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What Does 'The First Will Be Last, and the Last Will Be First' Mean in the Synoptic Gospels?

Contextual Analysis of the Phrase in the Synoptic Gospels


To understand the meaning of the phrase "the first will be last, and the last will be first," we need to examine the context in which it is used in the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew 19:30 and 20:16; Mark 10:31 and Luke 13:30.


In these passages, Jesus was addressing different audiences and contexts, but the underlying message remained the same. It was a profound teaching about the nature of the Kingdom of God and the attitudes and behaviors that God values.


Matthew 19:30 and 20:16: The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard


In Matthew 19:30, Jesus tells his disciples, "But many who are first will be last, and the last first." This statement follows the rich young ruler's refusal to give up his wealth to follow Jesus and Peter's question about what reward the disciples will receive for leaving everything to follow him.


Jesus then illustrates the meaning of this statement with the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16. In this parable, the landowner hires laborers at different hours of the day but gives them all the same wage, a denarius. Those who worked all day are upset that those who worked only an hour received the same pay.


The landowner's response in Matthew 20:13-15 emphasizes that he has done no wrong and that he has the right to do what he wants with his money. The parable concludes with a reiteration of the initial statement in Matthew 20:16, "So the last will be first, and the first last."


In this context, "the first will be last, and the last will be first" underscores that God's kingdom operates on principles of grace and mercy, not human merit or social status. It challenges human assumptions about fairness and entitlement, reminding us that God's generosity extends to all who answer his call, regardless of when they come.


Mark 10:31: In the Context of Wealth and the Kingdom of God


In Mark 10:31, the statement is made in the context of a conversation about wealth and the Kingdom of God. Jesus had just explained how difficult it would be for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God, leading the disciples to wonder who could be saved.


When Jesus reassures them that all things are possible with God, Peter reminds Jesus that they have left everything to follow him. Jesus acknowledges their sacrifice and assures them of their reward, both in the present age and in the age to come.


Here, the phrase "the first will be last, and the last will be first" conveys that human rankings based on wealth and status are irrelevant in the Kingdom of God. Instead, true greatness in God's Kingdom is found in self-sacrifice and service to others.


Luke 13:30: In the Context of the Narrow Door


In Luke 13:30, Jesus uses the phrase while teaching about the narrow door that leads to the Kingdom of God. He warns that many will try to enter and will not be able to and that those who are last (those who are considered least in this world) will be first in the Kingdom of God, and those who are first (those who are considered greatest in this world) will be last.

This teaching underscores the urgency of responding to the message of the Kingdom and the reversal of human expectations. Those who are considered insignificant or unimportant in the world's eyes—those who are "last"—will be honored in the Kingdom of God.


Conclusion


In all these contexts, the phrase "the first will be last, and the last will be first" serves as a profound critique of worldly values and a radical redefinition of greatness. It overturns human expectations and standards, emphasizing that God's Kingdom operates on principles of grace, mercy, and self-sacrificial love. It is a call to humility, service, and a radical reliance on God's generosity rather than our own merits or achievements.


About the Author

EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 220+ books. In addition, Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

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