They had spent most of three years traveling together. Although the three of them were in the same line of work, it was their proximity to Him that had forged their true brotherhood. Seeing thousands of people surge around them throughout the country was transforming them day by day from simple fishermen into activists and revolutionaries. His power had been theirs as well in healing and casting out demonic forces. The battle lines were being drawn the closer they got to their nation’s center.
For the third time, He had surprised them with talk of betrayal, death, and something about rising on the third day. What kind of talk was this from the One they were now sure was the fulfillment of the hope of every true son of Israel? Hadn’t they seen Him transformed before their own eyes just weeks before? The three of them—Peter, James, and John, the trinity of the inner circle—had kept it from the others as Jesus had commanded. But they could not help but relive it between themselves. Moses and Elijah were there. The Voice from the cloud had spoken. A kingdom was soon to arrive, and they were elbowing their way closer each day to the center of power.
Which is why what happened next still troubled Peter, even all these years later as He retold the story to Mark. “Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, ‘Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask’” (Mark 10:35).* They were cutting their “brother” Peter out of the action. A side deal was being struck. Remarkably, they wanted Jesus to give them a blank check up front, even before they said what they wanted.
At first, Jesus appeared to play along with their ploy: “What do you want Me to do for you?” (verse 36). Without missing a beat, the brazen demand their inner entitlement required spilled out: “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory” (verse 37). In the march to victory, we want to flank you, Jesus. And as we all know, there is only room for two—not three. Only a right and left hand, you see. Blood is thicker than water. Peter’s a great guy, but family sticks together. And remember how You said to him, “Get behind me Satan?” You can rely on the Zebedee brothers to have your back in Jerusalem.
How often has Jesus had to say what came next in the story? “You do not know what you ask” (verse 38). The One who sees the end from the beginning is doubtless bemused by the certainty with which human beings come asking, pleading, and even demanding that Divinity act on their behalf in a particular way. But there is more to the story, said Jesus. Your ideas are obvious, but the Master looks beyond the moment, the hurt, the need toward a horizon ending with eternity. The fraternal conspirators received the yellow light of caution from Jesus about a cup and a baptism. Undeterred, the “sons of thunder” (loud noises, big booms, no lightning, no rain!) confidently strode forward into the abyss of their boundless ignorance: “We are able” (verse 39).
Their confidence rested on recent experience. After all, hadn’t this same Jesus imparted to them the power in His name to heal, chase away demonic forces, and help feed thousands? They were on the right side of history, with its arc bending right in their direction. With Jesus, there was nothing they could not accomplish. Psalm 30:6-7 was their motto: “In my prosperity I said, ‘I shall never be moved.’ Lord, by Your favor You have made my mountain stand strong.” They had the leverage, and now was the time to use it. “We are able” was still ringing in their ears when the rug was pulled out from under their sandaled feet. “To sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared” (Mark 10:40). Maneuvering past the Father’s providential purpose for us is not possible. The cup and the baptism you signed up for is on the way. You will then be crying out, “Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me; Lord, be my helper” (Psalm 30:10).
The gambit failed. Peter found out. He told the other nine. Mark’s measured words, “they began to be greatly displeased with James and John” are an understatement. Of course, it was not like these other disciples hadn’t been thinking the same thing. In Mark 9 Jesus had perceived that they had been having an argument on the road. “They had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest” (verse 34). With the issue unresolved, John and James had done what the other ten had failed to do. They took it to the top Leader. And now a crisis gripped the heart of the Jesus Movement leadership just as He would enter the final act of His mission. From this pivotal moment came Jesus’ profound teaching on discipleship and greatness.
What is greatness? “Remarkable in magnitude, deed, or effectiveness” is what a dictionary says. Whether in business, politics, relationships, or the church, humanity is drawn to the concept of greatness. Polls rank the American presidents. (Abraham Lincoln is number one.) Forbes magazine annually lists the wealthiest, thus presumably the greatest, people on earth. (Jeff Bezos of Amazon weighs in at $177 billion.) Historians classify the greatest national leaders of history based on factors such as courage, tolerance, and ruthlessness. Philosophers through the ages have reflected on the qualities and actions that make for greatness.
Yet none speak more profoundly to the Christian than the teaching of Jesus as He made His way toward God’s destiny in Jerusalem. “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). To receive others and serve others as Jesus did is the polestar of greatness. He amplified further a few days later: “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant” (Mark 10:42).
Leadership literature highlights the word servant as if this is a trait that you can turn on and off as a characteristic for success. This is not Jesus’ point. Everything surrounding this story in Mark speaks to the cost of discipleship, the calling of a follower of the Christ, and the price paid for faithfulness. Servanthood and slavery to the gospel do not come from the leadership textbook but through that personal, life-changing encounter with Jesus. He closes this teaching with a powerful revelation of Himself: “For 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).
In the economy of the kingdom of God, greatness is a life of, if you will allow me, “ransomness” to God for others. Paul expounded on this to the believers in Philippi, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus…taking the form of a bondservant.… He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:5-8). Greatness is discipleship that is the surrender, obedience, humility, and yes, ransom for the wellbeing of others before yourself. And who are those people? The Lord who later washed the disciples’ feet speaks today that they are the marginalized, the out-of-power, those who can’t return the favor, people not suitably grateful for our help, and especially those who bring us grief.
Greatness as a life of ransom is mostly anonymous and unrecognized. But there is One who sees and knows. And He calls each of us to such a life of service and surrender. The world needs each of us now for this moment of human history to be ransomed disciples of Jesus. Utterly sold out to Him. Only then do we fulfill the calling of Jesus to the greatness that James and John did not yet understand that day. (Of course, they would understand in time, as James died a martyr in Jerusalem and John suffered exile on Patmos Island.)
Ellen White’s words are as true today as when they were penned in the classic text, Education. She calls us to an authentic greatness the world needs now. “The greatest want of the world is the want of men—men who will not be bought or sold, men who in their inmost souls are true and honest, men who do not fear to call sin by its right name, men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole, men who will stand for the right though the heavens fall” (p. 57).
*All texts are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible.
Bradford Newton is the executive secretary and the ministerial director of the Pacific Union Conference.