As Jesus prepares His disciples for His death, James and John—nicknamed the Sons of Thunder—come to Him with a request: “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left” (Mark 10:37, NLT). Their selfish ambition to be recognized as “the greatest” of the disciples reveals that they had not yet grasped the nature of Christ’s kingdom that He would establish through His suffering and death on the cross. Jesus cautions them to consider the cost of all they will have to endure as His followers (Mark 10:38–40). Then the Lord delivers a brief and astonishing synopsis of His extensive teachings on servanthood: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45; see also Matthew 20:28).
James and John mistakenly presumed that prominence in God’s kingdom is based on position, power, and authority. Jesus explained that the path to greatness is a harrowing journey of suffering—the same kind of suffering Jesus would endure (Mark 10:38–39; John 15:20). Ironically, James and John would indeed suffer much like Jesus. James would go on to become the first Christian martyr, beheaded by Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:2), and John would experience severe persecution throughout his life and eventually be exiled on Patmos Island.
Jesus Christ is the ultimate example of a servant in God’s kingdom (Luke 22:27; Philippians 2:6–7). Everything He did while He lived and ministered with the apostles set an example for them and us today. Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ministered to the weakest, most marginalized members of society (Matthew 8:2–3; 9:32–33; 20:29–34; Luke 6:17–19; John 6:1–14). Jesus came to pour out His life in service; consequently, we ought to give our lives in service to Him and others.
The Lord and Creator of the universe, who “knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God,” stood up from the Passover table, “took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him” (John 13:3–5, NLT). The ever-emotional Peter resisted Christ’s humble ministrations, but Jesus explained: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:14–17, ESV).
In God’s kingdom, greatness is measured by the extent we are willing to serve one another humbly. No one gave up more to become a servant than Jesus. The apostle Paul describes the steep drop that Jesus experienced when He lowered Himself to earth to serve and die for us: “Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6–8, NLT). Considering what Jesus did, it’s absurd for His followers to take offense or feel demeaned when performing down-to-earth, unassuming, and even unrewarding tasks. Jesus left behind a glorious and exalted position in heaven yet obediently obeyed His Father in everything (Luke 22:42; John 5:19; 1 Corinthians 15:27–28; Hebrews 5:7–8; 10:5–7). Christ, the Good Shepherd, laid down His life for us (John 10:11). “So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16, NLT).
The basis for greatness in God’s kingdom does not rest on status, power, or authority but on humble, Christlike character. In The Bible Exposition Commentary, Warren Wiersbe states, “We get a throne by paying with our lives, not by praying with our lips. We must identify with Jesus Christ in His service and suffering, for even He could not reach the throne except by way of the cross” (Vol. 1, Victor Books, 1996, p. 75).
Jesus is our Suffering Servant King. If our supreme representative, the Son of Man, did not come to be served, but to serve, then so we ought to serve others. No matter who we are in God’s kingdom—whether the most distinguished leader or meekest acolyte—we must strive to be like Christ, demonstrating the same kind of humble, sacrificial servanthood.