The saying of Jesus that “the first will be last and the last will be first” is found in several places in the Gospels and has been the source of much discussion and debate over the centuries. At its core, this enigmatic statement seems to overturn conventional ideas about status, prestige, and honor. In the kingdom of God, Jesus indicates, things do not work in the expected manner. The proud are brought low and the humble exalted. This article will explore the meaning and significance of this important saying of Jesus.
The Saying in Context
The first occurrence of this saying is in Matthew 19:30, at the conclusion of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man who asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow Him. The young man goes away grieved, unable to part with his wealth. Jesus then says to His disciples, “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 19:28-30, ESV).
This statement comes on the heels of Jesus’ call to wholehearted commitment to following Him, without reservation and regardless of the cost. The Twelve are promised honor and authority in the age to come, but Jesus warns that conventional status markers will be reversed. Many of the presumed “first” – the rich, the powerful, the elite – will end up last. And many of the “last” – the poor, the marginalized, the outcast – will be first in God’s kingdom.
The saying appears again at the end of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). In this story, a landowner hires workers at various times throughout the day, even up to the last hour before quitting time. Yet at day’s end, he pays all the workers the same full day’s wage, even those who only worked for one hour. When those hired first complain, the landowner asks, “Are you envious because I am generous?” (20:15). Then Jesus reiterates, “So the last will be first, and the first last” (20:16).
Here the point seems to be that God’s reckoning of reward and status does not follow conventional human understandings of merit and equitable payment for services rendered. God is radically generous to all who respond to His call, whenever they may do so, upending normal ideas of entitlement and worth.
In Mark 10:31, the saying is also situated in Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man, followed by His call to self-sacrifice and discipleship. The Twelve will be rewarded, but “many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Luke 13:30 places the saying after Luke’s version of the narrow door – “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” – again indicating reversal of conventional status.
A Reversal of Worldly Status
A key theme running through these passages is reversal of status – in God’s kingdom, human rankings and prestige markers will be turned upside down. The first will be made last, and the last first. As Darrell Bock says, this reversal means “the last socially will be first with God and the first socially will be last with God.”
Several aspects of Jesus’ teaching indicate how this reversal will happen.
Reversal of earthly wealth and power. The rich and powerful are often honored in earthly societies. But Jesus says the wealthy will face challenges entering God’s kingdom (Matt 19:23-26). Those who give up earthly advantages will gain eternal rewards.
Reversal of privilege. The Pharisees and religious leaders enjoyed great social privilege and honor in Israel. But Jesus often clashed with them. He warned that tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the kingdom before the privileged religious class (Matt 21:31).
Reversal of ethnic and social barriers. Jews in Jesus’ day took ethnic pride in being Abraham’s descendants. But Jesus said God could raise up children for Abraham from the Gentile stones (Matt 3:9). And Samaritans – despised by the Jews – are upheld as models of neighborliness (Luke 10:29-37).
Reversal of human merit. The first workers in the vineyard presume pay based on their labor. But God’s grace transcends normal merit. The thief on the cross receives salvation despite a misspent life (Luke 23:39-43).
As Craig Blomberg states, Jesus “redefines true greatness and rewards in his kingdom in a radically unconventional way.” Standard societal values are overturned.
A Promise to the Faithful
At the same time, Jesus’ saying contains a promise of future blessing and honor for His faithful followers who may lack status in the present age. […] Many of Jesus’ original disciples fit this description – common laborers such as fishermen. They left behind their livelihoods and families to follow Him. Though obscure in earthly terms, they are promised thrones and judging authority in the coming kingdom.
Throughout church history, the “last” have often taken encouragement from this saying. The persecuted and marginalized, those rejected by human society, can take hope that in God’s eyes they are valued and honored. Their eternal reward and status is secure.
