Greatness in His Kingdom

Having just predicted his trial and execution, two of his disciples approached Jesus to request positions of political power in his coming kingdom. As he was approaching Jerusalem, the very center of the Jewish nation and religion, even his closest followers demonstrated they did not yet grasp what it meant to exercise sovereignty in his domain. But he took the opportunity to teach the Twelve that citizenship and “greatness” in his Kingdom necessitate a life of self-sacrificial service.

James and John asked him to install them at his right and left hands when he came “in his glory.” They remained incapable of hearing his words and learning from his daily deeds of service.

Crucifix - Photo by Samuel McGarrigle on Unsplash
[Photo by Samuel McGarrigle on Unsplash]

But Jesus would soon show just what it meant to become his disciple when he fulfilled the role of the ‘
Suffering Servant’ described in the Book of Isaiah by giving his life as a “ransom for many” on a Roman cross.


And so, suffering and death must precede glory. As the disciples were approaching the city, they expected the Messiah of Israel to manifest his royal glory for the world to see, and to impose his reign over the Earth and destroy the enemies of Israel. They have yet to understand what kind of Messiah Jesus of Nazareth was and is.

  • (Mark 10:35-40) - “And approaching him, James and John, the sons of Zebedee are saying, ‘Rabbi, we desire that whatever we ask of you, you will do for us.’ Now he answered them, ‘What is it you are wishing me to do for you?’ Now they said to him, ‘Grant to us that we may sit in your glory, one on your right and one on your left.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You know not what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I, myself am drinking, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I, myself am being baptized?’ Yet they said to him, ‘We are able.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I, myself am drinking you will drink, and the baptism with which I, myself am being baptized you will be baptized, yet to sit on my right or left is not for me to give, but for those for whom it has been prepared.’

In the passage, the two disciples address him as ‘Rabbi’ or “teacher,” a title of respect but one common enough among the Jews. This shows that James and John did not yet understand who he was.

In the Old Testament, the “cup” often symbolized something given or allotted by God, and usually in the negative sense of receiving judicial punishment. Though not stated by Jesus, the idea of drinking the “cup” points to his partaking in the wrath of God on account of sin. Likewise, the context indicates a similar negative sense for his metaphorical use of “baptism” - (Psalm 11:6, 16:5, Isaiah 57:17-22, Jeremiah 25:15-28).

When James and John declared they were indeed prepared to drink from this “cup,” his response indicated they had no idea what they had just said. But eventually, they would drink that same “cup” when they also suffered for the Kingdom. And so, his followers also should expect to endure persecution for his sake.

In the translation above, “I, myself” represents the emphatic pronoun in the Greek text (egō), and it occurs four times in the Greek text of the passage. Egō here stresses his messianic role - the death of the “Son of Man” is the event that inaugurated the promised kingdom of God.


Contrary to the ways of this world, for his disciple, “greatness” is measured in self-sacrificial service, not in political power or rank. In his realm, the one who wishes to be “great” must become the “servant” of all.

The term rendered “servant” translates the Greek noun diakonos, which is used elsewhere in the Greek New Testament as a general term for “servant” or “minister.”

  • (Mark 10:41-45) - “And hearing this, the ten began to be indignant concerning James and John. And having summoned them, Jesus says to them, ‘You know that those considered rulers of the nations, lord it over them and their great ones take dominion over them. Yet not so is it among you, but whoever desires to become great among you, he will be your servant, and whoever desires to be chief among you will become the slave of all; For even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his soul a ransom instead of many.”

In ancient Greek, diakonos referred to servants who waited on tables, and it is the term from which the title ‘deacon’ is derived. The Gospel of Luke uses it in this manner - “For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? But I am among you as the one who serves” - (Luke 22:26-27).

Thus, Jesus defined his mission as the one who comes, “not to be served, but to serve and to give his soul a ransom instead of many.” The Greek verb rendered “served” is the verbal form of the noun diakoonos, and most often in the New Testament, it refers to slaves.


Thus, the “Son of Man” became the servant and slave of all when he gave his “soul” to ransom others. And here, Jesus uses “soul” in the Old Testament sense for his entire person, both the physical and non-physical aspects. Thus, he sacrificed his entire being or “life” for others.

The preposition rendered “instead of” is anti, meaning “instead of, on behalf of, for, in place of, in exchange for.” Behind the saying is the passage about the ‘Suffering Servant’ in the Book of Isaiah:

  • (Isaiah 53:10-12) - “He shall be satisfied with his knowledge, a setting right when set right himself shall my Servant win for the many since of their iniquities he takes the burden. Therefore, will I give him a portion in the great, and the strong shall he apportion as spoil because he poured out to death his own soul, and with transgressors let himself be numbered, Yea, he the sin of Many bare, and for transgressors HE interposes.”

In Mark’s account, Jesus refers to the “many.” This does not mean a limited or exclusive company. It is a verbal link to the passage in Isaiah where “the many” refers to the “transgressors.” Moreover, the contrast is not between “many” and “all,” but between the one “Son of Man” who gave his life and the many beneficiaries of his self-denying act.

The passage in Isaiah also provides the term “soul” found on Christ’s lips in the passage n Mark. Just as Isaiah’s Suffering Servant “poured out his soul,” so the “Son of Man” offered his “soul” to ransom the “many,” namely, his entire being.

In first-century society, very often a monetary “ransom” was paid to purchase the freedom of a slave. And so, Jesus gave his life as the ransom price to free a great many others from slavery to sin and death.

While his disciples are not called to give their own lives as ransom prices to save sinners like Jesus did, they are summoned to emulate his example of self-sacrificial service for others, especially for sinners and “enemies.”

The Gospel preached by Jesus and his apostles is NOT a nonpolitical message. The declaration that a kingdom is coming that will replace all existing realms and regimes is inherently political. Nevertheless, in his realm, sovereignty and power are exercised in ways that are contrary if not entirely alien to the political systems and ideologies of this present fallen age.