|An Ancient Synagogue in Israel (Baram)
Last week we talked about the special ministry gifts that God uses to activate and empower the gifting in each and every believer (Eph. 4:11: “He himself also gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers”). Paul tells us that they are like ligaments, holding the Body together.
In New Testament times, the first three, apostles, prophets and evangelists, were mostly traveling ministries. They moved around from place to place and from church to church. But the last two, the pastors and teachers, were local ministries. These were people who were members of the local church. But as I briefly mentioned last week, the meaning of the name of some of these ministry gifts has changed over time.
The biggest change has happened with the word “pastor.” The word “pastor” actually means shepherd. But in the Bible, this word is not used of a single leader of a church, as is common in so many churches today. Instead, the Bible uses this word to describe the elders of a local church. So for example, in Acts 20, Paul called for the elders of the church of Ephesus to come to see him (Acts 20:17: “And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church.”) Then when he spoke to them, he described their job as shepherding or pastoring the church. “Be careful for yourselves and all the flock, among whom the Holy Spirit made you overseers to shepherd (to pastor) the church of God which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). The word “shepherd” (or pastor) here is the verbal form of the same Greek noun for shepherd or pastor that we mentioned before. And here he describes their job just like that of a shepherd: to watch over and guard the flock.
Where did Paul and the other apostles get this idea of setting up elders in the churches? From the synagogues. In fact, from their point of view, that’s what they were setting up: Messianic synagogues. As it says in the Greek of James 2:2, if someone “enters into your synagogue.” The word “church” that we are more familiar with in Greek is ekklesia, which simply means an assembly or congregation. It’s just another word for the same thing. Because synagogue also means to gather together for a meeting. Only much later were churches and synagogues looked at as different things.
Remember, the apostles of Jesus did not look at Christianity as a different religion than Judaism. They looked at Christianity as the true fulfillment of the Jewish religion, the fulfillment of everything written in the Bible, which at the time was only the Old Testament. The New Testament was still being written. So of course, they planted synagogue-style churches when they went out to evangelize.
What this means is that the churches planted by the apostles and described in the New Testament didn’t have a single “pastor,” as many churches have today. Instead, they had a group of pastors, the elders, who were in charge of the church. This type of leadership is often called a “plurality of leadership.” It recognizes the gifting given not just to one person, but to many of the members of the local body of Messiah.
The best place to begin to understand God’s plan for leadership in the Body of Messiah is to look at what Jesus said about leadership. The first passage we’ll look at is in Matthew 20. This was when they were in Jericho, just about to begin the last section of their journey up to Jerusalem for the Passover. We have to remember how excited everyone was feeling. Jesus had been drawing huge crowds to listen to him speak—tens of thousands of people. The Bible says they were stepping on each other to be able to listen to him (Luke 12:1). There was a lot of Messianic excitement in the air. Many believed Jesus to be the Messiah—they had tried to crown him king in Galilee (John 6:15). Many were hoping that when he got to Jerusalem, he would announce himself to be the Messiah, and that God would do something wonderful to get rid of the Romans.
So one day, there in Jericho, the mother of James and John came up to Jesus and asked for good seats for her sons in Jesus’ Messianic kingdom (Matt. 20:20-21: “Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, prostrating herself and asking something from him. But he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Say that these two sons of mine might sit, one on your right and one on your left, in your kingdom’”). What was this all about? This wasn’t just so they could have seats of honor at Passover. She was thinking of good jobs, positions of authority in the kingdom of the Messiah. The one who sat at his right might be in charge of the army, the one at his left in charge of the treasury.
The others were upset with James and John over this (Matt. 20:24: “And having heard (of it), the ten were indignant with the two brothers”). Why were they upset? Because they wanted the same thing. They, too, wanted glory with the Messiah. Their eyes were on fame, fortune, and power. So what did Jesus say?
Matt. 20:25: “But Jesus having called them said: ‘You know that the rulers of the nations (the Gentiles) lord it over them and the great exercise authority over them.’” This is the world’s method of leadership right up until today. What does it mean to “lord it” over someone? It means to take advantage of the power you have over someone. Those who have power use it over others. The bosses in some companies in America earn thousands of times what the ordinary workers earn, and pay their workers very little. Why is that? They’re taking advantage of others because of the power they have over them. That’s the way the world works, isn’t it? And so that’s what worldly people want more of in their lives: more power, more influence, more money.
