For well over a decade now, I have heard Christians approvingly employ phraseology about social and ecclesiastical constructs—phrases such as “a seat at the table” and “power structures.” I have a friend who—when he was first coming into the denomination in which I serve as a pastor—told me that he had a mentor who taught him that he needed to position himself strategically around influential people in order to get ahead in the denomination. I passionately sought to emphasize that forming lasting friendships with godly men who will walk alongside you in ministry ought to be our goal; and, that serving others rather than using others is the way of the kingdom. I am often astonished by the bravado I hear bandied about in ecclesiastical circles as acceptable Christian posture. However, I shouldn’t be surprised. The gospel records bear witness to the fact that the quest for self-interest and fleshly greatness was in the hearts of Jesus’ own disciples–as it is in my own heart.
On several occasions in the gospels, we find the disciples either seeking self-motivated greatness or arguing among themselves about who is the greatest (Mark 9:34; Luke 22:24). One of the most revealing passages in this regard is that which concerns James and John asking Jesus (actually, putting their mom up to asking Jesus) to put them one the right and the other on His left in glory (Mark 10:35–45). This passage provides us with the most instructive example of the depravity of the human heart regarding the question for personal greatness, and the remedy in the form of the example of the redeeming work of Jesus.
Jesus had recently told His disciples that He was going to be handed over by His own countrymen to the Gentiles in order to be beaten, mocked, scourged, and crucified (Mark 10:32–34). He had made perfectly clear that the purpose for which He had come into the world was to suffer and be glorified. To this point, His disciples had not yet fully understood how He would establish the Messianic kingdom. Jesus taught them about His death and resurrection. In this way, He was preparing them for the mission on which He would send them—namely, to carry that message to a lost and perishing world.
Immediately upon this word, James and John express their own self-interest for personal greatness. Talk about missing the point! Instead of recognizing that Christ crucified and risen should be the focal point of believers, James and John reflected that their focus was on their own self-interest and desire for greatness. Instead of thinking of themselves as gracious recipients of redemption and the high calling of serving among the apostolic band, they only thought of their own quest for personal exaltation. We might sympathize with the indignation of the other disciples (Mark 10:41), until we remember that they also had the same selfish ambition in their hearts (Mark 9:33–37). Jesus had most recently addressed the problem of their selfish desire for greatness. This reveals the persistence of such a problem in the hearts of even the redeemed.
The great problem with their question is not that they were ambitious. Ambition is not in and of itself a sinful thing. The Apostle Paul was one of the most ambitious people to ever walk the face of the Earth. The problem was that they were selfishly ambitious for personal greatness. In so doing, their relationship with Jesus was skewed. They were seeking to use God to advance their selfish ambition. They were posturing themselves in the kingdom of God in such a way as to advance their own personal interests. Eric Alexander explains,
“James and John’s problem was that they wanted to make Jesus servants of their glory, rather than delighting to be servants of His. It is a deep-seated tendency of human nature—even in redeemed human nature–to do as they did and to have the same ambition as they had deep down in our hearts.”
Jesus teaches the disciples that there is a path to true greatness. It is a path of self-denial and suffering. Alexander again notes, “glory and suffering and inextricably linked together in the purposes of God.”
Jesus took James and John back the cross in order to correct their misguided desires. In referring to the “cup” and to the “baptism,” Jesus was talking about the fiery suffering that He was going to endure under the wrath of God on the cross (Mark 10:38). The only way for Jesus to be crowned with glory and honor was to suffer under the wrath of God on the cross for the glory of God and the redemption of sinners. In the same way, Jesus’ disciples will only gain the crown of glory by suffering for the glory of God in this life.
James and John asked Jesus to set them on His right hand and on His left in glory (Mark 10:37). They didn’t understand that the way to the crown is through the cross. Interestingly, the only time any are said to be on either side of Jesus was when He was crucified (John 19:18). To drive home the point, Jesus explains one of the most powerful gospel truths in all of the Scriptures: “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). If the Lord of glory, who left all the riches of heaven, could give up what was His by divine right in order to enter this fallen and wicked world to serve sinners like us in His death, how much more should we—who are sinful and nothing—want to serve others for their good and for their salvation.
Sinclair Ferguson summarizes the principle of service unto greatness so well, when he writes,
“In the kingdom of God, true greatness is measured by our service, not by the number of our servants. It is seen, not in how high up the ladder we have climbed, but how far down the ladder we are prepared to climb for the sake of others. True discipleship has at its heart letting go of our desire for honor in this world, in order to bestow honor on others.”
What a difference this would make if everyone in the church today adopted this mindset! If, instead of seeking a “seat at the table” or seeking to control “power structures,” we stooped low in order to serve others for God’s glory and their good we would find the true greatness after which we ought to be seeking. The kingdom of God is countercultural, and the way of the kingdom is the way of the cross; it is the way of service to the King and to those in His kingdom; it is wanting to see others use their gifts and advance. It is wanting to see God work powerfully through all of His servants, rather than seeking to simply advance our own selfish agendas and pursue our own self-interested goals.