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The Wisdom of Jesus & Societal Crises

by Jay Gary, PhD, Aug 30, 2004

lightening_wisdom_lYou know how to discern the face of the sky,
but you cannot discern the signs of the times.”
Matthew 16:3


Drawing on Bekker’s (2004) inner textual analysis of Matthew 16:13-28, the “confession and rebuke of Peter,” Jay Gary explores the leadership of Jesus related to societal crises. Using socio-rhetorical criticism, Gary correlates this passage to leadership theories, primarily Burns’ (1978) and Bass’s (1985) transformational leadership. Citing McKnight’s (1999) kingdom theory, Gary proposes that Jesus acted to create a community to survive the Jewish insurrection and Roman backlash unleashed in the Great War of A.D. 66-73. In view of this foresight, Gary claims leadership can be defined as “the capacity to shift the inner place from which an individual or a system operates” (Scharmer, 2002). He then asks how the wisdom of Jesus might apply to 21st century crises.


As America looks toward the middle of the 21st century, a swarm of societal crises appears on the horizon. Will she be able to finance social security to care for a retiring population? Will she be able to mitigate global climate change caused by a century of rapid industrialization and globalization? Will she find an end-game to oil, a central resource that is now becoming scarce and perennially fuels Mid-East conflict? Put simply, has Lady Liberty so mortgaged her future in fighting the war on terrorism that she now stands spiritually and financially bankrupt before these long-terms problems?

Few people would think about appealing to the wisdom of Jesus to solve tomorrow’s societal crises. Yet a closer look at the historical Jesus reveals a leader who saw himself and those he led as vanguards to diffusing the great crisis of his time¡ªthe clash between Jewish religion and Roman politics.

Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, scholars have grown in their appreciation of first-century Jewish history. Both Christian and Jewish scholars now recognize the role of popular, non-elite, social movements to propel history (Horsley and Hanson, 1999). Rather than just look at Jesus through systematic theology, the “third quest” for the historical Jesus aims to understand Jesus in view of the human and cultural world of Second Temple Judaism, 587 B.C. – A.D. 70 (Wright, 1992).

What scholars are finding is that Jesus situated himself as a prophetic leader of social transformation and called others to create a third way, in contrast to Jewish insurrectionists or Jewish collaborators with Rome.

As a leader, Jesus recreated the threatened institutions of Second Temple Judaism, namely the temple, Sabbath, law and land, envisioning them as internal spiritual realities following the Roman-Jewish War of A.D. 66-73.

Drawing on an “inner textual” analysis of Matthew 16:13-28, a turning point in the early Jesus movement, this paper will argue seven points:

1. The original community that read the Gospel of Matthew was socially conscious of their role as a vanguard of history on behalf of other Jewish sects and the world.

2. The contemporary theory of transformational leadership, as developed by Burns (1978) and Bass (1985), can illuminate the leadership style of Jesus in moving his generation beyond an intractable crisis.

3. A thorough content analysis of this passage raises a research question about the coming of the kingdom’ in Jesus’ generation. McKnight (1999) attempts to solve this conundrum by claiming this was a historical referent to the Great War of A.D. 66-73 (Faulkner, 2002).

4. As a transformational leader, Jesus offered a clear post-crisis path that his contemporaries could follow to militate against his society’s breakdown. Recently I have described this wisdom logic as a “three futures” model (Gary, 2004).

5. Defining leadership according to Jesus requires shifting oneself and “the capacity to shift the inner place from which a system operates” (Scharmer, 2002).

6. Global scenarios for 21st century sustainability (Tibbs, 1998) mirror the wisdom of Jesus in approaching systemic crises. Industrial ecology consultants have begun to employ this scenario logic, adding to the bottom line of business.

7.  As leadership theory has had to go beyond linear, industrial, top-down models, so, too, Western spiritual formation needs to embrace post-conventional values if it is to honor Jesus’ wisdom and address both the inner and outer challenges facing humanity.

The Inner Texture of Wisdom

Dr. Corne Bekker (2004) is a New Testament scholar from South Africa who has specialized in the Gospel of Matthew. He claims Matthew 16:13-28 has three narrative units, based on an “Opening-Middle-Closing” textual analysis (p. 29-32).

