Peter’s definition of leadership was radically different than anything any of them had ever known. Whereas it was certainly true the cultures around them operated on a strict hierarchical system, so did their own Jewish culture. Theirs was the Davidic dynasty, theirs was the recent Hasmonaean kings, theirs was now the Sanhedrin, the temple elite, their religious rulers. The Pharisee sect wielded a great deal of power, and the Sadducees, in concert with the Roman governors, were also quite powerful.
Everyone in the GrecoRoman world knew and understood their station and status, and it was a way of life to jockey as far up the ladder as possible, by marriage, by economic means, by education and career, knowing who to befriend and who to shun, being wise about choosing one’s mentors and patrons.
But Jesus had consistently taught there was to be -none- of that among the brethren and sistren.
It was three days before his crucifixion, and Jesus was teaching publicly and boldly in the temple courts. With his disciples already gathered round him, Jesus was a standout among the many itinerant rabbis, theologians, and temple scholars who came out to preach and teach during the festivals. His voice ringing forth with signature authority, Jesus now addressed the crowds of people streaming in and out of Solomon’s colonnade, as well as his own hundred and twenty close followers and disciples.
“The scribes and Pharisees have placed themselves upon the Seat of Moses,” and the people nodded as Jesus gestured towards an inner court where the Sanhedrin met to adjudicate. The Seat of Moses was the place of judgment, where Moses spoke from the Torah in case law concerning the commandments of God in all aspects of life.
“Therefore,” Jesus also nodded, “Do what they are teaching you.” Of course, when it was Moses speaking, it was the voice of God holding forth from the scriptures. They were to heed and follow the holy writings. “But!” Jesus shook his head and lifted his finger high in the air, “Do not -you- do as -they- do!”
As usual, the crowds had slowed to listen to Jesus, and now a rumble arose among them as some agreed and others did not.
“They do not practice what they preach,” the Rabbi thundered above their murmurs. “They tie up onerous burdens, dreadful to bear, then lay them on the shoulders of others—on you!” Jesus brought his finger down to point to them all. “But they -themselves- are not willing to lift one finger,” Jesus waved his finger in the air again, moving it up and down like an inchworm, “to move them.”
Many had begun to turn red, flustered and fearful, so close to the temple. Could the temple authorities hear him? Where was the temple guard? Why did these Pharisees scattered about among them, even now gnashing their teeth and growling with fury, not answer back?
Jesus called out their pretentious practices, one by one, theatrical displays of sanctimoniousness. “Oh, they love to have the place of honor,” Jesus’ voice was grieved. “They love to be greeted with respect and to have people call them rabbi.”
Jesus turned to a small knot of Pharisees who were conferring with each other and pointing toward Jesus. “You are not to be called rabbi,” Jesus’ voiced was now raised, booming like a shockwave across the crowded square. Heads snapped in astonishment, eyes bulged, jaws fell open.
“You have One Teacher,” Jesus raised his face and hands toward heaven, “And you,” He pointed to each Pharisee, then his disciples, and the crowds, “You are all -students-.” Jesus put special emphasis on the word.
“Do not call even one person your father, here on earth, because you have One Father, the one who is in heaven!” Again, Jesus lifted his face and hands heavenward.
“Do not call even one person your teacher, because you have One Teacher, the Messiah!” The people gasped almost as if with one breath, when Jesus placed both hands on his chest with an audible thump. He was the Messiah! He was the One Teacher.
“The greatest among you . . . “ and Jesus paused, his face seeming to shine with inner luminosity, his voice dropping to a hoarse whisper as the people leaned in, completely enrapt, “Shall be your servant.” Before the people could spout new expostulations, Jesus held up his hand and continued, “Whoever would elevate themselves will be brought low, and whoever would lower themselves will be lifted up.”
Instructions for Those Who Lead and Teach
It had been a difficult teaching to understand, let alone absorb, or retain, or live by. Again and again the disciples had argued among themselves over ranking. Who was the greatest? Who was to take the end of the line, the end of the table, the most menial of chores? And Jesus had patiently, firmly, consistently ended their arguments with this same teaching.
Now, thirty years later, it was incumbent upon Peter to teach this to the next generation of shepherds and teachers. But first, he would need to model it.
Therefore, elders, I encourage you all, [as one who is] a co-elder and witness of Christ’s suffering, and one [who is a] partaker in the glory about to be revealed:1 Peter 5:1 (my translation)
He entreated them as a fellow laborer, as an equal, for that was the truth of it, the truth Peter had finally learned. There was no over and under, there was no greater and lesser, there was only the circle with Christ at the center.
Tend as a shepherd [graze] the flock of God among you,1 Peter 5:2 (my translation)
Peter remembered Jesus’ own words to him, that morning on the shore by the Galilean Sea. “Graze my lambs, shepherd my flock, tend my flock.” He could think of no higher calling, no greater expression of love, then to be a shepherd of the Chief Shepherd’s flock.
Visit and observe [as a physician would]1 Peter 5:2 (my translation)
Peter thought of all the times Jesus had rightly seen someone, had asked the questions that opened their hearts, and had healed them. Then Jesus had sent them out, two-by-two, with the same discernment and ability to heal. This was the work of the Spirit, to observe with discernment, and pray God’s healing.
Not by constraint, but rather willingly according to God,
Nor for filthy lucre’s sake, but rather eagerly,
Nor as ones who exercise dominion over the inheritances [those who have an inheritance in the kingdom of God], but rather as ones who are becoming examples of the flock—1 Peter 5:2-3 (my translation)
Not by obligation, nor others’ expectation, not in response to demands, nor to pressure, not to fill out a resume nor buckle under ambition—someone else’s or one’s own.
The last would be hardest for them. They were used to the deference, even reverence, paid to rabbis and teachers of the law. They were used to the unquestioning obedience the religious authorities expected and largely received. To be a rabbi or a Pharisee was a matter of great station in life, even when there was not much money in it (though often there was).
But! Peter smiled. The heavenly rewards the Lord Jesus Christ provided were unimaginably greater, and lasted for all eternity.
And the Chief Shepherd, who is being made visible and known, will provide the unfading glorious crown.1 Peter 5:4 (my translation)
1. Love: Serve not because you and I must, but because we are willing. Serving from a heart of genuine love, rather than simply obligation, pleases God.
2. Generosity: Not for money nor for compliments, not for public acclamation nor special privileges, not for ambition, nor advancement, nor career. Instead, be eager to give of ourselves, seeing the service itself as its own reward. A true servant is interested only in serving with excellence and pleasing the Master.
3. Humility: Not lording it over people, nor trying to force people, but by being an example. There can be a corrupting power of pride in authority. Instead, as equals listen carefully, with empathy and discernment, to the people God has placed in our care. Be teachable, vulnerable, available.
When you and I stop being concerned about the needs of the people we lead and become more concerned about how they can serve us and our needs, we have fallen into the trap of lording it over.
Christian leadership will always be costly.
*For help with this passage, I turned to the work of Torah Apologetics, which sheds light on the Hebraisms embedded in the Greek Gospel of Matthew.
[Seat of Moses | Pikiwikisrael, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]