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A Beautiful Realization

How do you know a person, really know them? This knowledge can come through several avenues. One is through their actions. “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:15-18).  Our actions begin to define us early in life, as Proverbs 20:11 informs us. “Even small children are known by their actions, so is their conduct really pure and upright?” The challenge of defining God by his actions we have already mentioned. Some of those actions seem scarily harsh and some seem tender and warm. Therefore, trying to really grasp the nature of God through examining his actions alone falls short of the goal, at least for me.

The same challenge exists when looking at the titles or names of God. This could be a long study if we considered all of the Hebrew terms thus used, so let’s just look at some we have already mentioned. Creator, Lord, King, Judge, Father, Abba, Friend. These also provide us with a bit of a mixed bag. Understanding that the three latter terms are covenant terms for those in a saved relationship with God is helpful, but terminology and titles alone don’t fully clarify the nature of God for me. More is needed. What is the essence of God’s nature? What best defines him? Who is our God, really?

Now we come to what I believe to be the main revelation God brought to my mind during my hospital struggles. It may well have been the reason he allowed me to go through those struggles in the first place. If so, it was worth it. I believe the implications and applications of this one point about the nature of God are absolutely monumental. Yet, it is clearly stated in the Bible in spite of the fact that most people simply miss the point, amazingly. It is an obvious truth hidden in plain sight!  For me, it began with one little statement coming to mind made years ago by an old friend named Jim McGuiggan. Jim is one of the most interesting, captivating people I have ever had discussions with, and we had a number of them. We both were teachers at Preacher’s Schools, two of the best-known ones, and this shared profession brought us together on occasion.

I have long felt that Jim was perhaps the most outstanding Bible scholar in the mainstream Churches of Christ. His study was broad and his presentations of it were captivating, whether in print or in speech (with his Irish brogue). He wrote both NT and OT commentaries, with some of the latter addressing several of the most challenging prophets. His commentary on Ezekiel is my go-to source when trying to figure out the meanings of what I believe to be the most difficult book to interpret in the OT (actually, in the entire Bible). He wrote extensively on prophecy and exposed the errors of modern “end-times” teachers. His book, “The Reign of God” is priceless in expanding one’s view of God. But in spite of his extensive writing about complex doctrinal topics, his books containing short devotional chapters about our relationship to God and each other are my favorites. The titles of two of this type give insight into the contents: “The God of the Towel” and “Jesus, Hero of Thy Soul.”

Before we proceed with my recall of his little statement, let me ask you a question. Suppose you were a part of a very large church which had many ministers on the staff of the church. What if someone asked you which one of the ministers was the very best one and to describe them with one word or a very brief phrase. What might you say makes them the best in your opinion? Some common answers could be along these lines. He’s a great speaker. He’s a really effective organizer. He’s always nice to me and others I see him with. He has a good marriage and family. He knows his Bible really well. He connects with the audience and with individuals on an emotional level. He has both intellectual and emotional intelligence. Just what might you say about your favorite minister right now in describing why they are your favorite? I know how God would both identify and describe the best one on any church staff anywhere. I do. Unquestionably. Jesus said it.

This leads us to the statement that came to mind as I was somewhere between life and death in that hospital bed? Here it is: “God did not become a servant when he became a man (in the person of Jesus); he became a man precisely because he was a servant.” I immediately thought of Matthew 20:25-28. “Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” Jesus uses two terms to differentiate between spiritual leadership and worldly leadership. All spiritual leaders are to be servants (diakonos), and the greatest of them are to be slaves (doulos).  Assuming the position of a slave meant to renounce all individual rights, and to live one’s life in service of others.

In Matthew 23, Jesus was condemning the leadership of the Pharisees and teachers of the law in no uncertain terms. He forbad applying titles to mere men, leaders or not. As I explain in my first chapter of “Dynamic Leadership,” we can be rightly described in terms of function and role, but never in terms of titles and offices. I am not Gordon the Teacher (with a capital “T”), but Gordon who teaches, and unless I am functioning in that role, I am just one of the brothers—on level ground at the foot of the cross. Just before Jesus pronounced his seven woes upon the leaders of his day, he said about the same thing he had said to the apostles with their worldly views of leadership. “The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12).

