August 29, 2011

Hard Sayings XVIII: The Last Will Be First and The First Will Be Last

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” ~Mark 10:31; Matthew. 19:30; Luke 13:30; Matthew 20:16

It is a saying that is important enough to be put in the Gospels four times, twice in Matthew. It is actually used in two contexts. The first context in Mark 10:31 and Matthew 19:30 (both being the same) is the follow up if the rich man not willing to part with His riches. Jesus knew what was on this man’s heart. He had put his material earthly goods before Christ and walks away sad, as in boohoo sad. Jesus then says that it is, “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples in incredulity then ask, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus’ response is frank, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” Peter even more incredulous responds that they have already given up everything to follow Jesus. Jesus concludes with the fact that, “no one who has left home, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children or fields for me and the gospel…” will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields. They would receive ample compensation above and beyond the amount of persecution they endure—and in the age to come eternal life. “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

The disciples are being addressed here. Jesus is telling them that those that have given up the most here doesn’t necessarily equate to a primo position in the Kingdom to come. To have taken pride in one’s deprivation here is just as much of a sin as if one had deprived themselves of nothing. They are essentially making their suffering or martyrdom a form of idol. What might be worse is that having suffered or having been persecuted they may feel more entitled or deserving of position with God. We hear it often, “I just want what I have coming to me” or more amusingly, “I want what I earned”. What these people that would say this do not understand is if they got what they earned or had coming to them they would be instantly vaporized and condemned to Hell and eternal punishment. That being said, no work, no asceticism, or human effort gains us any better standing with God, and this includes persecution as a follower of Christ. Believe it or not the deaths of the martyrs did not gain them any better of a foothold of justification in God’s eyes…at least not for those reasons. For those that are persecuted in this life…there may just be others that receive preference for less persecution. There are no guarantees from the human perspective. These things are done on God’s terms for God’s reasoning, not ours.

Luke 13:30 this saying is added to, “men will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God”. These people from the compass directions are references to Gentiles. Where some of Jesus’ listeners had at one time been Jews and felt their position as descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob assured them the primo spot, Jesus eschews this assumption and shows that they could potentially be completely shut out of the picture…so much for unfounded assumptions. As we know now in hindsight, Jesus knew the time of the Gentiles was coming. Even thought they had not yet been fully graphed in and they were latecomers, they too would be looked upon as equal in footing as devout obedient Jews. They too would have their righteousness imputed to them because of their faith. The Gospel being offered would be extended to the Jews first (Romans 1:16). If the Jews ignored the offer than the Gentiles who had arrived late on the scene, would receive the Gospels benefits or blessings first…and this is exactly what we see transpire.

Matthew’s 20:16 parable of the workers in the vineyard ends with this saying of the last being first. In this parable the workers hired in the 11th hour end up getting paid the same wage as those that labored all day. This is analogous to God treating all believers equally since all in Christ are equals anyway. The other way I have heard this said by John MacArthur is that the only way for the first person to be the last person and the last person to be the if we all crossed the finishline equally at exactly the same time. In the end we must understand the paradoxes and reversals Jesus’ work on the Cross institutes into believers lives and into the world in general. To die is gain. For the Son of Man to be glorified He must be crucified. To win an eternal life there, we must forsake our holdings and value of things here. We must replace the worldly with the heavenly. To become a true leader one must learn to serve, and so on. I imagine these reversals will astound many. I believe we will all be surprised by those that actually make it to heaven and even more surprised by those that don’t.

Its really not a race in the strictest sense. Anyone that finishes properly according to the rules from God will ultimately win. God will reward all the finishers that have completed their task in accordance with His statues.

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