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“But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first … So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 19:30; 20:16)


This statement of Jesus – given in alternate forms – brackets the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 19:30-20:16). Take time to read this parable. In the context of this parable of the workers, the statement about the “first and last” means that all of God’s saints in heaven will have equal footing before Him. There’ll be an equality of rewards in heaven. The first and the last will be equal in heaven.

Does that disturb you? That those who have labored little will be made equal to those who have labored long and hard? It disturbed me for many years. “Lord, do you intend to make them equal to me? I’ve labored for You since childhood. I’ve made millions of sacrifices and fought battles unknown to anyone but You? Don’t tell me that you’re going to treat us equally when it comes time to distribute rewards in heaven.”  Yes, I can get that ugly.

But what am I thinking? What merit can I possibly earn that could ever stand up to what God freely gives me? If I adorn myself with good works, do I honestly expect them to outshine, or even add to, the free gift of God’s righteousness to me in Christ Jesus? Any personally-gained merits will only detract from the brilliance of Christ’s free gift. My “merit badges” of Christian service will only be like mud spattered on the side of a freshly washed new car. Trying to tag my great works onto God’s free gift will be like a child using a marker to “improve” on one of da Vinci’s masterpieces. It will get in the way of all the glory of what Jesus has graciously done for me.

In His teaching prior to this parable, Jesus answered Peter’s question, “Lord, we have left everything to follow You; What will there be for us?”  Amazingly, Jesus does not describe a hierarchy of rewards – scrawny wreaths for the least in the Kingdom of God and bejeweled golden crowns for the super saints. No, but the same gift awaits all – eternal life (Matthew 19:27-30).

Yet don’t ever minimize eternal life. Far more than simply a “duration of existence,” eternal life is a theologically-loaded term that encompasses a quality of life of unimaginable measure. To experience total healing, perfect peace, unconditional love, and unqualified acceptance – eternally – are all components of eternal life. To vividly see all the times God’s protected us from destruction during our earthly sojourn, is part of eternal life. To have all our confusion over life’s tragedies finally melt away into peace and understanding is all part of eternal life as well.

To be face to face with Jesus, whose arms are widely extended to us, with eyes that radiate perfect love, and to walk hand in hand with Him forever – these will also be eternal life. And to embark on an endless tour into the depths of God’s power, wisdom, and love – millions of times more majestic than a tour of the world’s national parks – is what eternal life embodies.

The glory, delight, and joy of all these things will eclipse everything we have personally achieved. Truly, nothing can compare with eternal life. This should be our expectation.

But there’s another flaw in the thinking of the laborers. They’ve divided themselves up. First, they’re divided as individuals – each by his own pursuit after rewards and recognition. Second, they’ve divided themselves up by class. There are the “old timers” – the 12-hour-warriors who’ve born the burden and heat of the day. They’re the “true,” super-saints. Then there are the “wannabees” – the 10-hour laborers who’ll never quite measure up. Then there are the “newbees,” the 6-hour laborers. Then there are the “babies” – the laborers who only worked for an hour.

And since they’re all divided, they can never enjoy the unifying effects of being a team, of laboring for a common objective and sharing a common victory. Each laborer was working for himself.

But what if they all had the same goal of completing the harvest before the birds and the locusts devoured it? If they all had that as their goal, then the laborers hired at 6AM would have welcomed all the last-hour “relief workers.”  The weary and faltering 12-hour workers would have been glad for their last-minute help. Those “babies” would have “gutted it out” for an hour, and saved the day by their final effort.

They would have been like the reserve forces being rushed in to save the battle at the last critical moment. They would have been like a relief pitcher who saves the game by striking out a heavy-hitter with the bases loaded in the final inning. None of the players would complain, “Hey, you only pitched for ten minutes. Why should you get any credit?”  The other players would be grateful for his contribution.

And all the laborers, if they had worked as a team with a common goal, would have celebrated the victory together that night. They would have all appreciated each other’s contribution, no matter how small or how short in duration.

This must be the attitude of every Christian believer. We should celebrate every triumph for the Gospel, no matter which individual, church, or denomination achieves it. We should have the same goal that all people be redeemed by Jesus Christ and reconciled to God through His atoning work. We should never allow sectarianism to divide us and turn us brother against brother and sister against sister.

Do you remember the incident in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 9, verses 38-41? James and John told Jesus, “Lord, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name and we forbade him, because he was not following us”? Jesus replied, “Do not forbid him. For no one who performs a miracle in My name will soon afterward speak evil of Me. The one who is not against us, is for us” (Mark 9:38-41). In other words, “Just because he’s not part of our little group, it doesn’t mean that God’s not working through him.”

Even Paul rejoiced that his “rivals” were preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, though their motives were far from pure. Why? Paul rejoiced because he knew God would work through these imperfect people to bring people to faith in Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:15-18).

Let’s not be divided by individual pursuits after recognition and reward. Let’s not be divided by sectarianism. Let’s make God’s pursuits our own. Let’s both pray for and rejoice in the successes and triumphs of the Gospel and of Christ’s church.


PRAYER:  Dear Father in heaven, please unite all Christian believes in love under the cause of the Gospel of Christ. Jesus said that the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. Help us, then, to work together toward the goal to bringing people to faith in Jesus Christ. Help us to pray for one another and to appreciate each other’s contribution. Amen.

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