What Biblical Leadership Looks Like

Text: Nehemiah 3:1-32

Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.” —Luke 22:26

We Were Soldiers is a Vietnam War film dramatizing the historical events that took place on November 14, 1965. U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore leads a newly created air cavalry unit into the Ia Drang Valley, a.k.a. the “Valley of Death.” In a moving speech, Moore (played by Mel Gibson), promises the young troops:

“I swear, before you and before Almighty God, that when we go into battle, I will be the first to set foot on the field, and I will be the last to step off, and I will leave no one behind. Dead or alive, we will all come home together. So help me, God.”

This is a commander who understood the staple of leadership.

The third chapter of Nehemiah is all about missional communities working together to accomplish something seemingly impossible (see Nehemiah 4:3), with some of the most unlikely people making the difference. These tribes are laboring against incredible odds and relentless opposition to rebuild the city’s broken down walls, and I find it quite striking that we see no expert builders, master carpenters, or professional contractors on site. What we do see are clergy, volunteers, goldsmiths, perfume makers, and some diligent women all pitching in to serve the mission. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, that God often chooses unlikely and unqualified characters to do some of His greatest work because they are the ones who boast in His glory alone.

It is in this passage that we also see what true servant leadership looks like. Eliashib, the high priest, is mentioned first in this chapter. He rose up to do the work with the other priests, and they worked at rebuilding the Sheep Gate and the nearby section of wall. Eliashib acted as a godly leader should; he was out in front of the work, the first one with gloves on hands and boots on the ground, leading by serving. He did not act as if he was too “spiritual” for the hard work of rebuilding the walls, and he certainly isn’t just preaching sermons from a distance. Eliashib gets his hands dirty. His ministry is one of proximity with the brokenness. He is quite the opposite of the distracted and indifferent priest that Jesus characterized in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, who kept his distance (Luke 10:25-37).

There is a good reason why Eliashib was mentioned first, and why the rest of the chapter is filled with the names of more than 50 others who followed his example in the work. Ministry is about proximity, and when good leadership exemplifies that, it is contagious to others. Eliashib seems to understand that leadership is about fleshing out the mission—not just pointing the way, or preaching the way, but going the way. Nehemiah not only highlights this example set by the high priest, but he also boldly calls out the nobles who would not stoop to serve their Lord (verse 5). These guys thought they were just too special to serve. I get a little chuckle at the notion that Nehemiah made a list of who showed up for the work—and who didn’t. Yes, he went there didn’t he?!

Consider this, beloved: Jesus said, “The greatest among you shall be your servant.” And when he washed his disciples’ feet the night of his Last Supper, he gave them a whole new paradigm for leadership. His example, like Eliashib’s, teaches us that servant leadership isn’t a deluxe or supplemental version of leadership; according to Jesus, servant leadership is the only kind of leadership. Think about that as you seek to abide in Him and serve others this week.

PRAYER

Lord, open our eyes to see the needs you want us to meet, and the people you want us to serve. Remind us of the sacredness of serving our neighbors—that even the most menial tasks, such as giving a cup of cold water in your name, is an act of authentic worship. Help us take these lessons from Nehemiah about servant leadership, and to humbly apply them to our daily lives as we seek to flesh out the Gospel. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for personal reflection, small group discussion, or dinner table conversations:

  1. What are the benefits of teamwork? In what ways have you seen the impact of servant leadership?
  2. How did the priests set the example for all the Israelites? (Nehemiah 3:1) 
  3. What did the priests do when they had completed sections of the walls and gates of Jerusalem, and what does the priests’ dedication of their work reveal about their motivation? (Nehemiah 3:1)
  4. Why do you think the people of Jerusalem were so committed to rebuilding the city walls? Why do you think communities serving on mission together are so important to God’s redemptive plan, and how can these movements be a witness to the world?
  5. Where can you flesh out servant leadership this week? What steps can you take this week to depend on God and others to help you face the challenges in your life?

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