The First Shall be Last and the Last Shall be First
It’s that time of year again! Everywhere there is a buzz in the air. New Year’s Eve parties and special church services are being planned, and New Year’s Eve dances and celebrations with fireworks are in the works. Soon it will be the very first minute of a brand new year. We don’t care about the last day of the old year. We care about the first day of the New Year. We like new challenges, new beginnings, and new firsts. And when we can, most of us like to be first.
We want to be first in line and make the best grades. We want to live in an impressive house and make lots of money. We want everybody to like us and we want to be important. After all isn’t that what God wants for us? Doesn’t He want us to be up there on top?
We want to be first and best and all the while we want to follow Jesus and be in His kingdom too. But after we are Christians for awhile we find that it doesn’t always work that way. Jesus says that in his kingdom the first often will be last and the last will be first. (Matthew 20:16)
Some folks say that when we follow Jesus, ordinary life is turned upside-down. When we read the Bible we see things getting turned around for sure. Things that make a person important in our world are unimportant in the kingdom of God. And things like a humble or a meek spirit – qualities that aren’t so valued in this world are valued by God. Scripture says that “God chose the foolish things of this world to shame the wise, and the weak things of this world to shame the strong.” (1 Cor. 1:27) Note that Jesus tells us that “Whoever wants to be great would be a servant.” (Matt. 20:26) Jesus also tells us that his kingdom, the kingdom of God, is of another world.
We have a saying in our world that it is better to give than to receive. We want to be one of the “makers” not one of the “takers”. We want to write our own ticket, pay our own bills, earn our own way. But Jesus tells us that we can never be good enough to earn our own way into his kingdom. He says, “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter in.” (Luke 18:17) So here we have it again- God’s up-side down kingdom. In our world we act like an adult, we earn our own way; but in order to enter God’s kingdom we must “receive” it as a little child would.
The principles of the kingdom of God are upside down from the principles we have learned here in our world. We keep expecting a set of rules to follow in this world, but following the letter of the law without following the Spirit of the Law is what Jesus condemned the Pharisees for. Scripture says: “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Cor. 3:6) Jesus said that mercy and justice matter most to God. So if we do all of the “right” things - the “religious” things, but we neglect mercy and justice – if we neglect doing our small part to see that the poor, the “ least of these” gets a fair chance, -then are we any better than the Pharisees?
One of the principles in God’s kingdom that is very different from our culture’s teacings, is the principle of “turning the other cheek”. (Matt. 5:39) I have sometimes had a hard time following this one and perhaps you have too. The principle is that we rely on God for vindication. We let Him defend us and we don’t fight for our own rights. Let’s listen to what Scripture has to say. “Never pay back evil with more evil. … Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. … If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. …Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21)
Another principle in God’s kingdom that doesn’t make sense down here in this world is the principle of searching for righteousness. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus preached about the blessed life. One of the blessings –“beatitudes” Jesus spoke of was the blessing you will get if you work for or search for righteousness or for justice. Blessed are those who want to be right before God. Let’s listen to His words in Scripture. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6) One of the translations for the word “righteousness” is “justice”.
If we hunger and thirst for our own causes, we will never be fully satisfied. But if we come to Jesus, (who is our righteousness) we will be satisfied. In this world we believe that things will satisfy us. A new car will make us happy – a new outfit, a better position, more money. We always need just a little bit more. But in the kingdom of God we don’t need any more when we find Jesus.
When we believe in Jesus we become part of His kingdom – the kingdom of God. And when we follow Him we receive His Spirit in our lives. And the Holy Spirit is with us to teach us how to live in this new kingdom – the kingdom of God. But we are still living in this world and we still have our old sin nature. So actually we are living in two worlds- two kingdoms – kingdoms that are opposite from one another.
Our earthly world or kingdom teaches us to grab all we can get, stand up for our own rights –and try to be first. And God’s kingdom teaches us to let go of our egos and let God defend us when we are wronged – to think of others and to be last. So what will we choose –God’s way or our own, a proud spirit or a humble one, first place for ourselves or last. Remember, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” (Matt. 20:16)