The First Shall be Last and the Last Shall be First

by Mike Ratliff

27 Then Peter said to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?” 28 And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last; and the last, first. Matthew 19:27-30 (NASB) 

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.

27 Then Peter said to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?” 28 And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last; and the last, first. Matthew 19:27-30 (NASB) 

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.

1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. Matthew 20:1-2 (NASB) 

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 (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 (sumphōneo) is an accord, a mutual agreement or compact.

3 And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; 4 and to those he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went. 5 Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he *said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ 7 They *said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He *said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ Matthew 20:3-7 (NASB) 

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 (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.

8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard *said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ 9 When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. 10 When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’ 13 But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last shall be first, and the first last.” Matthew 20:8-16 (NASB) 

The Greek word for wages here is μισθός (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, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?” 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 (hetairos). This is what Jesus called Judas in Gethsemane just before He was arrested (Matthew 26:50). He did not call him φίλος (philos), which means “dear friend.” Our Lord called His disciples His φίλος in John 15:14-16.

14 You are My friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you. John 15:14-16 (NASB) 

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!

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

  1. Thank you for this Mike. I understand better now and appreciate your thoughtful work done here. May God continue to bless you for the diligence to rightly exposit Scripture to help the church grow!

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  2. That is me on the “roller coaster…. I despaired of ever being able to be consistent in my walk.” I note it took 8 mo. to get past it…. How did you do it? Just keep reading, studying, etc.? I have done that for months and then give up,.,..,have been in the “give up mode” for about a year and it scares me. I have most of the answers in my head, but it doesn’t seem to do much good. Anyway, I do appreciate the thoughts you have given and the wisdom that God gives you in the things you write! ~God Bless you!

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  3. April, this is a life-long commitment. Don’t give up. Here is the passage that helped me the most.

    4 You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. 5 Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: “He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us”? 6 But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, “GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE.” 7 Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you. James 4:4-10 (NASB)

    Start with this. Humble yourself in prayer, confess your sins to God, draw near to Him and He will draw near to you. Then apply passages like Romans 12:1-2. Get consistent in your prayer, worship, and devotional walk. Exclude the things in your life that take your time away from these things. Put more and more time into prayer, worship, devotionals, and Bible Study. Try it for awhile and let me know how you are doing.

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  4. I have always understood the Parable of the Laborers as those who were hired initially are symbolic of the Jews, and those who are later called in are the New Testament Gentile believers (Christians). Have I been wrong in my understanding?

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  5. The second group are the called. The first group are those not called, but are religious. You could understand it as you have been taught, but even the Jews in the Old Testament had real believers and those who were simply religious.

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