Was Jesus a Leader or a Follower?
Jesus as a Servant
The New Testament leaves no doubt as to the deity of Christ. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. He is the creator of all things in heaven and on earth, both visible and invisible. He calms storms, casts out demons, raises the dead, forgives sin, and presents himself as the only way to eternal life. He has the keys of death and Hades. He is the ruler of the kings of this earth and all authority in heaven and earth is subordinate to him. I’m sure one could extend the list of majestic descriptions of Jesus to fill an entire book. So perhaps it is unsurprising that we forget that Jesus was also a follower.
Indeed, it is a worthwhile project to draw a second portrait of Jesus from the New Testament writings—different from the one we’ve just drawn—that highlights the manifold representations of his followership. To aid the process, let’s first call to mind some of the commonplace differences between a leader and a follower. The leader is the sender; the follower is the sent one. The leader’s will is asserted; the follower implements it. The leader writes the message; the follower delivers it. The leader is the exemplar, and followers are only such to the extent they follow the given example. The leader gives the commands; the follower obeys them or passes them along to others. The leader has the authority, and the follower only has whatever authority was delegated by the leader.
The Call to Follow
Richard Langer, Joanne J. Jung
Authors Richard Langer and Joanne J. Jung teach that “followership” is essential to both organizational and spiritual flourishing, reexamining the nature of leadership and followership in light of the life-transforming power of following Jesus Christ.
With this in mind, if you think that the Gospels will portray Jesus as a leader, you’re in for a surprise—when Jesus describes himself and his ministry, he consistently uses the language of following. His human incarnation is the incarnation of a follower. A brief survey of John, the Gospel in which Jesus is most prone to offer self-descriptions, exemplifies this point well. In John 5:19, Jesus describes himself as a follower who does nothing of his own accord but only what he sees the Father doing. The Father is his exemplar; Jesus only does what the Father does. In John 5:36 he points out that his works testify that he has been sent.
In John 6:38 he makes it clear that he is not acting on his own will but rather subordinates his will to the one who sent him. Then, in John 7:16 and John 8:26 we discover that his teaching is not his own but comes from his sender and that he declares only what he has heard from him. Likewise, his actions are not done on his own authority (John 8:28) and his comings and goings are appointed by someone else (John 8:42). Though he has the authority to lay down and take up his own life, he does this in response to a charge received from the Father (John 10:18). The sheep who know and follow his voice are not really his sheep but rather a gift received from the Father (John 10:29). Jesus clearly states that he is not giving commands but rather delivering them on behalf of the Father (John 12:49). He is an ambassador for the Father, therefore receiving him is actually to receive the Father (John 13:20). In the upper room, Jesus reminds the disciples that his words are not spoken on his own authority (John 14:10) and that he lives as one who obeys commands (John 14:31). He models love to them because he is following the example he has seen in the Father (John 15:9), and he models obedience because it is the key to abiding in the Father’s love, both for himself and for the disciples (John 15:10). At every point in this mosaic of images, Jesus is playing the role of a follower rather than a leader. Does it look like the Gospel of John was written so that we can lead like Jesus led or so we can follow like Jesus followed? Clearly, it is the latter.
The incarnate Christ is absolutely relentless in teaching us that he is imitating the example, obeying the commands, passing on the teaching, following the timing, submitting to the will, accepting the charge, and receiving the gift of his Father. Jesus is a follower. He is not just a follower in some halfway sense, in the sense of feigned humility, or by virtue of an overinflated definition of following. Rather, he is a full-throated follower who is not merely performing the tasks of following but embracing followership with the flaming zeal of a man sold out to and swallowed up in a divine calling. Jesus had an extremely robust vision of the significance of following.
It is worth adding that Jesus didn’t engage in following as a preliminary training activity—following was not a spiritual discipline like fasting or meditation. His fundamental self-presentation to his disciples was as a follower at any and every moment. It wasn’t one of his many tasks, it was his defining task. And, importantly for us, his guiding passion appears to be that his disciples imitate him on exactly this point. Our master is a follower, so we are to become followers as well.
