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Jesus’ Model of Leadership: The Servant of the Lord
The Chancellor of the Exchequer of Ethiopia (now Northern Sudan) was on his way home from Jerusalem. He was travelling in the ancient equivalent of a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. In Jerusalem he had bought at great cost a copy of a scroll of Isaiah. The evangelist, Philip, ran alongside saying, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’
The Chancellor replied, ‘How can I, unless someone explains it to me?’ and he invited Philip to join him. He was studying one of the passages in Isaiah about the ‘servant’ (Isaiah 53:7–8). He asked, ‘Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?’
Then Philip began with that passage and told him the good news about Jesus. The Chancellor of the Exchequer was converted and baptised, and the church in Africa began (see Acts 8:26 onwards). The question he asked was a good one: ‘Who is the servant of the Lord?’.
The title ‘servant of the Lord’ is one of great dignity, reserved for leaders, such as Abraham, Moses and David. But in the four ‘servant songs’ (Isaiah 42:1–4; 49:1–7; 50:4–9; 52:13–53:12) a distinct concept of ‘servanthood’ comes into sharper focus.
The role of this ‘servant’ can be understood visually in terms of the St Andrew’s cross.
Originally, God intended that all humankind should be his servant. Then, after the fall, God chose the whole nation of Israel to serve him. But even his chosen race was not faithful to him. So the focus continued to narrow, until it became a mere ‘faithful remnant’. Ultimately, only one individual was completely faithful (the central, most narrow part of the cross). This was Jesus.
Jesus revealed what Israel (and indeed humankind) should have been. He was an Israelite sent to Israel, totally identifying with his nation, and yet remaining distinct from it. No earthly king or prophet meets the description used in all the servant passages. Yet, Jesus does – perfectly.
Where Israel failed, Jesus succeeded. Equally, it is God’s plan that the church, through the victory of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, can and should succeed. So the St Andrew’s cross broadens out again as the members of the church of Jesus Christ become the servants of God with a mission to call all humanity back to their original creation purpose.
1. Use all your leadership skills to serve othersProverbs 22:28–23:9
The writer of the book of Proverbs continues to dispense practical wisdom. He warns against us spending our lives serving false gods such as food (23:1–3) or riches: ‘Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle’ (vv.4–5).
Rather, we are encouraged to get on with doing what we do well: ‘Do you see those who are skilled in their work? They will serve before kings; they will not serve before obscure people’ (22:29). I have watched over the years those who have quietly got on with serving in humble and obscure ways, but done so with great skill in their work and God has raised them up to positions of influence. As has been pointed out, ‘No matter what size the bottle, the cream always comes to the top’.
Lord, thank you for the example of those who have pressed on – serving you with great skill and without seeking any glory for themselves. Thank you that you have raised such people up as examples for us all.
2. Thank God for Jesus’ ultimate act of servant leadershipGalatians 3:10–25
Jesus said that those of us who follow him should lead in a different way to those around us. We should not throw our weight around. We should not let power go to our heads (see Mark 10:42–45, MSG). Rather we should follow his model of servant leadership. Jesus said he ‘did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (v.45).
In this passage, Paul explains how Jesus did exactly that. The cross is the ultimate expression of his service.
We have all failed to keep the law of God. According to the law of Moses, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law’ (Galatians 3:10b; see Deuteronomy 27:26). In order to be justified by the law, a person would have to keep the entire law (Galatians 3:12). No one has ever done this. Therefore, we are all under a curse.
On the cross, Jesus took this curse on himself. He ‘redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us’ (v.13a). Paul points out that the book of Deuteronomy says, ‘cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’ (v.13b; see Deuteronomy 21:23). It was the depth of disgrace to be crucified. ‘He became a curse, and at the same time dissolved the curse’ (v.13, MSG).
We are justified through what Jesus, the servant of the Lord, did on the cross for us by becoming a curse for us. ‘He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit’ (v.14).
God’s promise was originally given to Abraham and his seed (v.16a). Paul’s argument is that Jesus is God’s promise, since ‘the Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ’ (v.16b).
‘What, then, was the purpose of the law?’ (v.19). The law had at least two main purposes. First, it pointed us to our sin (v.19). It exposed the problem. It defined sin. It was intended to put a brake on sin.
Second, the law points us to Jesus. It is intended to lead us to Christ (vv.21–25). ‘The law was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for’ (v. 24, MSG). It leads us to Christ through whom we are justified by faith (v.24).
Jesus Christ, the ultimate servant of the Lord, through becoming a curse for us, has removed the curse of the law. By his death he justified many. We are set free from the law to become servants of the Lord.
Lord, thank you for the ultimate act of service. Thank you that you were willing to be under a curse for us. Thank you that as you hung on that tree, you took upon yourself the curse that should have fallen on us. Thank you that as a result we can be justified by faith in you. Thank you for setting us free to serve.
3. Follow the model of Jesus: serve to leadIsaiah 41:1–42:25
The Sandhurst motto on every cap, badge and belt is, ‘Serve to lead’. This was the model of Jesus. As Oswald Sanders wrote, ‘True leadership is achieved not by reducing people to one’s service but in giving oneself in selfless service to them.’
As we have seen, God originally chose Israel to be his servant, serving by his side. He promised to give them strength and help them (41:8–9).
However, the people of Israel failed and became part of the problem. It is possible to have perfect 20/20 physical vision and yet be spiritually blind: ‘You’re my servant, and you’re not looking!
You’re my messenger, and you’re not listening!
The very people I depended upon, servants of God,
blind as a bat – wilfully blind! (42:19, MSG).
Isaiah foresaw another servant of the Lord,
‘Take a good look at my servant.
I’m backing him to the hilt.
He’s the one I chose,
and I couldn’t be more pleased with him.
I’ve bathed him with my Spirit, my life.
He’ll set everything right among the nations.
He won’t call attention to what he does
with loud speeches or gaudy parades.
He won’t brush aside the bruised and the hurt
and he won’t disregard the small and insignificant,
but he’ll steadily and firmly set things right.
He won’t tire out and quit. He won’t be stopped
until he’s finished his work – to set things right on earth (42:1–4a, MSG).
Matthew points out that Jesus fulfilled these words which were spoken through the prophet Isaiah. He directly quotes Isaiah 42:1–4 (Matthew 12:17–21).In Jesus, this prophecy was perfectly fulfilled, just as all of the other servant passages in Isaiah were perfectly fulfilled in him (Isaiah 49:1–7; 50:4–9; 52:13–53:12). Jesus would be ‘a lighthouse to the nations ... opening blind eyes, releasing prisoners from dungeons, emptying the dark prisons’ (42:6–7, MSG).
Lord Jesus, thank you that you alone fulfilled this prophecy perfectly and that you will not give your glory to another (v.8). Thank you for your model of humility and gentleness. Thank you that you call us, too, to be servants of the Lord. Help us to follow your example.
Thank you that you say to us that you have chosen us and that you delight in us. Thank you that by faith in you we receive ‘the promise of the Spirit’ (Galatians 3:14). Help us to fulfil our calling to be servants of the Lord.
“ 'You are my servant'; I have chosen you and have not rejected you. So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.’ ”
Wonderful words of comfort, particularly in difficult times.