Jesus warned the disciples about what was going to happen when they got to Jerusalem. He gave a description of the suffering He would experience there. Meanwhile, James and John were imagining a different scenario. They asked Jesus to agree to do whatever they would request. Jesus asked them what they wanted; He was not going to sign a blank check by agreeing before they made the request. They replied that they wanted to sit on Jesus’ right and left hand; that is, they wanted the chief positions in His administration. Jesus responded by asking if they could drink the cup He was going to drink or be baptized with His baptism, and they said they could. Jesus was referring to His sufferings which were often spoken of as a cup of agony that He would have to drink (see Mark 14:36) and as a baptism (immersion) in pain (see Luke 12:50). They had no clue as to His real meaning, but they enthusiastically accepted the challenge. Jesus then replied that He did not have the authority to grant their request, because He was not the one who assigned the positions of honor in the kingdom.
The other disciples were incensed. James and John had gotten the jump on them. They themselves wished to have the highest positions and resented the fact that the sons of Zebedee had requested them first. Jesus took some time to define what greatness in the kingdom really meant. He said that in human affairs, whether government or business, the greatest have the most authority. But He explained that it isn’t that way in the kingdom of God. Rather, the greatest is the one who humbles himself most and serves most. He pointed to Himself as the model. He had not come to be served, but to serve and to offer Himself as a sacrifice for others.
We still desperately need these lessons of Jesus. We should be ashamed when we desire to be great by putting ourselves over others. Jesus was born in a stable outside a small town. He lived His life as a village carpenter and itinerant preacher. He accumulated neither riches nor worldly power. Yet, today, many of His self-proclaimed followers seek and promise the very things He rejected, as they pursue glory for themselves. These things should not be so. We need to have hearts that want to serve if we want to be like Jesus, but we prefer to do things to be seen by men. We want people to look at us as “great” disciples. We want them to see that we are “on fire” for seeking and saving the lost. But when we are doing these things with those motives, God is not getting glorified in us. People may thank God for our outward appearance, but our hearts are at the altar to worship self and not the Lord. May the Lord help us in fighting our pride.