What does it mean the first shall be last and the last shall be first?
The phrase the “first will be last; and the last, first” occurs in Matthew 19:30; Mark 10:31, and Luke 13:30. But we will focus on the Matthew passage, since it provides the key to understanding the phrase.
In order to understand the phrase, it is important to understand what happened before and after Jesus’ statement. Jesus had just finished telling His disciples that it was very difficult for a rich man to enter heaven. His disciples were surprised at His statement because the Jews believed that giving money gained favor with God. Since rich men can give more money, they can gain greater favor with God by giving more than other people.
And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And when the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, “Then who can be saved?” And looking upon them Jesus said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Then Peter answered and said to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?” 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. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, shall receive many times as much, and shall inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last; and the last, first.” (NASB) Matt. 19:28-30
So Peter reminded the Lord that they had left everything to follow Him and asks, ” . . . what then will there be for us?” Peter is worried. He seems to be asking, “Have we given enough?” Jesus encouraged Peter and His disciples and then made the statement, the “first will be last; and the last, first.”
Jesus then proceeded to explain His statement by using a parable. The parable is about a farmer who hired different men throughout the day to work his field. Each man agreed to be paid a certain amount of money for his work.
But many who are first will be last; and the last, first. For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, “You too go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.” And so they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing; and he said to them, “Why have you been standing here idle all day long?” (NASB) Matt. 19:30-20:6
When the day was over the farmer paid each worker one denarius. Each one was paid exactly the same amount;there were no exceptions. But the workers who had been laboring since the beginning of the day complained that it was not fair to pay everyone equally. They had worked all day and the last workers had only labored a short time. The farmer answered that how much he paid his workers was his choice.
” Take what is yours and go your way, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 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?” Thus the last shall be first, and the first last. (NASB) Matt. 20:14-16
Then Jesus once again adds the phrase, the “first will be last; and the last, first.” The meaning of Jesus’ phrase is that being first or last is not important. There is no advantage to being rich or being the first worker when talking about going to heaven. A person does not get into heaven because he or she works hard.
Jesus’ point is that we do not get into heaven because we are rich or have worked hard. We do not get into heaven by good works. God will not look at our works – how much or how little we have done. It does not depend on our efforts. It depends only on God and He gives heaven – a denarius – as a reward to each person who believes in Jesus Christ.