As Jesus approached His final week leading up to His crucifixion, He spoke plainly to His disciples about the events that were about to unfold in Jerusalem. He wanted them to know that the horrific things that would happen to Him were fully anticipated. So He spells it out for them (for the third time), that in Jerusalem He will be arrested, condemned, mocked, flogged, and crucified before being raised back to life on the third day (Matt. 20:18–19).
It would be reasonable to expect that our Savior’s words would stir within His disciples deep concern or at least questions about His welfare. That is hardly, however, the response that is recorded.
Instead of concern for Jesus, Matthew tells us that James and John, together with their mother, were preoccupied with concern for their future status. In their presence, their mother knelt before Jesus and made this outlandish request: “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (20:21).
I wonder if it ever dawned on James and John — those “sons of thunder”— how incongruent their aspirations were with their mother’s intervention. James and John watched as their mother tried to coax Jesus into elevating them into positions of greatness. If you want to be seen as great, then it is probably best not to have your mama give your nomination speech.
Despite the insensitivity that was displayed by this request at this time, Jesus does not scold His disciples (or their mom) for making it. Instead, He takes the opportunity to underscore the nature of true greatness, a lesson He had previously taught in Matthew 18:1–4, and to teach them how to achieve it.
In the world, greatness is usually measured in terms of power, prestige, and popularity. The greatest person is the one who has the most people under his authority. Jesus contrasts this common understanding of greatness with true greatness. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave” (20:25–27).
The pathway to true greatness is humble-minded servanthood. This lesson is so counterintuitive that it is not easily learned or remembered. When we think of great people, servants and slaves are not the first images that come to mind. Yet Jesus says that we will pursue true greatness only to the degree that we regard ourselves in such terms.
He doesn’t condemn the aspiration to be great. He directs it along the right path. The lesson is very simple, yet incredibly hard. If you want to be regarded as great in God’s kingdom, then make it your agenda to give yourself in service to others. If you want to attain the highest rank, then start thinking of yourself as a slave to your brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Greatness in God’s kingdom will not be achieved by misusing your authority, nor by being content merely to care only for your own needs. Rather, it will be developed by intentionally meeting the needs of other people. Preparing a meal for a family with sickness, helping a widow with household repairs, helping an immigrant to learn English — the possibilities are endless. The point is this: If you want to be great in the kingdom of God, then you must serve others.
Servant-deeds must be accompanied by a servant-attitude. Actually, Jesus uses an even stronger word by saying that whoever desires to be first in His kingdom must become a “slave.” How does a slave think of himself? He certainly does not go around expecting people to serve him. On the contrary, he recognizes that it is his lot to meet the needs of others.
The attitude of a slave is described by Jesus in Luke 17:7–10. After performing their service, they do not expect praise or even expressions of gratitude in return. They see themselves as “unworthy servants” who have merely done their duty.
You can gauge how far along you are in developing a servant’s heart by taking note of how you respond when someone treats you like a servant. When feelings of resentment, bitterness, or anger emerge when our acts of kindness seem unappreciated that is a good indicator that we still have a way to go in our pursuit of true greatness.
Jesus caps off this lesson by reminding us that, as our Master, He Himself “came not to be served but to serve” (Matt. 20:28). And His service cost Him His very life in order to rescue us for God.
No one is greater than Jesus Christ, and no one has humbly served others more sacrificially than He. If you want to be great in His kingdom, then take up your cross and follow Him in a life of joyful sacrifice that blesses and serves other people.