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Jesus, quite literally, turned the world upside down, challenging our attitudes and assumptions towards just about everything.  He told us that in order to be truly wealthy, we need to sell all our possessions (Luke 12:33 ).  If we want to be able to see, we need to recognise our blindness (John 9:39-41 ).  If we wish to be great, we need to become servants to all (Luke 22:25-27 ).  And, if we hope to gain our life, then we need to first lay it down (John 12:25 ).  (Some other examples of this "inversion principle" can be found in Matthew 5:6 ; Matthew 5:10-12 ; 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 ; 1 Corinthians 3:18-21 ; 1 Corinthians 4:9-10 ; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 ; and James 4:10 .)

A paradoxical teaching which, in various forms, is repeated several times, is that "The last shall be first".  I believe Jesus was trying to communicate something rather significant through this statement, which is why he felt it necessary to reiterate it so many times.  This article will attempt to explore the spiritual and practical implications relating to four occasions where this teaching was given.

In Mark 10:30 , Jesus says: "Many that are first shall be last; and the last first".  Interestingly, this comes directly after Jesus tells Peter that anyone who has "left house, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for his sake, and the gospel's… would receive a hundred fold now in this time... and in the world to come eternal life."  Prior to this, Jesus had instructed the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions if he wished to inherit eternal life, something the young man decided against doing due to his great wealth.  So, becoming "last" here, in modern terms, may mean dropping out of the rat race, in order to find true wealth.

In worldly terms, it may appear foolish for us to willingly give away everything we own.  However, if we end up receiving many times more materially in this world, in addition to spiritual benefits, both in this world and the next, then perhaps the people who apply this teaching are not so foolish, after all!  There is a saying that “God always gives His best to those who leave the choice with him.”  People like the rich young ruler may appear wealthy in one respect, but they are impoverished in other more important ways.  We may have all the wealth in the world, but this will not stop us from being sent to the back of the queue spiritually if we choose to hold onto it when God has told us to let go. (Mark 8:36-37 )

Earlier in that same chapter, Jesus tells his followers that the only way to enter the Kingdom of God is to become “as a little child.” (Mark 10:15 )  Here, too, the paradox of becoming small to become great is being preached.  It is wise to remember that we enter (as a little child) and leave the world with nothing. (1 Timothy 6:7 )  In light of this, we're on a definite losing streak if we refuse to let go of anything, especially our inanimate possessions.  Only by returning to a state of complete, child-like dependency on God will we come out "on top".   So, the first lesson I see from this instruction to become first by becoming last, is that we need to let go of temporal wealth in order to gain eternal wealth.

In the preceding chapter, we read another instance of Jesus making the same incredible observation.  He says: "If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all." (Mark 9:35 )  Here the emphasis is on our relationship to others.  Once we have sold all our possessions, we need to get busy serving others.  I personally believe the primary reason we are commanded to forsake all, is to get rid of any excess baggage hindering us from speaking the Truth and practically helping others.

Sadly, the world usually looks down on servants, while putting those being served on pedestals.  It is encouraging to learn that God does the complete opposite.  We are told that if we choose to humble ourselves by taking the lowest seat, we will be lifted up higher (Luke 14:8-11 ).  But if we end up appearing to be at the top of the pile in this world, then we are likely to face a very different reality when we die (Luke 16:19-26 ).

The third instance where Jesus makes this same point is at the end of Luke 13:23-30 : "And, behold, there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last".  In the context here, the people who make assumptions about their salvation based on their religious affiliation are cast out of God's Kingdom, while "all the prophets" and those "from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south" make it in.  I believe this passage is talking about our sincerity being far more important than our theology.  It is not enough to start down the right path.  Rather, it takes a lifetime of sincerity to make it ultimately into the Kingdom of Heaven.

When Jesus comes back, we may be surprised to find sincere people from different nations and from different religious traditions having the door to the Kingdom opened to them.  At the same time, those of us who convinced ourselves that we had the right status or religion, while forgetting to devote our lives in the pursuit of love, will be shut out.  Some other verses that support this idea are: Matthew 7:21-23 ; 1 John 4:7 ; and Matthew 25:31-46 .

The fourth instance of Jesus making this same point is in Matthew 20:1-16 .  Here Jesus says: "So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many are called, but few are chosen."  This comes at the end of the parable of the labourers.  In this parable, the workers who are hired at the beginning of the day get grouchy with the Lord of the vineyard after he decides to pay them the same wage as those he chooses to hire later on, even right at the end of the day.

The problem with the grouchy labourers is that by the close of play they are in a backslidden state.  In fact, it is possible that their attitude at the end may betray their wrong attitude from the start.  Forsaking all, serving others, and recognising sincerity in others should not be drudges; they should be seen as privileges.

When we first come to God, we are usually full of appreciation for having been given a second chance.  Jesus said that he came to "call sinners unto repentance." (Luke 5:32 )  In light of this, it is ludicrous for us “sinners” to think we are justified in being angry with God for allowing someone else to enjoy the same reward as us (i.e. the reward of being closer to God), regardless of when God decides to rescue them!

In Revelation 2:2-5 , Jesus urges the "patient labourers" of the Church at Ephesus "to repent and do the first works" because they have "left their first love".  In verse 7 of the parable of the labourers (referred to above) Jesus says: "He [the Lord] said to them, Go you also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall you receive."  I believe this is implying that righteousness is its own reward, and that doing good works with the right attitude IS the Kingdom of Heaven.

We may forsake all our possessions and spend years working for God and others.  However, if we lose the gratitude that should go hand in hand with serving, then our efforts are likely to be in vain (1 Corinthians 13:3 ).

I believe something Jesus was trying to emphasize in the parable of the labourers, is the importance of us being inspired to do more when we see others succeeding in spiritual matters.  This is a far better use of our time and energy than being bitter that we have been slaving away for so long with such a "small reward".  If we have felt the latter, then perhaps our efforts were geared more towards building our own little kingdoms than with building the true Kingdom of God.  Perhaps this is why our reward felt so measly in the first place?   Certainly, the size of our reward seems to be proportional to the sincerity of our attitude, the latter being firmly within our control.

Jesus said: "when you shall have done those things which are commanded you, say We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do." (Luke 17:10 )  Referring to the "last days", Jesus also commanded us to: "Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man." (Luke 21:36 )  Naturally, we can only pray that we are “accounted worthy" if we have first been able to recognise our unworthiness.  It is this recognition that we need to hold on to, if we wish to "endure to the end to be saved." (Matthew 10:22 )

In conclusion, there is a fair bit of work we need to do in order to be considered "worthy" for entry into God's Kingdom!  After forsaking all our possessions, and humbling ourselves like little children, we must become the servants of everyone.  In addition to this, we need to remain prayerful and continually recognise our own unworthiness.  Last of all... or should I say first of all... we must never lose sight of our first love: being in God's presence and maintaining our enthusiasm for serving Him above all else.  Some may say it's a tall order!  But, it's the narrow way we are instructed to follow if we wish to end up being first when it really counts... either when we die, or when Jesus, the "Author and Finisher of our faith", returns for his faithful few.

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