In unit 1, verses 16:13-20, Bekker sees Jesus querying his disciples as to his identity. The disciples answer, Jesus redirects the question, Peter answers, and Jesus recognizes his response as revelatory.

This opening dialogue illustrates Jesus’ leadership as a rabbi, in a customary teacher-disciple relationship. Peter is honored for receiving divine wisdom as to Jesus’ identity.

In unit 2, verses 16:21-23, Bekker observes that Jesus reveals his true vocation to his disciples, that as messiah he must suffer and die at the hands of the priestly aristocracy in Jerusalem, only to rise on the third day. Peter rebukes Jesus for contemplating martyrdom. Jesus ends by rebuking Peter. Rather than being honored in this unit, Peter is shamed for embracing worldly wisdom.

In unit 3, verses 16:24-28, Bekker claims Jesus shares paradoxical wisdom on the cost of following him, and concludes by promising that his disciples will see the coming of the kingdom in power and receive rewards.

What is the plot of this narrative? As a charismatic leader, Jesus now is turning towards Jerusalem, where his true mission for the Jewish nation will be enacted. Bekker rightly observes this passage represents a “turning point in the plot of Matthew” (p. 39). It deals with “the movement of Jesus with His disciples toward some goal or destination” (p. 21).

But what “goal or destination” is Jesus moving towards?

Bekker claims that an inner textual analysis of this passage socially locates the disciples of Jesus in a greater societal milieu, where the goal of Jesus with respect to Israel is discerned. He continues:

There are also two other larger groups presented in Matthew 16:13-28, that of the prophets (John the Baptist, Elijah and Jeremiah are mentioned by name) and the Jewish ruling classes in Jerusalem (namely the elders, chief priests and the scribes). These two groups serve ¡­ the reader (implied and real) to place the function, destiny and identity of Jesus in regards to these groups. Jesus is likened unto the prophets of old and it is made clear that Jesus is destined to suffer at the hands of the Jewish ruling classes in Jerusalem. It is important to note that the first group features in the first unit before the confession of Peter and the second group, the enemies of Jesus, is only mentioned after the true identity of Jesus is made known. (p. 25)

In other words, the community that first read Matthew, the implied readers, learn from this text that they too can be honoured if they follow Jesus as national prophet and messiah. This is in contrast to the shame they would receive if they followed Jerusalem’s priestly class (Bekker, p. 57).

An inner textual analysis of Matthew 16:13-28 therefore reveals Jesus’ martyrdom intent, i.e., Israel herself will suffer a similar crucifixion at the hands of the Romans unless she follows his disciples into a new community, one that survives the collapse of the Herodian temple state.

The Leadership Style of Jesus

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” This question is still being asked twenty centuries later. No person in history has called forth more study and reassessment than Jesus of Nazareth. Was Jesus a religious genius? Was he a social revolutionary? Was he a failed apocalyptic prophet as Albert Schweitzer (1906/1968) concluded?

For starters, Jesus was not unique¡ªif we recognize him as a leader of a peasant social movement. Galilee had a long history of peasants emerging as social bandits, faith healers or messiahs (Horsley and Hanson, 1999, p. 260-261). Furthermore, revolutionary millennialism has been a persistent feature in pre-industrial societies throughout history (Cohn, 1961). Recent scholars (Allison, 1998; Ehrman, 1999) have even compared the Jesus movement to other “end of the world” prophetic movements, adding to the millenarian tapestry.

If Jesus wasn’t unique in revolutionary history, then why do we study him? Why did Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mother Teresa emulate him? One answer might be his leadership style. That prompts us to ask the question, What was Jesus’ leadership style?

To answer this we turn to the vast literature on leadership studies. Since the rise of the social sciences, these studies have emerged from practically every discipline, whether history, political science, military science, educational administration, organizational behavior, psychology or sociology. In the authoritative Bass and Stogdill’s Handbook on Leadership, Bass (1990) introduces many of the better-known theories and models of leadership.

Recent leadership studies have gone beyond just studying the personality of leaders, their traits, or their situations. Today’s theories are usually multifaceted or “hybrid explanations.” Bass (1990) explains: “Cognitive, behavioral and interactional explanations are likely to be needed to account fully for leader-follower relations and outcomes…” (p. 52).

