The First Shall be Last and the Last Shall be First


by Mike Ratliff

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 19:27-30 ESV)

God awoke this believer from a spiritual stupor in 2004. From my rebirth in January 1986 through the end of 2003 I rode a roller coaster of faithfulness and backsliding to the point that I despaired of ever being able to be consistent in my walk. What always amazed me during that period is how God still used the spiritual gifts He had given me despite my own sorry spiritual state. It did not help that I was also suffering from depression after the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing in 1995. I confess that from April 19, 1995 through 2003 I was a very angry, resentful person. Then God drew me to Himself in January 2004 in such a way that ‘reversed it all and changed it all.’ It took 8 months of drawing closer and closer to Him, but He did a wonderful work in this heart. 

One Saturday morning early in August 2004 I awoke from sleep, bounded out of bed rejoicing in the Lord and realized that my entire value system had been restructured. I think it was similar to Paris Reidhead’s spiritual awakening in Africa after he had labored on the mission field with discouraging results. He had gone there as a missionary out of concern for the ‘poor ignorant savages’ desiring to show them the way to heaven. However, he found that the people there were not really interested. He accused God of selling him a bill of goods. After some intense time of reflection and prayer God led him to understand that the reason he was struggling so was that he was not really serving Him, but instead, he was serving  the idol of humanism. After repenting and committing himself to doing all for the glory of God he confessed that this revival ‘reversed it all and changed it all’ and he was no longer working for ‘ten shekels and a shirt,’ but for the Living God! 

Jonathan Edwards understood this. In his Resolutions of Jonathan Edwards, he shared that the driving force of his life was ‘all-absorbing passion to pursue the glory of God.’ He shared that those who desire to know unspeakable joy and abundant peace are those whose chief aim is to live for God’s glory alone.  Do you see the difference my brethren?  There are so many who profess Christ and appear to be laboring for the Kingdom, but their chief aim is something other than God’s glory. 

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 19:27-30 ESV)

Matthew 20:1-16 is often called the Parable of the Laborers or the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. In any case, Jesus told this parable to answer Peter’s question in Matthew 19:27.  Let’s look at this parable a bit closer.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. “ (Matthew 20:1-2 ESV)

A key to understanding this parable is to see that our Lord is making a distinction between two groups of people. The first group is made up of those who were “hired” to work in the vineyard. They agreed to work in the vineyard for a wage. The Greek word for “hired” here means exactly that. These laborers agreed to work in the vineyard for an agreed upon sum of money. They agreed to work for a δηνάριον or dēnarion for a 12 hour day of labor in the vineyard. A dēnarion was a coin that denoted the regularly accepted pay for a normal 12 hour day of work. Notice that this arrangement was an agreement (συμφωνέω) and that the laborers set their own price. A συμφωνέω or sumphōneo is an accord, a mutual agreement or compact.

“And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’” (Matthew 20:3-7 ESV)

Here we see the second group of people. Were they sent into the vineyard as part of a συμφωνέω for a wage or price set by them? No, the master of the house simply called them into the vineyard according to a promise that he would reward them justly according to his own estimation. These people did not set the price, they entered the vineyard trusting the master. The master of the house promised, “whatever is right I will give you.” The Greek word “right” in this phrase is δίκαιος or dikaios. This is a very important New Testament word. It literally means “that which is right. conformable to right, pertaining to right, that which is just, which is expected by the one who sets the rules and regulations whereby man must live, whether that be society or God.” In 1 Timothy 1:9 Paul used δίκαιος as that which stands in opposition to “unrighteousness.” The sense of the usage of δίκαιος by our Lord in this passage is that the master of the house is righteous and will do justly. The reward for this second group of people called into the vineyard is according to the promise of one who always does right.

“And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 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 20:8-16 ESV)

The Greek word for wages here is μισθός or misthos. This word does mean “wage” but it also refers to the rewards received in eternity according to ones life. The KJV renders v9 as, “And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny.” The two words “were hired” are in italics because they are not in the Greek text.  Here is v9 from the Textus Receptus, “και ελθοντες οι περι την ενδεκατην ωραν ελαβον ανα δηναριον .”  It should read in English, “And the ones coming the eleventh hour each received a denarious (penny).” Why is this important? Those called into the vineyard after the initial workers were “hired” for an “agreed upon wage” were not “hired,” but called. If we reexamine this parable in light of this then it enables us to grasp what Jesus is teaching here. 

