Memory Verse: 1 Peter 1:14-19
Bible Study: Isaiah 6:1-8
Reading: Simply the Greatest
Leadership Exercise: Holiness Health Check
What is the preeminent quality of Christ's character that informs the life of disciples who lead others?
Leading disciples fix their gaze on the holiness of Christ and seek to reflect this holiness in the character and conduct of their own lives. This holiness is a blend of moral purity, spiritual produce, sacred purpose and transcendent power.
Memory Verse: 1 Peter 1:14-19
Putting it in context: The apostle Peter was a man who had come face-to-face with his own sin. He had tried to talk Jesus out of going to the cross, bragged about how much more loyal he would be to Christ than the other disciples, and then bitterly denied Jesus when the pressure was on. Peter has also come face to face with God's amazing grace. This moves him to issue the very striking appeal in this text.
Bible Study: Isaiah 6:1-8
Isaiah 6 recounts the calling of the prophet Isaiah into the service of God. The events we read about occur shortly after the death of Israel's beloved king, Uzziah. Up to that point Uzziah was the most formidable being that Isaiah had ever known. A brilliant statesman, uncommonly strong moral leader and winsome public figure, Uzziah had shepherded Israel for an unprecedented fifty years. When he died, all of Israel, including Isaiah, went into bitter mourning. Never again would they encounter such greatness. And then Isaiah was given this vision.
The story is told of an older man who for many decades habitually returned every few years to the city of Athens. Upon each visit, he would climb to the top of the Acropolis, take a seat on one of its ancient stones and spend an hour or two letting his eyes wander over the massive pedestal, the soaring columns, and the perfect proportions of the Parthenon. When asked to explain the reason for this pattern, the elderly gentleman's eyes crinkled as he smiled: "I do this because it keeps my standards high."
For the same reason, many of us who hope to be used of God as leaders keep returning to gaze upon Jesus. He is the greatest possible standard for what it means to be a person and a leader. To be fair, claims like this have been made of others. When Vladimir Lenin was entombed in Moscow in 1924, the following inscription was placed next to his embalmed remains: "Here lies the greatest leader of all people of all time. He was the lord of the new humanity. He was the savior of the world."
Those words, whether applied to Lenin or any other leader, ring hollow today, don't they? Those leaders lie dead and buried (or one day will). The clock is ticking, and their kingdoms are (or will be) history. Yet the person and influence of Jesus remains as alive today as the first day he stood on the temple mount of Jerusalem. As the twenty-first century was dawning, Time magazine made this observation:
The memory of any stretch of years eventually resolves to a list of names, and one of the useful ways of recalling the past two millenniums is by listing the people who acquired great power. Muhammad, Catherine the Great, Marx, Gandhi, Hitler, Roosevelt, Stalin and Mao come quickly to mind. There's no question that each of those figures changed the lives of millions and evoked responses from worship through hatred.
It would require much exotic calculation, however, to deny that the single most powerful figure—not merely in these two millenniums but in all human history—has been Jesus of Nazareth.... [A] serious argument can be made that no one else's life has proved remotely as powerful and enduring as that of Jesus."
Leadership is the art of multiplying influence, and by this standard Jesus must be considered the master artist. This is something of why so many of us agree with the writer to the Hebrews that Jesus is "worthy of greater honor" (Hebrews 3:3) than other leaders. Even those who cannot yet accept the core Christian claim that Jesus was the Creator of the universe, was made flesh (John 1:1-3, 14), cannot help but stand in awe or admiration before the brilliant ethical framework, the towering moral example, the enduring spiritual and social effects of the life and leadership of Jesus. The famed Briton H. G. Wells once wrote: "More than 1900 years later, a historian like myself, who doesn't even call himself a Christian, finds the picture centering irresistibly around the life and character of this most significant man.... The historian's test of greatness is 'What did he leave to grow?' Did he start men to thinking along fresh lines with a vigor that persisted after him? By this test, Jesus stands first."
He is simply the greatest.
"Professing Christians must be brought to realize that the preeminent desire and demand of God for us is that of the continual pursuit of the holiness of life, and the reflection of His own holiness."
