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Me First!

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Matthew 20:17–28; Mark 10:32–45; Luke 18:31–34

It is easy to miss God’s work in the world because we are focused too much on the world—its values, expectations, and temptations. To follow Jesus is to serve and sacrifice for others, not elevate ourselves at the expense of others.


The Guinness Book of World Records records a host of things people have accomplished—records they have set, which set them apart. Frankly, it amazes me what people have done to get a world record.

One world record is held by a man who sat up in a tree for a total of 431 days. Another entry in the record book is for a college student who took a 340-hour shower—it lasted 14 days. Of course, if he were anything like my college roommates, he needed it. Then there is the housewife who holds the world record for throwing a two-and-a-half-pound rolling pin—that tool used in the kitchen for spreading out dough. Well, she threw a rolling pin 175 feet in the air. I imagine all she has to do is reach for that rolling pin, and her husband immediately takes out the trash—with no complaints!

It might not be sitting in a tree or throwing a rolling pin, but there is, in all of us, a desire to be first—to be the best at something.

Webster defines ambition as “an ardent desire for rank, fame, personal advancement.”[1] What happens next is recorded in the Gospel of Mark in two different scenes, which at first seem disconnected. However, they are very much connected in that they show the stark contrast between the humility of Christ and the ambition of His disciples.

In chapter 10, we are reminded in verse 32 that Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem. We are also given this interesting comment: “Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.” This amazement and fear are probably the result of Jesus’ determination to go to Jerusalem, where religious leaders are determined to kill Him (see John 10:19-39).

To add to their amazement and fear, Jesus doesn’t hide anything from them as He speaks

“See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.” (verses 33-34)

Now this is the third announcement Jesus has made of His coming death and resurrection. Back in Mark 8:31 when He made this announcement, Peter had rebuked Him. The second time He told the disciples what was coming, in Mark 9:31, we are told they did not understand His words. And Luke’s parallel account of this third announcement here in Mark 10 records again that the disciples do not comprehend what He is saying.

Proof that they are clueless is revealed in what happens next:

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” (verses 35-36)

Matthew 20 tells us the mother of James and John makes this request on their behalf while James and John are standing there. Mark emphasizes that the request originated with these two cowards, who let their mother do the talking.

But here is why she thought she had an inside track. The mother of James and John was named Salome. The descriptions of her and other women later at the cross suggest she was the sister of Jesus’ mother Mary (see Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25).

If so, the family relationship may have made James and John think they had the best chance at this honored position. They wanted the world record, so to speak, of sitting closest to Jesus in the coming kingdom.

This request reveals that they did not grasp what Jesus repeatedly predicted—that He would first suffer and die. It also reveals the “me-first” attitude of the disciples. And it included all of them, by the way. Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, they were arguing over which of them was the greatest (Mark 9:34). And even in the upper room, on the night of Jesus’ arrest, they will be sitting around arguing about which of them is the greatest disciple (Luke 22:24).

You have to wonder why Jesus put up with them and how He could even use such ambitious, self-centered men. Well, I’m glad He did because that gives you and me hope that He will use us as well. The truth is, Jesus uses imperfect people who can easily get caught up in a “me-first” attitude.

Here is Jesus’ response to the two disciples:

“You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:38).

The “cup” was a symbol in the Old Testament for hardship and anguish (Isaiah 51:17). Likewise, “baptism” is used here to picture being fully immersed in suffering.

Jesus is asking, “Can you handle the anguish I am about to experience?” And believe it or not, James and John respond, “We are able.” They are confidently saying, “Yeah, we can handle it!”

Jesus answers in verses 39-40:

“The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

In other words, “Yes, you will indeed suffer like Me one day. But only God the Father will determine someone’s position in the coming kingdom.”

Now the request of James and John actually makes the other disciples angry. Verse 41 says that the other ten disciples are “indignant at James and John.” This only reveals their own ambition. They had the same desire! So now, Jesus addresses this attitude of “me-first”—an attitude that has taken the world by storm:

“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.” (verse 42)

Both expressions Jesus uses here—“lord it over them” and “exercise authority”—stress the idea of using authority in a domineering and oppressive way. This is how the world acts; this is how you prove you are in first place. You show off your importance by making other people serve you; you make others feel miserable because it makes you feel superior.

Well, in contrast Jesus says this:

“But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” (verses 43-44)

The standard of God for greatness is defined as serving others. The word for “servant” (diakonos) emphasizes the work of serving others. We get our word deacon—a servant to others—from it. The word here for “slave” (doulos) emphasizes a subservient relationship to the master.[2] So we are to serve others, considering them superior to us. That is true greatness.

Jesus now applies this definition of true greatness to His incarnation—His departure from the glory of heaven to join the human race and suffer for our sins. He says, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (verse 45).

The word here for “ransom” originally referred to the price paid for the release of a slave. In other words, Jesus died to emancipate us all. We were all slaves to sin and death, but Jesus came to set us free.

He is true greatness. And as we imitate Him to those around us, we will not live by the standard that says, “Me first,” but rather, “Me last—and you first.”

[1] Cited in Charles R. Swindoll, Christ at the Crossroads (Insight for Living, 1991), 39.

[2] Richard C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (Reprint, Eerdmans, 1976), 32.

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