Transformational Leadership

One such mainstream theory today is transformational leadership. Introduced by Burns (1978), transformational leadership was one of the first theories to assert that true leadership not only changes the organization and society, but also transforms the lives of followers, as both the leader and the led are ennobled in their pursuit of higher aims.

Bass (1999) defines transformational leadership as “the leader moving the follower beyond immediate self-interests through idealized influence (charisma), inspiration, intellectual stimulation, or individualized consideration” (p. 11).

According to a textual analysis of the “confession and rebuke of Peter,” Jesus fits the model of a transformational leader. When Jesus called his disciples to “take up your cross and follow me” he was calling them beyond their self-interests, based on his role behavior (Matthew 16:24). When Jesus spoke of rising “on the third day,” he was offering inspiration from his cruciform victory; that Israel too would rise from its grave. When Jesus inquired of his followers, rather than lecturing them (Matthew 16:13-15), he exhibited “individualized consideration” taking into account their developmental needs.

In the research, Yukl distinguishes between charismatic leaders and transformational leaders, pointing out that charismatic leaders make their followers more dependent on them, while transformational leaders make them more independent by empowering them (p. 260-261). While Jesus was certainly a charismatic or esoteric leader, he did not practice this at the expense of his followers. He called forth their greatness.

For Bass (1999), one of the prime factors of transformational leadership is organizational alignment. We see Jesus practicing this in Matthew 16:13-28. Bekker notes this passage is a turning point in the movement of Jesus’ disciples from Galilee to Judea and ultimately the world (p. 29). In verses 18-19, Jesus speaks of his disciples gathering the church to spearhead the renewal of Israel. Jesus is acting here to align the interests of his followers with the aims of his emergent organization.

Servant Leadership

Transformational leadership is not the only paradigm for understanding the leadership style of Jesus. For more than a decade researchers have been developing the theory of servant leadership, built on Greenleaf (1977). While there are correlations between transformational and servant leadership, servant leadership stands on its own as a verifiable model. The premise is that “transformational leaders tend to focus more on organizational objectives while servant leaders focus more on people who are their followers” (Stone, Russell, & Patterson, 2003). Servant leadership encompasses seven virtuous constructs: (a) love, (b) humility, (c) altruism, (d) vision, (e) trust, (f) empowerment, and (g) service (Patterson, 2003). Both historically and theologically, Jesus qualifies as an exemplary servant leader. As the memorable refrain says, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Leadership studies are far from fixed. Rost (1991) notes that many writers, including Burns, Bennis and Mintzberg note that the development of leadership studies has been one-sided. He claims a more holistic understanding of leadership is emerging beyond pragmatic, goal- oriented, utilitarian or empirical frameworks.

While servant leadership may illuminate the leadership style of Jesus relating to individuals, his corporate wisdom may be deeper than we are ready to acknowledge.

The Problem of “Kingdom Come”

In the quest for a more holistic understanding, Bekker acknowledges that “many issues in the Gospel of Matthew once thought to be settled have been reopened.” He notes how some consider Matthew itself as a “new storm center” (p. 6).

This is especially true for anyone doing a thorough content analysis of Matthew 16:13-28. While Bekker classified verses 27 and 28 as an apocalyptic and prophetic saying, he failed to footnote a problem that has bedeviled scholars for nearly two-centuries. Verses 27 and 28 read:

For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.

Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.

These verses are not isolated sayings. They are paralleled in Mark 8:34-38 and Luke 9:23-26. On face value Jesus is saying that his kingdom will come within the lifetime of his disciples. Other Gospel passages carry this imminent expectation (Matt. 10:23; Mark 9:1; 13:30; John 21:23).

Traditional readings of the Gospels have assumed the kingdom would come in a far distant future. In keeping with this paradigm, many scholars have sought to apply these passages to the transfiguration. But McKnight asks, “What are we to make of these texts, which on nearly any reading suggest Jesus thought something catastrophic, if not final and conclusive, would happen shortly, within a generation? No amount of exegetical gymnastics can evade their obvious import” (1999, p. 129).