But Jesus said, “It will not be this way among you; rather whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you will be your slave” (Matt. 20:26,27). What is Jesus talking about? The disciples were looking forward to positions of authority and power in the Messianic kingdom. This is just the way many people think about ministry today. They want to be generals in God’s army, leading huge groups of people around, with people going here and there at their command—heroes of the Church, boasting about the size of their churches and their salaries. “I’m God’s apostle to Asia.” “I’m God’s anointed for Taiwan.” “God has given me the vision for the Church of the 21st century.” If you’ve been a Christian for very long, you know what I’m talking about. And for some reason, people really respond to this kind of leader. I guess they just love having somebody tell them what to do. They often think of these leaders as superstars.
But Jesus turns everything upside down on this way of thinking. He says, if you want to be truly great in the Church, you must serve others. “What! Are you kidding me! I have a special anointing, I am God’s called, his chosen!” Really? Then Jesus said you should serve others. This doesn’t just mean you should call yourself a servant. Anybody can do that. The popes love to sign their letters, “the servant of the servants of God.” But Jesus is talking about what you do, how you act. Notice the particular language used: he “will be your servant.” If somebody is your servant, who’s in charge? Who is lifted up? The person serving or the person served??
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He continues, “whoever wants to be first among you will be your slave.” Oh my! Jesus, are you serious? Yes, he’s very serious. The most important person in the Body of Messiah is the one that serves as a slave to all the others. Now let’s think about what that means a little. Does a slave tell people what to do? ‘You do this, you do that?’ Does a slave do that? Does a slave say, ‘Submit to my leadership!’ No. A slave doesn’t act like that. A slave helps people with their concerns, with their needs, not his own concerns and his own needs. Does a slave say to people, ‘God has given me the vision for the church, follow me and do what I say?’ No. A slave says, ‘How may I help you?’ ‘How may I serve you?’ ‘What are your concerns and your problems and your needs?’ Right? This is a completely and radically different way of thinking about leadership.
We don’t have slaves today, but the closest thing is an employee—let’s say a new employee at the lowest level in a business. So if we translate Jesus’ words into our modern setting, it would be: ‘Whoever wants to be great among you will be your employee. And whoever wants to be first among you will be your lowest level employee.’ Does the lowest level employee get his way all the time? No, he always has to do things somebody else’s way. He always has to give up his own priorities for somebody else’s priorities. He has to do jobs somebody else assigns. This is how Jesus says the leadership of the Church will be. Wow! Jesus’ view of leadership is exactly the opposite of the world’s view of leadership. In the Church, Jesus says that leaders are those who serve others. But if the leaders serve like this, then how are they leaders? They’re leaders because they’re showing us how we should all serve one other.
This is what Jesus himself did: “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but rather to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). Jesus said, you’re supposed to lead in just the same way I led. I didn’t come for people to serve me. I came to serve them. Jesus didn’t set himself up as a king. When the people tried to make him king in Galilee, he refused (John 6:15). Jesus didn’t enrich himself from his followers to make his life comfortable. He didn’t even have a place to lay his head: he didn’t own a home (Matt. 8:20). Instead he worked long hours in meetings healing people. He walked from city to city in the hot desert sun. The Bible says he taught in all the synagogues in Galilee (Mark 1:39). I’m sure he and the disciples slept many nights on the ground. He lived by faith, and he never grumbled about it. And then he gave his life for us. This was not a worldly man.
What does it mean that he gave his life as a “ransom”? A ransom was what you paid to free a slave from slavery. You bought the slave back from its owner and you set him free. Jesus gave his life to free us. He paid the ultimate price for us.
Jesus wants us to serve just as he did, to lay down our lives for others. We, too, should serve others so they can be set free from slavery. We, too, should become servants.
The earliest church did a remarkably good job of this. It was something completely new in the world: groups of people that genuinely cared and were concerned for one another, that served one another not because they had to, but because they wanted to. Do you know why the church in Rome became so famous originally? Because they fed hundreds of people every day. In this, they were just following the example of the church in Jerusalem.
