James And John’s Request For High Positions


For the third time, Jesus warned the disciples about what was going to happen when they got to Jerusalem. On the road to Jerusalem Jesus prepared the disciples for what was about to happen in all their lives. He talked here about His death and resurrection, Mark 10:32-34. The occasion sparked an opportunity for James and John to reveal what was in their hearts. Since Jesus spoke of His departure from this world, James and John realised that leadership must be assumed.

‘Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’ Mark 10:35

Mark tells us that James and John came to Jesus with a request, but Matthew tells us that it was their mother who came to make a request.

‘Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favour of him.’ Matthew 20:20

Who made the request?

It seems that their mother, Salome, Matthew 27:56 / Mark 15:40 / John 19:25, accompanied James and John and made the request as if were her own but in reality, it was from James and John because Jesus goes on to address his answer towards James and John and they, in turn, continue to demonstrate it was actually their request as we will see later, Mark 10:37.

There’s no doubt that their intentions may have been honest, in terms of establishing some kind of leadership in this new kingdom, but they failed to understand the nature of this new kingdom, it was to be a spiritual kingdom, not a physical kingdom.

Remember that James and John’s father was Zebedee, who was a very influential man and the reason we know this is because when Jesus was going through His trials, John 18:15 tells us that John was known to the high priest and went with Jesus into the courtyard.

Not everyone had access to the Jewish leadership but because John did have access this tells us that his family must have been influential in Jesus’ day.

The reason for mentioning Zebedee and his influence is simply to suggest that this may be the reason why James and John come to Jesus with the request in the first place. In their mind they know what it’s like to be influential, they know people in ‘high places’ so to speak, maybe they thought out of all the disciples they were the best two for the leadership role when this new kingdom is established.

Notice also that they’re wise enough to come to Jesus privately as they knew the other disciples wouldn’t be too happy about it, Mark 10:41.

‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked.’ Mark 10:36

Jesus already knew what was on the two disciple’s minds, as He knows all things, John 2:25 / Matthew 9:4, but He asked them what He can do for them because their request is going to demonstrate to them what was going on in their own hearts. It was going to demonstrate that once again they didn’t understand the nature of Christ’s kingdom.

The Request

‘They replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’ Mark 10:37

Jesus gave a detailed description of the suffering He would experience there in Jerusalem, Mark 10:32-34 but James and John were imagining a different scenario. They asked Jesus to agree to do whatever they would request.

Jesus asked them what they wanted but He wasn’t going to sign a blank cheque by agreeing before they made the request. They replied that they wanted to sit on Jesus’ right and left hand, that is, they wanted the chief positions in His administration.

The future of the disciples still rested in their misunderstanding concerning the kingdom reign of Jesus. They were still thinking that the kingdom would be something of this world, Acts 1:6.

Coffman makes some important points here regarding the disciple’s request.

1. It showed a lack of faith in what Jesus had just said regarding his being raised ‘after three days.’

2. It was founded on human vanity and conceit.

3. It represented an effort on their part to gain ascendancy (power) over the other apostles.

4. It showed a fundamental misconception of what God’s kingdom would be.

5. It was a selfish manoeuvre prompted by the Lord’s repeated announcement of His forthcoming death and resurrection in which they appeared as desiring the chief places in the presumed absence of the Lord.

6. It was a request founded in ignorance, Mark 10:38.

Sadly, like so many men who are in leadership positions today within the church, it’s all about power and it’s all about them sitting down, whilst getting others to get up and do the work for them.

Too Hard On James And John!

I think it’s easy to come down too hard on James and John because we focus so much on their misunderstanding of the nature of Christ’s kingdom. Let’s pause for a moment about what they are requesting in their minds.

They are thinking of a physical kingdom, a physical kingdom which is going to get rid of these Roman dictators once and for all. For this to happen many people would have to die to fight for this freedom, James and John seem to be willing to do just that, Acts 12:1-2.

They were obviously ambitious, courageous and far from being weak men who couldn’t handle a leadership position, Mark 3:17. In other words, if they were going to help establish a physical kingdom, it wasn’t going to be easy, it was going to be full of struggles and they seem to be up for the task.

‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said. ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?’ Mark 10:38

Notice that Jesus responds to their request with the spiritual kingdom in mind. He responded by asking if they could drink the cup He was going to drink or be baptised with His baptism, and they said they could. Jesus was referring to His sufferings which were often spoken of as a cup of agony that He would have to drink, Mark 14:36 and as a baptism in pain, Luke 12:50.

Jesus asked them these questions because He knew they were going to have to face even greater struggles in this spiritual kingdom than they would in a physical kingdom, they would need useful spiritual weapons, Ephesians 6:10-20, they would need to be courageous, they would need to be strong, they would need to be willing to die.

