To Lead? Or to Follow?
By Wayne Slusser
Pastor, what are you preoccupied with? The role of a leader, or shepherd, often consumes the majority of your time. If it isn’t the preparing and teaching of sermons and Sunday School lessons, then the counseling, leading, and administration of God’s people and your church staff consume the day. Having a “running here, there, and everywhere” mentality seems to be a prerequisite for success as a pastor. Because, let’s face it, a pastor must care for his flock and must be willing to do it at any time or place. Is this what God wants? Is this busy schedule important for the flock’s growth and survival? Or is a pastor’s busy schedule potentially adding to the inevitable collapse of his ministry? What about the pastor’s growth?
Rather than preoccupying yourself with the day-to-day stuff that typically characterizes the role of pastor, what would happen if you were preoccupied with following? Following Jesus that is. Why should you consider following? Aren’t you supposed to be leading? Prior to leading and shepherding people, a pastor must be a consistent follower.
The Gospel according to Mark is about the life of Jesus as the Son of God (1:1). As Mark catalogs the events of Jesus’ life, he emphasizes two things: Jesus’ identity and His followers’ responsibility. Mark’s gospel account can be structured using geographical markers; that is, the declaration of Jesus as the Son of God (Galilean ministry, 1:14—8:21), the mission of Jesus as the Son of God (on the way to Jerusalem, 8:22—10:52), and the affirmation of Jesus as the Son of God (Jerusalem, 11:1—16:8). The central section of Mark’s account is the focus of this article.
I think Mark 8:22—10:52 portrays what the servant-minister role ought to look like, for it begins with following and ends with serving. This section declares Jesus as the ultimate servant and culminates with Jesus’ servant statement in 10:45, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” If the pastor is going to lead and serve people, it is best to consider Christ’s actions and expectations.
The central section of Mark features Jesus’ movement from Galilee to Jerusalem. He was on the way to the cross, and He was identifying those who would follow Him regardless of the cost. What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? And not just a follower, but one who identifies with Jesus? Mark 8:22—10:52 offers a threefold pattern that communicates the significance of this section by noting Jesus’ mission (the prediction of His death), the disciples’ response, and Jesus’ teaching based on their response. Jesus used the cross, the child, and the Christ to teach His disciples what it means to follow Him. Ultimately, genuine, humble service influences others. Genuine influence is being a servant!
Learn to Follow Loyally, Mark 8:27–38
Jesus made His mission clear; He must die (Mark 8:31). This was not received well, especially by Peter. As a matter of fact, Peter spoke up, basically stating that Jesus’ teaching was wrong and that he would not have any of that talk (v. 32). To Peter, Jesus was in great error, for how can a rejected Messiah be compatible with Jewish convictions and hopes? Peter did correctly state Jesus’ identity (v. 29), but he incorrectly understood his own responsibility as a follower.
Peter pulled Jesus aside (proslabomenos) to teach Him undisturbed, as if he was the one qualified to teach Jesus. Peter chose to rebuke Jesus, indicating that His mission must be censured or quieted. Clearly Peter was not following his teacher, so Jesus responded with correction (v. 33), saying in essence, “Peter, assume the position of a follower; get behind Me (opiso), not beside Me.” In addition to correcting Peter’s posture, Jesus identified him as one who lacked devotion to God’s plan, for that was not Peter’s concern. Peter saw Jesus’ death as unthinkable, while Jesus saw it as inevitable.
Jesus responded further by teaching what it means to loyally follow Him (vv. 34–38). Those who follow (opiso) Him must deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow. Jesus stated that the follower must surrender/give up/forsake his own desires and ambitions (denying oneself) and submit to Jesus as a slave. He must be willing to renounce all for Christ, a vivid illustration of humility and submission (taking one’s cross). True followers must loyally follow regardless of Christ’s agenda or the cost to follow and fulfill His agenda. Peter was unwilling to do this.
