"And when the ten heard it [i.e., about James & John asking for preeminent seats in the kingdom], they were greatly displeased with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to Himself and said, 'You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him by your slave--just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many'" (Matt. 20:24-28).
The other ten apostles were filled with anger when they realized what James and John had attempted. Of course, it is likely that they were not indignant because of the selfishness of the brothers but because they hadn't thought to ask Jesus first (cf. Mark 9:34; Luke 22:24).
"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them" - Jesus, though He had denied the request of the sons of Zebedee, took this opportunity to restore peace among His apostles and also correct their false views of greatness. They were all well aware of the fact that power and authority indicate greatness in earthly kingdoms. Such is still true today.
"Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant" (Matt. 20:26). In the kingdom of Christ, it is not the office or position that makes one great, but rather the service one performs on behalf of others. True spiritual greatness is in proportion to service rendered! Jesus didn't want the standard of greatness for His followers to be authority, as it was with the Gentiles.
A large portion of the problems that have afflicted the church from its beginning have resulted from disregarding the principles given here. Problems will always arise when some have a desire to be honored and to dictate rather than to serve and help.
However, one must be careful not to draw false conclusions here. Some have abused this passage in teaching that no Christian may have any authority whatsoever in the church--not even elders. This position is certainly false, for Paul had authority (cf. II Cor. 10:8; 13:10). Thus, it cannot be that Jesus meant that there would be absolutely no authority exercised among His earthly followers. God has authorized elders to shepherd the church in each city, and they have certain responsibilities (i.e., feeding, tending, and ruling the flock). Since God has given them such responsibilities, then certainly He has given them the authority necessary to fulfill the obligations (cf. Heb. 13:17; Acts 20:28-31; I Tim. 3:4,5; I Thess. 5:12,13; I Pet. 5:1-4). Elders do not have the authority to bind or loose where God has not done so, but they certainly have authority in matters of expediency.
"And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave" (Matt. 20:27). Notice that Jesus does not forbid one from desiring to be great. The wish to reach one's fullest potential through growth and improvement is a noble goal, and it will be achieved when the desire to serve others is strong. There is a difference in desiring to be great and desiring to be greater than others (cf. Phil. 2:3,4).
"Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:28; cf. Isa. 53:12). Jesus reinforced His point in this context by the example of His own life. When Jesus left the glory of heaven, He became flesh and came in the form of a servant (cf. Phil. 2:6,7). He did not require men to minister to His needs. Instead, He labored for and served them. Jesus practiced self-denial and was on His way to Jerusalem to sacrifice His life for mankind. May we learn to serve and love one another as Christ did (cf. John 15:13; I John 3:16)!
A "ransom" was the price paid to redeem one from slavery or death (cf. Lev. 25:51; Exo. 21:30). Jesus was the "ransom" for the whole world (cf. I Tim. 2:6; I John 2:2) in that He died for all. Anyone can obey the gospel, and those who do are redeemed from slavery to sin and spiritual death through the blood of Christ.