Youn man walking

 To Be First You Must Be Last

Jesus made the statement “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:30). He said this in the context of His encounter with the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:16–30). The young man turned away from Jesus, unable to give up his great wealth. Jesus’ disciples asked the Lord what reward they would have in heaven, since they had given up everything to follow Him. Jesus promised them “a hundred times as much,” plus eternal life.. Then He said, “to be first you must be last.”

 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Matthew 20:16 niv

Jesus reiterated this truth in Matthew 20:16 at the end of the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. This story illustrates the last being first and the first being last. What exactly did Jesus mean when He said, “Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first”? First, we should eliminate what He did not mean. Jesus was not teaching that the way to get to heaven is to live a life of poverty in this world.

Scripture is clear that salvation is by grace through faith. It is not of works (Ephesians 2:8–9)—and independent of one’s financial status. Also, Jesus was not teaching an automatic reversal of roles in heaven. There is no heavenly law wherein the poor and oppressed must rule over the rich and powerful. The rich aren’t always last in heaven, and the poor aren’t always first. Nor will believers who enjoy wealth and prestige on earth be required to somehow be abased in heaven. Earthly rank will not automatically translate into an inverse heavenly rank.

God Sees The Heart

Jesus told the disciples they would be greatly rewarded in heaven for what they had given up on earth. He was contrasting their sacrifice with the rich young ruler’s lack thereof. The young man had been unwilling to give up much of anything for Christ’s sake (Matthew 19:16–22). God, who sees the heart, will reward accordingly. The disciples are an example of those who may be first, and they happened to be poor (but their poverty was not what makes them first in heaven). The rich young ruler is an example of those who may be last, and he happened to be rich (but his wealth was not what makes him last).

The statement that the last would be first and the first last might also have held special meaning for Peter. He had just spoken of having “left all” (Matthew 19:27). Perhaps Jesus detected in Peter’s statement a bit of boasting—Peter was on the verge of becoming spiritually complacent—as the rich young ruler was, but for a different reason. Jesus’ response in verse 30 may have been an indirect warning to Peter to always find his sufficiency in Christ, not in his own sacrifice. After all, without love, even the greatest sacrifice is worthless (1 Corinthians 13:3).

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