top of page

Characteristics of a Servant Leader: An Exegesis of Mark 10:35-45





Characteristics of a Servant Leader:

An Exegetical Paper on Mark 10:35-45


Rev. Spencer B. Bell EDMIN 3043: Christian Leadership January 13, 2023


Introduction

Few subjects are more widely discussed among secular and spiritual circles alike than leadership—its definition, design, and practice. For those who assume the role of leader, bearing the great responsibility it presents, a burden is placed upon these select individuals to provide vision, clarity of thought, instruction, guidance, discipline, and the execution of decisions. Whether the American pastor, the Chinese business executive, or the European dignitary, each inhibit the same title: leader. Thousands of books composed on subjects housed beneath the umbrella of leadership make it something to be considered, developed, and fostered. How could such be defined in the coexistent realms of Christianity and leadership? Specifically, what are the marks of a Christian leader? This paper will argue that the identity of a servant leader can be characterized by humility, sacrifice, and service.


When considering servant leadership, the title, by definition, could be considered an oxymoron of sorts. The two words would appear in stark contrast to themselves. Robert Greenleaf raises the thought-provoking question: “Can these two roles be fused in one real person, in all levels of status or calling?”[1] Derek Tidball raises a similar inquiry, arguing: “In introducing this form of leadership, however, Jesus posed a problem for His disciples which many still find hard to resolve. How can one simultaneously be a leader and a servant? Are not these roles not irreconcilable?”[2] The reconciliation of these two roles is evidenced in those who possess the title of “pastor” or “minister,” charged with the difficult task of dually providing leadership and service in every area of the church. The strikingly similar inquiries of Greenleaf and Tidball could best be answered by a careful exegetical examination of the encounter between Jesus and two of His disciples concerning authority and service.


In The Gospel According to Mark, chapter 10, verses 35-45, the writer Mark records an interaction between the Lord Jesus Christ and two of his disciples, James and John, both sons of Zebedee. Fundamentally, the Scriptural encounter could be encapsulated by Jesus’ defiance of social constructs regarding position and prominence through His elucidation of sacrifice and servanthood. James Edwards remarks “the economy of God’s kingdom is not based on power and control but on service and giving, for the latter are not only the ethics of the kingdom but the means of redemption.”[3] The passage of 10:35-45 is appropriately divided into three sections as Mark records the profound interaction. He begins by discussing the request of the sons of Zebedee, carefully analyzing their worldly and self-serving request as one which correlates with human nature. He subsequently continues by accentuating the response of the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, to their request. Finally, Mark concludes his account by highlighting the role of the servant.


I. The Request of the Sons of Zebedee (V. 35-37).


Three times within the Scriptures the reader observes the Lord Jesus Christ instructing His disciples on the matter of servanthood and prominence. The exchange is initially beheld between Jesus and His disciples in the preceding chapter, Mk. 9:33-34, where Jesus questioned His disciples stating, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another which of them was the greatest.”[4]


A dispute is evident among them—a point of contention clothed in pride and the innate desire for preeminence among themselves. The desire for prominence abruptly intruded on their deliberations and conversations as the fellow disciples journeyed together. Similarly, it is discussed during the proceedings of the last supper preceding the betrayal of Jesus in Lk. 22:24: “And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest.”[5] Within the Gospel of Mark, the desire for prominence arises again, although later quelled as Jesus speaks of spiritual servanthood in contrast to a form of ruling authority.

