Matthew 20:16, “So the last will be first, and the first last.”
A difficult text to interpret. But when put in its proper context of the labourers in the vineyard (vv. 1-15), perhaps it’s not too difficult (indeed, all verses must be interpreted in their given context, otherwise it makes no sense and we become unfaithful to the text). For if we were to summarise this parable in a succinct manner, what would we say about the labourers? Some came first, others came last, but the reward was the same—the first were humbled and the last were exalted. Thus, we have in this parable a possible double meaning—one eschatological and one practical.
Eschatologically, all labourers in the faith receive the same reward—eternal life in Christ. Whether one is first or last, it does not matter—we all receive the same reward. Abraham does not have a better reward just because he died in the faith before us, nor even the apostles. If I were to win a soul for Christ today and we both died tomorrow, I would not receive a greater reward or praise. Does a father love his firstborn more than his second or third born? No. In the same way, God the Father does not love more those who were first reborn in the Spirit.
Practically speaking, following Christ is living a paradox of being simultaneously humbled and exalted. When He says, “The first shall be last,” He removes any haughtiness we may place over others just because we have Christ and they don’t. He prevents us from exalting ourselves over lost sinners, whether that sinner be a prostitute, murderer, some other criminal, or poor person. Instead, He fills us with His compassion. And what is His compassion? When the Scriptures speak of His compassion for us, it is the word σπλάγχνον (splagchnon). It is the inward parts, the entrails—the gut! When Jesus has splagchnon on us, it is a love for us so deep in His guts, and this is the same compassion He enables us to have for others in place of a haughty heart.
Yet at the same time, when He says, “The last will be first,” He will not allow us to humble ourselves to the extreme, which is called self-loathing (even to the point of self-flagellation!). Humility is good and holy, but to humiliate ourselves to the point of despair is not good and holy. He will not allow it! Even if one were previously as wicked as Herod, Ahab, or Jezebel and came to know Christ, He lifts them from their humbled estate (Luke 1:52). Even when God forgives a murderer, He exalts him as if he were first. And we, in our haughtiness and hypocrisy, will not have it! We employ the unbiblical concept, “Only God can judge me.” 1) God judging us is the last thing we should want to happen. And 2) When God judges a wicked person blameless before Him (i.e. justification by faith), we are like Jonah and won’t let God have the final say in His gracious judgement! For were we not all wicked before God graciously judged us blameless on the basis of Christ alone?
We were all last, and He made us first. Yet lest we become haughty in our first place, He makes us last.