Jesus also included the consequences of loyally following Him (vv. 35–38). Those who follow have the possibility of losing their lives (vv. 34–35, cross bearing), especially if they are loyal to Jesus and submit to His gospel message. There is also the possibility of gaining the whole world (its power, prestige, and wealth), but is it worth it? At the cost of your soul (v. 36)? Hardly! Nothing would compensate for such a loss, for Jesus says there is an indictment against gaining the world and losing one’s soul in the process (v. 37). Ultimately, the refusal to loyally follow Jesus alienates a person from Him (v. 38).
Learn to Care Willingly, Mark 9:30–37
As Mark continues the story “on the way” to Jerusalem, Jesus’ mission is still certain: He will be handed over to men, and they will kill Him (9:31). The disciples did not understand and were afraid to ask (v. 32). Potentially they understood enough to be afraid to ask and to understand more, because they did not want to hear that a conquering Messiah would suffer and die. How could such a thing be?
While walking “on the road,” the disciples argued about who would be the greatest (v. 34). Jesus asked them what their argument was about (v. 33). He did not, however, ask in order to gain new information or insight but to teach them the meaning of being great. The argument was not unusual during Jesus’ day. According to the culture, the disciples were preoccupied with their rank among themselves. The disciples lived in an honor/shame culture in which boasting was considered necessary to confirm one’s status in a community.
Jesus again responded by teaching His disciples. “School is now in session!” Here Jesus reversed all human ideas of greatness and rank: the “great one” must be the last one and servant of all. The disciples’ thoughts were focused on the period of glory, when questions of rank seemed appropriate. Jesus, however, redirected them to His insistence that the way to glory leads through suffering and death. When Jesus directed His disciples’ attention toward being “servant of all” (v. 35), He was asking them to engage in an activity that society considered acceptable only for servants. For anyone to be first (most important), he must assume the position of last (least, insignificant), as assistant under someone else.
The disciples needed to learn how to willingly care for others. Willingly caring—what does that mean? Jesus illustrated by using a child whom He took into His arms (v. 36). This action was countercultural, but why? The child had explicitly to do with status, not with any character traits supposedly typical of children. The child represented the lowest order in the social scale, the one who is under the authority and care of others. Simply put, the insignificant. Note that this passage includes no call to become like a child but, rather, it includes the injunction to receive a child, to reverse the conventional value scale by placing importance on the unimportant.
Receiving, or welcoming, a little child meant breaking the social norms. It meant lowering oneself to accept another of lower status, thereby risking one’s own position of power and prestige. This is exactly what the disciples were preoccupied with—their own status before others.
A pastor should, therefore, preoccupy himself with welcoming and caring for the insignificant ones, as Jesus did (cf. 2:16–17). He should not seek positions of advantage, because Jesus expects His followers to have a servant attitude with humility and sincerity. Pastor, welcome others as representatives of Jesus. By doing this, you are representing God. This is a significant contrast to the self-exalting pride that caused the disciples to argue with one another.
Learn to Serve Sacrificially, Mark 10:32–45
In Mark 10:33–34, Jesus stated His mission for a third time. It was still certain. He was appointed and decreed to die; it was part of God’s plan. The disciples recognized Jesus’ position in light of His mission, whereas the rest of the group was afraid (v. 32). Perhaps they were afraid the Messiah was leading the way to war. After all, Mark identified the destination as Jerusalem. But Jesus was doing what He had said He would do. When it came to humility and suffering, He not only taught, He led the way (v. 32).
In response to Jesus’ third prediction of His death, James and John made a request, stating, “We want You to do for us whatever we ask” (v. 35), and “grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory” (v. 37). They requested seats of honor, highest honor. The two disciples were self-serving and callous toward Jesus’ ultimate mission. Their request was a question of rank coming from an inflated understanding of their own position. Basically, they were preoccupied with their place of honor. Their request was appalling. Jesus had repeatedly been teaching the disciples about humble servanthood (“first will be last”), and He had just predicted His death for the third time. Were they listening? In all reality, they hoped to honor Jesus while honoring themselves. How easily worship and discipleship are blended with self-interest; or worse, self-interest is camouflaged as worship and discipleship. The disciples did not grasp the magnitude of their request.
