The Apostle John knew something about the contrast between service and lordship, love and hate, divine leadership and beastly powers. He intimately experienced both styles of leadership.
First, his family of origin had “beastly” ways of relating. He and his brother James were known as Sons of Thunder (Mark 3:17), probably because they talked aggressively (both too much and with anger). In Luke 9:54 they wanted to call fire down from heaven on the Samaritans who had disrespected Jesus before Jesus puts his cool hands on their hot heads. Jesus, like God, could handle disrespect as leaders without retaliating. Beastly powers can’t!!!
Where did James and John learn to speak so aggressively and hate? It appears from a more soft-spoken but equally beastly influence: their mom.
In Matthew 20:20-28 mom tries to position her sons as top two executives in Jesus’ new kingdom. This was before Jesus revealed just how much sacrifice was involved in his form of leadership. She thought Jesus was positioning himself to be a power of the other powers. He had the popularity, now he just needed to exert his authority. He did, but she would take awhile to soak into what authority in God’s kingdom looks like. He was to reveal how love and sacrifice overcomes the beasts within and without.
Although apparently humble in her request to Jesus, she was nonetheless stuck in a beastly mindset of a lordship in leadership. The interchange between her, Jesus and all the disciples is a reminder that a mother’s love can carry “beastly” constructs and that followers of Christ, even after years of commitment to and faithfulness to Jesus, can still be nursing a distorted view of leadership. Without a daily experience of the cross, the pervasive and lingering influence of beastly thinking will creep into all our relationships, especially our close ones.
But John had also experienced a different family. He had been with Jesus three years and that family lived as servants and lovers. It had made an influence on his teenage mind. This contrast reaches its highest level at the cross: “When Jesus then saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” From that hour the disciple took her into his own household” (John 19:26,27, NIV).
In addition to the contrast in family systems, John saw vividly the contrast of servant and beastly leadership the night Jesus was betrayed, tried and crucified. As a family friend of Caiaphas he got close access (John 18:15) to a travesty of justice. In that night of deception, he was forever relieved of any lingering respect for beastly leadership. Oh, how deeply the contrast must have been pained the heart of this teenager. John saw Jesus belittled and maligned and punished by his own family relationships in Caiaphas. What view of beastly leadership was forever seen as loathsome as John saw Herod use his position of authority against innocent Jesus instead of for Jesus? What was learned about beastly powers of fickleness in Pilot compared to the steadfast love of Jesus? What burned deep into John’s psyche?
Thirdly, a few years later the intense contrast would be felt again. In his early twenties, John saw James, his older brother, become a martyr. Herod “had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.” Herod felt great success and joy from what must have devasted John’s heart. “Seeing that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter” and would have likely beheaded him had not God interviewed (Acts 12:2, 3). What a contrast between beastly and lamblike leadership by his early twenties John had experience!
What does a young disciple feel about beastly powers after watching his beloved Jesus and brother both get falsely accused and killed by beastly powers?
Oddly enough, love.
Beastly power had lost is appeal as even a way to respond to beastly power.
The Cross had been followed by a Resurrection. John was growing a different worldview. Jesus was seated on the throne of God ministering the Holy Spirit. The better kingdom was not in retreat. Love was winning and would win and in that John sunk his trust.
And later, fourth, John would see yet more contrast between servant leadership and beastly power in the visions he received on Patmos that make up the book of Revelation. That book is nothing less than one vivid contrast between godly lamb-like leadership and beastly powers, and one reminder after another that ultimately servant and lamblike leadership wins despite the apparent temporary success of beastly powers.
So why, bring this up? Why, at this time of Christmas cheer, bring up bloody and beastly leadership!
First, this is the message of Christmas. All who see God’s leadership in a distorted way–as blood thirsty–need to gaze closer into the face of God seen in the incarnation of baby Jesus. His helpless and defenseless form reminds us that at the heart of this universe is not a beastly god fabricated by false religion but a God of love. God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son, that whoever would believe that truth–his truth–would have eternal life (see John 3:16). Jesus never loses his baby face. We see it when he was a pre-teen, as a carpenter, as healer, as a teacher as the lamb on the cross, and now as the lamb on the throne (Revelation 7:17). He serves. That is who He is and what God is like.
Second, as beastly powers get more and more active in ALL nations, we need to remember who we serve. Jesus warned us: “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me” (Matthew 24:9). I no longer believe we can trust ANY nation to support the servant leadership model Christ promotes. Yes, there will be better or worse systems, nations that practice closer to the ideal, and organizations who keep servant leadership more prominent, and even church systems who are more faithful, but ultimately it will only be a remnant who follow the lamb in this approach to living and leading. We need to ask God to keep us faithful to this faithful group.
Finally, we all need daily reminders not to “lord” it over our families or others. We are constantly reminded of the temptation toward beastly control. In Jesus, we see a different leadership–shared, distributed, flattened, and incarnational. We see it serving the needs of all.
Leadership is forever liberated from hate, grounded in the heart of love and distributed to all.
We no longer are attracted to beastly kings. We have lost our appetite to 1 Sam 8 requests for a king. It doesn’t work. We don’t want that in our DNA, our families, our organizations or our nations.
We accept the strong medicine of I John 2:15 “…when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you.”
With the Love of God in our hearts, beastly powers will grow “strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.”