give thanks and praise God. What is wrong is if we seek or desire it, just like the brothers James and John together with their mother. What is wrong is if we become puffed up with sinful pride. What is wrong is if we consider ourselves better than others as God uses us.

How do we protect ourselves from such?

  • Always judge your actions according to the standard of Jesus’ washing of the feet.
  • Never seek to be the best; just always do your best.
  • Do not compare yourself with others to feel superior or on the other hand end up feeling inferior. We can do nothing apart from God’s grace. God uses us in different ways, and He alone is the judge of our work.
  • Never claim “I am anointed.” Rather, you are appointed. God’s anointing may or may not be there. Manifest your anointing not by your words but by your works.
  • Never demand obedience from subordinates. Obedience is to God. Blind obedience is for cults. What subordinates owe to their leaders is respect, esteem and special love (1 Thes 5:12-13).
  • Rejoice in particular when you are unappreciated (not because you are a bad leader), unrewarded (your reward is in heaven), even maligned and afflicted. Know that you have chosen the path of Christ. “Can you drink the cup that I drink .... ?” (Mk 10:38). It is our privilege to carry the cross of Christ.
  • Always give the glory to God.
    Servant leaders are crucial for the work of the Kingdom. May those called truly serve as being last, even as they are first.

    (March 12, 2010)
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