One afternoon, while on our honeymoon in Rome, my wife Laurin and I decided to search out the Mamertine Prison—the place where tradition tells us both Paul and Peter were held before execution. The building was nothing spectacular, the kind of place that looks like a thousand others in Rome, but it has long been a shrine to the two apostles who finished their earthly races there.
It’s difficult to imagine anyone in the early church being used more powerfully than these two in spreading the gospel to the known world. Peter, the close friend of Jesus, first broke the Gentile barrier, preaching the good news of salvation to Cornelius and his entire household. He then baptized them, forever making the church a movement that would incorporate people from every background. And Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, took the gospel to cities of trade and cultural influence, preached to slaves and kings alike, and set a fire in the ancient world that would eventually topple the Roman Empire—without letting loose a single arrow. It was the message of the kingdom that turned the world upside down, but it was through broken men like Peter and Paul that God did His work.
Today we hear a lot about Christian leadership and the need for influence in the spheres of government, culture, and academia. And there is a sense in which we have no choice but to put down stakes in each of those places. As Abraham Kuyper once said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” And so it is fitting that as His ambassadors, we seek to bend every center of human life to the ways of His kingdom.
But have you ever considered that Christian leadership, lived out by the greatest disciples of the early church, ended in humility, torture, and death? And this wasn’t an accident. It was part of God’s design.
After His resurrection, when Jesus restored Peter to the fold, He told the disciple three times to tend His sheep (John 21:15, John 21:16, John 21:17). A shepherd leads His flock not simply by walking up ahead. He must watch them, direct them, keep them out of harm’s way, and seek them out when they get lost. It’s hardly glamorous. In short, a shepherd leads His sheep by serving them. He ends his day worn out on behalf of his animals.
In that same conversation, Jesus also told Peter, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18). In case we miss the subtext, John explains: “Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God” (John 21:19). Peter’s call to leadership, then, was a call to humble service and a call to die.
While our dying may look different, given our context, our calling is every bit as real.
Paul’s commission to Christian leadership was no more prestigious. Blinded by the light of Christ on the Damascus road, Paul was led into the city by others and awaited help from the Lord. A few streets away, Jesus spoke to Ananias in a vision and told him this concerning the future apostle: “He is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16).
It may seem that these men—Peter and Paul—were larger than life, the kind of men who would go to their deaths for the gospel, a wonderfully committed but strange breed, unlike you and me. Yet I don’t think it’s fair to put them into a special category. You and I may not die upside down on a Roman cross or by beheading, as history tells us Peter and Paul respectively met their ends, but we follow the same Master. So while our dying may look different, given our context, our calling is every bit as real. Jesus Himself was no stranger to this kind of leadership. He led by serving, and dying for, those He came to save.
We may talk about servant leadership as a strategy of influence, but when we do, let’s remember what it originally looked like. Instead of megachurches and slick presentations when we think of godly leadership, let’s think of Mamertine—and remember the cost of leading like Jesus.