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What does Jesus mean when he says "the first shall be last and the last shall be first"?
Thank you for your question about the meaning of Jesus' teaching. When we try to understand His teaching better, we need to look at two things: the situation in which the words were spoken and also the teaching of the rest of the Bible.
Jesus made this statement when discussing with His disciples His conversation with a rich young ruler of Israel (Matthew 19:16–30). The young man had asked Jesus how he could be sure that he had done enough good works to go to Heaven. The Lord Jesus told him to "sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions (Matthew 19:22-23).
The disciples were rather shocked that Jesus set the standard of holiness so high and began to wonder who could possibly be saved. Here is the rest of the story:
But Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." Then Peter said in reply, "See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?" Jesus said to them, "Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first." (Matthew 19:26-30)
The discussion turned to the important fact that only through the direct action of God could anyone go to Heaven. We can't earn Heaven because God's standard is perfection and we all fall short.
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).
When Peter pointed out that the disciples really had left everything and followed Jesus, He promised that their reward would be great and then ended with the statement that "many who are first will be last, and the last first" (Matthew 19:30).
The words also appear in Matthew 20:16, where Jesus told the story of the labourers in the vineyard to illustrate their meaning. In this story, a landowner went into the marketplace to hire men to bring in the harvest. It was important to get it done quickly so he returned to the market place four more times and hired more, so that some only worked for an hour before the say ended. The landowner paid them all the same amount - a full day's wage. Jesus commented that this was how the last would be first and the first last.
Some have thought that Jesus taught that one has to live a life of poverty in order to go to Heaven. Others suggest that in Heaven the financially poor will rule over those who are rich in this world. Both these ideas are wrong. Our salvation has nothing to do with our good deeds and it cannot be bought.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
The parable of the labourers in the vineyard is meant to teach that all believers, whether they have lived for Christ for a lifetime or whether they were converted just before death will receive the same reward of eternal life. Paul made huge sacrifices and was instrumental in the spread of Christianity into Europe while the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43) repented and believed in Christ just before his death; both received eternal life.
Scripture does teach that there are different levels of reward in heaven but the most important reward, eternal life, is given to all equally because they have believed and received God's gift of life by grace.
So some who were first to follow Christ will not be first in the Kingdom. Judas Iscariot was a follower of Jesus before Paul but Paul was the one who had a higher place in Heaven. Paul was the last of the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:8–9) yet the one who worked the hardest (2 Corinthians 11:23).
The Jews served God before the Gentiles did yet God extended the same grace to the Gentiles as to believing Jews.
The Pharisees criticised other Jews such as tax-collectors (who worked for the Roman invaders) and those who broke the religious laws. Jesus told them,
"Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him." (Matthew 21:31–32).
So the saying about the first being last means that Heaven has very different values from this world. Many who are very successful and respected in this world do not have God's approval. Others who may be despised in this world are highly valued by God.
Most people want to be successful and respected and it is important not to lose sight of God's values. Sometimes, we have to give up our ambitions and human desires in order to put God first. This is one reason that Jesus taught,
"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." (Luke 9:23)
Some desires have to be allowed to die so that we can truly live for God. He promises that our reward will be 'a hundredfold' i.e. out of all proportion compared to the sacrifices we may have made. For some Christians, this may mean that they will endure persecution and real suffering.
In Hebrews 11 the writer gives a wonderful account of the heroes of faith in the Old Testament who lived by faith, did great exploits and often suffered greatly. He comments that they were people of whom the world was not worthy (Hebrews 11:38).
He then writes,
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
In summary, the teaching of Jesus regarding the first being last and the last being first is in relation to our salvation; that all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour shall receive the same reward of eternal life.
The world may place value on wealth or accomplishments, but God places value on your very soul. Therefore, accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.
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*All Scripture references are taken From The English Standard Version of the Holy Bible unless stated otherwise
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