22:24-27 The debate among the apostles that follows next is almost beyond belief. The conversation of the apostles quickly turns from who is a traitor in their midst to who is greatest. In any other setting but this, a leader would throw up his hands and sigh, “I can’t believe this!” But not Jesus, so concerned was He for the test that was coming for the disciples when He would be crucified, and for the young church that would emerge after His ascension. In regards to the latter, it is one of the most important teachings Jesus ever gave the apostles.
This is not the first time the apostles have engaged in a discussion about personal status and position in the anticipated new kingdom. Matthew records that the mother of James and John had asked Jesus for preferment for her sons just prior to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem; that one son would sit on His right hand and the other on His left when He established His kingdom (Matt. 20:20-28). In that instance, Jesus began teaching on the responsibility of good leaders; obviously, the apostles hadn’t gotten the point. The difference in Luke’s record is in the illustration used; that is, the example of the “Benefactor.”
Authority can be used to hold power over others for good or for evil. The “Benefactors” Jesus is referring to are those who used their power and authority over others for evil. The English title “Benefactor” comes directly from the Latin and is based on the Greek word euergetes which means “good works.” It was a practice in those days for kings, rulers and the rich to do “good works” for the people: build amphitheaters, museums, water works, et cetera, for the sake of gaining esteem and favor among the people. Ironically, most of these kings used oppressive taxes to carry out their deeds, and many were ruthless rulers over the people. These so-called “good works” were also used by those wishing to climb the corporate ladder, so to speak; a way of gaining favor with those in authority and power who could elevate their status. Herod the Great, a great builder in his day, is an example of a “Benefactor.” And, by performing these “good works,” they became a source for “lording” them over the people—their good deeds, however, always came with a condition. The “votive gifts” referred to in the previous chapter was a type of “Benefactor,” only in a religious context. Even today, Western philanthropists who give millions to causes and building projects often do so, not out of pure good will for others, but for the fame associated with it and for tax benefits. In Jesus’ day, however, the term “Benefactor” had a connotation of evil, and the selfish, narcissistic, self-aggrandizing, self-deifying use of power and authority that came with it.
It was John Dalberg-Acton who wrote in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” When the Holy Spirit descends upon the apostles at Pentecost, it will be the beginning of the church. The church will grow dramatically in the first century, so much so that a hierarchy of leadership will be required, even the formation of titles and offices (e.g., see 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 2:20; 4:11; 1 Tim. 3:1-13). The apostles will always serve as the primary foundation of the church because they are charged with communicating and preserving the truth about the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the saving grace that comes only by Him and through Him. This is why truth is emphasized so adamantly by the apostles John, Peter and Jude in their latter years. (The word “truth” is used 20 times in John’s epistles alone.) That the apostles will be so esteemed by this sudden influx of new disciples in the church is a temptation beyond measure to exercise power over others. The twelve would be greatly respected, admired and sought after by the growing church, highly esteemed, praised for their miraculous works, seen as the living link with Jesus Himself, celebrities in their own right, and even venerated to the point of worship. Acts 5:15 indicates that the new Christians esteemed Peter so highly that they wanted even his shadow to fall on them. Therefore, the apostles will find themselves in the position of great authority, and with that authority comes potential power over others, and with that power over others comes the temptation of being great in the eyes of the world. Because they are men of flesh, the esteem they would receive could easily boost their egos, making them think more highly of themselves than they ought to think. But that is not the way of the kingdom of God.
The mention of “Benefactors” would be a background the apostles were familiar with. By using “Benefactors” as an example, Jesus makes one of the most important statements the apostles could ever hear regarding leadership in the church: “But it is not that way with you….” (Italics mine.) It is therefore the most important lesson any church leader can learn, a lesson all too often forgotten in evangelical churches and organizations today. The leader is not to attempt to climb the ladder of success for the purpose of gaining more power and authority in the name of church growth, but to descend the stairs of humility to the servants’ quarters in the name of servant leadership. The pastor is not to become the CEO; he is to become the lowly shepherd. Modern-day evangelicalism has been deceived into adopting a philosophy of ministry believing that church growth depends upon the charisma, personality, intelligence, persuasiveness and methodology of the senior pastor. The evangelical community has employed the world’s technique of elevating the senior pastor to celebrity status. The result is that, in general, celebrity pastors have built churches that are a mile wide and an inch deep in terms of making true disciples. The evangelical climate has made celebrities out of pastors who “started out with 15 people in a home Bible study and grew it to a 15,000 member megachurch.” Christians buy millions of books recognized not for what they actually say, but for the fact that the author’s name is at the top in big, bold letters; a celebrity, therefore, to be read, whether or not their character and moral fiber equals his or her fame. After all, who would buy the book if the culture of celebrity did not accompany it? How many books would be sold if the author’s famous name was not at the top? The celebrity pastor movement has spawned a culture of Christian commercialism, not unlike that which Jesus so vehemently objected to in the temple. Instead of making disciples who pray, sacrifice, love one another, are dedicated to Scripture, share their faith, stand bravely for the truth, demonstrate concern for persecuted Christians and the poor, and seek to rectify the ills of a culture hell-bent on self-destruction, the church has perfected the creation of Christian nominalists who isolate themselves from the world, decorate their mantles with Precious Moments, plaster their car bumpers with fish stickers, cover their Bibles with expensive leather cases, ignore the poor, feed their political anger with conservative talk radio and right-leaning cable TV, and, if it is convenient and there are no kids’ soccer game scheduled or an NFL playoff game, gather on Sunday mornings to be entertained by professional musicians, glaring multimedia, a charismatic teacher who has given up the idea that there is any relevance in expositional teaching of God’s word, and speak confidently that God’s primary concern for His people is that they are happy, prosperous and successful. Such Christians are born-again in name only. While Christians have ranted and raved against the sins of society, many evangelical and charismatic churches and parachurch organizations in America have completely ignored Jesus’ instruction, “But it is not that way with you….” Jesus told His disciples emphatically, “The one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant.” There is no room in that statement for the celebrity pastor.
This writer suspects that the rationale behind making the pastor or Christian leader a celebrity (author, public speaker, spokesman) is to seek a voice in society that represents the church, and therefore gain greater credibility and favor among the populace. The question is, “How’s it working?” The difficulty with the above rationale is that adopting the ways of the world, and seeking acceptance in the eyes of the world, has resulted in making the church just like the world. Especially in America, adopting the methods of the world has backfired completely and, instead of gaining credibility, the church has actually lost credibility by the fact that so many of these so-called Christian celebrities have had moral failures, all of whom have received great press. The problem, however, is not a liberal government, the secular press, or a godless, hedonistic society. The problem is a disobedient, narcissistic, self-serving church that, in seeking to find acceptance in secular society, has compromised itself to the point that the behavior of the average Christian is indistinguishable from the lifestyle of the secularist. The answer? Pastors should shun the celebrity status and seek first the role of a servant. Those who follow celebrity pastors and leaders should confess their sin of idolatry, reject the celebrity pastor, and seek out churches where the word is taught and the pastor is a humble servant who seeks first “the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” Ministering as loving servants would go a long way to restoring spiritual health in the church today and fulfilling Jesus’ command, “But it is not that way with you….”
Jesus completes His teaching on the subject by asking a rhetorical question: “Who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves?” The world’s answer is “The one who reclines.” Jesus’ answer is “the one who serves.” Having instructed the disciples on the fact that the true leader in the kingdom of God is a servant first, Jesus then arises from the table and begins washing the feet of the disciples (John 13:5-11).