Remember, Jesus told this parable in answer to Peter’s question in Matthew 19:27 where he asked, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Those who serve the Lord for any other reason than His glory are hirelings. They work for a wage they set themselves. However, those called into the vineyard according to the promise from the Master Himself leave the reward up to Him. When those “hired” complained or grumbled when those “called” all received a δηνάριον, which was the same wage they agreed to, the Master referred to the one speaking as “friend.” This is the Greek word ἑταῖρος or hetairos. This is what Jesus called Judas in Gethsemane just before He was arrested (Matthew 26:50). He did not call him φίλος or philos, which means “dear friend.” Our Lord called His disciples His  φίλος in John 15:14-16.

You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. (John 15:14-16 ESV)

Notice that His φίλος are those who did not choose Him, but He choose them and appointed them that they should go and bear fruit. Those who are called into the vineyard are not hirelings working for a wage, but are called according to a promise and are the Lord’s φίλος.

Soli Deo Gloria!

11 thoughts on “The First Shall be Last and the Last Shall be First

  1. Pingback: The First Shall be Last and the Last Shall be First - Reformata

  2. Brilliant post Mike!

    The lie the enemy so wants us to believe is that when we sin, we somehow hurt God. The truth is that we sin, we hurt ourselves first, increasing the distance between ourselves and the One in whom is all life, healing and all things good.

    Satan works overtime to make God appear as a hateful, joy killing monster. He has to, he is not omnipresent. But he projects none other than himself.

    As we know, customer satisfaction surveys are not required in the New Jerusalem.

    Soli Deo Gloria!


  3. It would be nice to hear more sermons on this topic. No, you won’t hear that. You will hear, “God wants to make you the CEO of your company. It is his will that you have increase and a cup running over.” They tell this to everybody. This is so terrible, and it should not surprise us because we are only seeing a fulfillment of the spirit of delusion. Today’s pulpits are full of hirelings who are trained to be motivational speakers instead of shepherds who need to feed the flock. The hirelings do nothing but create vexation.
    Some of them are so deluded that you cannot even approach them and talk to them about fiery trials, brokenness, or anything that will take away the ‘Self-empowerment’ madness that they cling to. They will treat you like a leper if you tell them, “You know so and so, it is not always God’s will to give you the best. God has to break his people, mold them, bring them low, bring them up, back down, or whatever he sees fit to do to you according to his will.” I can remember having a conversation with a girl whose father was an elder. I thought, “Wow, surely I can talk to her and she will not think this is strange.”………..Nope, she started to say that only Satan takes away our belongings and that her church’s spiritual laws were more important than me quoting the book of Job (Job 2:10). I immediatlely told her that I had to leave, and the phone conversation ended with me telling her that God gives and takes away, and it is not always his will to make his people rich. She lashed out at me on that one. It was time to get off the phone with her.


  4. Thanks Mike I really agree with you. The visible Church sometimes forgets just how uncompromising the love of the LORD is.

    “The River of Fire” by Dr. Kalomiros, which was delivered to the Orthodox Youth Conference in 1980, is a brilliant indictment of Western secularism and the incipient paganism that threatens the very foundations of our Holy Faith. If anybody ever wondered why their thought processes were so misaligned with the way of the cross, (which is foolishness to men but the glory of God to them that believe), then this is the read for you!

    A good read of the Smith Wigglesworth sermons, available online also helps.

    As Mike says, we are doing this so that His name may be glorified!


  5. We should be last in everything, except the food line at the church banquet. In a reverse act of servanthood, I go to the front in a gracious gesture to let the others receive a reward. 🙄

    My action is usually misinterpreted.


  6. Wow! Great post Mike on the differences between the hireling and the called with some really good examples at the beginning. Here is a five minute excerpt of Paris Reidhead saying exactly what you quoted.

    Grace and peace,


  7. I think this is related to one of my favorite topics about “in our weaknessess we find strength”. An understanding of our weaknesses gives us a deep understanding of our lastness and a desire to pur ourselves last.

    I think an understanding of our weaknesses give us a desire for intimacy with Christ and other sinners thereby enabling our sanctification through the Holy Spirit.

    I think we actually get humility wrong often when we preach about humility and don’t even know we are doing it…. after all I have the be the most humble person on this BLOG. 8-).



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