A Warning to the Self-Righteous
This saying also contains a sober warning to those resting on worldly status or privilege and looking down on others. Position and power can blind people to their own spiritual poverty. The Pharisees, confident in their own righteousness, rejected the kingdom when it came to them (Luke 7:29-30). They scorned sinners while justifying themselves.
This remains a danger for believers in any age – relying on pedigree, education, privilege, wealth, or recognition before others. These may cover spiritual emptiness or even outright sin and rebellion. And God will not be fooled by outward appearances or human measures.
As Craig Blomberg states: “No earthly pedigree automatically guarantees admission to God’s kingdom. Racial, economic, educational, national, and ecclesiastical privilege all prove unreliable as indicators of spiritual life and maturity.”
Present Dimness, Future Brightness
In God’s present kingdom, the faithful last may endure lack of status and hardship. By worldly measures, their lives seem small and insignificant. But in eternity, they will receive honor, authority, and rewards from the King’s hand. Their sacrifices in this life will be remembered, vindicated, and rewarded in the next.
Thus this saying offers both warning and encouragement. It warns against pride, self-reliance, and looking down on others who seem “lesser.” And it encourages those who faithfully follow Christ, regardless of opposition and outward circumstances. Together, these twin messages provide strong motivation to walk in humility, love, and bold obedience before Jesus, leaving judgments to Him.
The Great Reversal Accomplished at the Cross
At a deeper level, Jesus’ saying about the first and last points beyond reversals of status to the very heart of the gospel. The greatest “reversal of the reversals” happened at Golgotha, where the Messiah hung abandoned and cursed:
“Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)
The Eternal Word, through whom the universe was created, enters human existence as a helpless infant. The Lord of Glory is baptized by a prophet to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). The Prince of Life suffers the most degrading, tortuous death known to man. The Sinless One becomes sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). The Author of Salvation is made perfect through suffering (Hebrews 2:10).
This is the great reversal that grounds our salvation. The First became Last so that we last could be first. The Creator subjected Himself to His creatures’ curse so that His creatures could become true sons and daughters.
For believers, our status is secured by what Christ accomplished on our behalf, not by our own striving or willpower. Our right standing before God comes through grace alone. The good we do flows from having been justified and reconciled already – rewards of grace, not for grace.
Gerhard Forde says it well: “We have the cart before the horse if we think that we first have to become something in order to be justified, that we have to lay claim to some righteousness of our own. To be justified is to be declared righteous, to be pronounced innocent. It is not in the first place to be made righteous, holy, etc., as a preparation for being justified. We are made righteous as a consequence of being declared righteous.”
With Christ’s finished work as the foundation, believers live in freedom and hope. The first have become last so that we last may be first. All boasting is excluded – except boasting in the cross alone (Galatians 6:14).
Implications and Application
What are some key implications and applications of this important saying of Jesus?
Status means nothing before God. Outward human measures of importance do not determine position in God’s kingdom. Ethnicity, wealth, achievement, and privilege offer no special standing.
Worldly power must lead to selfless service. If status is given, it should modeled on Jesus’ example of kneeling to wash feet, not lording over others (John 13:5, 14-15). Authority is for empowering and elevating others.
Identification with the marginalized. Following Jesus means solidarity and companionship with the oppressed, not seeking status or comfort. We go to those on the underside of power.
Waiting on reward. Present low position will be reversed in due time. Your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor 15:58). For now, embrace obscurity and lack of recognition.
Living simply. Follow Jesus’ example and instruction regarding money and possessions. Reject greed and accumulated wealth that fuel self-importance.
Beware spiritual pride. Reckon yourself “chief of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15) saved only by grace. Remember that apart from Christ, you would be last.
Eternal investment over earthly. Pour out your life for what lasts forever. All our status ambitions will burn away in the purifying fire of Christ’s return.
The upside-down economy of God’s kingdom dethrones human values focused on power, honor, and control. But for those willing to live under Jesus’ rule, it provides hope and purpose for this life and the next.
The first will be last, and the last first.