From R.C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries website
“Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But 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 slave of all’” (Mark 10: 42–44).
Greatness — at one level or another, it is something that almost everyone aspires to. We seek to make our marks on this world, to be known for our accomplishments as parents, employees, and citizens. So important to human beings is the pursuit of greatness that many people fall into deep depression when they believe themselves unable to obtain personal greatness. James and John, sons of Zebedee and two of Jesus’ original disciples, aspired to greatness, asking our Savior to give them positions of honor in His kingdom (Mark 10:35–37). Few people can tolerate those who blatantly seek to advance themselves. Unsurprisingly, then, the other disciples were indignant with James and John after hearing the brothers’ request (v. 41).
Christ, at least in the interchange recorded in Mark 10:35–44, never condemned James and John for their desire to be great. Neither did He tell the other disciples that James and John were wrong to pursue greatness. This reveals that greatness in itself is not a bad thing. Indeed, we should aspire to greatness. After all, Christ does all things well, and He is the supreme model for Christians to imitate (7:37; 1 Cor. 11:1). The pursuit of greatness is not inherently wrong; we sin by not understanding or pursuing what Jesus defines as true greatness. The citizens of Christ’s kingdom do not seek greatness in order to achieve power over others — that is what citizens of worldly kingdoms do (Mark 10:42–43a). Instead, Christians pursue greatness in order to better serve others, to meet the needs of other believers. Greatness in the kingdom of God comes by submitting ourselves to one another, by looking for what we can give and not for what we can gain (v. 44b). John Calvin comments, “Let the only greatness, eminence, and rank, which you desire, be, to submit to your brethren; and let this be your primacy, to be the servants of all.”
Of course, Christ Himself provides the supreme example of what it means to serve others (v. 45). His willingness to pay the ransom to free us from our sins is the greatest act of service in all of history. He had every right to refuse to come to our rescue. He could have used His power and glory to advance Himself at the expense of others. But He humbled Himself and paid the price of justice that God demanded for us to be freed from our sins (Rom. 2:5–11). Though we cannot atone for sin, we can serve others according to our distinct callings. In so doing, we will find greatness.
Are we seeking self-promotion? Do we aspire to greatness and think that the way to get there is to step on people on our way up the ladder? If so, then we have not understood Jesus’ teaching on true greatness. Whatever authority we have, we must exercise it in order to meet the needs of others. We should be asking what we can do for others, not what we can do for ourselves.