Jesus, the Model Servant Leader

The framework that makes servanthood possible for the people of God is the example of the life and ministry of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and His promise of empowerment through the Holy Spirit. Paul’s statement in Philippians 4:13 implies the tremendous possibilities available to each believer, when he said, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”  

Our Lord, Jesus, demonstrated to us the essence and extent of servanthood, as the Scripture declares, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8).

The  overflow  of  attitude  and  disposition  of  true servanthood was most  evident, when He  agonised in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the crushing reality and the weight of humanity’s sin  began  to  bear  down  upon  Him.    He  said  “Father,  if  thou  be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42 KJV).  The humanity of Christ was most evident in the scriptures, and so too was His obedience to the Father. 

The Servant Leader

  • From the teaching and example of Jesus Christ we learn that being a servant leader in the most general sense means being:
  • A voluntary servant, who submits themselves to a higher purpose, which is beyond their personal interests or the interests of others,
  • A leader who uses the power that is entrusted to them to serve others,
  • A servant who, out of love, serves others needs before their own,
  • A teacher who teaches their followers, in word and deed, how to become servant leaders themselves.

The Servant of People

This takes us to  the  second  essential of servant-hood.  The major  distinction  between  the  two  essentials  is  that  the  primary focus  on  Biblical  servant-hood  is  that  of  being  a  servant  of  God. Without  this  focus,  the  concept  is  irrelevant  and  inapplicable, and particularly  because  of  the  nature  of  human  beings.    The  prophet Jeremiah tells us that, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9 NIV).  It  is no wonder then that humans are prone to doing things for others, under the pretence that we mean them well, when what we are really doing is establishing ourselves in one way or another.  The distinction continues; that as a logical outcome of being a servant of God,  Biblical  servant-hood’s secondary focus is on being a servant of people.  It has always been God’s way to use people to bless other people.    There  are  two  fundamental  considerations  for  being  an effective  servant  of  people.    They  are:(a)  Love  for  people, and (b) Having a Biblical view of self.  Both these considerations demand a particular emphasis on the vessel that God desires to use, so  as  to make  adjustments  to  that  vessel  that  will  be  consistent  with,  and easily  facilitate,  the  smooth  flow  of  God’s  grace  from  Himself, through the privileged vessel, and to  the recipients He  so loves; the objects of His sacrifice in Jesus Christ.

Biblical View of Self

The Bible demands that we endeavour to see ourselves from divine perspective.  We  were all born as  Adam and Eve’s heritage; heirs to a nature of sin.  God’s judgment against sin puts all sinners at a base level of depravity, and on a course that leads to hell and the lake of fire.   It  is  from this that all Christians have been  delivered. This deliverance has come, not by humanity’s initiative,  but by that of  the  living  God.    “It  is  by  grace  through  faith,  not  of  works lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8).  Now, if “the wages of sin is death”  (Romans  6:23),  and  “the  heart  is  deceitful  above  all  things and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9), then we all do not deserve to be alive.  So since we are alive, whether we are Christians or not, wealthy  or  not,  healthy  or not, educated or  not,  it  is  as  a  result  of God’s unmerited favour.  In terms of the reality of God’s sovereignty  and  man’s  accountability  to  Him,  therefore,  the  only thing that separates us from the beggar on the street is the grace that God  grants  to  us.   Our  exercise  of  leadership  should  therefore  be characterised by (a) Inward humility, and (b) Dependence on God.

Jesus’ model challenges our whole concept of power, of authority, of status.

The King Who led with a Towel

The Servant of God

This  takes  us  to the  first essential of servanthood;  that  you, as a part of God’s people, where ever He affords you the privilege to serve,  be  it  a  supervisor  or  a  simple  labourer,see  yourself  as  a servant of God first, above everything else.  You could have  been redeemed and taken to glory, but you were left here, and left here to give  God  glory;  for  “you  are a  chosen  race,  a  royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's  own  possession,  so  that  you  may proclaim the excellences of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9 NASB).  There are two essentials  that  must  be  embraced  if  you  are  to excel  in  living  the requirement of being God’s servant first: (a) You  must demonstrate obedience, and (b) you must express love.  