The striking audacity of their request, however, must be carefully considered by the reader. Although straightforward and rather self-serving, the “request originally (could be) in response to Jesus’ promise that the Twelve would someday sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”[6] Regardless of its motivation or origin, their inquiry affords an opportunity for Jesus to once again teach His disciples valuable principles—this moment regarding “the type of service appropriate for the Kingdom of God.”[7]


What is most peculiar about His referenced teachings are the subjects that appear as almost repetitive: self-denial, service, sacrifice, and suffering. Unmistakably, each time Jesus’ teachings reference leadership and service, they immediately follow predictions of His impending passion and crucifixion (Mk. 8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34). One thing worthy of consideration is despite the disciples’ often misunderstanding and misconception of their contemporary and rabbi Jesus in His predictions, they did not desert Him, but remained loyal to the end, with the exception of Judas Iscariot’s betrayal in succeeding chapters. The repetition of Jesus’ content which comprises the teachings indicates the disciples’ lack of reception and understanding. The intermediate segment of the three predictions and Jesus’ response expose two carnal desires of the disciples, encapsulating all humankind, that position and prestige are prominent motivations and desires of the sinful human heart. Paul David Tripp argued such a truth by stating: “In 2 Corinthians 5:15 Paul argues that the DNA of sin is selfishness. Sin is self-focused, self-absorbed, self-defensive, self-aggrandizing, selfish in the purest sense of what that word means.”[8]


At the root of the request of the two sons of Zebedee, there is an unmistakable misunderstanding of Jesus’ former teachings and prophetic insights into His imminent suffering. Jesus previously instructed them on His impending treatment and crucifixion, but such thoughts were absent from the consideration and request of James and John. Their usage of the phrase, “in your glory,” could be argued that, as two men within the inner circle of the Lord Jesus, they likely envisioned a position of honor in a purely political sense in Jesus’ kingdom in Jerusalem on the throne of David. Contextually, the correct method of understanding their request is within the idea of “royal messiahship.”[9] “Their request may be for the places of honor at the messianic banquet or for the positions of eminence and authority at the Parousia when Jesus is enthroned as the eschatological judge.”[10]


Their jockeying for a position of glory with the Son of Man, however, is limited to earthly, tangible realms. For the two disciples, and arguably the collective group due to their indignation, their desire was for Jesus to willingly “grant that we may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left, in Your glory.”[11] William Lane argued: “This incident reveals that in spite of Jesus’ repeated efforts since Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi to inculcate in His disciples the spirit of self-renunciation demanded by the cross, the sons of Zebedee have understood his intention very superficially.”[12] And superficial their conception was, as they were unable to view beyond their own humanity—similar to those welcoming Jesus triumphantly during His entrance to Jerusalem (cf. Mark 11:1-11). Ignoring the words of Jesus’ recent warning prior to their request, they failed to understand the condemnation and persecution which soon awaited Him. His clear outline of both the crucifixion and resurrection seemed to fall on deaf ears, or misunderstood hearts, as their primary concern regarded their own position and prominence. Likely, the conceited effort of James and John had remained with them much of their journey to Jerusalem. It is embarrassingly evident, consequently, that James and John considered themselves much too favorably. John, referenced as the disciple whom Jesus loved (cf. Jn 13:23), allowed an inflated ego to fog the character of which he had been noted—recognizing that no individual, even those closest to Jesus, are immune from inflated egos.


For James and John, they misunderstood the gravity of their request. Their desire to participate in His glory whilst unknowingly requesting to participate in His suffering indicated their lack of total understanding, once again failing to see beyond humanity’s limitations. For Jesus, He “has been clear and consistent about the suffering awaiting him in Jerusalem, yet the disciples have heard him only selectively.”[13]


On this recorded occasion, as explained, James and John were far removed from being considered humble servants in their master’s forthcoming kingdom. As derived from the model Jesus exemplifies in His own character and teachings, the integral characteristic is a servant leader must be clothed with humility.