Breaking with convention, McKnight argues against the transfiguration or resurrection as “primary referents” of these verses. In much the same way that Jeremiah prophesied the destruction of the first temple, McKnight sees Jesus prophesying the destruction of Herod’s temple. He writes:

Jesus announced the coming kingdom and its judgment, he called Israel to repent of its unfaithfulness, and he began to form a remnant of people who would be ready for that judgment when it came. He predicted that this would take place if Israel did not respond; when it did take place through Roman agency, the destruction itself [of Jerusalem] functioned as a massive, earthly demonstration that Jesus, the last prophet to Israel, was right after all. (p. 142-143)

While McKnight is the first historical Jesus scholar to place the climax of the kingdom at A.D. 70, many Evangelicals are resisting this path (Newman, 1999). Clearly more research is needed to illuminate Jesus’ governing metaphors and his leadership in the context of Second Temple Judaism.

The Three Futures of Jesus

While scholars debate the eschatological horizon of the kingdom, it is clear that Jesus called for decisive action to shape his society’s future. While Jesus was a mystic, his spirituality was grounded in a near landscape of the future, with real world referents. As a transformational leader he opened an alternative path for contemporaries to follow that mitigated against societal breakdown.

In earlier writings I have proposed that Jesus saw the future as a dynamic of three paths: conventional, counter and creative (Gary, 2004, para. 11).

The conventional future was the mainstream future. This lower line future had 1,500 years of Moses, or ancestral law, behind it. It had 250 years of Alexander the Great, or Greek culture, defining it. It had 100 years of Caesar, or Roman rule, enforcing it. This was the official world of “Second Temple Judaism,” ruled by the Herodians and Sadducees. In other words, the conventional future for Jesus was the present state of Roman occupation projected into the future.

The counter future opposed this official future. This future was largely defined by the Pharisees, the loyal opposition to Jewish collaboration with the Roman Empire. The Essenes, and later the Zealots, also shaped this popular resistance to occupation. The counter future claimed that it, rather than Herod, represented Moses. This future rallied people behind 200 years of Jewish nationalism, represented in the Maccabean revolution of B.C. 167.

Jesus saw these two futures, Roman imperialism and Jewish nationalism, on a collision course if left unchecked.

Jesus weighed these two lower-line futures and found them wanting. In view of this first-century “clash of civilizations,” he began to develop a third way, a creative future that would make all things new.

In contrast with a mainstream or side stream future, this path was an upstream future. Jesus saw this high road transcending the lower lines. It would lead to the ideal, the kingdom of God. It would include the ancient covenant made to Israel, but raise it from a one-nation to a many-nation covenant.

As we have seen in Matthew 16:13-28, Jesus revealed his grand intent. His plan would transcend the conventional and counter future. But this creative way called for a daring faith or “risk leadership” (Brungardt & Crawford, 1999, p. 24). He and his contemporaries would have to die to the old order before its eventual collapse. If they did, they would survive the end of the Mosaic age and be vindicated at the fall of Jerusalem.

Leadership as Leadershift

In view of this textual analysis and the futures framework of Jesus, we now refine our definition of leadership.

Leadership today, following Jesus’ wisdom, demands leadershift[1] of oneself, and the corresponding “capacity to shift the inner place from which a system operates” (Scharmer, 2002, p. 7).

Scharmer has called this capacity “the blind spot of leadership” because behavioral research has largely focused on the externalities of leaders, whether their behavior, followers, situation or environment. For Scharmer, the most important arrow in the leadership quiver is the leader, him ¨C or herself, and their capacity to make that shift.

When Jesus called his followers to embrace the cross (Matthew 16:24-26), he called them to leadership, to symbolically die to the external order that they might be born anew, to live in a new symbolic order. Throughout the ’90s, MIT’s Peter Senge made famous the concept of leading through organizational learning in The Fifth Discipline (1990). Scharmer has now teamed up with Senge and other colleagues to write Presence: Human purpose and the field of the future (Flowers, Jaworski, Senge, & Scharmer, 2004). Like Jesus, they call organizational leaders to draw upon the spiritual landscape of the future. Rather than just lead from the past, they claim that tomorrow’s challenges demand that we lead from within to create the future.

Seen this way, leadership is about helping organizations and societies move from old to new epochs, from lower line crisis-laden futures to higher order post-crisis futures.

