All whom God calls to exercise authority in this life—be it in the family, in the church, or in the state—must do so as servants. In this they must follow the Lord Jesus Christ. God gave Jesus Christ all authority in heaven and on earth. Today He is seated at the right hand of God the Father as King of the universe. However, Christ exercised authority already while He was on earth—authority to forgive sins, to drive out demons, to teach, to judge, and to give eternal life. What was the main distinguishing mark of the way in which Christ exercised authority? Service.
In Mark 10 beginning at verse 35, the Evangelist Mark related how the disciples of the Lord Jesus were arguing about who was going to get the choice spots in the kingdom of heaven. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, started it. They said to Jesus: "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory." The Lord told them that was an inappropriate demand of them to make of Him.
When the other disciples heard about James' and John's request, they became very angry. It turned into quite a hullabaloo. So the Lord Jesus called them together and said, "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. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 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."
The Son of Man (i.e., the Lord, the Christ)—the One to whom God the Father gave all authority in heaven and on earth—came to serve. To give his life as a ransom.
If we turn to John 13, we see this servant leadership of Christ at work. Jesus and the disciples were about to sit down to eat. It was customary to have one's feet washed before eating. This was a very important social convention in Palestine at that time. People walked barefoot in sandals, and so their feet would get dusty. Because people reclined on the floor when they ate, resting perhaps on a pillow, around a low table, it was very important to have the dust washed off the feet.
The lowliest servant in the house would typically do this. There were Jesus and his disciples, ready to eat. Apparently, there was no servant boy to wash their feet. Who would do it? All the disciples were very self-conscious. To get up and wash the feet of their peers would mean that they were less than the others. No one got up. No one wanted to look like he was less than the others.
Suddenly, the Master Jesus got up. He took off his outer cloak, wrapped a towel around his waist, poured water into a basin, and went around to each of his disciples, washing their feet and drying them with the towel. This was shocking. No other rabbi in Israel would have done such a thing. No other teacher would have stooped so low as to wash the feet of his students, his followers, his disciples. But Jesus did.
When he had finished washing their feet, He put on his clothes and returned to his place. He asked the disciples whether they understood what He had done for them. He said: "You call me `Teacher' and `Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am." Then He made a penetrating application: "Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you."
The Lord gave us an example. The example is especially for those who occupy positions of authority. Those who have been placed by God in positions of authority must exercise that authority by serving. Their authority is to be qualified by service. The quality of service is what is to give their authority its texture and colour. Anyone—parents, church leaders, government officials—who do not qualify their authority by service (who do not provide servant leadership) become ugly monstrosities.
The account in John 13 challenges all who are in positions of authority—in the home, in the church, in the state—to be servant leaders. We need to exercise legitimate authority like Jesus Christ did, by becoming a servant to those God has placed under us.
(Next is the limits on authority.)
This series of blog posts were originally presented as a speech at the October 1998 Ontario Women's League Day in Ancaster, Ontario. Much of the spoken style remains.