Summary: In the world, greatness is determined by how many people serve you; but, in God’s kingdom, greatness is determined by how many people you serve.

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Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). That was His personal mission statement. If I’m to be a follower of Christ, what marked His life should mark mine. My personal mission statement ought to be “serving and giving.” The opposite of that, of course, is to be served and to receive. I can live a life with a passion to be served and to receive, or I can live with a passion to give and serve.

Hold your hands in front of you. Clench one of your hands into a fist and leave the other open. This is the choice being a follower of Christ.

• Am I going to live with a clenched fist expecting others to serve me?

• Or am I going to live with an open hand, giving and serving?

The Big Idea: In the world, greatness is determined by how many people SERVE YOU; but, in God’s kingdom, greatness is determined by how many people YOU SERVE.

Matthew 20:20-28

I. Why Most People Don’t Achieve True Greatness

Two reasons why people don’t achieve true greatness:


“Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons [James and John] and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. ‘What is it you want?’ he asked. She said, ‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom’” (vv. 20-21).

In Mark’s Gospel (10:35-36) James and John ask the favor. Perhaps they asked their mother to make the request for them.

James and John’s view of following Jesus was not, “How can I serve Jesus?” but “What can Jesus do for me?”

A toddler’s favorite word is “mine.”

It was President John F. Kennedy who said, “Ask now what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” But who do we vote for? The candidate who can do the best job for me.

Tertullian: “He who lives only to benefit himself confers on the world a benefit when he dies.”

Three factors may have contributed to their attitude:

• It’s possible that they were related to Jesus. Their mother may have been Salome the sister of Mary (compare Mark 15:40 and John 19:25), which would make James and John the cousins of Jesus.

• They, along with Peter, were Jesus’ closest friends among the twelve disciples.

• They may have come from an upper class family. Mark 1:20 reveals that their father Zebedee owned his own fishing business. There were few fishing families in Galilee with the wealth to actually hire people to fish for them.

It seems that they had a problem with pride.

“‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said to them. ‘Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?’ ‘We can,’ they answered. Jesus said to them, ‘You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father’” (vv. 22-23).

Jesus addressed the brothers directly (“you” is plural in the Greek).

The “cup” refers to suffering. Jesus had just predicted that He would soon suffer by being “flogged and crucified” (Matthew 20:18-19).

Jesus foretold that James and John would indeed drink from the cup of suffering:

• James would become the first martyr of the church (Acts 12:2).

• John experienced persecution and exile (Revelation 1:9).

James and John were willing to suffer (“we can”). But they assumed that their suffering would lead to earthly power and glory.

Their request was likely inspired by a comment made earlier by Jesus: “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28).

James and John thought that Jesus was going to soon establish an earthly political kingdom. They wanted to be Number 1 and Number 2 in that kingdom.

“When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers” (v. 24).

The disciples often argued among themselves about which of them was the greatest. This wasn’t righteous indignation. Perhaps they were worried that James and John might have the upper hand in the quest to be number one.


“Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you’” (vv. 25-26a).

1. Greatness is not WEALTH.

2. Greatness is not FAME.

3. Greatness is not POWER.

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