Sunday, November 15, 2020

Times and Places

Regular readers of the gospels cannot help but notice that Jesus often repeats himself.

When we think about it, this makes perfect sense. The things he said to crowds in Jerusalem were not heard by his audiences in Galilee, and vice versa. A certain amount of repetition, especially of the Lord’s most important teachings, is to be expected.

The Last Will Be First

What is more interesting is that some of the Lord’s most well-known sayings were not simply reproduced word-for-word, but repurposed in a variety of contexts to mean slightly different things. The general spiritual principle each time remains the same, but the application may be quite different indeed.

One example of this is the famous saying, “The last will be first, and the first last.” The Lord said it on three very different occasions in three very different contexts, varying the wording only slightly. But what it means in each place is never precisely what it means in the others. There are different lessons to be had every time the Lord repeats it.

In Greek, “first” and “last” are prĊtos and eschatos. These are almost precise opposites, the former meaning “first in time or place”, “first in rank”, “chief” or “principal”; the latter meaning “last in time or place”, “last in rank” or “lowest grade”. This is important, because some of the Lord’s applications of his saying are to primacy of rank, while others are to order in time. The saying is used in both senses.

Let’s examine them a little.

In Matthew 19:30 and Mark 10:31

Here the saying appears to be a cautionary note. A wealthy man has just walked away in sorrow, having declined the Lord’s offer to “Come, follow me”, because doing so would have required him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. As he leaves, Jesus tells his disciples that the rich only enter the kingdom of heaven with difficulty. This astonishes them, but it also causes Peter to wonder aloud how the disciples themselves will fare in this unusual kingdom Jesus is speaking about. Unlike the man who has just departed, the disciples are not exactly encumbered with riches. So Peter says, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” The Lord makes it clear there will be great — even vastly disproportionate — reward for their sacrifice: “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.” Then he adds this: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

The context here is service and reward. We might paraphrase the Lord’s words as “Those who take the easy road in life and who are well-regarded in this world will find their affluence and status does not carry over into the next, while those who suffer for Christ in this life will be richly rewarded.”

Note that this is not a hard-and-fast rule but a general principle that usually holds true: it is “many”, not “all”. The rich may indeed enter the kingdom, but “with difficulty”. This is also a principle that surely holds true throughout the entire church age, not just the first century.

But, as is usual with the Lord, he is not simply criticizing others who are not present. There may be a note of warning for the disciples here as well, against what William MacDonald refers to as a “bargaining spirit”. The Lord does not dispense his rewards mechanically, but in full knowledge of the attitude in which his servants have served, and the motivations that impelled their service. Service which is not offered “for my name’s sake” but for baser, selfish reasons is not truly reward-worthy. It may be that some among the Lord’s disciples who think their performance as servants of Christ first rate will find themselves of little note in the kingdom.

In Matthew 20:16

This time the saying comes at the end of the parable of the workers in the vineyard who all received a denarius for their work, despite some having worked all day, and others nine, six, three hours and one hour. The Lord concludes with, “So the last will be first, and the first last.”

Here, the statement is not qualified as it is in the previous chapter. It is given as a universal principle. Again, the context is service and reward, but the emphasis is a little different. All the workers receive the same pay regardless of the amount of work performed. There is no preference shown for those who have “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” over those who “worked only one hour”. But note that those who served the entire day are not diminished in any way by the master’s generosity to the later groups: they receive exactly what they contracted for, and have no reason to complain about it. When we say, “The last will be first” in such a context, we are speaking only of the order in which reward is dispensed in the parable. Nobody is actually coming up short. Technically, we could argue that all are equally blessed.

There is no explicit mention of the church here, and one may not be intended at all. However, it is true that in the coming kingdom, the Jew has no advantage over the Gentile, despite Gentiles being called into service much later in human history and owing much to the Jew for having, figuratively at least, “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat”. “First” and “last” in this context are speaking of time, not rank or reward, which is equal in all cases.

In Luke 13:30

In this last case the Lord is dealing with the question “Will those who are saved be few?” In answer, he describes a scenario in which Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the prophets enter the kingdom along with a multitude from east, west, north and south, while many from the generation who had been blessed with his presence would hear the words, “I do not know where you come from” and be banished from the kingdom. So he says, “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” He finishes with “And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

In this case, it means something like “The Jews of the first century who received the greatest privileges and saw the most compelling signs may find themselves excluded from millennial blessing, while those from far off who received the good news of the kingdom second-hand and believed it will enter into many of the same millennial blessings as the greatest of Israel’s Old Testament saints.” Here, rather than “many” or “all”, it is “some”. The key to entering the kingdom is the “narrow door” of faith, not some claim of genetic relationship to Israel’s patriarchs and prophets. It is those who imitate Abraham’s faith who are his true “children”.

In Summary

Each of these three instances in which the Lord spoke of “first” and “last” stands on its own, whole and complete without the others. There is no real need to set them side by side. But if there are lessons to be learned by comparing them, the most important might be this: It is almost completely useless to ask the question “What did the Lord mean by this?” apart from context. He had something slightly different in mind every time.

Photo of the Sea of Galilee in 2005 courtesy Roybb95.

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