Charles Spurgeon once preached on the foolish¬ness of pride, calling it “a groundless thing” and “a brainless thing” as well as “the maddest thing that can exist.” But despite the sheer folly and unreasonableness of pride, it manifests its stubborn presence in countless ways within all of us. Even the disciples of Jesus weren’t immune; in fact, they were prime offenders.

Who’s the Greatest?
Pride was especially evident in the disciples’ documented pursuit of personal greatness and recognition. This pursuit wasn’t subtle, and it doesn’t appear to be occasional. By their own accounts, it was pronounced and apparently continuous.

Notice, for example, what we learn in Mark 9 when the disciples and Jesus were traveling together. “They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’” (Mark 9:33, NIV).

But the disciples “kept silent”—no doubt from embar¬rassment and shame, “for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest” (v. 34). Men who were receiving intensive training from Jesus Christ, the ultimate example of humility and servanthood, were embroiled in a full-scale dispute about their relative supe¬riority to each other.

Jesus knew their hearts, just as He knows ours. So He immediately and insightfully addressed their selfish ambi¬tion: “And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, ‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all’” (Mark 9:35).

Jesus was radically redefining greatness. But His point apparently didn’t sink in.

A Bold Question
In Mark 10 we find the brothers James and John approach¬ing the Savior apart from their fellow disciples. In apparent agreement with each other about their own greatness, these two brothers bring to Jesus a special request.

Apparently John and James think the Savior shares their lofty assessment of themselves, because there’s absolutely no lack of confidence evident in what they ask. “Teacher,” they say to Him, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus asks them what they desire. They answer, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:35–37).

Mark has already informed us that Jesus and His dis¬ciples are going up to Jerusalem, where James and John and the others expect the Savior to immediately establish His kingdom, militarily and politically. He will thus enter His “glory” and the two brothers want a prominent place in it. They undoubtedly assumed such a prominent place for them is appropriate in light of their obvious superi¬ority. “Let’s settle this greatness issue now,” they seem to be saying. “Who’s the greatest? We are the greatest! And Master, we want You to acknowledge this fact by letting us sit on Your right and on Your left.”

The prideful desires of their hearts are on full display. There’s nothing subtle about their request. They’re not ask¬ing for faith to endure His suffering. They’re not asking for the privilege of supporting Him in and through His suffer¬ing. They want to be famous, pure and simple. James and John have defined greatness as position and power, and they want the title. They want the respect, the acclaim, and the importance. In their pride-dominated hearts, Jesus is just a means to their end of personal exaltation.

This passage by no means exonerates the other dis¬ciples, because sadly, the ten are no different. They somehow learn of James and John’s request and become “indignant at James and John” (v. 41), revealing the pres¬ence in their own hearts not only of selfish ambition but also of self-righteousness.