This episode in Jesus’ life paints a picture of real life for us. James and John are lobbying for top billing with Jesus and to bolster their case, they bring in their secret weapon – their mother! The other disciples get wind of the family power-play and then jealousy and infighting take over. We see this kind of selfish ambition all the time and Jesus’ teaching about servant leadership is a masterful counterpoint.
What stands out to me is how Jesus specifically responded to James and John regarding the full impact of their request to be right beside Jesus, “But Jesus answered by saying to them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink?” “Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!” Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink from my bitter cup.” Matthew 20:22-23 (NLT) These two disciples were focused in the privileges of spiritual leadership, but didn’t understand the price. Like Jesus said, they were going to discover the cost of following Him after His resurrection. The “bitter cup” included being reviled, slandered, arrested, beaten and all kinds of persecution. All but one of the disciples would be killed as martyrs. Of course James and John didn’t realize this at the time of their request, but they surely reflected on it later when Jesus’ prediction unfolded.
God has plans and purposes that are far beyond what we can imagine and He is much more interested in what kind of person we become than what position we occupy. He wants to develop in you and me the character, perspective and life skills that enable us to be impact players for His kingdom. His training requires dealing with our self-centeredness and immaturity. James and John didn’t know what they were asking for but Jesus did!