Servant Leadership: Principles
“Walking the Servant Path with Jesus” (SL#20)
by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack® 1.1 - Exploring the Journey

“Walking the servant path with Jesus” is one of the most critical principles for exploring servant leadership. If the path is difficult or steep, it is because servant leadership is not promised to be easy. If it seems to dead-end, it may be because we do not read well or follow His milepost--or because we simply do not see the end of the journey. The following seven episodes from the life and teaching of Christ simply introduce the biblical principles and practices of service and leadership.

  1. Jesus was very clear about His mission as a servant leader. (See Luke 4:14-21)
    Early in His ministry Jesus came to His hometown, and against all odds proclaimed the unique nature of His lordship. His purpose was to lead in such a way that he served the needs of the common people. The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19 NIV)

    Commentary: Luke 4:18-19 (Zondervan Commentary)
    In saying 'Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing' (v. 21), Jesus identifies himself as the subject of Isaiah’s prophetic word. . . . His role as Suffering Servant is not specified here, but an association may be assumed on the basis of the place of Isaiah 61 among the Servant passages.

  2. Jesus clearly taught that the life of a disciple/follower was the way of the cross. (See Luke 9:18-27) [high redemptive service, self-denial, and eternal investment]
    Then he said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?’
    (Luke 9:23-25).

    Commentary: Luke 9:23-25 (Zondervan Commentary)
    We should therefore on the one hand “confess” Christ, i.e., acknowledge him and identify ourselves with him, but on the other hand “deny” ourselves. This means that as Christians we will not set our desires and our will against the right Christ has to our lives . . . To take up the cross daily is to live each day, not for self, but for Christ.

    Glossary: “redemption” (Zondervan’s NT Dictionary article on “Redemption” by W. Mundle)
    Liberation from bonds or by payment of a ransom. . . . It has other shades of meaning of meaning. . . . Predominantly it means to save, preserve and rescue. Derived from sozo, means deliverer, savior, and was in general use to denote someone who so acted. In the New Testament these terms are used preeminently of the redemptive work of Christ.

  3. Jesus taught the place of humility in practice rather than pride in position. (See Luke 14:7-14)
    But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted . . . But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous (Luke 14:10-11, 13-14).

    Glossary: “humility” (Zondervan’s Bible Dictionary)
    Humility and the related substantive and verb humble, translate several OT Hebrew words and the NT Greek word family . . . the central thought is freedom from pride--lowliness, meekness, modesty, mildness. To the Greeks, humility was weak and despicable, but Jesus made it the cornerstone of character (Matt 5:3, 5; 18:4; 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14). Jesus by his humility drew people to himself (Matt 11:28-30; John 13:1-20; Rev 3:20).

  4. Jesus taught the universal priority of service to others, and offered Himself as the ultimate example. (See Mark 10:35-45)
    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 (Mark 10:43-45).

    Commentary: Mark 10:43-45 (Zondervan Commentary)
    In the kingdom of God humble service is the rule, and even the Son of Man is not exempt from it. He is in fact par excellence the example of it, especially in his redemptive mission. Every part of this verse is important. “Son of Man” is the veiled messianic title Jesus often uses of himself (cf. comments at 8:31). “Did not come to be served, but to serve” describes his incarnate life. He did not come as a potentate whose every personal whim was to be catered to by groveling servants, but he came as a servant himself. And his coming issued in giving “his life as a ransom for many.”

  5. Jesus affirmed that in following Him, we are entering into a vigorous workforce.
    (See John 9:1-5)

    As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work (John 9:4 NIV).

    Commentary: John 9:4 (Zondervan Commentary)
    The growing pressure of hostility rising from unbelief warned Jesus that his time was short. The twilight of his career was beginning and the darkness would soon fall. As all the Gospels show, Jesus was working under the shadow of the coming cross (Matt 16:21; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22) . . . The use of “we” shows that he included his disciples in his ministry. They also would pass through perils and opposition, but they would have the support of the Father who had sent him.

  6. Jesus demonstrated the servant leadership principle by washing His disciples’ feet.
    (See John 13:1-17)
    You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 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 (John 13:13-15 NIV).

    Commentary: John 13:13-17 (Zondervan Commentary)
    A second lesson Jesus wished to impart to the disciples by this act was one of love and humble service. . . . The discernment of the disciples developed slowly. It took them a long time to begin to comprehend the intensity of Jesus’ love for them and the nature of his humility in dealing with them. . . . Jesus emphasized the fact that if he, whom they regarded as their leader, had stooped to serve their needs, they should do the same for one another . . . The concept of the servant-master relationship appeared frequently in Jesus’ teaching.

  7. Jesus commanded that service in His name is based on love--His and ours.
    (See John 13:31-38)

    A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34-35 NIV).

    Commentary: John 13:34-35 (Zondervan Commentary)
    The most important instruction that Jesus left for the Eleven was this “new commandment” to love one another. “New” (kainen) implies freshness, or the opposite of “outworn” rather than simply “recent” or “different.” . . Jesus knew that the spirit of rivalry would disrupt their fellowship before they could accomplish his commission to them. The attitude of love would be the bond that would keep them united and would be the convincing demonstration that they had partaken of his own spirit and purpose.

These are selected benchmarks of Jesus’ practice and understanding of servant leadership. We are invited to follow in His steps, to live as He lived, to serve as He served, to lead as He led. Study the practiced principles of Christ carefully, reflect on them, make choices to put into your developing description of “servant leadership.” Pick out one or two texts as you move into a specific leadership situation in the next ten days. Write them down and act on it, and do it again.

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 © 2006; hosted and copyrighted by Lloyd Elder & Associates, Inc.
For full citation of referenced works, see Bibliography/Links at
Adapted by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., Founding Director, Moench Center for Church Leadership