Remember, the apostles were originally waiting tables. They were literally serving people every day (Acts 6:1-4). Later they left this to others and branched out to other kinds of service, traveling thousands of miles to spread the gospel around the world. This Christianity with a servant heart is the kind of Christianity that spread so quickly around the Roman world. Within just a couple of hundred years, Christian writers could talk about Christians living in every nation, in almost every city in the Roman world. People were attracted to this. They were tired of the abusive Roman government, the abuse of power and wealth. Here was a little relief from the storm, a place where people really cared about each other. It was a little piece of heaven.
The topic of leadership came up again with Jesus after they arrived in Jerusalem, when Jesus rebuked the scribes and the Pharisees in Matt. 23, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites.” Christians usually have a very bad opinion of the Pharisees. But we have to remember that the Pharisees were the most popular religious group of that day. Most people accepted their teachings about the Bible. But Jesus had some very strong words to say about them:
Matthew 23:2-3: “The scribes and the Pharisees sat in the seat of Moses [when they taught]. Therefore, all that they say to you do and observe; but do not do according to their deeds, for they say things and do not do them.” Their teachings were correct. That’s why Jesus said to obey their teachings. But the problem was that they didn’t live according to their own teachings (“they say things and do not do them”). This is not just a problem in Judaism. It’s just as much a problem in Christianity. People know what Jesus said to do. They will criticize others for not obeying Jesus. But all the while, they themselves are not obedient to Jesus. It’s called hypocrisy. And Jesus really doesn’t like it.
Matt. 23:5-7: “But they do all their works to be seen by men; for they enlarge their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels [of their outer robes, to make them look very spiritual], but they love the place of greatest honor when reclining at diner and the seat of greatest honor in the synagogues and the greetings in the markets and being called rabbi by people.” They try to look spiritual, but their behavior is not at all spiritual. Rather than being humble, which is the mark of true spirituality, they are proud of their position, and take advantage of it for their own glory.
Matt. 23:8-10: “But you are not to be called rabbi, for one is your teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father, for one is your heavenly Father. And do not be called leaders, for one is your leader, the Messiah.” A rabbi was a teacher. But Jesus says that none of us should be called rabbi. Why? Because we have only one: Rabbi Jesus. And notice this: “And you are all brothers.” There are no higher and lower levels of importance in the Church. The only one at a higher level is Jesus. The rest of us are all on the same level: we are all brothers.
Nobody in the Church should be called “father.” This is talking about a religious use of the word, not your physical father: like the Catholics call their priests, “father.” Jesus says you shouldn’t do that. You’re setting up a human being over yourself which should not be. We shouldn’t even call people leaders, because it sets up some people above others. Only Jesus is our leader. Jesus is very clear on this point. But Christians rarely pay any attention to him on this.
We love to put our religious leaders up on a pedestal. But this is very spiritually dangerous both for them and for us. As the saying goes, “the higher they stand, the further they fall.” And that’s exactly what happens to people that we put up on a pedestal, over and over again. Power corrupts. And the greater the power, the greater the corruption. We understand this in secular matters. But for some reason, many Christians ignore this when it comes to leaders in the Church. But this is something Christians should never allow to happen. Jesus said we are all brothers in God’s sight. Yes, we can respect the gifts God has given people. But we should never think of them as more important because of this. We should never idolize them. Because this can have horrible results both in their lives and in ours.
Jesus said: “But the greater one among you will be your servant. But whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:11,12). Greatness in the Body of Messiah is measured by service, by having the heart of a servant, serving others. This means laying aside our own priorities and helping people with their needs. That is the goal of the Christian life: not exalting ourselves or exalting certain leaders. Humbling ourselves and acting as a servant will be rewarded. But those who puff themselves up and use positions of authority for personal gain or to make themselves greater than others, these will be humbled. This is a promise of Jesus.
This was not the last time Jesus spoke about this subject. He returned to it one more time at the Last Supper, when he washed the feet of his disciples. You remember that, right? Now it’s important to realize that soap was not yet invented at that time. When they washed, they just rinsed in water. That’s why they had to use so much perfume. If feet are stinky now, they were much more stinky in Jesus day. After all, they walked everywhere. So let’s just put it this way, washing feet was not a glamorous job. It was something that people usually did for themselves, or if they had servants, it was something the lowest servant would do, or a disciple might do it for his rabbi.
