Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. Mark 10:43-44 (NIV)
Brothers James and John were two of Jesus’ 12 disciples. They were two of Jesus’ three most intimate friends, Peter, James and John. Despite the close relationship they shared with Jesus, they had missed an important lesson about what it meant to be great in the kingdom Jesus had come to establish.
Mark 10:35-45 (NIV) 35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” 36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. 37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” 38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” 39 “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” 41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Like everyone else who heard Jesus, the disciples believed that Jesus was going to be a king of Israel in the same way that David had been a king of Israel. They knew that the former kings of Israel had key advisors who held places of high honor and great power. Most likely James and John reasoned that, since Jesus held them in such high regard, it only made sense for Jesus to select them as his top two advisors. They were just asking him to make it official.
When the other disciples heard about the brother’s request, they became indignant. Maybe because they were all thinking about asking Jesus the same question and the brothers beat them to it. Jesus used the situation to explain, once again, that we can’t use the things we know in our physical realm to understand the heavenly realm. Doing so will lead us to the wrong conclusion, whether we are talking about what it means to be born again, what it means that Jesus is God’s son, or, in this case, what it means to be great in the kingdom of heaven.
The brothers and, judging by their reaction, the rest of the disciples were thinking of Jesus’ kingdom in earthly terms. Which made sense, because that was the only model they had. In an earthly kingdom, the important people were given seats of honor and great authority. When an important person told someone to do something, they did it. When an important person asked for something, they got it. After all, what was the point of being great if you didn’t get the benefits that went with it?
Jesus’ teaching about greatness was as radical as the idea of being born twice. In heaven, your greatness isn’t measured by who serves you, but by who you serve, not by what you have, but by what you give. To be great in the kingdom of heaven, serve everyone. To have it all in the kingdom of heaven, give it all away. Jesus finishes the lesson with the ultimate example, himself. As the creator of the universe, he deserved to be served by everyone, yet he took the form of a person and served everyone by dying for their sins; he deserved everything we have to give, yet he gave everything he had for us.
The disciples may not have learned Jesus’ lesson that day, but they did learn it. They led the way in servanthood and sacrifice. James was arrested and executed by Herod about 10 years after Jesus’ resurrection. John was persecuted, tortured and died in exile on the island of Patmos. All the apostles were martyred for their faith.
Today, in America, following Jesus probably won’t include the same consequences experienced by the disciples. But, Jesus’ call to servant leadership and sacrificial giving has not changed. Look around this week and find the people you can lead through serving and situations where you can gain by giving. You may not need to look further than your own family.