Does Matthew 19:30 mean that Christians who are first in this life will be last in the kingdom and Christians who are last in this life will be first in the kingdom?
The phrase “first will be last and the last, first” can be found in four major passages of the Bible: Matthew 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31 and Luke 13:30. Both Matthew 19:30 and Mark 10:31 are about the same parable. There are two different events.
Parable of the Vineyard
The first time the phrase “first will be last and the last will be first” occurs in scripture is in Matthew 19:29-30. It introduces a parable which begins and ends with this phrase. Jesus had just told the disciples that it was hard for a wealthy person to enter heaven (Matt. 19:23-26). The Jews believed that wealthy people could gain God’s favor and righteousness by giving money (alms). This was a surprise to Peter. Here is Peter’s response.
Then Peter answered and said to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?” (NASB) Matthew 19:27
In essence, Peter is asking, “Then how can I get into heaven if even the wealthy cannot?” Jesus explains by using a parable about a vineyard owner who hires some laborers in the morning to work his vineyard. Throughout the day, he continues hiring others to work the vineyard. Finally, Jesus repeats the statement “the first will be last and the last will be first” for emphasis. At the end of the parable, the phrase is actually reversed.
And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last; and the last, first. Matthew 19:29-30 (NASB)
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?’ So the last shall be first, and the first last. Matthew 20:15-16 (NASB)
In the context of the passage, the phrase “the first will be last and the last will be first” does not mean one person gains more honor than another. It means that while a person may be first in this life with honor or wealth, that does not hold true in God’s kingdom. Salvation or eternal life is not earned by one’s status in this life.
Depart From Me, All You Evildoers
Jesus uses the phrase again in the illustration about those who seek to gain Jesus’ favor by telling Him all of the things they did for Him in this life. The impression left is that these religious people thought they were good people.
Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets’; and He will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you are from; DEPART FROM ME, ALL YOU EVILDOERS.’ “In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves being thrown out. And they will come from east and west and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last.” (NASB) Luke 13:26-30
The key to understanding this parable occurs when Jesus says, “. . . . when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves being thrown out.” This reveals that Jesus was talking to the Jewish religious leaders who thought that they were first in Israel due to their rabbinic positions. They thought that they would enter the kingdom first. They considered themselves to be privileged. The Jews were God’s chosen people (Deuteronomy 7:6-7) and the religious leaders knew it. They assumed that heaven was guaranteed to them because they were Jews by race. Later the apostle Paul states,
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. Romans 1:16 (NASB)
That is, the gospel was given to the Jews first. Jesus ministered to them first during His ministry and the apostles preached the gospel to the Jews on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). The gospel was to be given to the Jews as a divine principle and then to the Gentiles or Greeks. Romans 9 reveals that the promises were given to the Jews first and then prophetically promised to the Gentiles.
This helps us understand that Jesus told the religious leaders that, yes, they were first in God’s plan, but they will be last since they were rejecting Him. Some day He will tell them that He never knew them. Then He concluded the parable by reversing the phrase “first will be last and the last, first.” He says, “some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last.” Both phrases make it clear that we do not gain heaven by who we are or what we have done in this life. It is God’s decision. The vineyard owner decides. Salvation or eternal life is not earned by one’s status in this life.
Every time the phrase “last shall be first and the first last” occurs in scripture, it refers to the fact that one’s position in this life does not give a person an advantage in gaining eternal life or salvation. Every time Jesus uses the phrase, the message is the same. It does not matter who we are in this world or what we have done. Eternal life is for those who believe in Him, who are repentant of their sins and commit themselves to Him. Too often we miss the meaning of the words “believe in Jesus.” The Greek word for “believe” literally means “to trust” or “to have faith” or “to depend.” It is sometimes translated as “to obey.” So when Jesus says we are to believe, He is also saying “to trust or depend” on Him. This is commitment. It is more than intellectual knowledge about Him. Those who are “first” in this life will not obtain eternal life unless they believe in Christ, are repentant of their sins and commit themselves to follow Him. Those who are poor and insignificant in this life can gain eternal life by faith and might have great rewards in heaven for faithful service.