Why does Jesus say the first will be the last and the last will be the first? What is he trying to teach us?
To be the first is to be the last
In the ways of the world, it is the survival of the fittest. For those who are the first, they consider that the last deserve to be there. If they are the first, then they deserve to be the first, but Jesus turns that around by saying “the last will be the first, and the first the last”(Mt 20:16). This is in direct opposition to the way the world works. The world believes in “first come, first served” not “first come to serve,” but that still does not fully explain the meaning of this verse in Matthew chapter twenty. Maybe Jesus said that all who are last in this world will be first in the kingdom. The kingdom of God is the subject of this parable. The last or the less will be the first and the greatest of the kingdom. In the New Jerusalem, or in the kingdom of God, those most despised, rejected, despised and ridiculed in the world, and so by those who are these “first,” will become first and foremost in the kingdom as they rule with Christ, but of course under Christ (2 Tim 2:12; Rev 1: 6; Rev 5:10).
Workers in the vineyard
When Jesus said “the last shall be the first, and the first shall be the last” (Mt 20:16), he was concluding the parable of the workers in the vineyard. In this parable, Jesus explains that “the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the workers for a denarius a day, he sent them to his vineyard(Mt 20: 1-2) and late in the day the master of the house found more workers who accepted the same wages he offered the early morning workers (Mt 20: 6-7) but when came By the time they were paid, those who arrived late received the same wages as those who were hired late in the day. Those who were hired in the morning were angry and said, “These only worked for an hour, and you made them equal to us who endured the burden of the day and the scorching heat. But he replied to one of them: ‘Friend, I am not hurting you. You didn’t agree with me for a penny? Take what’s yours and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give you. Don’t I have the right to do what I choose with what is mine? Or do you blame my generosity”(Mt 20: 12-15). The former thought that they deserved more than what the last hired workers received but the master reminded them that he had the right to “choose with what belongs to him” and therefore he said “the last will be the first, and the first the last”(Mt 20:16).
Luke’s parallel sentence
The Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Mark also have this word found in Matthew chapter twenty but Jesus used this word in a completely different context although it is, like all his parables, the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God and salvation and enter the kingdom. In the Gospel of Luke, the conclusion of Jesus is close to that of Matthew 20:16 because he says “some are the last who will be the first, and some are the first who will be the last(Luke 13:20). Someone had already asked Jesus “will those who will be saved be few? And he said to them, “Make an effort to enter through the narrow gate. Because many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able to(Luke 13: 23-24). Jesus’ answer to this man was yes, few will be saved and many will strive to enter it and will not be able to. Maybe it’s the “seeking” part that is the problem because no human seeking or good works can ever save us (Eph 2: 8-9) because no one is actually seeking God (Rom 3: 11). When they “start standing outside and knocking on the door saying, “Lord, open up to us”, then he’ll say, “I don’t know where you come from.“(Luke 13:25) and he will say to them”I don’t know where you are from. Depart from me, all of you evil workers! In this place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but yourselves cast out(Luke 13: 27-28). This is the reason why “some are the last who will be the first, and some are the first who will be the last(Luke 13: 3). The Pharisees (like the Pharisees) expect to be in the kingdom, like many today, but will find that they never truly repented and never trusted Christ, which is why he tells them “get away from me“(Luke 13:27) because”I dunno”You (Luke 13:25).
Parallel sentence of Marks
At the place where Mark records Jesus saying “many of those who are first will be last, and the last will be first”(Mark 10:31) this is in the context where He had just spoken to a rich man who wanted to know what he should do to inherit eternal life (Mark 10:17). Unfortunately, the rich man failed to understand that it is not what you do (Eph 2: 8-9) but what Jesus did that brings eternal life. Since the young man seemed to be righteous (Mark 10:20), Jesus showed him the idol of his heart. It was money. Jesus exposed this man’s true god, “You are missing one thing: go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me. Discouraged by the word, he went away sad, for he had great possessions”(Mark 10: 21-22). Jesus concludes this experience by telling his disciples “many of those who are first will be last, and the last will be first”(Mark 10:31). Once again we see the idea that the first or preeminent people of the world will be the last in the coming kingdom and the smallest in the world today will be the greatest (Matthew 11:11).
It is one thing to proclaim “I know Christ”, but the most crucial question is whether Jesus knows you. This is what He repeatedly emphasizes about His second coming. In Matthew 7:22, many will come to Him that day saying, “Lord, Lord,” but what does Jesus say? He doesn’t say “Hey, I saw you at church every Sunday, you were a good Sunday school teacher” or “You had perfect Sunday school attendance,” but he will say rather “I never knew you; get away from me, you anarchy workers’”(Mt 7:23). Better for Christ to know you than to hear him say one day “Depart from me, cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”(Mt 25:41).
Article by Jack Wellman
Jack Wellman is the pastor of Mulvane Brethren Church in Mulvane Kansas. Jack is also the senior editor of What Christians Want To Know, whose mission is to equip, encourage and energize Christians and answer questions about the believer’s daily walk with God and the Bible. You can follow Jack on Google Plus or check out his book Teaching Children the Gospel available on Amazon.