Christ went through immense pain and suffering and demonstrated what real sacrifice was all about, especially when He went to the cross to die. Jesus is basically asking them if they are willing to go through what He’s been going through and will go through at the hands of the Jews and the Romans.

‘We can,’ they answered.’ Mark 10:39

I don’t think they understood exactly what Jesus had just told them, but they enthusiastically accepted the challenge. On the negative side, this shows their ignorance because they were still thinking of a physical kingdom but on the positive side it shows their courage and their strength, it shows their willingness to lead and it shows their enthusiasm to lead if it costs them their lives.

These two simple Galilean fishermen have come a long way in their personal journey with Christ, Mark 3:17, despite their misunderstanding of Christ’s kingdom.

‘Jesus said to them, ‘You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.’ Mark 10:39-40

Interestingly, Jesus makes no attempt to clarify the nature of His kingdom to the disciples, this is possibly because He knew that they would need similar courage and strength to be leaders in this spiritual kingdom. They’ve just said, ‘we can’ and Jesus says, ‘oh you guys can just count on that, you will go through the pain and suffering that I’ve been going through and will go through.’

They will go through all the struggles that leaders have to go through when they go into battle, they will go through all the highs and lows involved in leadership.

Jesus then replied that He didn’t have the authority to grant their request because He wasn’t the One who assigned the positions of honour in the kingdom. Jesus couldn’t give such honours, except to them for whom they were prepared.

‘When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John.’ Mark 10:41

The ten weren’t simply unhappy with James and John, they were furious, the word, ‘indignant’ means greatly displeased. The other disciples were indignant, why?

It seems that James and John had jumped ahead of the game, it appears they wished to have the highest positions and resented the fact that the sons of Zebedee had requested them first.

As a result of this, it seems another dispute broke out among them concerning who was the greatest and gets the positions of ‘power’, and Jesus has to once again step in to sort it out.

‘Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.’ Mark 10:42-44

Now this is not the first time Jesus had to address this issue of greatness with His disciples, Luke 9:46 and it won’t be the last, Luke 22:24, and on all three occasions, Jesus has just been speaking to them about His upcoming death.

This must have been so disheartening for Jesus, He’s speaking about His upcoming death and all the disciples could think about was who was going to take over when He leaves.

Jesus took some time to define what greatness in the kingdom really meant, He said that in human affairs, whether government or business, the greatest have the most authority, this is what James and John were thinking about, they wanted those positions of authority.

But, Jesus explained, it isn’t that way in the kingdom of God, rather, the greatest is the one who humbles himself most and serves the most.

Jesus contrasts the leadership style of the world with that which would be among His disciples. The disciples need to learn, instead of ‘lording it over’ the people, they need to bear the burden of the needs of the people, they were to become slaves and be reminded that there is no authority among slaves.

There won’t be any ‘lords’ among the disciples, there won’t be any ‘high officials’ among His disciples. Leaders within the body of Christ must remember that Jesus has all authority, Matthew 28:18, and that He is the only Lord and Head. Ephesians 1:20-23 / Ephesians 4:4-6. Since Christ is all these things, then every other Christian must be servants.

‘For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ Mark 10:45

If anyone had the right to demand service and lord it over people it was Jesus Himself but didn’t exercise that right, He points to Himself as the model of servitude, He hadn’t come to be served, but to serve and to offer Himself as a sacrifice for others, John 10:17-18.

To lead men to redemption, Jesus had to give Himself, He had to ransom Himself for the sake of buying us out of the bondage of sin because we couldn’t do it ourselves. He is the ultimate example of what spiritual leadership looks like, 1 Peter 2:21.

Jesus didn’t say it was wrong to desire to be great in His kingdom, but He did say we have to go about it the right way, with the right attitude. Leaders must lead by following Christ’s example of serving because there are way too many Christians who want to lead but aren’t willing to serve.


In the church today, we desperately need saints who follow Christ’s example, there are places of worship filled with Christians but how many are filled with servants?

Too many Christians are seeking to be great by trying to gain honour, glory and power and some churches are infested with ‘politicians’ who want the limelight and who strive for positions of maximum control and authority.

Jesus was born in a stable outside a small town, He lived His life as a village carpenter and travelling preacher, He accumulated neither riches nor worldly power.

Yet, today, many of His self-proclaimed followers seek and promise the very things He rejected, as they pursue higher and higher positions in churches. It’s hard to imagine that Jesus would feel at home in their costly places of worship.

It’s impossible to believe that He would preach the ‘gospels of health and wealth’ which is so popular today, it’s impossible to believe that He would preach, ‘follow Me and your life will be free from suffering!’

Jesus said the way to true greatness was the road of service and suffering, as His followers, we must learn how to serve the Lord, we must learn how to serve each other, we must learn how to serve those around us, those who so desperately need to not only hear Jesus in our words but see Jesus in our actions.