Herbert S. Lockyer Sr., source unknown
But greatness can be a mysterious property. It is commonplace in our day to read books that reduce great leadership to a set of techniques or methodologies. Even Jesus has been corn-modified in this way, his leadership packaged into a neat set of practical utilities. We will certainly look closely at the practices of Jesus, but a careful study of the biblical materials that record Christ's life lead to an inescapable conclusion: Jesus was an exceptional builder because he was, first and foremost, an extraordinary being. His influence was the effluence of his essence. His impact was the overflow of his identity. His conduct was the outpouring of his character. And if we wish to follow him, we must begin with his holiness.
The word holy has fallen into disuse in our time. When used, it's often employed in a derogatory sense—as in "holy roller" or "holier than thou." For many people the word suggests a pinched, diminished or sanctimonious state of being. This is sad, because the biblical concept of holiness actually carries a vastly grander and more inspiring meaning. It is as different from the popular concept as the Parthenon is from an office cubicle. C. S. Lewis once commented to an American friend: "How little people know who think that holiness is dull. When one meets the real thing... it is irresistible. If even 10% of the world's population had it, would not the whole world be converted and happy before a year's end?"
When the Bible speaks of holiness it does so in a variety of colorful senses. All of these dimensions of holiness are vividly present in the character and conduct of Jesus. Together, they help to account for the fact that so many people found his leadership irresistibly influential.
In the most familiar sense, holiness is purity. It is a state of moral perfection. It is the utter absence of sin. It is living water running cold, clear and absolutely clean. This aspect of Jesus' character simply stupefied those who first spent time with him. Do you suppose individuals like Matthew (a tax collector) or Mary Magdalene (formerly demon-possessed) or the other disciples (working tradesmen) were naive about human nature? They certainly knew plenty about the superficiality, complexity and pretense of people. Some of them spent three years living in close quarters with Jesus. Yet the apostle Peter emerged saying of Jesus, "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth" (1 Peter 2:22). The apostle John said, "In him is no sin" (1 John 3:5). The writer to the Hebrews summed up the consistent experience and teaching of Christ's first followers by saying that Jesus was "tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin" (Hebrews 4:15).
"It is only when Christ is wholly Lord that we become whole ourselves."
John Stott, from an address at Christ Church of Oak Brook
How many of us could imagine saying something like this about one of our family members, college roommates or coworkers? How many of us could imagine a leader today saying to the press, "Go ahead, I dare you; see if you can find any dirt on me." Yet at one point Jesus faced off with some of the Pharisees who were bent on discrediting his leadership and said precisely this: "Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?" (John 8:46). Think how many leaders have had their influence diminished or cancelled out because, in spite of all they'd done or said, there was something hidden, something dark, some lack of integrity in their life. But no one could find any sin in Jesus. He was truly holy.
Holiness, however, is much more than the absence of sin. It is also the presence of glory. The space where the darkness and death of sin is not found is filled instead with the light and life of God. This is what the apostle John was getting at when he described breathlessly, on behalf of the other disciples, what they saw in Jesus: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory,... full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).
The apostle Paul says that where the Holy Spirit of God resides, it drives out sin and replaces it with the resplendence of good fruit. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23). These aspects of holiness are precisely the qualities we see abounding in Jesus. They help to explain why others were drawn to him like hungry people are drawn to a bowl of fruit.
Many people hunger for holiness without knowing it. For years I (Dan) asked people exploring church membership: "Do you want to be holy?" People shrugged their shoulders awkwardly. A few hands poked up shyly. Then I started asking, "Would you like a greater measure of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and so on in your life?" Every hand in the room shoots up immediately. Every time. It was this way with Jesus. His first followers saw in him a quality of character so attractive that they were willing to lay down their nets and follow him. They encountered a person so full of good fruit that they were pleased to go on a three-yearlong road trip with him. They hoped, perhaps, to acquire more of such character through sheer contact with him. C. S. Lewis was right. Holiness, properly understood, is anything but dull. Holiness is the compelling beauty and fullness of God's own nature for which we were made.