Let’s apply this concept to teaching by example to the teaching of one particular topic, the topic of unity. All pastors/elders/overseers desire that the flocks they lead be unified. They hate divisions within their local bodies. They know that factions are very displeasing to the Lord. After all, Jesus commanded us to love each other just as He loved us (see John 13:34-35). Our love for each other is what marks us as His disciples before the watching world. All this being so, most leaders of flocks admonish their sheep to love one another and strive for unity.
Yet, as ministers who are supposed to be teaching foremost by our example, we often fall far short in our teaching about love and unity by how we live. When we, for example, demonstrate a lack of love and unity with other pastors, we send a message that contradicts what we preach to our congregations. We expect them to do what we do not.
The fact is, the most significant words Jesus spoke concerning unity were spoken to leaders regarding their relationships with other leaders. For example, at the Last Supper, after He washed His disciples’ feet, Jesus said to them,
You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you (John 13:13-15). [Note that Jesus taught by example.]
Pastors often use this passage of Scripture to teach their flocks about loving one another, which is certainly appropriate. The words in this passage, however, were addressed to leaders, the twelve apostles. Jesus knew that His future church had little hope of succeeding in its mission if its leaders were divided or if they competed with each other. So He made it clear that He expects His leaders to humbly serve each other.
In the context of the culture of His day, Jesus demonstrated humble service by means of doing one of the lowest tasks of a household servant, the washing of feet. If He had visited a different culture at a different time in history, He may have dug out the latrines or washed out the garbage cans of His disciples. How many of His modern leaders are willing to demonstrate that kind of love and humility towards each other?
Within the space of less than an hour, Jesus repeatedly underscored this important message. Minutes after He washed their feet, Jesus said to His group of future church leaders:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35).
These words certainly have application to all of Christ’s disciples, but they were originally spoken to leaders regarding their relationship with other leaders.
Once again, just minutes later, Jesus said,
This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends (John 15:12-13).
Note that Jesus was again speaking to leaders.
Within seconds, He again said,
This I command you, that you love one another (John 15:17).
Then, a few minutes later, Jesus’ disciples heard Him pray on their behalf,
And I am no more in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to Thee. Holy Father, keep them in Thy name, the name which Thou hast given Me, that they may be one, even as We are (John 17:11; emphasis added).
Finally, just a few seconds later, as Jesus continued His prayer, His disciples heard Him say,
I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me. And the glory which Thou hast given Me I have given to them; that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that Thou didst send Me, and didst love them, even as Thou didst love Me (John 17:20-23; emphasis added).
Thus, within the space of less then an hour, six times Jesus emphasized to His future leaders the importance of their being unified, demonstrating that unity by humbly loving and serving one another. This was obviously very important to Jesus. Their unity was a key factor in the world believing in Him.