The First and the Last

Written by Drew on December 6th, 2005

“But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mt. 19:30).

Jesus expressed these words as a warning to his disciples, who, represented by Peter, had just finished a melodramatic groan about how much they had left to follow him (Mt. 19:27). He assured them they would receive a generous reward, but then cautioned that many who are “first” will be “last,” and vice versa.

I have been confused about this paradox since the first time I noticed it. Just who are the “first,” and what is meant by their being “last?” Who are the “last,” and in what way will they be promoted to “first?”

I have a vague memory of standing at the end of a line for the water fountain as a child, whereupon the teacher encouraged me to be patient, saying, “Now remember, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” Somehow I believe the Lord had deeper meanings in mind.

For a long time I assumed that being “last” was tantamount to eternal condemnation, but while this may be the correct interpretation in Luke 13:30 (which I do not plan to discuss), it is certainly not the idea in Matthew 19:30. For, after he expresses the paradox, Jesus explains it in a parable involving laborers in a vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16).

In the parable, “a master of a house,” who represents God, goes out early in the morning (probably 6:00 AM) to hire laborers to work in his vineyard. They agree upon a denarius, the typical day’s wage, and leave to do their work. At about the third hour (9:00 AM), the master finds more workers and hires them. He does this again at the sixth hour, the ninth hour, and the eleventh hour, just one hour away from quitting-time. When evening comes, the owner of the vineyard calls all the laborers together so he can pay their wages. He begins with the “last,” those hired at the eleventh hour, and gives to each of them a denarius. He continues in this manner until he comes to the “first,” those hired at the beginning of the day. They also receive a denarius. They grumble but are reminded that they had agreed on a denarius. The master says, “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?” (Mt. 20:14-15). Jesus then repeats his maxim: “So the last will be first, and the first last” (Mt. 20:16).

Neil Lightfoot, who wrote a two-volume set on the parables of Christ, called this “the most puzzling of all the parables.” However, it plainly sheds light on the question of the “first,” the “last,” and their inverted fates.

1. The “denarius” represents eternal life. This is obvious from the fact that it is given as a reward “when evening came,” a clear symbol of the end of time.

2. Both the “first” and the “last” are included in the same class as “laborers.” Some begin their work early in the day, and some late, but they are all laborers just the same.

3. Since the “denarius” represents eternal life, and since the “first” and the “last” are included in the same class as laborers, the fate Jesus describes in his statement “many who are first will be last” can be no less than eternal life. Thus, no one represented here is lost to eternal condemnation.

4. There is, however, a difference between the workers. Otherwise some would not be called “first” while others are called “last.” Also, if there were no difference, those who worked all day would not have grumbled. The difference, as it has already been explained, is not in what was rewarded, but rather in what was required. Some workers had to work twelve hours, while others only had to work one.

J.W. McGarvey and Philip Y. Pendleton write

…there must of necessity be a difference in the ratio of service which is rendered [for the reward], since it will be bestowed on the octogenarian and the child, upon Paul who made good the confession of his faith through years of toil, and the dying thief who passed to his reward while his voice of confession was, as it were, still ringing in the ears of those who heard it (1 Cor. xv.8-11; II. Tim. iv.6-9) (The Fourfold Gospel, 552).

The laborers in God’s kingdom are Christians. Some get an early start and make great sacrifices for their Lord. The apostles are examples of these. On the other hand, many never hear the gospel until it is too late to accomplish very much. But these, like those who achieved more, will be rewarded the same. In this sense they are “first” and their co-laborers who worked harder are “last.”

5. The lesson of the parable is that salvation is by grace (Rom. 3:24-26; Eph. 2:8-9). None of us has earned a position in heaven. Neither do we deserve eternal life. These things are solely the result of God doing what he chooses with what belongs to him (cf. Mt. 20:15).

6. Finally, it should be said that the parable of the laborers in the vineyard is not an endorsement of “deathbed repentance.” The eleventh-hour workers did not hear about the job at six in the morning and wait until the day was almost over before they started work. They began the work immediately upon hearing of the opportunity. Who is to say what will become of the one who procrastinates obedience until he knows he has little time? We know God does not guarantee us even a moment. He expects us to receive his salvation “now” (2 Cor. 6:2).

As I said earlier, there are other applications of this paradox (cf. Lk. 13:30), but this article aims to treat it as it appears in Matthew 19-20. Comments, questions, or disagreements are welcome.


Leave a Comment