You probably remember that Jesus came to Peter to wash his feet. And Peter said, ‘No way, Lord.’ “Peter says to him, ‘You will certainly not ever wash my feet.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me’” (John 13:8). Wow. That’s very strong language. Why was it so important that Jesus wash everyone’s feet?
So Peter says, ‘Okay then, wash all of me.’ “Simon Peter says to him, 'Lord, not only my feet, but also my hands and head'” (John 13:9). Peter didn’t want to be left out. So what does Jesus say to this?
John 13:10: “Jesus says to him, ‘The one who is bathed has no need except to wash his feet, but (other than that) he is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.” Now what does this mean? Before important festivals like the Passover, many Jews will take a ritual bath, even today. But when they walk in sandals through the dusty streets of Jerusalem to the place where they will eat the Passover, their feet get dusty. So the only thing they need to do to be completely clean when they arrive is to wash their feet. But Jesus is using this physical reality to speak of a spiritual truth. Who is the one who was not clean? Judas. This was a spiritual uncleanness. The others were spiritually clean. They just needed a foot washing from Jesus to complete their understanding of his will for the Christian Church.
John 13:12-15: “Then, when he had washed their feet and taken up his garments and reclined again (at the table), he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me ‘the Teacher’ and ‘the Lord,’ and you speak well, for I am. So if I, the Lord and Teacher, washed your feet; you, too, ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example in order that just as I have done to you, you, too, will do (to one another).” Jesus acted as a servant to us. So we should act as servants to one another. Is that our attitude toward each other in the Christian Church? It should be. This was obviously a very big priority for Jesus. When you look at a brother in the church, do you think, how can I serve him? How can I help him? That’s the attitude we should have. And we should encourage each other to have this attitude. This means when someone has a need, we try to help them with their need. We don’t just say, “I’ll pray for you” if there’s something we can do to help. Of course, there are times when prayer is what’s needed most. But if there are other needs and we can help, we should be anxious to do that. We should be anxious to follow Jesus in laying down our life for the Body of Messiah. Wow! Can you imagine a church like that? No wonder they took over the Roman world.
John 13:16: “Amen, amen, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his lord, nor an apostle greater than the one who sent him." We are not greater than Jesus. So if he humbled himself as a servant, so should we. We are not greater than he is.
Paul puts it this way in Philippians: “Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:2-4). That’s a very good practical statement of the kind of life Jesus was urging us to live. We should look at others as more important than ourselves. I’m not saying that’s always easy to do. It’s the kind of thing you have to build up in your life step by step by doing it here and there, and then more and more often until it becomes a lifestyle. But if we want to find the heart of Jesus, if you really want to know the spirit of Jesus, it’s in service, not in leading armies of believers, not in making ourselves famous.
Then Paul goes on to remind them just how much Jesus humbled himself for us. “Have this attitude among you which was also in Messiah Jesus, who existing in the form of God, did not think being equal with God was something to be won” (Phil. 2:5,6). Jesus knew perfectly well that equality with God was not something he could attain through his own efforts: he already was God! In the same way, we should know that equality with God is not something we can attain through any efforts we could possibly make.
Philippians 2:7: “but rather he laid that aside (he laid aside his divinity), having taken the form of a servant, having come to be in the likeness of men.” Instead of trying to build himself up, to make himself greater than he was before, and more powerful than he was before, he did just the opposite: he emptied himself of all his divine privileges and divine powers, and became like one of us. This is the attitude we, too, should have: instead of trying to build ourselves up to make ourselves more important or powerful than we were before, we should lay aside our power and privileges to serve others.
Philippians 2:8: “and being found in the appearance of a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient until death, that is, a death on a cross.” Not only did he set aside all his heavenly glory to become a man, he went even further, humbling himself to the point of death on the cross.
Philippians 2:9: “Because of which God also exalted him above all and graciously granted him the name above every name.” Because he humbled himself to the lowest possible point in this life, death on a cross, he was exalted to the highest possible point in the next. That’s Jesus’ example for our lives. The more we humble ourselves as servants now, the more we will receive an amazing eternal reward later. This is not like a lottery, where you hope you win in the end. This is a covenant agreement: that if you humble yourself, God will exalt you.
