“So the last shall be first, and the first last.“ – Vs 16 (NASB)
I think that I have always misunderstood this verse. I have tended to view it as a statement regarding position or prominence. But in the context of Jesus parable of the kingdom, it is a statement regarding equality. It is interesting that Jesus bookends his parable of the kingdom, found in verses 1-16, with this same statement. You find it in the closing verse of chapter 19 and in verse 16 of chapter 20. It is also bookended by two stories of the disciples asking questions regarding position, prominence, and power. In chapter 19, verse 27, Peter asks Jesus, “We’ve given up everything to follow you. What will we get out of it?” (NLT). He is wanting to know what their reward is going to be for having sacrificed everything to follow Jesus. Jesus then tells them that they will be rewarded, they will sit on thrones judging the 12 tribes of Judah. But then he says something else. “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life” (NASB). Jesus seems to be saying that the disciples are not the only ones who will be required to give up a lot to follow Jesus. So they are going to be rewarded as well – just like the disciples. And their reward will be far more valuable than what they may have been required to give up. They will receive the priceless reward of eternal life. Then Jesus makes the statement: “But many who are first will be last; and the last, first.” The disciples and all those who come after them because of their witness, will all be equal in the kingdom. It doesn’t matter that Peter and his companions were the first to follow Jesus. Those of us who have become Christ-followers centuries later will receive the same reward. The very last person to follow Christ before the rapture of the church takes place will receive the same eternal life that Peter did. And the disciples, like the laborers in Jesus’ parable will have no room for complaint. In fact, Jesus seems to tell this parable because He knew the hearts of His disciples. They were a competitive group who had some significant aspirations for recognition and reward, and eternal life was not necessarily at the top of their list of rewards. So Jesus tells them this parable about the kingdom. And it seems blatantly directed at the disciples.
You have a landowner who owns a vineyard. He goes out early in the morning and hires a group of laborers to work that vineyard, agreeing to pay them a denarius for their efforts. Then throughout the day he hires new laborers, who go to work at different times of the day. He even hires some at the very end of the day. But every one of them receives the same reward for their work: a denarius. When the first group becomes indignant at this slight, the landowner says to them, “Am I not permitted to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (NET Bible). Then Jesus closes this story with the statement, “So the last shall be first, and the first last.”
The point seems to be the reward: Eternal life. We shall all receive the same thing – out of God’s kindness and mercy. None of us will deserve any more than any other. In fact, the eternal life we receive will so outweigh any work we have done or anything we may have given up, that there is no comparison. We all will receive the same reward. I think Jesus is even saying that the gift of eternal life will mean more to the disciples than the thrones they will sit on ruling over the 12 tribes of Israel. Those positions and the power they represent will pale in comparison. But it’s very interesting that after having told this parable to the disciples, then after having shared with them what is about to happen to Him when He arrives in Jerusalem (arrest, trial, beating, mocking, and crucifixion), Matthew records the incident of the mother of James and John coming to Jesus. She has come to request that Jesus give her two sons positions of power and prominence in His coming kingdom. “In your Kingdom, will you let my two sons sit in places of honor next to you, one at your right and the other at your left?” (Vs 21 – NLT). Her request represents the hearts of the disciples. It is what they wanted. Eternal life was not enough. They wanted more. They wanted power and position. They wanted recognition. But Jesus tells them that things are different in His kingdom. It isn’t about being served, it’s about serving. He tells them, “But among you it should be quite different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must become your slave” (Vs 26-27 – NLT). Their eyes were focused on an earthly kingdom. They were expecting Jesus to establish His throne in Jerusalem and set up His kingdom there. They wanted to be sure they were considered for the highest positions of power in that kingdom. But Jesus is letting them know that His kingdom had come. It was here, but not in the form they were expecting. His kingdom was about serving and sacrifice, not power, position, and prominence. Jesus Himself had come to serve, not be served. They were to follow His example. While on this earth, they were going to learn that the position they should be seeking was that of being on their knees as servants, not sovereigns. They were going to learn to put themselves last in order that others might come to know Christ. Their greatness would come from being humble. Their reward would come for being faithful.
And so it is with us. We need to recognize that while Jesus delays His return, we are part of His kingdom here on earth. We are His ambassadors. We are His laborers. We don’t need to be worrying about recognition and power. We need to be serving. We need to be giving. We need to follow His example of selfless sacrifice and service. Not so that we will receive some great reward here, but because we already have a great reward awaiting us – eternal life. A reward that is priceless and beyond anything we could ever receive this side of heaven. So we serve here because of what we are going to receive there. We gladly give away now, because of what we will receive then. We gladly take on the position of a slave on this earth, because we know we are heirs of a heavenly kingdom.
Father, thanks for reminding me that I am going to receive a reward in heaven that is so incredibly priceless. I don’t need to worry about what I am going to get here. I don’t need to fret over getting recognition and rewards here. What I am going to receive there is worth it all. Any acts of service I do and any suffering I encounter here are well worth the reward waiting for me there. Help me to remember that daily, so that I would spend more of my time serving – gladly and humbly. Amen
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men