Taken together, these teachings of Jesus make a strong case for the value of good following. Yet, despite the secure biblical foundation for this picture of Jesus’s followership, such notions often fall on deaf ears, both today and in the first century. James and John were disciples of Christ from the beginning and were constantly immersed in the call to follow. They still, however, grabbed their mother and came to Jesus to beg the favor of sitting in positions of authority—sitting at his left and right hand. There are so many ways Jesus might have put them in their place. But instead of a blunt put-down, he simply reminded them that he himself was a follower and thus was the wrong person to ask for a leadership position. As he put it, “to sit at my right hand or my left is not mine to grant” (Mark 10:40). Then he went on to remind them that he himself, their master, was actually a servant. Biblical scholar Leon Morris summarizes the point of this passage well:
The feetwashing that John records was a striking illustration of Jesus’s readiness to take the place of one who serves, even though he held the supreme place. . . . Jesus is not saying that if his followers wish to rise to great heights in the church they must first prove themselves in a lowly place. He is saying that faithful service in a lowly place is itself true greatness.1
Those who want to be faithful disciples do not need a position of authority but rather a heart of service—indeed, a heart for the slave-like service of washing feet. It is worth noting that the other disciples were upset by James and John’s request, which is hardly surprising. But this shows that they had completely misunderstood Jesus as well. As Morris notes, greatness is found at the foot of the table. If the call of Jesus is a call to be a servant, having James and John move up to Jesus’s right and left hand would have meant that the privileged seats of servanthood located further down the table were still available for the other disciples. They should have been pleased instead of upset!
Those who want to be faithful disciples do not need a position of authority but rather a heart of service—indeed, a heart for the slave-like service of washing feet.
These examples from John’s Gospel are obviously accounts of the teachings and practices of the incarnate Christ. They are not meant to repudiate or invalidate descriptions of Christ found in the Epistles or the book of Revelation, which often refer to the preincarnate Christ, Christ at the right hand of the Father, or an eschatological vision of Christ in the age that is yet to come. The Gospels simply focus on Jesus in his humanity. It is noteworthy, however, that Paul describes the incarnate Christ in Philippians 2. Here, Paul identifies Christ’s heart of humility and servanthood, which serves as the wellspring of the incarnation. Gerald Hawthorne is right to note that we do not imitate Christ by quitting our heavenly glory but rather by striving to “emulate the attitude and actions of servanthood that marked the character and conduct of the pre-existent Christ.”2
Further, Jesus as a model of following is not just a New Testament conception of the Messiah, as many of the most striking prophetic passages of the Old Testament offer the vision of the servant of Yahweh. There is some scholarly debate concerning the subject of this image. Some view it as a clear reference to the Messiah and take the fulfillment of these passages to be found in the life of Christ, while others have argued that it refers to Israel in a corporate sense—a remnant community living out covenant faithfulness in spite of persecution and hardship. Either way, it is striking to note the description of this figure. First, and most obviously, he is described as a servant—not a king or a priest or even a prophet (Isa. 42:1–4; 49:1–6; 50:4–9; 52:13–53:12). His demeanor is equally striking. He is gentle and doesn’t raise his voice. He won’t even extinguish a faintly burning wick or break a bruised reed. His message is not his own but rather is taught to him—language that reminds us of Jesus’s own teaching coming from the one who sent him. His task is to bear a burden— in this case, a burden of affliction and crushing oppression that came about because of the transgressions and iniquities of the people. His lifestyle is not a desirable one; it leaves him despised, rejected, and unesteemed. Clearly, this figure is accomplishing God’s purpose of setting the world right. It should startle us, then, that he is given the title of servant of Yahweh rather than leader of Yahweh.
- Leon Morris, Luke: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2015), 326.
- Gerald F. Hawthorne, “The Imitation of Christ: Discipleship in Philippians,” in Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, by Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996), 169.
This article is adapted from The Call to Follow: Hearing Jesus in a Culture Obsessed with Leadership by Richard Langer and Joanne J. Jung.
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