When Alexander the Great captured the Indian king Porus, he asked the defeated monarch how he would like to be treated. Porus replied, “Like a king.” Alexander asked the ruler if he had any additional requests. Porus replied that he did not, “for everything is comprehended in the word ‘king.’ ” Alexander was so impressed with this reply that he restored Porus’s lands to him.
James and John shared a similar desire to be treated like kings. But instead of waiting to be asked, they took their request to Christ. Actually, according to Matthew’s Gospel, it was the mother of the two sons of Zebedee who made the initial request that the two brothers be granted a seat on Jesus’ right and left hands (Matt. 20:20). It was considered an honor to be seated at someone’s right hand. To sit on the right and the left suggests an even greater honor. Perhaps the two envisioned a kind of co-regency with Christ. Furthermore, their naïve response to Jesus’ probing question suggests that they believed they were prepared for the task.
Although they were warned that the cross must come before the crown, the two sons of Zebedee glibly overestimated their ability to face the storm that was about to engulf the Savior and His disciples. The places at Jesus’ right and left hands were not to be their destiny, but they would eventually reign with Christ.
This is true of every believer. In Romans 8:17 the apostle Paul promises: “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” There is glory promised to those who follow Jesus, but it is a glory that can only be attained by humility. Those who would share in the glory of Christ must first embrace Him as Lord and Savior and then take up the cross and follow after Him.
James and John were not the only ones who struggled with self-centered ambition. The reaction of the other ten disciples indicates that the desire for pre-eminence is a universal temptation.
One way to fight against it is to practice the spiritual discipline of secrecy. Find ways to serve others without drawing attention to yourself. Write an anonymous note of encouragement or quietly perform a task in the church that often goes undone. Pray, give, or serve in secret, trusting that the One who sees what is done in secret will reward you.