What Leadership Looks Like
One lens through which to view the scriptures is to consider how they portray the ideal leader. Both Old and New Testaments record the events and important figures that shaped the people of God. What do the scriptures tell us about what constitutes great leadership?
Our readings in 1&2 Samuel grapple with that question. King Saul’s good looks and physical stature predict success (1 Samuel 9:2), but his kingship fails. In contrast, David is the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons, yet the Lord chooses him, not the older brothers: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature . . . for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). The determinative gift for leading God’s people is obedience to the Lord, the ultimate leader of Israel. Saul’s disobedience disqualifies him from ruling. Samuel tells Saul, “Your kingdom will not continue; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart; and the Lord has appointed him to be ruler over his people” (1 Samuel 13:14). David is that “man after [God’s] own heart,” meaning he seeks to follow the will of God.
Our readings in Acts follow suit. Jesus’ disciples are not the culturally influential or politically powerful, but common people filled with God’s Spirit, life, and purpose. Part of the wonder of this thrilling account of the early Church is how God forges the leaders who “[turn] the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). By the end of the book, the good news travels from the seat of religious power in Jerusalem to the center of the world’s power in Rome, engaging the authorities at every step with the bold proclamation of the One whose sovereign love surpasses the might of every human power.
Power belongs to God, and all authority in heaven and earth God has given to Jesus Christ. As we look at the world around us today, how do we assess the claims to power of those elected or appointed to lead us?
Old Testament Readings: 1 Samuel 26-31; 2 Samuel 1-5; 1 Chronicles 8-12
As we noted last week, the scriptures portray David’s righteousness with increasing clarity against the backdrop of King Saul’s spiritual dissolution. Though David steadfastly supports the king, Saul’s insecurity drives David away, into the camp of the rival Philistines. Yet even when David’s life is in danger, he refuses to harm the king (cf. chh.24,26), knowing that to do so would be violence against the Lord’s anointed leader.
The narrative gives us an intimate portrait of the complicated personal dynamics surrounding David’s rise to the throne. David has Saul’s daughter Michal as one of his wives, and Saul’s son Jonathan is his closest friend. Both Jonathan and Michal help David to escape Saul’s pursuit. When news comes to David of the death of Saul and his sons, David laments this loss profoundly (the “Song of the Bow,” 2 Samuel 1). And David chooses not to avenge himself against the rest of Saul’s house, and he expressly disapproves of his subordinates’ vengeance against Saul’s commander Abner and son Ishbaal (2 Sam 3-4). David transcends a partisan self-interest to embody a conciliatory and unifying rule over his vanquished foes.
Indeed, this perspective explains how David becomes the first great King of Israel. 2 Samuel 5 recounts how all the tribes of Israel united in covenant with David at Hebron. After seven years David establishes the capital in Jerusalem, where he reigned for thirty-three more years. This consolidation and centralization mark David’s rule as the beginning of a new, mature stage of Israel’s life as an effective monarchy, reflected in the economic alliance with King Hiram of Tyre (2 Sam 5:11). “David then perceived that the Lord had established him king over Israel, and that he had exalted his kingdom for the sake of his people Israel” (2 Sam 5:12).
This week in 1 Chronicles we open with two more chapters of genealogical records. Chapter 8 relates the descendents of Benjamin; chapter 9 provides a list of the inhabitants of Jerusalem after the Exile. Remember that the Chronicles are a later, post-exilic account of the nation’s history. As such, they tend favor the southern Kingdom of Judah (the tribes of Judah and Benjamin) and to celebrate David, who unified Israel’s rule in the southern capital, Jerusalem.
1 Chronicles 10 recounts the death of Saul (cf. 1 Sam 31), paints his downfall in starkly spiritual terms: Saul “was unfaithful to the Lord . . . he did not keep the command of the Lord . . . he had consulted a medium . . . and did not seek guidance from the Lord. Therefore the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David the son of Jesse (1 Chronicles 10:13-14). Chapters 11 and 12 present David’s rise to power concisely, omitting any suggestion of the military and political dynamics that precede his coronation (cf. 2 Sam 5). David’s righteous rule seems almost automatic, a function of his closeness to the Lord whose throne he inhabits.