II. The Response of the Savior (V. 38-40).


The response of Jesus to the two disciples is sharp, perhaps paralleling their probing inquiries in previous encounters (Ch. 7:17, Ch. 8:20). His response is not merely an offering of condemnation to their proud pretension, but a revelation of God’s grace and humility, despite answering the disciples in a way that would appear undesirable to them (cf. Mk. 10:40-41). Jesus responds in a wording indicating their oblivion to the gravity of their request, exposing the undeniable truth that “they are quick to claim the benefits of God’s kingdom but slow to hear the costs of participating in it.”[14]


This cost of the kingdom is revealed in His response in two terms. The usage of the term “cup” (ποτήριον) is not a reference to a utensil or small vessel for the purpose of drinking. Rather, its usage and significance are in reference to the content of the cup. Metaphorically, the meaning of the content of the cup is “the wine of wrath,” derived from the same usage in Jeremiah 25:15. In specified context, it is “the cup” of suffering, death, and passion which Jesus makes reference to in Mark 10, and additionally in His request that the cup of suffering and death passes from Him in Matthew 26:39, Mark 14:36, and Luke 22:42. “The more precise definition of the term by the use of the demonstrative pronoun or relative clause suggests that “cup” here simply means destiny or fate.[15] The judgment of God would rest upon Jesus, the savior, in His impending sacrificial crucifixion (cf. 1 Jn. 2:2, 2 Cor. 5:21).


Secondly, there is the usage of the term “baptism” (βάπτισμα). Jesus inquires of the disciples regarding their willingness to be “baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”[16] Baptism, in the majority of usages, frequently regards the act of a momentary dipping, or immersion, of someone or something for the purpose of cleansing and ceremonial rites. However, this usage of “baptism” in this context is referring not exclusively to Jesus’ impending suffering, but most significantly and emphatically to His expected death.[17] It could be argued that the usage of the term is indicative of the underlying meaning of something being made new, directing the focus of the reader to the subsequent sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus and His atonement for the sins of many.


New Testament theologian William Hendriksen indicates the distinction between the cup and the baptism is in regard to Jesus’ obedience to His Father’s will yet is manifested in two forms. Whilst drinking the cup refers to active obedience, baptism refers to His passive obedience. It could be well argued that Jesus rendered both.[18] For the servant leader, the question must be contemplated: Are the two disciples inclined to be sharers in Christ’s suffering for His name and cause? The succeeding response to Jesus’ inquiry and discussion of suffering and death is rather brisk and unexpected considering the preceding egotistical tone of the two disciples. A direct and immediate reply of, “we are able,” renders the question answered. A servant leader, regardless of the setting or circle of influence, must express a willing spirit to partake in sacrifice. Jesus’ example exudes humility and sacrifice as He remains obedient to the Father’s will and provides actionable guidance to His disciples. Mk. 10:21 references a familiar exchange between Jesus and a wealthy, young ruler as explained in the aforementioned passages. Notably, Jesus examined something in which the young man was deficient: a sacrifice of possessions in order to humbly and sacrificially follow Jesus. The ruler’s disinclination to sacrifice his possessions caused him to abysmally fail in his attempt to attain eternal life. Such could be viewed as a parallel regarding the disciples’ request, hence Jesus’ inquiry into their disposition to drink the cup and experience baptism.


J. Oswald Sanders presents an interesting, summative thought on Jesus’ request specifically regarding the context of servant leadership in a simple, comprehensible form: “To aspire to leadership in God’s kingdom requires us to be willing to pay a price higher than others are willing to pay. The toll of true leadership is heavy, and the more effective the leadership, the greater the cost.”[19] It is evident, specifically in Jesus’ teachings, that the sincere leader, possessing the heart of a servant, will find sacrifice as a telling characteristic of servant leadership. Jesus, if He had been unwilling to be presented as a sacrifice to fulfill His Father’s will, would have been an ineffective leader. The disciples’ journey would have rendered itself of no value. Additionally, this leadership need not be confined to sacrifice conformable to death, but rather sacrifice in additional aspects, namely comfort, position, and priorities. Jesus’ sacrifice in a multiplicity of ways (cf. Jn. 4:1-29, Lk. 19) exposes His willingness to sacrifice time, popularity, prominence, and abbreviated journeys for the purposes of ministering and leading.


