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encouragement theology

The Last Will Be First

Thoughts from Matthew 20…

Matthew 19:27 – 20:16
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.

“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. 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.’ 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.”

The last will be first, and the first last. 

Jesus bookends the parable in Matthew 20 with this statement. The last will be first, and the first will be last. In between, He illustrates this statement with the story of a landowner who needed workers for his vineyard. He found workers at the start of the day and agreed with them to work the day for a single coin.a Then, throughout the day, he went back to the marketplace, finding additional workers and promising them a fair wage. The final group of workers was sent out at 5:00 — one hour before closing.b

At closing time, the landowner assembled his workers to pay their wages, starting with the most recent hires. Each worker was given a single coin, regardless of when they started. The earliest group of workers, who had been working all day, expected a higher payment than the others, and grumbled when they received the same coin as everyone else. The master replied to these workers that he was not being unfair because they were being paid what they agreed upon. It was the master’s prerogative to pay as he saw fit and to give generously to others. He had done them no wrong by paying them the same wage as those who had worked for only an hour.

This is a simple parable, but what points should we make from this passage?

First, why had Jesus taught this lesson to His disciples at this time? We can see the intended point of this story by looking at the events that led up to it. The rich young ruler comes to Jesus but leaves in sorrow because he cannot part with his wealth to follow Him (see here). This scene prompted a discussion with the disciples regarding the difficulty of a rich man entering the kingdom of heaven, but with God all things are possible. Peter declared that they had left all of their worldly goods for Him, so what kind of rewards will they have? The Lord’s response is that the twelve apostles will have authority over the tribes of Israel, but all who sacrifice for Jesus Christ will be richly rewarded. Everyone who has left people or possessions behind for His sake will receive back a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

So what was Jesus teaching His disciples with this parable? He had taught that they would be richly rewarded for what they had given up for His sake, and will have eternal life. In this context, He uses the parable to show them that the extent of their rewards cannot be compared with others — neither in their amount nor in their timing.c There is no room for personal pride nor entitlement in God’s kingdom. The rewards are totally up to God’s sovereign will, but he promises to bless all of us. Be happy that you are blessed and don’t focus on what the others have.

Some workers will work longer, will accomplish more, and may be more famous in His service. Some of His children will live and die in obscurity, completely forgotten by the rest of the world. But neither of these factors are important to The Lord. All who serve Him will have sufferings and persecutions in this world, but will be generously rewarded in His Kingdom.

As we apply this section of God’s Word to our own lives, we first need to to remember not to be concerned about others. God’s plan for others is none of our business. This was the same message that Jesus gave to Peter at the end of His ministry when he asked about John (see here). Our Lord’s message to Peter still applies to us today as he told him, “Don’t worry about my plans for him, you follow me!”

Secondly, we need to remember that God has not forgotten us. He is watching us through every trial and heartache that we are going through. When we obeyed Him and everything worked out with wonderful results, He was there! He has not forgotten and we will be richly rewarded for our service to Him. 

But there are the other times when we simply struggle to get up in the morning. We try to follow Him but things only seem to get worse. We have no words of wonderful praise in our hearts, and everything we do seems to be thrown back into our faces. Yet even in these dark days, He is still there. He has not forgotten and we will be richly rewarded for our struggle for Him. 

Some days we are like Daniel. We give counsel to kings and face down the hungry lions that would devour us. But other days we are like Jeremiah, crying out to God from the bottom of a muddy well. But take comfort that He has not forgotten us! He will give us strength to get through today and promises a wonderful reward in His kingdom!

Mark 10:29-30
Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.

Romans 8:18
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

Hebrews 13:5
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Previous Post: What is In The Way?


