I once heard about a pastor who loved crowds, but didn’t like people all that much. Sadly, this can be said of many leaders. They want people around because they need people to do things for them. Yet they don’t really care for them. Such leaders do not consider their own effectiveness in terms of how to serve and better the lives of those people. A biblical leader is an individual called of God to interact with and impact people. Biblical leadership is not primarily about developing a ministry program, sitting behind a computer, creating a policy, or constructing a building. It is not about profits, widgets, or organization size. These may be a means toward a people-transforming end, but they are never the ends in themselves. Instead, people are the primary outcome of biblical leadership—people who are influenced, impacted, and transformed.
The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7 contains the most profound teaching the world has ever known. Jesus’s words were radical, relevant, and revealing. He introduced startling and life-changing concepts about God, life in God’s kingdom, and the way relationships should work between humans. His message on the hillside that day has earned the reputation of being the greatest sermon in history. Matthew records that when Jesus concluded, people were absolutely amazed at his teaching (Matthew 7:28–29). In fact, they were so amazed that Jesus immediately became a celebrity: “When Jesus came down from the mountain, large crowds followed Him” (Matthew 8:1).
Jesus could have taken the show on the road, greatly increased the number of people following him, and fueled his popularity even further. Some people live for such an opportunity for glory! I imagine his disciples were thinking the sky was the limit as to Jesus’s popularity and to the power they could gain because of it.
Instead of growing the crowds after the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus moved into ministry toward individuals.
Jesus did something dramatically different than most people expected. Rather than continue to build his popularity and increase the size of his crowd, the Bible tells us that after that shining moment, Jesus withdrew. He avoided the multitudes and sought to fade from the public eye (Matthew 8:18). Instead of growing his popularity, he moved into ministry toward individuals. He lovingly touched a leper and healed him (Matthew 8:1–4). He restored a centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5–13, Luke 7:1–10). He witnessed a funeral taking place and spotted a woman in the procession who was not only already a widow, but also who was now burying her only son (Luke 7:11–15). Luke says that when he saw her, “He felt compassion for her” (Luke 7:13). The Greek word used here is splanchnidzomai, and it is a strong word denoting a visceral, gut-level reaction.[i] This was not some fleeting emotion Jesus felt. It could be translated, “His heart went out to her.”
It’s quite amazing that after Jesus’s big moment he would notice individual people and their needs. One would think his growing fame and popularity would be the big deal for him. It certainly was for many others. But for Jesus, individual people didn’t detract from the big deal. They were the big deal. Even with multitudes around him, he had the vision to see others not merely as crowds or groups, but as individuals to be loved. It was out of this vision that he sought to pour himself into them for their sake. Though crowds were changed and multitudes followed, Jesus’s vision was life-by-life, person-by-person.
Just as with Jesus, we must remember that biblical leadership is about people. In the Scripture, every time God called a leader to a leadership task, his purpose was to redeem and restore his people through the instrument of the leader. Leaders who don’t evaluate their leadership in these terms, who don’t enjoy people, or who do not focus themselves on being used for others’ sake are leaders who will not reflect the heart of God in their leadership. Leaders who celebrate people, tell stories of life change, and are moved by God’s work in others are leaders who “get it” when it comes to the heart of God.
Jesus had the vision to see others not merely as crowds or groups, but as individuals to be loved.
All this points to one final, important concept. Not only is it foremost in a biblical leader’s mind to see people’s lives changed by the power of God, it is a leader’s primary joy. Nothing gratifies the biblical leader like relationships with people, the satisfaction of seeing people give themselves fully to Christ and his cause, and watching others blossom through the use of their gifts and abilities in the kingdom.
One picture in the New Testament captures better than any other the power and beauty of relationship that is possible between a leader and his or her followers. In Acts 20, the Apostle Paul says goodbye to the Ephesian elders. After spending three years at this church, the time has come for him to board ship and leave. He reminds them of his boldness in declaring the gospel “with tears and with trials” (vss. 18-21) and announces that he is going to Jerusalem “not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.” (vss. 22-23) Paul tells them it is unlikely that they will see his face again, warns them of coming false teachers, and in his final words commends them “to God and to the word of his grace” (vs. 32).
Then the writer Luke describes a beautiful scene there at the harbor near Ephesus where Paul and the people he led and loved, and who in return deeply loved him, embraced, wept and knelt together in prayer.
And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship. (Acts 20:36-38)
What a majestic picture! It is the picture of the potential for people who work together on mission (leaders and followers alike) to become something together in the process. And in the end, beyond all the good things that are achieved, the most gratifying aspects of the biblical leader’s work are the people with whom he loved and led.
Paul certainly understood this. For him as well as for Jesus, they were the big deal and his great joy and crowning achievement was ministry to them and with them.
“For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.” (1 Thessalonians 2:19–20).
The above is an excerpt from Mike’s recently released book Power to Lead
[i] S. Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament, electronic ed. Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000.