Serve others and not yourself. We saw this in the words and example of Jesus, and the letters remind us to honor others more than ourselves (Rom 12:10; Phil 2:3). Jesus washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:14–15) and died for us all on the cross (Matt 20:28). He serves as our High Priest (Heb 8:1) and will serve us in time to come (Luke 12:37). What an example we have in him. Humbles yourselves before God, and he will exalt you in time. Think on these things over and over and let them have their way.
Imagine telling a group of people that you had a month to live. Instead of comforting you, some of them ask for your most valuable possessions, angering the others because they didn’t ask first. Or, imagine that after your death, everyone started looking for your wallet or figuring out who would take your television. As a police chaplain, I’ve seen some interesting responses to the news of someone’s death.
Jesus experienced something like this once upon a time. For a third time in Matthew, he plainly told his disciples that he would be murdered and raised from the dead (Matt 20:17–19; cf. 16:21; 17:22–23). In response, James and John asked through their mother for special places in his kingdom, and Jesus promised them suffering instead (Matt 20:20–24). The ten were angry with the two brothers, prompting Jesus to teach them all that greatness to God is achieved through humble service, prizing the needs of others over self (Matt 20:25–27). The superlative example of such humility is the Son of Man. He gave his life as a ransom for many and now sits exalted with the Father on high (Matt 20:28; Phil 2:9).
In this story, the disciples show us how deeply sinful ambition roots itself in our souls. Jesus had recently taught the disciples to humble themselves like children (Matt 18:3–4) and to turn no one away from himself (Matt 19:13–14). Twice, Jesus taught that many who are first would be last and the last first when he sits on his throne (Matt 19:30; 20:16). He even promised the twelve prominent places in his kingdom (Matt 19:28). Yet still, James and John excluded the ten to ask for the first place next to Jesus on his throne.