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In high school we used litmus paper to reveal whether a solution was acidic or alkaline.

This has become a metaphor.

Litmus test: “a test in which a single factor (as an attitude, event, or fact) is decisive” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

As with a chemical solution, so with a leader – the ‘litmus test’ doesn’t change the leader; it reveals the character of the leader. 

Here are three litmus tests a true leader can learn from Jesus. 

The basic lesson

This basic lesson we learn from Jesus is the thorny concept of submission. A true leader must learn to follow, or submit, to God.

What does that mean? And what does it look like?  

After Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, we get a glimpse of Trinitarian interactivity: the Spirit descends upon the Son as the Father speaks: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17). 

We then read that “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil” (4:10). This is an act of submission by Jesus. No other explanation is given for what is about to follow.

Take a moment to read the temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4:1-11. In part, I’m informed by Henri Nouwen's thoughtful little book, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership

Temptation #1

In Nouwen's terms, the first temptation is about relevance vs. obedience.

After fasting forty days and nights, [Jesus] was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” (4:2-3)

Grammatically, the "if" statement assumes the reality of the statement. “Tell” is an imperative. Together this could be read as: “Since you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” 

What an obvious solution: turning stones into bread for his hunger. It's so relevant to the present need – or is it?

Jesus doesn’t do it. He responds with a statement taken from Israel’s national experience in the wilderness: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (4:4 quoting Deuteronomy 8:3).

The verse before (Deut. 8:2) explains God’s purpose for Israel in their wilderness circumstances.   

Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.

There is parallel, or analogy, for Jesus which includes: led by God; desert place; being tested; lack of food.

The issue is not to see how long one can go without food, or how one can get food; it is “to know what [is] in your heart, whether or not you [will] keep his commandments.”

What will this test reveal about Jesus' heart? Will it be to fill his stomach, or to keep God's commandments? Will it be relevance or obedience?

Despite his hunger, Jesus’ path is obedience, not relevance

Temptation #2

The second temptation is to be spectacular. 

Transported to “stand on the highest point of the temple” in Jerusalem, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God … throw yourself down” (4:5-6). The devil then backs-up his request with a distorted quotation from Psalm 91:11-12. 

Imagine what would happen if Jesus threw himself off the pinnacle in the sight of thousands, and was gently caught at the last moment by angels. Jesus’ popularity would be guaranteed immediately.

Instead Jesus answers with “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (4:7 quoting Deut. 6:16).

Jesus refuses the proposed public relations spectacle. He submits to God the Father. Jesus’ path is obedience, not popularity

Temptation #3

The third temptation is to be powerful.

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me” (4:8-9).

To gain all the power of the world's kingdoms in an instant. Just one condition: “bow down and worship me.” Submission to God, or to the devil?

Jesus is secure in his identity and his purpose: “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only” (4:10).

Jesus’ path is submission to the Father, not power obtained apart from God

Four take-aways

If you aspire to become a true leader, learn from Jesus.

Here are four take-aways – you may have more:

1.         Your character will be tested. The test will be real.

You will have to make a choice: either you submit to God and his purposes, or you choose something else that is powerfully and deceptively attractive.

2.         You will probably be tested in private – a “desert” place. It is said that, “The truest test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching” (John Wooden).

It is in this crucible that you will learn what your character is at that point.

3.         The test will include the reasonableness, allure, and benefits of relevance, popularity, or power.

You will need to be deeply rooted in your relationship with the God revealed as Jesus Christ. In this way you will be able to discern the test, and make the right choice.

Do you notice how Jesus responds to each temptation with an appropriate text of Scripture? He was immersed in God’s ‘Story’ and living in that ‘Story’. (Click to begin: God’s ‘Story’.) 

4.         For the follower of Jesus, failure is never the end. I'm going beyond Matthew 4 here, but I thought I should mention it.

For example, Peter failed miserably when he denied Jesus (Matthew 26:69-75). Yet, in Christ, Peter was transformed and (in the best sense) became a strong leader.

What do you have to add?

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Photo credit: magnuscanis via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

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