In Mark chapter 10, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come to Jesus and ask him an insanely direct question. They first try to butter him up by calling him “Teacher”, which would have been a sign of respect, but then they ask Jesus to do for them “whatever we ask”! I could not imagine talking to my parents this way, or to my boss, let alone to Jesus! Nevertheless, James and John continue unperturbed and soon reveal to Jesus what is going on in their hearts, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” This was an audacious request, but if we are to be generous to James and John, at the very least we can recognise that it reveals the extent of their faith. They fully believed that Jesus was the Messiah and consequently looked forward to the Day of the Lord when Jesus would be revealed as the true King of Kings. This was a very positive aspect of their faith indeed!
Their comprehension of Christ as Messiah and King, nonetheless, was very much based upon their own earthly understanding of leadership, royalty and rule. For them, to be the king meant to lord it over others, to rule them with an iron fist and to expect and even compel unquestioning obedience. It was certainly the type of leadership that was modelled to them throughout the Roman Empire, and not altogether different from what they experienced among their own Jewish leaders. The rulers of the Roman Empire were powerful and ruthless and forcefully exerted reign upon their subjects, while the leaders of the Jewish nation were religious, aloof, hypocritical and self-serving. Who can really blame James and John for such a request?
As Jesus so often did, he responded in a way that subverted their cultural ideology. First, Jesus subverted the leadership ideology of the Roman Empire saying, “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.” Then, he subtly subverted the self-serving leadership ideology of the Jews saying, “Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” Both responses emphasised the fundamental aspects of each ideological system that were radically opposed to and incompatible with the kingdom of God. Finally, Jesus introduced the ideology of the kingdom of God that was breaking into the world in and through him. With penetrating words, Jesus uttered the phrase which has subverted and challenged every leadership ideology since, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus was not only defining what true kingdom leadership was, but he was living it out before his disciples and showing how it would ultimately be demonstrated through his own substitutionary death on the cross.
In Jesus connecting his Messiahship with the “son of man” concept, he was skilfully weaving together a number of Old Testament threads found throughout the Psalms, Ezekiel and Daniel. Perhaps the most profound occurrence is recorded in Daniel 7 where Daniel prophetically foresees the “son of man” approaching the Ancient of Days, receiving authority, glory and sovereign power! Daniel then sees the time when all nations and people of every tongue and language bow down and worship the true king of God’s everlasting kingdom. Apart from Jesus, no human being has ever claimed to be this “son of man”, for a claim such as this is a claim to divinity, sovereignty and glory. This sheds light on Matthew 16 when Jesus asked his disciples the provocative question, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” In this instance, Peter nailed it, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Within all of this lies the great irony of modern “leadership”. The human definition of leadership fundamentally and profoundly embodies the concepts of power, authority and rule over subjects who essentially operate as slaves. Though, by nature, these leaders do not possess any innate authority, they nevertheless lord it over their subjects, often ruthlessly. Think Stalin in Russia, Hitler in Nazi Germany, Saddam Hussein in Iraq or the dictators of many modern nations and unfortunately even some churches. This flawed concept of leadership is also often found in broken homes where husbands beat their wives and dominate over their families. In absolute stark contrast to this, Jesus by his very nature possesses absolute sovereignty, divinity, authority and glory as God the Son, yet in his incarnation, he empties himself of his divine status and equality with God, coming down not to rule, but to serve, ultimately demonstrating this to the fullest extent possible, giving his life as a ransom for many.
Jesus unapologetically and unequivocally subverts all human misconceptions of leadership, replacing it with the kingdom concept of servitude. For Christ, to lead is to serve, to have is to give and to love is to die. James and John are an example, not for us, but of us. Just as their ideology of leadership and rule was subverted by Jesus, our modern concept of leadership is once again in dire need of being subverted and redeemed. What the church needs today is not great leaders, but great servants whose lives have been transformed by the greatest servant of all. The church does not benefit from leaders who lord it over others and exercise authority and dominion, but from those who, like Christ, are willing to serve, to give and most of all, to love.