New Testament Readings: Acts 18-22
Paul’s travels in these chapters are challenging to master on a first reading, but it is helpful to observe a few patterns. First, these stories record the further travels of Paul and his companions. Acts 13-14 introduced us to the missionary effort, which occurred in Asia Minor; beginning in Acts 16, the Spirit is guiding Paul further west, preventing his proclamation in Asia and compelling him into Europe (cf. Acts 16:6-10). This mission to Macedonia and Achaia (modern Greece) takes the gospel into larger cities like Corinth, Ephesus, and Thessalonica with a higher proportion of Gentiles. By the end of Acts, the gospel’s ambitious trajectory will reach Rome, the capital of the Empire and the seat of pagan culture.
Luke portrays Paul’s proclamation as potentially effective with both Jews and Gentiles (Acts 17:4, 17:11, 18:19). Paul encounters resistance from jealous Jews (17:5, 13), but their efforts to enlist the Roman authorities to squelch the gospel falls flat (18:12-17; 19:35-41). Yet not every Gentile responds favorably: see the riot in Ephesus (19:21-41). The Ephesians prided themselves in their statue of Artemis (19:28), but Paul’s challenge to the pagan idolatry tweaks their civic pride and hampers the local artisans’ sales, and they rise up against the Way.
Despite the many challenges, Paul’s mission establishes the Church in these cities. He stays in Corinth a year-and-a-half, in Ephesus more than two years (18:11; 19:8, 10). His ministry engaged and built up the local leaders who would continue to lead in his manner—for example Priscilla and Aquila in Corinth and Apollos in Ephesus. Luke gives us a taste of Paul’s pastoral ministry in his tender farewell to the elders in Ephesus (20:17-38). We see in this scene an acknowledgement that Paul’s mission will end in his death (cf. 20:25) and his concern for the Church’s internal strength against the false teachers who will threaten it (20:25-32). Lest we think of Paul exclusively as an evangelist, here we see his concern for the ongoing discipleship of the flock.
Don’t miss the story of Paul’s farewell visit to the church in Troas (20:7-12). Many a reader has chuckled at the story of Eutychus, who falls asleep during Paul’s protracted preaching and falls out of the window to his apparent death! Blessedly, the boy survives . . . and Paul continues his fellowship with the church folks until the dawn!
Paul’s return to Jerusalem in chapter 21 recalls Jesus’ resolute insistence on engaging the religious leaders who would cause him to be crucified. Luke shows us that Paul knowingly faces the threat of death with the composure of one completely devoted to a resurrected Lord (21:11-14). His arrest in the Temple (chapter 22) gives him a new platform for proclamation to authorities of increasing importance. See the clarity of Paul’s testimony about his conversion (22:6-21; cf. 9:1-22).
Psalms: 96, 106, 122
Psalm 96 is a psalm in the genre of hymn—a call to praise God, followed by the reason for that praise. This praise celebrates the extensiveness of God’s rule, over “the nations” (v.3), not just Israel; indeed, over all creation (vv.10-12). The psalm acknowledges not just the breadth of God’s rule, but its qualities of righteousness and faithfulness (v.13). The people of God use a version of this psalm in 1 Chronicles 16, when David brings the ark to Jerusalem.
Psalm 106 offers a communal lament to the Lord, seeking God’s saving work for the nation in a time of collective challenge (v.47). It frames this prayer in a historical recitation of Israel’s past waywardness: the people’s recurrent sinfulness and their failure to acknowledge God’s great saving love for them. The Lord did not hold this sinfulness against them, but delivered them “according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (v.45)—a reason that the psalm can begin and end with a call to “praise the Lord.” Note that vv. 47-48 also appear in 1 Chronicles 16:35-36, as another part of the entrance liturgy for the ark’s location in Jerusalem.
Psalm 122 is a psalm of ascent, focused on the arrival of worshipper in Jerusalem. Verses 3-5 praise the city at a place for Israel’s worship (“the house of the Lord” v.1) and government (“the thrones of the house of David” v.5). The psalmist calls for prayer for the peace of Jerusalem (vv.6-8); the well-being and security of the city would allow the nation’s worship to thrive (v.9).