The disciples understood themselves to be attending the best leadership training program in their part of the Roman Empire, if not the world: they were training for Kingdom leadership. Crowds followed Jesus, and the disciples were, in their own minds, his lieutenants (so to speak). The sons of Zebedee, James and John, were holding out for the top positions in Jesus' kingdom (Mark 10.35-37). Jesus had amazing power and a growing following. He could heal the sick and cast out demons. He could hold a crowd spell-bound with his teaching. The disciples were in training to do the same. Returning from one mission trip, they quipped, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ (Lk. 10.17). Not that they could cast out every demon, … but they were learning (Mk. 9.14-29). While ultimately unsuccessful, Peter even took several steps on water! (Mt. 14.29). If Jesus was the Messiah, if he really was establishing God’s Kingdom on earth, then his disciples were in a rather good position to command high positions of leadership—or so they thought.
On the road from the Mount of Transfiguration to the Hill of Golgotha, Jesus told his disciples that he would soon be betrayed, killed, and rise again in three days (Mk. 9.31). The disciples, however, could only think about authority, power, and coming victory. Suffering and service, they thought, were material that would not be on the upcoming leadership test, and Jesus’ mention of it went right over their heads. Instead, they daydreamt in the hot sun on the road to Jerusalem about exciting prospects. A dispute even broke out among them as to who would be the greatest. Jesus finally addressed the issue directly. ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all’ (Mk. 9.35), he said.
We read these words and often understand Jesus to be teaching ‘servant leadership’ instead of ‘leadership.’ We want to get the same training in leadership that the world gets. We want positions of authority. Then, we think, as Christian leaders, we will be in positions to do good things for others. That is servant leadership. Yet every power-hungry dictator in the world has a way of explaining how his or her use of power is in service of the people—even if it means mass murder. We, too, want power. We want to learn how to use it effectively. And then we want to add some Christian concern that justifies our wielding of power as a service to others.
Yet that was not at all what Jesus intended. Jesus was neither teaching his disciples to be leaders nor servant leaders. Jesus was not headed to Jerusalem to wrestle power from the authorities and then begin his reign as Messianic King of Israel by using his power for good purposes. Instead, he was going to the cross. Ministry was not about gaining power to do good but about doing good by giving up power, prestige, praise, and privilege in order to minister sacrificially to others, even those of no consequence to the rest of the world. Ministry was, purely and simply, about service. The power of Jesus' reign was not in leadership but in the cross. That is why we used to speak of ‘ministry,’ not ‘leadership,’ in the Church. To make this point, Jesus chose an object lesson in the form of a small child and told his disciples that whoever welcomes a child such as the one standing in front of them in his name welcomes him (Mk. 9.37). When the objects of our ministry bring us no praise, we have finally come to Jesus’ understanding of ministry.
Further down the road, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple’ (Lk. 14.27). When, instead of praise and privilege, our ministry becomes the way of the cross, we are following in the steps of Jesus. Paul could say,
Philippians 3:8-11 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
A few more Roman miles down the road to Jerusalem, Jesus again engaged his disciples on this subject. He said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mar. 10.42-45). When the goal of our ministry is service, not power or prestige, we have finally come to Jesus’ understanding of ministry.
The disciples thought that they had enrolled in the best leadership school of the day. Their teacher could interpret the Scriptures better than the scribes and Pharisees, command the attention of large crowds, heal the sick, and cast out demons. Jesus did teach them. He taught them to be servants—servants of God and his Kingdom, servants of one another, and servants to a world that needed the message that they had of salvation in Jesus, the Messiah on a cross. He taught them the ministry of the cross.
Ministry: the radical practice of giving up power, praise, privilege, and prestige in order to serve somebody of no consequence in the name of Jesus. We are all called to it as disciples of Jesus.