21st Century Scenarios

Few mainstream organizational theorists would link today’s societal transformation to spiritual formation, especially the Christian tradition, but this link was at the heart of Jesus’ leadership. In the first century, personal and societal changes were inseparably fused through prophetic spirituality.

The million-dollar question for spiritual formation today is how the micro shifts in our personal worlds can link to macro-shift in our collective worlds.

While we don’t face crises of covenantal change like Jesus, America does face mid-21st century economic, ecological and ethical crises; whether growing poverty, weapons of mass destruction, new SARS-like viruses, genetic depletion, energy brownouts, or lack of fresh water, to name a few.

One global scenario for 21st century sustainability (Tibbs, 1998) draws upon this micro-to-macro leadership, undergirding this paper’s conception that the wisdom of Jesus applies to systemic crises. Like the “three-futures” model of Jesus, Tibbs approaches the 21st century with a three-scenario logic, asking how our industrial age might move from a growth economy to equilibrium.

The “business-as-usual” path is the starting point for each outcome. This path is unsustainable over the mid-range future and can lead to crisis if no other action happens. Before the crisis reaches a break point, Tibbs draws a trajectory of voluntary transformation, where our global economy is no longer dependent on population or industrial growth to fuel itself. This is the upside scenario, corresponding to Jesus’ creative future. If a worst-case crisis develops we are left with two choices. The first is global collapse or systemic breakdown; the other is recovery toward a post-growth economy, joining the upper line of voluntary transformation.


Figure 1. Global Scenario Framework[2]


Tibbs admits, “The downside scenario is not pleasant to think about, yet it is not difficult to paint the picture of major global problems reaching crisis pitch.”

Spirituality and Sustainability

Over the past couple of years, BP, British Petroleum, has begun positioning itself for this long transition to sustainability. Realizing they must be leaders in the 21st century transition to renewable energy resources, they claim BP also stands for ‘beyond petroleum,’ reflecting their brand positioning today and their aspiration to meet the world’s future energy needs. They are spending an estimated $100 million a year in advertising to convey this message of environmental responsibility.

In the past, environmental problems were laid at the feet of school children who were encouraged to celebrate “Earth Day.” Today, the cause of sustainability is being championed by a growing consulting fleet of “industrial ecologists,” who use foresight scenario logic to help businesses become the prime agents for environmental change. The genius of the “Natural Capitalism” movement is that its consultants don’t ask business to give up their profit motive; instead they show how free-enterprise can close the recycling loop and be more profitable (Hawken, Lovins, & Lovins, 1999).

Spirituality can no longer operate in merely individualistic or industrial frameworks. Just as leadership theory had to go beyond linear, mechanistic, top-down models, so, too, Western spiritual formation now needs to embrace post-conventional values if it is to address both the inner and outer challenges of what it means to be human. Based on the wisdom of Jesus, the physician must heal himself if humans are to have a future on our planet.


In a paradoxical way America now faces a turning point. We have journeyed a long way since our founding fathers. We have survived a civil war and two world wars, overcoming internal division and external enemies. As a “redeemer nation” (Tuveson, 1968) we are at the height of our empire.

But now we have been led to the far district of Caesarea Philippi. We stand on the mountaintop with Jesus. We learn that our industrial way of life, with its oil dependency, is fueling both a clash of civilizations and global climate change.

Could this external transition beyond petroleum require an internal conversion of our souls at the deepest level? How do we separate the human from divine wisdom in this matter?

Will we save our lives from the coming societal crises by using religion to legitimize lower-line futures? Or will we “lose our lives for Jesus sake” by helping our children generate alternative futures to a runaway world?

Author Notes

Dr. Jay Gary is president of, a foresight consulting group. Over the past twenty years Jay has helped non-profits, foundations, civic leaders, and strategic alliances to create more promise filled futures. He also teaches strategic foresight, innovation and leadership at the graduate level and through professional development courses.


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[1] Joel Barker, the “paradigm man,” popularized the use of this term in a 1999 video, “Leadershift: Five Lessons for Leaders in the 21st Century.” For more, see

[2] From “Global Scenarios for the Millennium,” by Hardin Tibbs, 1998, YES! A Journal of Positive Futures, Spring issue. Copyright 1998 by Hardin Tibbs. Adapted with permission of the author.

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