On different occasions Jesus said that “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”
He said it in that unqualified form in Matthew 29:16: “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.”
In Mark 9:35 the unqualified form again appears, but now as good counsel, “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.”
But in Matthew 19:30; Mark 10:31 and Luke 13:30 He qualifies the statement by the word “many.” Not all that are first will become last, but many that are now first shall be last. And Paul in I Corinthians 4:9 states; “For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels and to men.” Therein he also speaks of only some being last; and he speaks of being last in this life, believing that they shall be first at last in the day of Christ.
The unqualified statement surely will stand. The last shall be first; and the first shall be last. When you are speaking of the judgment of mere man, of fallen man, of man apart from the regenerating grace of God, this certainly is absolutely true. For such always, that is, such men, the-unregenerated, fallen sinners, always judge differently from God. What they judge to be first always is last; and what they judge to be last always is first. The judgment of the unregenerated never agrees with God, even when they declare the mathematical fact that two added to two makes four. For the unregenerated always leave God out of their reckoning and judgment. And this important element left out always means that the resultant judgment is not only short of God’s judgment but contrary to it. The natural man never calls first in importance what God calls important. And his end is never the glory of God but the satisfaction of man’s flesh. In the light of that satisfaction of the flesh the natural man judges whether objects and-persons are first or last. These, then, that God calls first, because their end is the glory of God, the world calls the offscouring and scum of humanity.
However, we purpose to deal here with the qualified phrase that many that are first shall be last, and many that are last shall be first. There is, of course, also the truth that many shall not be in the kingdom at all. Many are called, but few are chosen. And this does not mean that many are invited, offered salvation, presented with a conditional promise; but few are wise enough to accept. That many are called means that allwho hear the preaching are commanded by the living God to believe it; but few are chosen by Him to receive the spiritual strength and grace to believe it. We concern ourselves at the moment not with these that are considered first but do not at last find themselves, and are not found by others, to be in the kingdom at all. Jesus says that many in the kingdom that are last shall in the kingdom be first; and many that are first in the kingdom according to man’s judgment shall still be in the kingdom in the day of Christ, but shall be last in that kingdom in comparison with others.
There are various reasons why those who are first in the kingdom today will be last in the day of Christ. There is certainly that obvious fact that men fall from their high estate in later life. Men who are respected for their spiritual stand and manifestations of spiritual courage do under stress and severe temptations fall. We sometimes say, “the bigger the man, the harder the fall!” And we see this temporarily in Peter, who boasted of being in the front line of the battle, but fell to last place before a mere damsel. We see the latter end of Solomon to be far less glorious than the beginning, even as the last days of David were not characterized by the power of faith that his early days revealed. There is not a falling from grace. Once a believer; always a believer. That is God’s promise. On its basis Paul can say that “He Who hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ? Philippians 1:6. And John can say that “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” That verse in I John 3:9 certainly does not allow the idea of a falling away from grace. But one can in later life fall from his steadfastness, as Peter declares in II Peter 3:17.
There is also the fact that we cannot read the heart. We, therefore, place first, and acknowledge as first, those who make an outward display that is not the true manifestation of the spiritual condition of their hearts. Once again, we are not thinking of the Ananiases and Sapphiras, who for a time—short as it might be—are given big places in the church, only to fall away completely. We mean these who are in the kingdom and Will be found at the last day in the kingdom, but will not be seen to be in the first position that we ascribed to them.
We so quickly judge a man to be first because of his knowledge and natural abilities. Because he can pray so easily in public; because of natural abilities of speaking, arguing, teaching and the like, we assume that such has a big and first place in the kingdom. He does in our church or congregation; and we readily concede the same as far as the kingdom of God is concerned. And since we are not able to read the heart, we judge them to be first because of external deeds. God knows them to be less than many humble folk who have less of these natural abilities but have been gifted with spiritual graces.
