Restraint, humility, and servanthood aren’t obvious leadership qualities in the corporate world. Nor are they character traits that readily spring to mind for modern churches focused on growth and vision. But Christ prioritized those three qualities as he cultivated future leaders of the Christian church, most notably Peter.
Restraint – Most people with strong leadership abilities don’t naturally excel when it comes to exercising restraint. Self-control, discipline, and moderation aren’t common qualities among those who live life at the head of the pack. That is why so many leaders have problems with anger and out-of-control passions. Anger-management seminars have become the latest fad for CEOs and people in high positions of leadership in businesses in the western world. It is clear that anger is a common and serious problem among people who rise to such a high level of leadership.
Peter had similar tendencies. Hotheadedness manifested itself within the active, decisive, initiative-taking personality that made him a leader in the first place. Such a man easily grows impatient with people who lack vision or underperform. He can be quickly irritated by those who throw up obstacles to success. Therefore he must learn restraint in order to be a good leader.
The Lord more or less put a bit in Peter’s mouth and taught him restraint. That is one of the main reasons Peter bore the brunt of so many rebukes when he spoke too soon or acted too hastily. The Lord was constantly teaching him restraint.
The scene in the garden where Peter tried to decapitate Malchus is a classic example of his natural lack of restraint. Even surrounded by hundreds of armed Roman soldiers, Peter unthinkingly pulled out his sword and was ready to wade into the crowd, swinging. It was fortunate for him that Malchus lost nothing more than an ear and that Jesus immediately healed the damage. Jesus rebuked Peter sternly.
That rebuke must have been especially difficult for Peter, coming as it did in front of a horde of enemies. But he learned much from what he witnessed that night. Later in life, he would write this:
1 Peter 2:21–23 “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”
How different that is from the young man who grabbed a sword and tried to hack away at his opposers! Peter had learned the lesson of restraint.
Humility – Peter also had to learn humility. Leaders are often tempted by the sin of pride. In fact, the besetting sin of leadership may be the tendency to think more of oneself than one ought to think. When people are following your lead, constantly praising you, looking up to you, and admiring you, it is too easy to be overcome with pride.
That was certainly the case when Jesus foretold His disciples that they would forsake Him (Matthew 26:31). But Peter was so sure of himself: “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away”(Matthew 26:33). Then he added, “Lord, with You I am ready to go both to prison and to death!” (Luke 22:33).
Of course, as usual, Peter was wrong and Jesus was right. Peter did deny Christ not once, but multiple times, just as Jesus had warned. Peter’s shame and disgrace at having dishonoured Christ so flagrantly were only magnified by the fact he had boasted so stubbornly about being impervious to such sins! But the Lord used all of this to make Peter humble. And when Peter wrote his first epistle, he said:
1 Peter 5:5–6 “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time.”
He specifically told church leaders,
1 Peter 5:3 “[Don’t lord] it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock”
Humility became one of the virtues that characterized Peter’s life, his message, and his leadership style.
Servanthood – All the disciples struggled with learning that true spiritual leadership means loving service to one another. The real leader is someone who serves, not someone who demands to be waited upon. This is a hard lesson for many natural leaders to learn. They tend to see people as a means to their end. Leaders are often task-oriented rather than people-oriented. So they often use people, or walk over people, in order to achieve their goals. Peter and the rest of the disciples needed to learn that leadership is rooted and grounded in loving service to others. The only kind of leadership Jesus recognised and accepts is servant leadership.
Jesus said, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). The Lord Himself constantly modelled that kind of loving servant-leadership for the disciples. That was especially the case in the upper room on the night of His betrayal.
Jesus and the disciples had come to celebrate the Passover in a rented room in Jerusalem. The Passover celebration was an extended, ceremonious meal lasting as long as four or five hours. Celebrants in that culture usually reclined at a low table rather than sitting upright in chairs. Of course, all the roads were either muddy or dusty, so their feet were constantly dirty. Therefore the common custom was that when you went into a house for a meal, there was usually a servant whose job it was to wash guests’ feet – arguably the lowliest and least desirable of all jobs.
Apparently on this busy Passover night, in that rented room, no provision had been made for any servant to wash the guests’ feet. The disciples were evidently prepared to overlook the breach of etiquette rather than volunteering to do such a menial task themselves. So they gathered around the table as if they were prepared to start the meal without any foot-washing. And then the most extraordinary thing happened:
John 13:4–5 “So (Jesus) got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”
Jesus Himself – the One they rightly called Lord – took on the role of the lowest slave and washed the dirty feet of His disciples. According to Luke, at about the same time this occurred, the disciples were in the midst of an argument about which one of them was the greatest (Luke 22:24). They were interested in being elevated, not humiliated. So Jesus gave them a powerful and confronting lesson about true servant leadership.
It’s hard for most leaders to stoop and wash the feet of those whom they perceive as subordinates. But that was the example of leadership Jesus gave, and He urged His disciples to follow it. In fact, He told them that showing love to one another in such a way was the mark of a true disciple (John 13:34–35).
Did Peter learn to love? He certainly did. Love became one of the hallmarks of his teaching.
1 Peter 4:8 “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”
The Greek word translated “deeply” in that verse is ektenes, literally meaning “stretched to the limit.” Peter was urging us to love to the maximum of our capacity. The love he spoke of is not about a feeling. It’s not about how we respond to people who are naturally lovable. It’s about a love that covers and compensates for others’ failures and weaknesses: “Love covers a multitude of sins.” This is the sort of love that washes a brother’s dirty feet. And Peter himself had learned that lesson from Christ’s example.