The first shall be last and the last shall be first

As Christians today, we sometimes struggle to understand everything Jesus said.

One of His emphatic and often repeated statements is found in the gospel of Matthew.”But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:30 NKJ). It seems Jesus is always intent on disturbing the order of society, upsetting the status quo, and making controversial statements. A  number of times during His ministry, would-be disciples fell away, puzzled and upset by such anomalies. Why should the order be reversed? First century Jews in Palestine were well versed in scripture, and somehow these words didn’t seem to fit. The Rabbis of that time were highly regarded, and riches were seen as blessings from God. These were among the ‘first’ on the social and religious ladder.

On another occasion, Jesus told His audience: “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God, but yourselves thrown out...Indeed there are those who are last who shall be first, and first who will be  last” (Luke 13:28-30).

Jesus’ mother, Mary, inspired by the Holy Spirit, said to her cousin Elizabeth, “...He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble” (Luke 2:51).

Perhaps there’s a clue here, seeing pride ranks high on the list of deadly sins (Proverbs 6:16-19).

Last of all

Moving forward into the first century church, the Apostle Paul seems to confirm this reverse order. In social, political and religious standing, Paul certainly ranked among the ‘first.’ Besides being a Roman citizen, a privilege in itself, he also had an impressive pedigree. “Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews... As for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (Philippians 3:5). Yet Paul was drafted into Christ’s service at a time when the other apostles were already experienced preachers.

Writing to the Corinthians, he quotes from the prophet Isaiah, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of  the intelligent I will frustrate...But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:19,27). Paul tells the same people that the risen Christ appeared to him “last of all, as one abnormally born” – after appearing to Peter, 500 brothers on another occasion, then to James and all the apostles.  Another clue? The weak and foolish will shame the wise and strong?

Often, when God intervened directly in the course of Israel’s history, He reversed the expected order.

Esau was the firstborn, but Jacob inherited the birthright. Ishmael was Abraham’s firstborn, but the birthright was given to Isaac. When Jacob blessed Joseph’s two sons, He placed the younger son – Ephraim – before Manasseh. And when Israel’s first king, Saul, failed utterly to obey God in ruling the nation, He chose David, one of the sons of Jesse. But David was out in the fields keeping sheep, and had to be called in specially to attend the anointing. As the youngest, he was not even considered a worthy candidate for the position. Again, here was a ‘man after God’s own heart’ chosen before all the other more important brothers.

Public approval

Jesus had a lot to say about the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. Almost all of chapter 23 of Matthew’s gospel is directed at them. They loved the best seats in the synagogue; they loved to be greeted in the market places, and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ Everything they did was done for public approval. But a momentous change was soon to take place. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem often have I longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate...”The top brass was soon to be thrown out.

But we might still ask what is the point of exalting the humble and humbling the exalted? Could it be that God is telling us that whatever blessings we have, are gifts from Him, and nothing to boast about? Pride marked the beginning of Satan’s downfall and it’s just as deadly for humans. Once it gets a grip on us, it changes our whole outlook. Today it’s often the educated elite who don’t believe in God. And they look down on others who do.

Jesus made an interesting statement in Matthew 12:32. The Pharisees who were listening to Him speak, had just accused him of casting out demons in the name of Beelzebub, the prince of demons. “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or the age to come.” This looks like a final judgment against the Pharisees, who witnessed so many miracles, yet turned their backs on what was so clearly true and miraculous. As a kind of last resort, they asked Him for a sign. But they were playing for time, because they were plotting to kill Him anyway.  Was this perhaps the sin against the Holy Spirit, for which they could not be forgiven, either in the age when Jesus walked the earth ( Old Covenant), or the age to come (the New  Covenant age of the church)? Is forgiveness still possible for them? In spite of their pride and obstinacy, Jesus loves them and wants them to come to repentance.

As always there were exceptions. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, wanting to understand more, but fearing the Sanhedrin (John 3:1). He later accompanied Joseph of Arimithea as he placed Jesus’ body in the tomb. Gamaliel cautioned the Pharisees against opposing the apostles’ preaching (Acts 5:34). Perhaps there were others in their number who had reservations about possibly opposing God.

Shut out of the Kingdom?

In Revelation 20:11 we read of a judgment before a Great White Throne with Jesus judging the ‘rest of the dead.’ Could it be that these prominent teachers of Israel, the ‘first’ of their society back then, could at last see Jesus whom they crucified, for who He really is? This is undeniable proof, far better than any ‘sign’ they might have hoped for.  But at the same time, they themselves  are ‘shut out’ of the Kingdom. They would see those from the east and from the west, people who they might have looked down on, people who never had the advantage of knowing the Scriptures, occupying seats at the feast of the Kingdom of God (Luke 13:29). What could be more humiliating?

Then there is the famous “dry bones” chapter of Ezekiel 37. God gives the prophet a startling vision in the valley of dry bones, where, with a ‘rattling sound’, the bones start assembling themselves and morph into human beings. God tells the prophet that these bones are the whole house of Israel, (Pharisees included). They say, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.” But God says, “O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. There you, my people will know that I am the Lord...”

Why does God plan to put many who are first, last and the last first? We know God loves everyone – the first, the last and all those in between. He desires a relationship with us all, but the Holy Spirit cannot work in a proud mind.

The priceless gift of repentance can only be given to those who humbly accept God’s amazing grace and His perfect will.