There is, therefore, that great danger of hero worship instead of divine worship. And then it often proves not to be hero worship for mighty deeds of spiritual valor, but of earthly achievement and success. There are those who “love a good fight” and are ready to match their mental and oratorical abilities with others. There are likewise those who lack this ability and courage, but love to witness a good fight. And the man who is so quick of wit and sharp of tongue becomes their hero. Indeed, the battlefield is the doctrine of the church and the truths of Scripture. But just because a man fights on that battlefield and with such natural skill does not mean yet that he is in the kingdom in front of others without that ability. If he does it merely because he loves a good fight and to exercise his natural abilities, or let us say, in the measure that he does This because he loves a good fight and to exercise his abilities, the spiritual value of his work lessens, and he does not have that foremost place that men may readily grant to him. Being unable to read the heart, we are not able to determine which it is. And the words of Jesus have their power and warning that many that are first shall be last; and many that are last shall be first.
Then, too, there is that Laodicean tendency of the day, when men are lukewarm and neither hot nor cold, to leave it all to those who are officially first in the church. This is one of the crying evils of the day. In the presence of apostasy, in the eyes of change, definite doctrinal and practical change, one hears so often today the excuse that our minister, our professors, our elders and deacons, the men first in the church, know more than. we and whatever they decide and do is agreeable and best. It is so easy for convenience of the flesh’s sake to assume the lukewarm attitude, of doing no study, lifting no finger, raising no objection, putting up no opposition at all, and of letting the “first” in the church lead that church to a position of last in rank, as far as loyalty to the truth of God’s Word is concerned and to the practical way of life which the Scriptures demand. This is all in line with the old convenient slogan, “My Church—right or wrong.”
Let us open our eyes and beware and see that we are in the Laodicean age of lukewarmness. People simply do not care. They do not care to get involved. They wash their hands of the whole business and leave it all to the “leaders,” even though it is apparent that they are misleaders. Men boast of having a friendly church and loathe the very idea of being soldiers of the cross of Christ. A fatal desire prevails for peace also in the church at the expense of the truth and God’s glory. And men who will stand and fight for the truth are considered to be rebels in the church rather than “heroes of faith.” Jesus is pictured as the Prince of Peace Who also seeks peace at the expense of justice and truth, a Prince Who seeks peace at any cost, a Prince Who seeks peace by compromise and agreement with the evil doer and false prophet.
All this is despising the very King of the Church. All this is putting first that which ought to be last. All this is being concerned with the material rather than the spiritual. And Jesus says, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these (material things) shall be added unto you.” In a wrong desire for the material they have changed it all to, “Seek ye first the material well being of your church; and all these spiritual things, somehow, will be added.” But the folly of it all will become plain in the day of Christ. And the churches first in numbers, and power and prestige and earthly riches, will at last be shown to be last: and some indeed even outside of the kingdom. For Jesus gives His warning that He will spew her out of His mouth. And He counsels her to buy of Him gold tried in the fire, that they may truly be rich. Revelation 3:14-22.
And let us also beware lest we despise the Spirit of God and thus God Himself. These “little folk” have that Spirit; and often in greater abundance than those “big” men in the church. Their simple childlike faith that humbles them to turn the other cheek, to suffer injury, to be the peacemakers, to fail to return an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, that in their own quiet way worship God and walk in love to Him are not to be shoved aside as nobodies in the church. At the last they may well be first, ahead of those who were so highly esteemed and respected by men. Despise not the Spirit of God in them that makes them walk as Jesus Himself walked, and to manifest a Christ like walk.
These, too, when the time comes may well, after protest after protest, and rebuke after rebuke, with frustration after frustration at the ecclesiastical levels hear the call of Christ and open the door of the church by coming out and establishing a new congregation where Christ will be preached and where He will come in to bless the preaching. And they will be first, because the rest Christ spews out of His mouth as distasteful to Him because of its political harangues, social “gospel” philosophical “sermons” instead of the gospel of Christ crucified and salvation by His bloodand Spirit.
It is not a question as to whether we travel first class here below on plane and train, stay in first class hotels and the like, but as to what comes first in your life: God and His glory, or you and your comfort and ease and honour. Seek these earthly things first, and you will land up last in the kingdom. Have concern for that which is first in God’s estimation, namely, His glory and praise, and you will find yourself first in His kingdom. For He declared Himself through Isaiah, “This people have I formed for myself, They shall show forth My praises.” Isaiah 43:21. And Peter declares, “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a peculiar people that ye should show forth the praises of Him Who hath called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. I Peter 2:9. Our calling is plain: God and His glory and praises must be first in our lives. Then, though now we are despised, we shall at last be first in His kingdom.