Demonstration of Obedience Obedience refers to the observance of God’s revealed will, in your  life,  for  the  purpose  of  giving  God  glory.The  Gospels,  and particularly the book of Luke, which identifies Jesus as the Isaianic servant of God, present Him as the willing, obedient, enduring  servant  who  paid  the  ultimate  cost  of  allegiance  to  His Lord.  In His  relationship with the Father,  Jesus Christ represented what  God  wanted  man  to  be  before  the  incarnation  and  what  He wants man  to become since the incarnation.  Adam was made to be God’s servant (Genesis 1:27-28; 2:15, 19-20), to walk in obedience (Genesis 2:16-17), and to have fellowship and communion with Him (Genesis 3:8-9).  Sin was allowed access to  the  relationship, and  it damaged  the  relationship  that  God  desired  between  Himself  and humanity.  Christ,  in  His  redemptive  work,  has  restored  that relationship  for  us;  but  we  need  to  preserve  it  by  our  obedience.  This requires: (a) Knowledge of God’s  will,  (b)  Self-mastery,  and (c) Faith that God’s way is best.

Knowledge of God’s will.

We must give  ourselves  over to the pursuit of knowing God’s will.  How can you expect to make the right decision in respect of issues that face you  on  a  daily  basis  if you  do  not know  God’s  will for  His  people,  and  for  you,  in  that particular  situation?    And  how  can  you  expect  to  effectively  lead God’s people, at whatever level, except in the way that meets with God’s approval.  The servant of God must know God’s will. 


It  seems  to  me  that  the  greatest  threat  to  a Christian  is not Satan, as many of  us  suppose,  rather, it is the self.  In The Imitations of Christ, Book One, à Kempis (n.d.)noted, “DO NOT  yield  to  every  impulse  and  suggestion  but  consider  things carefully  and  patiently  in  the  light  of  God's  will.”  The  natural cravings and desires that God gave to us must be kept in check if we are to be the  best that we can be.   If we master  ourselves,  with the power  that  is  available  to  us  through  the  Holy  Spirit,  can  you comprehend  how  victorious  we  would  be  over  Satan  and  his schemes?  “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city (Proverbs 16:32 NASB).  Kempis further noted that, A man makes the most progress and merits the most grace precisely in those matters wherein he gains the greatest victories over self and most  mortifies  his  will. True,  each  one  has  his own  difficulties  to meet and conquer, but a diligent and sincere man  will make greater progress even  though he have more passions than one who is more even-tempered but less concerned about virtue. The servant of God must therefore master self.

Greenleaf, R. K. (1998). The Power of Servant Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc. Greenleaf,  R.  K.  (1970). The servant as leader. Westfield, IN:  Robert  K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. Greenleaf, R.  K.  (1977).  Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. New York: Paulist Press. Greenleaf, R. K. (1979). Teacher as servant: A parable. New York: Paulist Press.

Applying the Towel

​​As a leader, this way of relating to people isn’t typical. Such a way of relating to people reverses the order. It is subversive. It destabilises. It upsets. Jesus’ model challenges our whole concept of power, of authority, of status. When his disciples were arguing about who would be greatest in the kingdom of God, Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be number one shall be slave to all..” Jesus’ leadership with a towel inaugurates a community of foot washers. It deletes the image of clamoring for power, people climbing over each other to get to the top. Jesus’ example even puts to rest the notion that I wash your feet so that you wash mine. 

Within the  context of service among the people of  God, the concept  of  servant-hood  is  rather  more  inclusive  and  appropriate, than that of servant-leadership.   Biblical  Servant-hood  is a lifestyle disposition,  whereby  a  believer’s  attitudes,  motives,  and  actions towards others, are governed by the fundamental belief that he/she is God’s servant first, in all that he does, and that as a representative of Christ,  his  service  to  others,  whether  as  leader,  colleague,  or follower,  must  be  rendered  in a  spirit  of obligation  to  the  will  of God, and to the greatest good of those individuals.  Being a good servant of God, demands (a) obedience, which requires  a  knowledge  of  God’s  will,  self-mastery,  and  faith  that God’s way is the right way; and (b) love, which is manifested through  love  for  God,  and  love  towards  God’s  creation.  The secondary focus of Biblical servant-hood is that of being the servant of people.  This requires (a) love for people, which challenges one’s humility,  patience,  endurance,  and  willingness  to  learn,  and  (b)  a Biblical  view  of self,  which  requires  humility  and dependence  on God.  The servant of God must both present and represent God, not himself/herself.