Though many laughed at Ricky Bobby's Nascar themed mentality... even Ricky Bobby's dad had doubts about the truth of the now famous quip.
There are two occasions where Jesus is quoted as saying "many who are first will be last, and the last first". And applications of what is meant by that thought provoking statement are interesting to investigate.
Matthew 19:25-30/ Mark 10:28-31/Matthew 20:15,16
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” 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 19:25-30 ESV)
Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”
(Matthew 20:15-16 ESV)
Jesus appropriates this statement (last first/first last) as a summation to two situations and though the quote is the same, the truth is the same- the application of the truth is different.
Some Bible commentators mention that this statement may have been an often used cultural aphorism- a witty and pithy truth that we might find in our culture as a descendant from something like “Poor Richard’s Almanac”… like ‘a stitch in time saves nine” or ‘early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise”.
THE TRUTH IS THE SAME
The basic truth of both situations is that: God judges and rewards according to God’s standards which are in line with the truth AND also in line with His preference AND also in line with His promise AND also in line with His will.
This is a Bible answer that we do not like…. Paul gives it in Romans 9. And whether we like it or not.. it is true.
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. (Romans 9:14-16 ESV)
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— (Romans 9:19-23 ESV)
And, if I have even a little sense, I can hear you saying “How does this have ANYTHING to do with ‘last first and first last’?
In a country where our birth was born out of a ‘rugged individualism’ we don’t understand the sovereign rights and power of a King. This statement, ‘last first and first last’ is a final declaration by the King with two applications.
APPLICATION 1- DECLARATION IN THE CITY OF MAN
Jesus uses this statement in context with the Peter’s exclamatory reaction to Jesus’s conversation with the “Rich Young Ruler’. Remember that one? ( He asked what must be done to obtain eternal life. They talk about the commandments. The man claims to have done those. Jesus then asks him to sell his possessions and give them to the poor. The man goes away sad. Jesus comments, It is easier for camel to go through eye of the needle than rich man to enter heaven. Disciples are exasperated… who can be saved? Jesus says “All things possible with God”.. Peter.. we have left everything and followed you.. Ruler… Jesus.. reward is coming )
In this case, the truth is still there. It is God who will judge and only in God is salvation possible. God will reward.. but here is where 'first and last 'is a little different.
What God sees and rewards isCOUNTERto what the world sees and rewards…..
Remember how God chose David?
But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7 ESV)
But it is even more than this- the difference in what God sees and values is often diametrically opposed to what the world sees and values.
Remember the unnamed heroes in the Biblical Hall of Fame?
Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.(Hebrews 11:35-38 ESV)
or even how God commands us to live in the light of His mercies in Christ?
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2 ESV)
I saw a sign one time that summed this up: “What is right is often not what is popular and what is popular is often not what is right.”
So God’s people live counter to the world’s system.. and because of that, they are often evaluated as ‘last’… but in God’s eyes.. they are ‘first’.
This application of this truth is shown when Jesus admonishes the Pharisees in Luke 16:
The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.
(Luke 16:13-15 ESV) (that last line will preach...the so called 'celebrities' of society)
Now pay close attention to the CHALLENGE IN APPLICATION 1 because there will be a challenge in APPLICATION 2.
APPLICATION 1 CHALLENGE: TO THE ‘WORLD’ IF YOU ARE DISAPPOINTED IN GOD’S FINAL VERDICT… YOU HAVE NO COMPLAINT… HE HAS TOLD YOU.. AND HE IS GOD!
now let’s look at a second time Jesus uses this statement….
APPLICATION 2- DECLARATION IN THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN
Jesus uses this same statement at the end of His parable we call ‘Laborers in the Vineyard’. This story is about a master who pays the same price for laborers even though they did not work the same number of hours. Even though there is a complaint, the master is not guilty of wrongdoing because he did as he wished and he did as he promised.
This is the same truth…. God judges and rewards according to God’s standards which are in line with the truth AND also in line with His preference AND also in line with His promise AND also in line with His will.
The difference here is that ‘the last first and first last’ is a so-called ‘dead-heat’. There is no difference in first and last because the reward in heaven is the same.
Do I have you confused yet?
God’s evaluation in judging the world’s system completely flips the sorting mechanism!… completely switches the price tags!.. and there is a wide distance between first and last in terms of God’s evaluation and perception and man’s evaluation and perception.
In heaven though, there is no separation in the first and last because all finish the same.
This doesn’t mean there won’t be a so-called judgement of work and rewards for the ones who are in heaven.. but we will all be there for ONE reason… the grace of God.
Now see the CHALLENGE IN APPLICATION 2:
APPLICATION 2 CHALLENGE: TO THE ‘BELIEVERS’- IF YOU ARE DISAPPOINTED IN GOD’S FINAL VERDICT BECAUSE YOU ARE SHOCKED OR SURPRISED ABOUT HIS CHOICES… YOU HAVE NO COMPLAINT… HE HAS TOLD YOU.. AND HE IS GOD.. AND HE IS GOOD!
There is a hint of this in the story of the so-called ‘Prodigal Son’ and the attitude of the ‘elder brother’.
Christian… you will be in heaven by God’s choice and by God’s grace.. the same as everyone else who is there. There is no room to regard status… we are all the same.. beggars at the foot of the cross.
HOW THE FIRST LAST AND LAST FIRST HELPS US:
While we are in the world, we can persevere if we are not ‘treated fair’ in the system run by fortune, fame, power, pleasure. We are actually blessed to walk in a small way that Jesus did in a big way.
We are humbled and encouraged by the message of grace. The gift of God which is offered to all.
I have no problem praying for mercy on all because I have received all of mercy.
I may be last… but in God’s eyes.. I will be first.. and in heaven it won’t matter because we are all loved and blessed by our King.
And I want every person reading this to be there with me… but you cannot get there by any other way … God’s grace or in any other name… The Lord Jesus Christ.
Cry out to Him today………
Final Note: There is actually a third way to dissect this interesting aphorism.
Way 1: First and last are different standards- God and the World. The values are opposite and what man thinks is first is last.
Way 2: A Dead Heat- we all finish ‘even’- last first and first last
Way 3: Similar to way 1, but it is a call to humility- you put yourself last and God exalts to first.
We see this idea in Mark 9:33-35
And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:33-35 ESV)
The Word of Christ is so interesting and always leaves us pondering and prayerful!