This is what Jesus was talking about in Matt. 10:38: “and he who does not take his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me.” If you’re not willing to humble yourself for Jesus, you’re not worthy of him. We are to set aside our lives for others. This is a historic Christian principle that people preached for 1900 years. But you hear very little about it these days.
Matt. 10:39: “The one who has found his life will destroy it, and the one who has destroyed his life because of me will find it.” What does this mean? When I became a Christian and became a missionary, my family thought I had ruined my life. I was a graduate of one of the top three universities in the U.S. They considered my possibilities for worldly success to have been destroyed. I was throwing my life away. Yes, that’s how the world sees it. But that’s the only way to find true life in Christ. On the other hand, those who have found what they’re looking for, worldly success and fame and fortune, will only in the end destroy their lives.
You see the problem: if we get our reward now, Jesus said we won’t get it later. “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men to be seen by them; but if not (if you do them to be noticed), you have no reward with your Father who is in the heavens” (Matt. 6:1). “Acts of righteousness” is the Jewish way to say giving to the poor. Even though giving to the poor is a godly thing to do, if you do it for the wrong heart reason with the wrong motive, you will get no reward for it in the future. We’re supposed to give from a heart of service. But if we do it for a reward now, in this life, we lose our reward in the future.
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, that like to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, that they may be seen by men; Amen I say to you, they have received their reward in full” (Matt. 6:5). Praying is a good thing to do. But if you pray to be noticed by others, you’ve already got your reward. And if you get your reward in this life, you get nothing in the future.
If you’re looking for a reward in this life, if your best life is now, what will happen in the future? If you’ve already got your reward now, Jesus said you won’t be getting one in the future. In fact, Jesus specifically taught us not to seek a reward in this life, but in the life that is coming. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on the earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroy and where thieves do not break in or steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be, too” (Matt. 6:19-21). This is a command of Jesus, a command of the gospel. We are not to store up treasures on earth. Are we obeying Jesus? Where is your heart today? Is it consumed with things of this earth? Or is it consumed with the things of God, with serving the people of God? Are your treasures on earth? Or are they in heaven? Jesus wants to set you free from worry and concern about the things of this life.
Many people think, if I don’t continually strive for the things of this earth, I’ll die, I’ll have nothing, I won’t be able to eat. So I must put all my efforts, every moment of every day, into gaining the things of this world. And as a result, they have no time left to serve others.
But Jesus said, no, it doesn’t work that way. He said, "Do not be anxious then, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'With what will we clothe ourselves?'” (Matt. 6:31). Jesus says that if we’re serving God, we don’t need to worry about those things.
Matthew 6:32: "For all these things the Gentiles (the nations) eagerly seek; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” So how will we get the things we need for our lives?
Matthew 6:33: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.” If we seek the kingdom of God first, if following Jesus is our top priority, he will provide the things we need. He will take care of us.
“But if God clothes like this the grass of the field which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will he not much more for you, people of little faith!” (Matt. 6:30). That’s what Biblical faith is all about: doing God’s will in serving others, and then trusting him for the rest. This doesn’t mean we sit around doing nothing. No. It means pouring our lives into advancing the gospel. And if we do that, God will be faithful to provide the rest. That’s Jesus’ word, not my word. And it works. We lived completely by faith for eleven years in the Philippines. God met every need. And he still meets our needs today.
What did the prophet Micah say? “He has told you, man, what is good, and what does the LORD require from you, but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). This was all a big adjustment for the apostles. They had to come a long way down from their visions of glory in this life. In fact, they really didn’t get it at all until after Jesus died, after all their false hopes were buried with him. Only after he died and rose again did they finally get the message: that we can afford to lay our lives down in service. Because we will get them back again in the end, with a great reward.
Let’s pray: Lord God, your ways are so different than the world. Your plan for leadership is just the opposite of that of the world. Yet you are faithful in every word that you say to us. Your words have been tested over and over again through thousands of years, and every one has proved true. You call us, Lord, to a different kind of life. A life of service, a life of faith, a life in imitation of Jesus—a life of trust that God will make a way for us. Help us Lord, to take up the challenge. Help us to follow the Lord in all that we think and do. And may we help many others to come to know you, and become your disciples. In Jesus’ name.