Mark 10:35-37 “Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’ ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked. They replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’”
Are you into college basketball March Madness? Sixty-four teams, each one trying to survive seven games in a row with the best teams in the country, all for the honor of being crowned national champion. Those young men and women are playing their hearts out for a shot at college basketball greatness.
Do you have your sights set on climbing to the top of your field or perhaps running your own company? Titles like group leader, executive vice president, chairman of the board, chief executive officer mean that we are in a position to give the orders and call the shots. Maybe we slave away at work because we hope to achieve some measure of business and professional greatness.
There is nothing wrong with being a great athlete or businessman, but these fail to capture the kind of greatness Jesus seeks in his kingdom. As he did for his disciples, he sets us straight when we have delusions of grandeur. He shows us that the path to true greatness does not follow worldly standards of glory.
In their own pursuit of greatness with Jesus, James and John were not asking for positions in heaven, at least not primarily. They fully expected that Jesus was going to become a military and political hero in Israel. If Jesus was going to be an earthly king, then James and John wanted the glory of top cabinet positions in his administration. They wanted the earthly perks, luxuries and comforts that come to influential leaders in a human empire.
What did Jesus have to say about this? “You don’t know what you are asking.” The disciples didn’t understand what Jesus’ kingdom was about. At another time he explained to the Pharisees, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation. Nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” His kingdom is spiritual and invisible, not earthly and visible. It deals with matters of faith and salvation.
Maybe we aren’t shooting for first and second place positions as part of God’s kingdom, but we also face the temptation to turn the focus of Christian faith in a worldly direction. We want Christianity to be about enlarging my life here and now. We want it to make life easier, better, more “glorious,” if you will. If we follow what the Bible says about being parents, spouses, children, employees, or citizens we will live more faithful lives. That does not necessarily translate into happier families or more successful careers. Godly greatness does not guarantee us “glory” in our present lives.
The same applies to our service in the church. Faithful work does not necessarily gain us recognition and appreciation. If we are faithful to what God wants, we may even find as much resentment as appreciation. Our recognition and influence may shrink rather than grow.
One youth pastor in Detroit took over a youth program serving over 70 teens. It was obviously popular, but he noticed that there was little Biblical content. He started putting more emphasis on God’s Word, and the attendance went from 70 to 40 to 30 and finally bottomed out around 12– not much glory there.
Sometimes a ministry of subtraction is okay. Jesus lost hundreds of disciples because of his teaching, too. Faithfulness to his word still brings his blessing. We get to live in his love and grace now and can be confident of heavenly glory in the life to come. But following him to godly greatness is not a path to earthly glory.