References

[1] Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold The King, Kregel Publications, 1980, Matthew 19:30-20:34, pages 229-236

[2] H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Matthew 19, The New Law of the Kingdom

[3] H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Matthew 20, Kingdom Standards

[4] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Matthew 19:27-20:34, pages 60-62

[5] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book V, CHAPTER V: THE THIRD DAY IN PASSION-WEEK, THE LAST SERIES OF PARABLES: TO THE PHARISEES AND TO THE PEOPLE, ON THE WAY TO JERUSALEM: THE PARABLE OF THE LABOURERS IN THE VINEYARD, IN THE TEMPLE: THE PARABLE OF THE ‘NO’ AND ‘YES’ OF THE TWO SONS, THE PARABLE OF THE EVIL HUSBANDMEN EVILLY DESTROYED, THE PARABLE OF THE MARRIAGE OF THE KING’S SON AND THE WEDDING GARMENT (St. Matt. 19: 30, 20: 16; St. Matt. 21: 28-32; St. Mark 12: 1-12; St. Luke 20: 9-19; St. Matt. 22: 1-14.), https://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/lifetimes.x.v.html

[6] Doug Bookman, Life of Christ, Audio Series, Lecture 11, https://www.christianity.com/jesus/life-of-jesus/harmony-of-the-gospels/29-jesus%E2%80%99s-strategic-route-to-jerusalem-and-the-triumphal-entry.html

[7] Stephen Davey, The Master Craftsman, Matthew 20, 1/20/1991

[8] John MacArthur, Equality in the Kingdom, Matthew 19:30-20:16, Jun 12, 1983

[9] John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson, 2005, Matthew 20:1-34, pages 1161-1162

[10] D.A. Carson, Editor, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Zondervan, 2010, Matthew 19:30-20:34


Notes

[a] The single coin of payment was a denarius, which was equivalent to a day’s wages for a farmer or laborer. It would have been a high wage for a field worker at that time.8

[b] The work day began at 6:00 A.M. and went to about 6:00 P.M.9 The sequence of workers:

  • The first workers at 6:00am with the agreed-upon wage of a denarius (20:1-2).
  • The 9:00am workers with the promise to give them “whatever is right” (20:3-4).
  • The 12:00 noon workers with the same promises as the 9:00am workers (20:5).
  • The 3:00pm workers with the same promises as the 9:00am workers (20:5).
  • The 5:00pm workers with only one hour left in the work day. They are not given any promised wages (20:6-7).

[c] There are different interpretations of this parable that are important to mention:

  • Some commentators interpret the workers’ wages as salvation. By this interpretation, salvation is equally given to all of God’s children and it matters not regarding their time of entrance, nor how much they have struggled in this world. This interpretation has a lot of merit, but it puts a lot of assumptions into the parable. Jesus does mention eternal life to the disciples as part of the rewards, but it is placed as a secondary point. The main point seems to be that they will be greatly rewarded many times over what it has cost them. We run contrary to the point of the parable when we try to extract what the specific rewards will be. Another weakness of this interpretation is the fact that the payment is a reward for working. The entire point of the rich young ruler is that you show your saving faith by your works (see here), but that does not picture the laborers working through the heat of the day for their salvation. Therefore, we can acknowledge the merit of this interpretation but it isn’t the strongest answer.
  • Many commentators also see a eschatological or dispensational point in this parable. They identify the Jewish believers as the first laborers and believing Gentiles as the later workers. Therefore, according to this interpretation, Jesus was teaching His disciples that the believing Gentiles have just as equal part of salvation as the original believing Jews. Note that this interpretation often goes along with the salvation interpretation above. But the most significant problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t fit the context of Jesus’ message. The promise of future Gentile believers is yet to be realized, and He is teaching now about the current kingdom and preparing them for His impending death and resurrection. This interpretation makes a great theological point but it would be way beyond the understanding of the disciples at the time.
  • One other interpretation used this parable to show that it was wrong for the first group of laborers to agree to a wage. They would have been much better off if they relied on the master’s generosity like the others. This strikes me as reading way too much into the parable to come up with this interpretation. The master never criticizes initial laborers for making an original contract with him — he only tells them that it’s none of their business how he treats other workers!
  • Therefore, the interpretation that makes the most sense is that the parable is about the rewards in God’s kingdom, and that they are totally subject to the generosity of our Lord. Some will be rewarded more for less work, and some will be rewarded much sooner than others. Not all will be equal but all will be blessed in God’s kingdom. The quantity and the timing of the rewards is up to God’s sovereign will.

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