III. The Role of the Servant (V. 41-45).


The greatest blessing in taking the role of a servant leader, whilst additionally being an influential distraction, is the named responsibility the servant assumes—service. In a modern context, the word “servant” is the most widely used term identifying a spiritual leader. At an initial glance, service and leadership in the same word appear as a juxtaposition. In defense, however, many of Jesus’ teachings were often contrary to popular opinion or societal normality. Some could even consider the teachings of Jesus as ridiculous, deriving themselves from a position of insanity. This is not the case. Jesus’ teachings, specifically regarding leadership, were not designed for worldly prominence, but rather for the kingdom of Heaven’s advancement. Explained in Mk. 10:40, Jesus uses the phrase, “for those for whom it has been prepared.”[20] He speaks in terms of their request to sit on His right and left in His glory—a carnal request in hopes of power and position. However, the glory impending revelation was not simply regarding his kingdom on earth, but the Messianic kingdom of Heaven, a place prepared for those who believe in His name. Opposite of service, in this case, their desire was for carnal power.


As the other fellow disciples witness the request of the two disciples and the response of Jesus, they, too, have formed an opinion of the exchange. Mk 10:41 records the fellow disciples became “indignant with James and John.”[21] Some may consider this to be a noble response, dismissing the request of their fellow brothers in Christ as narrowly focused and self-centered. This would be far from truthful, as the other disciples were contemplating the same idea. “This suggests that their annoyance is not over the ambition of the two brothers as such, but over the fact that they have got in first and tried to gain an unfair advantage over their colleagues in the competition for the highest places. On this issue, they are all equally at fault.”[22] Their minds were not concerned about obedience, but about the positions they hoped to attain as a result.


These faithful followers of Jesus appeared suddenly consumed with their own desires of leading and lording rather than serving as servants. Although they spent considerable time with the Son of God, a battle of the flesh continually raged in their hearts. Jesus highlighted the subject of carnal rulers in Mk. 10:42: “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them.”[23] Clearly, these indignant disciples were aware of the dangers of carnal leadership. “Jesus reminds his disciples of the conventions of leadership in their day: in essence it was tyranny. Greatness in Jesus’ day was defined as power, coercive power. The more power one had, the “greater” one was.”[24]


The bold proclamation of Jesus in the succeeding verse is a condemnation of their outlandish behavior: “But it is not this way among you.”[25] They had experienced a form of sanctification, being set apart by Jesus to follow Him. Their obedience and Christ-centered followership of Jesus and His teachings indicated their knowledge and practice of a true, spiritual leader. The disciples were different; thus, Jesus reminds them of their unruly behavior in light of their ridiculous request.


Mk. 10:43-44 encapsulates the purpose of the passage in totality, whereby Jesus rejects the world’s form of leadership and that of “conventional wisdom.”[26] His usage of the terms “servant” and “slave” in v. 43-44 is indicative of a subordinate position. The word “slave” possesses a stronger implication than does “servant.” Obviously, the denoted position is not where the “greatest” of the world aspire. “Slave” portrays a willing spirit; one who wishes to be first must possess a willingness to be the last of all. In the context of leadership, worded in an elementary form, the servant leader must be willing to be last rather than insist on being first. No individual better exemplified such a profound truth than Jesus Himself. Mk. 10:45 reminds the reader of His purpose and mission: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”[27]


For Jesus, sent from a holy God, a Heavenly kingdom, and a majestic throne which transcends earthly authority, the Son of Man came “to serve,” although He is most worthy of service. His leadership during a 33-year earthly tenure greatly demonstrated His prophetic words, “to serve,” as He anticipated the cross—offering His life as a sacrifice, a ransom, for all mankind. Perhaps, it could be argued, this is the pinnacle of leadership: Jesus became a “slave of all” as a ransom and sacrifice in order to reveal His greatness, authority, and majesty as Son of the God Most High.


