In Matthew 20:20-21 we have an account of the mother of James and John (the sons of Zebedee) coming to Jesus desiring a favor of Him. This mother’s wish was that her two sons would be granted the privilege of sitting with Jesus in His kingdom, one being seated on the right hand and the other on the left. In Mark 10:35-37 we observe that James and John joined their mother in the request because they were eager to be first in the kingdom and have special seats. Evidently, James and John wanted to be elevated above the other disciples. They, as well as their mother, misunderstood the nature of the kingdom, and the principle which makes one great in God’s kingdom. The worldly ambitions of these disciples had not allowed them to see clearly because they could not see beyond the physical realm.
Jesus replies to their request in Matthew 20:22-23. Jesus first informs them that they had no idea what they were asking for. Jesus asks, “Are ye able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”, that is, the cup of suffering. James and John responded, “We are able.” Jesus then says, “My cup indeed ye shall drink: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left hand, is not mine to give; but it is for them for whom it hath been prepared of my Father.”
At the end of Jesus’ statement we observe that “when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation concerning the two brethren” (Matthew 20:24). The ten sharing, it seems, were moved with displeasure and maybe even jealousy at their attempt to obtain chief seats in the kingdom.
Jesus knowing the prevailing attitude of His disciples begins to show to these disciples what true greatness involves (Matthew 20:25-28). Jesus informs His disciples that His kingdom would not be like the kingdoms of the world. In the kingdoms of this world, those who are considered great, are those of high rank, rule and authority.
Jesus quickly points out that greatness in an earthly kingdom is not greatness in His kingdom. In fact, greatness in Christ’s kingdom is the opposite of greatness in the earthly kingdom. Jesus said if you want to be great in My kingdom be a “servant.” The Lamb of God said, “but whosoever would become great among you shall be your minister; and whosoever would be first among you shall be your servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-28). Jesus is saying, “If you want to be great, then minister; if you want to be first, then be a servant to others.”
Jesus gave the perfect example, and is the perfect example of greatness, for He “GAVE himself a ransom for all…” (1 Timothy 2:6), and He “existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). This is the most magnificent example of greatness to be found!