How to Be Last in a World Consumed by Firstness

I've read the gospels many times, but I always seem to stumble when Jesus says, "The last will be first." I have an inkling of understanding, but the gravity of the phrase seems to elude me.

What did Jesus mean when he said, "The last will be first, and the first will be last"?

Braden Collum

In providing some commentary on the subject I must first confess something you probably already know about me:

I'm obsessed with firstness. Yes, I know that's not a real word, but go with me on this one. You get my drift.

I want to be the best at whatever I endeavor; the best spouse, the best author, the best money manager, the best Christian, the best father.

I want my sports team to win every game. I want to cook the best food. I want all of my books to be #1 best sellers.

You probably already know all of this even if you don't know me that well. How?

Even if you didn't know I'm a competitive guy, you probably assume most of the above about me because those are the things this world values. It's how we define success.

He's really got it going on: beautiful wife, great job, well-respected in the community, and have you seen his house? Breathtaking!

This is the picture of success.

And yet, when we dig down a little deeper into Jesus's message regarding firstness, we get a different picture.

The Paradoxical Nature of the Kingdom's Value System

The gospels record four instances in which Jesus said some variation of, "The last will be first, and the first last." These are Matthew 19:30 and 20:16, Mark 10:31, and Luke 13:31. Jesus says the first three in essentially the same context while the last occurs in a slightly different scenario.

Twice the phrase comes right after the story of the Rich Young Man. If you've read The Last Lessons of Christ, you know Daniel Sweet and I devoted an entire chapter to this young fellow (Lesson Six).

But to be brief: this guy was a winner. Young. Wealthy. Well-respected. Some Bible versions state he was a ruler of some sort, so he had power too. And yet, the Rich Young Man might be one of the saddest sacks in all of Scripture!

He asked Jesus what he must do to inherit the Kingdom of God. After listing off some of the commandments, Jesus struck at the core issue. He said,

You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. 
Mark 10:21

You know the story. The man couldn't do it. He walked away sad because he had great wealth.

To the disciples Jesus remarked how difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. This statement astonished the Twelve, because they saw riches as a sign of God's favor. It is in this context that Jesus said, "Many who are first will be last, and the last first" (Mark 10:31). What did he mean?

To reinterpret the saying a bit: the Kingdom's value system is not like that of this world.

What was the rich man's problem? Well, for one, he was obsessed with firstness. He loved the comfort, power, and prestige that money brought him. Money was his security blanket, his self esteem, and his identity all rolled into one. He was first in just about every category you could think of.

But the Kingdom of God does not value the same things the world does. What the rich man owned is of little worth in the Kingdom. A million shekels doesn't count for much in a place with golden streets. So while this man was first by the world's standards, he was last in the Kingdom. Therefore Jesus asked him to become lower so he could be greater in the Kingdom.

But the rich man couldn't part with his possessions. He loved being first.

Stop Chasing After the World's Approval

How much of our lives do we spend trying to attain first place in things that don't matter?

Like I said above, I'll be the first to raise my hand.

For you, firstness might look different. You might not be interested in wealth or prestige; you might be obsessed with beauty or brawn. You might love the measurement of your waistband. You might revel in your IQ score.

Jesus, though, gave us a blueprint for those who truly want to be great. He said, "Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all." (Mark 9:35)

How unsexy is that?

I want recognition, praise even, for my hard work! I want monetary compensation for my contributions. I deserve it!

Maybe that's true on earth, but the Kingdom's value system is often at odds with the world's.

And Jesus didn't just say these kinds of statements; he lived them out. If anyone deserved praise and riches, it was Jesus. He was the very son of God. And even though many didn't believe that to be true, the Lord also performed miracles. We pay professional athletes millions of dollars to throw balls into hoops. Imagine what the market would pay for healing and exorcisms.

Yet Jesus did not come to seek the riches and honor he rightfully deserved. Instead, as he said, "Even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45).

That's our model, as unfulfilling and unglamorous as it seems.

So by all means aspire to firstness. Just be careful of your rubric.

And don't forget you can download a free copy of my guide to quiet time by entering your email below.

If you want to establish a habit of Bible reading and prayer, this guide's for you:

* indicates required

Come back next month, and we'll explore a couple of other facets regarding the phrase, the first shall be last, including examining the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.

Note: This post contains an affiliate link.

No comments:

Post a Comment