Conclusion

Greenleaf and Tidball’s question of defining and reconciling the roles of “servant” and “leader” is superlatively answered, in the Christian leadership context, through Jesus’ teaching and demonstration of those “who wish to be first shall be slave of all.”[28] For the reader, a departure from the socialized constructs of leadership and success must be taken to wholly comprehend the true meaning of the text: true leaders are servants. This form of leadership is characterized by humility, sacrifice, and service. Perhaps, for the reader’s understanding, leadership was exemplified best by Jesus Himself in His pilgrimage to Calvary, whereby He became a slave to all in order to be boasted as the Lord of all.


Bibliography

Brooks, James A. Mark, vol. 23, The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1991.


Edwards, James R. The Gospel according to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002.


Evans, Craig A. Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27-16:20. Vol. 34b. Word Biblical Commentary Series. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2001.


France, R.T. The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002.


Greenleaf, R.K. The servant as leader (Rev. ed.) Westfield, IN: Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 2008.


Harris, Murray J. Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ. Leicester, England: Apollos, 2001.


Haste, Matthew D., and Shane W. Parker. The Pastor's Life: Practical Wisdom from the Puritans. Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2019.


Hendriksen, William. New Testament Commentary: Mark. Vol. 1. 12 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1996.


Lane, William L. The New International Commentary on the New Testament, The Gospel of Mark. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974.


Laniak, Timothy S. Shepherds after My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible. Downers Grove (Ill.), England: InterVarsity Press, 2006.


New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update. La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995.


Oepke, Albrecht. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964.


Peck, Kevin, and Eric Geiger. Designed to Lead: The Church and Leadership Development. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2016.


Sanders, J. Oswald. Spiritual Leadership: Principles of Excellence for Every Believer. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2017.


Tidball, D. Leaders as servants: A resolution of the tension. Evangelical Review of Theology, 2012.


Tripp, Paul David. Lead: 12 Gospel Principles for Leadership in the Church. Wheaton, IL: Good News Publishers, 2020.


Wilder, Michael S., and Timothy Paul Jones. The God Who Goes Before You: Pastoral Leadership as Christ-Centered Followership. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2018.

[1] Greenleaf, R.K. (2008). The servant as leader (Rev. ed.) Westfield, IN: Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. [2] Tidball, D. (2012). Leaders as servants: A resolution of the tension. Evangelical Review of Theology, 31. [3] James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002), 321. [4] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Mk 9:33–34. [5] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Lk 22:24. [6] Craig A. Evans, Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27-16:20, vol. 34b (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2001), 115. [7] Craig A. Evans, Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27-16:20, vol. 34b (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2001), 115. [8] Paul David Tripp, Lead: 12 Gospel Principles for Leadership in the Church (Wheaton, IL: Good News Publishers, 2020), 130. [9] William L. Lane, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 379. [10] William L. Lane, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 379. [11] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Mk 10:37 [12] William L. Lane, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 379. [13] James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002), 322. [14] James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002), 322. [15] Leonhard Goppelt, “Πίνω, Πόμα, Πόσις, Ποτόν, Πότος, Ποτήριον, Καταπίνω, Ποτίζω,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 152–153. [16] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Mk 10:38 [17] Albrecht Oepke, “Βάπτω, Βαπτίζω, Βαπτισμός, Βάπτισμα, Βαπτιστής,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 545. [18] William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Mark, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1996), 411. [19] J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership: Principles of Excellence for Every Believer (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2017), 139. [20] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Mk 10:40. [21] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Mk 10:41. [22] R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002), 418. [23] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Mk 10:42. [24] Craig A. Evans, Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27-16:20, vol. 34b (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2001), 118. [25] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Mk 10:43. [26] Craig A. Evans, Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27-16:20, vol. 34b (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2001), 119. [27] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Mk 10:45. [28] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Mk 10:44.

68 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
Post: Blog2 Post
bottom of page