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.
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 American business. 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 goes naturally with the sort of 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 Roman soldiers, all armed to the teeth, 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. As we have already seen earlier in this series, 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,
Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, “Who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth;” and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously. (1 Peter 2:21–23)
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.
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 cocksure: “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 dishonored 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:
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. (1 Peter 5:5–6)
He specifically told church leaders, “[Don’t lord] it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). Humility became one of the virtues that characterized Peter’s life, his message, and his leadership style.
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 usually task-oriented rather than people-oriented. So they often use people, or plow 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.
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 modeled 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. That meant one person’s head would be next to another person’s feet. Of course, all the roads were either muddy or dusty, so 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—practically 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. Therefore, Scripture says, Jesus
Got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. (John 13:4–5)
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 lesson about 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. In 1 Peter 4:8 he wrote, “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.” The Greek word translated “fervent” 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.