In the chapter following Jesus’ statement that the first will be last and the last will be first, Jesus tells a parable (Matthew 20). The story concerns some laborers who complain that others, who did not work as long as they, were paid an equal amount. In other words, they saw their own labor as worthy of compensation. However, they considered their companions’ labor to be inferior and less worthy of reward.
Jesus ends the parable with the statement, “The last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16). The most direct interpretation of the parable is that all believers, no matter how long or how hard they work during this lifetime, will receive eternal life. The thief on the cross (Luke 23:39–43), whose life of service was limited to a moment of repentance and confession of faith in Christ, received the same reward of eternal life as did Timothy, who served God for years. Of course, Scripture also teaches that there are different rewards in heaven for different services. Nonetheless, the ultimate reward of eternal life will be given to all equally. And it will be on the basis of God’s grace in Christ Jesus alone.
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A Biblical Principal
There are several ways in which “the first will be last and the last first” holds true. There are some who were first to follow Christ in time yet are not the first in the kingdom. Judas Iscariot was one of the first disciples and was honored to be the treasurer of the group. Notwithstanding, his greed led to his undoing. Paul was the last of the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:8–9) yet the one who worked the hardest (2 Corinthians 11:23). There are some who were first in privilege yet are not first in the kingdom.
Based on the terms of the New Covenant, the Gentiles had equal access to the kingdom of heaven. This was despite the fact that they had not served God under the Old Covenant. The Jews, who had labored long under the Old Covenant, were jealous of the grace extended to the Gentile “newcomers” (see Romans 11:11). There are some who are first in prestige and rank yet might never enter the kingdom. Jesus told the Pharisees that the sinners they despised were being saved ahead of them: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31–32).
Different Value Systems
What Jesus is teaching in Matthew 19:30 is this: there will be many surprises in heaven. Heaven’s value system is far different from earth’s value system. Those who are esteemed and respected in this world (like the rich young ruler) may be frowned upon by God. The opposite is also true. Those who are despised and rejected in this world (like the disciples) may, in fact, be rewarded by God. Don’t get caught up in the world’s way of ranking things; it’s too prone to error. Those who are first in the opinion of others (or first in their own opinion!) may be surprised. They may learn, on Judgment Day, they are last in God’s opinion.
Struggling With The Last|First Principal Can Lead To Anxiety
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