I have probably written more about spiritual leadership than any other biblical subject, and yet I think very few church leaders understand what Jesus is teaching in these two accounts in Matthew. We cannot seem to expunge our worldly views of leadership. We simply cannot, at least the large majority cannot. If you are shocked by my dogmatism here, let me illustrate. A dear sister of mine, a former ministry staff member herself, shared an experience she had that didn’t shock me, but it saddened me. She listened to recordings of the majority of the main lessons delivered at one of our conferences—the one held in 2016 in St. Louis. She was especially struck with how the various speakers introduced themselves.

All but one did it something like this: “Hello, my name is _______, and my wife and I lead the ___________ church.” The one exception evidently took Matthew 20 literally and said: “Hello, my name is Tom Brown, and my wife and I serve the North River church.” I’m not surprised that Tom was the one who took this approach. It was his spirituality and humility that drew me and my wife into this family of churches back in the early 1980’s. In the classes of the recent church Summit Conference in Orlando, I did notice more leaders describing themselves as those who serve churches. That was encouraging.

Yes, yes, I know that the Bible, including the NT, uses the term “leader.” And yes, I know that followers of those leaders are called to be submissive to them. I know all of these passages and I believe and teach them. But I also believe that our emphasis shows what we most believe and value about leadership, and it isn’t Matthew 20. How do we keep missing the vital heart of leadership? Get ready for a shock. We start going amiss by missing the real heart of God, his true nature. And what is that? Servanthood, pure and simple. While he can be described accurately in many ways with many terms, his overriding nature is simply that of a servant.

We know that we are to imitate Christ and we do try to imitate many things about him. But is our natural inclination to gird ourselves with a towel and wash the feet of the unworthy? That was exactly what Jesus did in John 13. He wasn’t temporarily lowering himself to make a point; he was acting in accordance with who he was by nature. He was a servant, has always been one and always will be one. Just consider what is being said in Hebrews 7:25. “Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” Jesus lives to serve you and me, right now and always, twenty-four/seven. Do you always live to serve the people God has given you to serve (lead)? Do they describe you as a great servant, an imitator of Jesus with this most fundamental leadership quality defining you best as a leader?

While many words describe Jesus and what a righteous life consists of, he summed it up as love. Loving God with all of our being and loving our neighbor as ourselves are the foundation of the entire Law (Matthew 22:36-40). Paul stated the same principle is slightly different words in Romans 13:8-10. That said, John warned us not to mistake love for a feeling without actions demonstrating that love. 1 John 3:18 says, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” A similar summation word for me is one I have used quite a lot, the word “surrender.” This term encapsulates the words faith and trust. Actually, faith is used in at least six different, but related, ways in the NT, all falling into the idea of surrender.

One other summation word is what this who episode is about, servanthood. It encompasses all that love is, just like the word surrender encompasses all that faith is. Those terms help me grasp the bottom line and provide the big picture view of the very essence of who God is and who I am to be as I strive to imitate him. The key point of Matthew 20 about the servant/slave being the greatest of all is illustrated by Christ coming not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. I find Luke’s parallel account of the same truth striking. Luke 22:25-27: “Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26 But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.’”

Perhaps even more striking is what Jesus says in Luke 12 about his return in words very similar to those in his Matthew 25 parable of the ten virgins. In both passages, he is describing our need to be ready and watching for that coming. Then Luke 12:37 records this shocking statement: “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.” Do you grasp the implications of what he is promising us who remain faithful until he comes again? We, the servants of the most high God will continue being served by the most high God. Christ and the Father are both described in Scripture as Lord of lords and King of kings. They obviously can also be described as Servant of servants. In some inexplicable way, God will still serve us in the world to come as he does now. He is a servant, always and forever. He cannot be otherwise. His nature never changes, nor can it. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). A remarkable truth hidden in plain sight, indeed!