Jesus taught the disciples regarding their selfish and prideful ways. He asked them if they were able to share in His fate; that is, the messianic task that God had charted for Him. This task was to assume God’s divine punishment for the sins that Jesus bore in place of the guilty. Jesus basically challenged their request and asked, “Do you understand the gravity of My role as God’s Son?” (vv. 38–39). Their response? “We are able.” Despite their claim, the two disciples could not drink the cup and undergo the fate that only Jesus had to undergo. Their naïve reply only indicated that they considered Jesus’ words as a greater call to commitment, therefore expressing a willingness to die. They did not understand that their request was the Father’s prerogative; it was not Jesus’ to give. The whole matter of rewards and glory was and is in God’s hidden purpose. The disciples were not to follow God because they knew in advance what would happen or because of what they hoped to get. They were to follow Him because He was leading (i.e., to Jerusalem). When the others heard Jesus’ response, they became angry at James and John (v. 41). Each of the disciples’ misunderstanding (cf. 8:31–32; 9:32–34; 10:35–37) of Jesus’ mission demonstrated a spiritual insensitivity to God and His plan.
The first two times Jesus taught His disciples, He had illustrated His point through the cross and a little child. Now Jesus called them together for private instruction, using Himself, the Christ, to illustrate His point (vv. 42–45). Jesus began with, “You know” what the world thinks. The world practices leadership from a model of dominance, authority, and the abuse of power, prestige, and coercion. They “lord it over” you! (v. 42). It was ironic then that in the disciples’ struggle for rank and prestige, they desired to exercise authority for their own advantage. The disciples were imitating those who they undoubtedly despised. It is interesting that some people take advantage of situations to get what they want, only to find that they’re really selfishly becoming what they don’t like in the first place.
Jesus rejected the world’s model, saying instead, “Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great [most significant] among you shall be your servant [wait on tables]. And whoever of you desires to be first [chiefest] shall be slave [lowest] of all” (vv. 43–44). Jesus desired that His disciples understood “true greatness.” Verses 43–44 are not about achieving greatness, but about desiring it. Merely being a servant and a slave will not define greatness or provide a new avenue to greatness. In fact, being a servant and a slave will deny greatness! This transforms the question of rank and greatness into the task of service: only by willing, loyal, and sacrificial service does one become great!
Jesus illustrated the importance of humble, unrewarded service by using Himself as the supreme model for service. And the disciples were to adopt the posture of servants and slaves, not on the basis of ethical reasoning, but because it was the posture of the Son of Man. Jesus’ purpose “to serve” and “to give” demonstrate His self-sacrificing attitude (v. 45) that He was asking His disciples to have.
I do not want to guilt the one reading this. Rather, the hope is to remind you, pastor, that following Jesus must be a priority. Loyally following Jesus prevents a potential collapse in ministry. Why? Because your focus is not on yourself or the desire to fulfill a busy schedule. Rather, your focus is on submission to Jesus and His ways.
But it is not just following I’m concerned with, and neither is Jesus. It is the consistent patterning of one’s life after Jesus so that Jesus’ agenda is the follower’s agenda. In other words, Jesus does not want any follower to propose and therefore practice his own agenda in leu of God’s agenda. As a pastor, you are to loyally follow God’s Son despite the potential cultural consequences. Jesus also does not want the follower to promote himself to a position of greatness through a self-exalting pride. Rather, He desires that you as pastor willingly serve the insignificant, even if it reverses your community’s conventional value scale. Lastly, Jesus does not want you as a pastor to presume upon God’s prerogative to honor and value what He does in His ministry. Jesus desires a self-sacrificing service and ministry on behalf of others that ultimately represents God and Jesus, not self.
Wayne Slusser (PhD, Baptist Bible Seminary) is dean and professor of New Testament and Greek at Baptist Bible Seminary.