In our Lord’s earthly ministry, there is much that could be commented on from the records that we have in the synoptic gospels and the Gospel of John. In fact, it is this latter gospel account that informs us that had everything about Jesus’ ministry been written down, there wouldn’t be enough books to contain them. However, there is one particular theme about Jesus’ ministry that touches everything else He had to say and came to do, a theme that we’ll summarize as a Kingdom Paradigm (pair-a-dime).
A paradigm, in it’s most common meaning and usage, is defined as a clear or typical example, properly speaking an archetype or pattern. Under the administration of the Old Covenant, there were certainly patterns and examples as well, but those reach their completion in Christ Jesus. Not only did the Lord come to fulfill those old patterns and examples, but by establishing a kingdom paradigm, He came to upset or alter how we view this world and each other in His Kingdom.
Perhaps more than the other gospels, Matthew is intent upon describing and defining the Kingdom of God (properly, the “Kingdom of Heaven”). This is summarized with the verse highlighting the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.” Additionally, the founding principles of this Kingdom Paradigm are found in Matthew 5:1-7:29, which is commonly referred to as The Sermon on the Mount.
By the time we reach Matthew 18 in the account of our Lord’s ministry, we are given the Kingdom Paradigm regarding relationships in the Christian Community. One aspect of these relationships that’s specifically addressed is leadership and authority within the community. The baseline for this particular facet of the Kingdom Paradigm comes by way of a question asked by the disciples, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt. 18:1) Depending on how Jesus answered this question, would define for us the paradigm, or pattern, of the kingdom.
Notice our Lord’s response below
2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:2-4
This instruction on humility, as the entrance requirement into the kingdom, sets the tone for the next three chapters which outline and describe the nature of kingdom relationships, including kingdom leadership. Likely because Jesus had yet to fully open their eyes to this unfolding paradigm, the disciples fail to grasp the simplicity of this reordering, that one must become like a child, and are given second opportunity to comprehend it in the chapter that follows
13 Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, 14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”15 And he laid his hands on them and went away. Matthew 19:13-15
Reiterating the statement made earlier on a humble child being the greatest in the kingdom, on this occasion the disciples were given a tangible example, but again failed to fully comprehend the message.
A third example for the establishment of this new Kingdom Paradigm, comes by way of a parable, but nevertheless brings us to the same conclusion. This parable, referred to as the “Laborers in the Vineyard” is found in Matt. 20:1-16 and addresses the principle of equality in the Kingdom, regardless of when someone enters. Jesus’ concluding statement on this parable serves again to highlight the paradigm we’ve been discussing, “So the last will be first, and the first last.” Matthew 20:16
A fourth example for this re-ordering of cultural structure and one which lands more clearly on the nature of leadership in the Christian community, builds on both the two earlier passages where Jesus indicates that that one must become like a child to enter the Kingdom and the third passage, where last is first and first is last. This particular example comes from Matthew 20:20-28
20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?”They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” 24 And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Such a request from a misguided, albeit well-intentioned mother, harkens our minds back to the opening question in this section from Matthew’s gospel account, “Who is the greatest?” This question had already been answered, those with the humility of a child are the greatest. The low are high, the high are low. The rich are poor, the poor are rich. The last are first, the first are last. This is the Kingdom Paradigm and it most certainly applies to leadership, the servants are the leaders.
While we will look at this particular passage from Matthew 20 in greater detail in a follow-up post, suffice it to say that the Kingdom leadership paradigm, outlined here by our Lord, was contrary to the nature of worldly leadership then, “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority” and it is contrary to the nature of worldly leadership now. Summarily, kingdom leadership is not top-down, authoritarianism, but bottom-up, servant-hood. This, as we will see, is not the same thing as the popular, modern notion of a servant leader, or more clearly that leaders serve. Instead, it is that your servants are your leaders.
Jesus’ Kingdom Paradigm is intended to cause us to view the world through an upside down or inverted kingdom lens. What the world perceives as the proper ordering of society is power, class, or wealth. And what they perceive as the proper ordering of leadership is authority and domination. What Jesus establishes as the paradigm for the Christian society is to be like a child. In kingdom leadership it is humility and service. The very pattern for this is His own life-giving service (deaconing = [diakoneo] – more on this later) which stands as the ultimate paradigm for the kingdom and the model for how we relate to one another in our Christian communities.