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The Last Shall Be First

Matthew 19:16 - 20:34

Dear Christian, today we get to a million-dollar question that all religions across time and cultures have asked and answered in nearly exactly the same way. Perhaps, that is what makes Jesus' answer so exciting, because it is so radically different and rich with grace. It is also a very difficult answer for many humans to accept. We struggle with our pride in one way or another either believing ourselves to be more righteous than we actually are or believing ourselves to be beyond the grace of God. This chapter's text shows us the first form of pride in both someone who is not following Jesus and in the disciples'. May we hear and understand the warning that Jesus gives in this text to both parties.

The Rich Young Man

And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Matthew 19:16

There it is, the million-dollar question, "what good deed must I do?" From Judaism to the pagan gods including Buddhists believe that you must do good things in order to receive a favorable outcome for your life, however, that is expressed in the religion. People had to be very careful not to anger the gods because that would obviously have a negative outcome not just in this life but in the next. Today, you might see this expressed in the "non-religious" sector of folks as... "Well, I'm a good person." "I've never killed anybody." "I just want everybody to be happy." The gods of old have become self-interest, self-image, convenience, and crowd-pleasing. You may not be motivated by what happens in the next life, but you know for this life to be good and for society to like you, you must behave in a certain way.

How does Jesus answer this question?

And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” Matthew 19:17

What I love about this answer, is that Jesus meets the young man right where he is at by challenging to the impossible task, for human beings, of keeping the commandments. But the real answer to the question is right there, blink and you might miss it: "There is only one who is good." Remember that Jesus taught extensively at the Sermon on the Mount, that He and He alone has come to fulfill the whole Law. No other human being in all of history has been able to accomplish this and that why the perfect Son of God had to come that His innocent life could be offered as a sacrifice on behalf of the guilty. Yet, this young man in his pride misses the point...

He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Matthew 19:18-20

First things first, is Jesus giving us the specific list of commandments that we must keep in order to get into heaven? I would say, in context, absolutely not! However, if that is how you're going to look at, how many of us can say that we have never been to the point of anger where we curse someone in our hearts and thoughts? How many of us can say that we have not looked at someone other than our spouse with lustful intent? How many many of us can say that we've never even so much as stretched the truth? All of these actions break the first three commandments Jesus lists, that's before he gets to honoring your father and mother or loving your neighbor as yourself. In other words, the answer is: "You must be perfect!" I want to take this young man at his word when he says that he has kept all of these commandments and if it is true, he is a much better person than I will ever be. Yet, Jesus' next answer to the question, "What do I still lack?" Get's right to the heart of the issue of being perfect before a Holy God.

Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Matthew 19:21

"If you would be perfect..." There is the answer, if you want to make it into the Kingdom of Heaven on your own merit, then you must be perfect. In that case, we have all been found guilty and it is impossible for us to measure up. The young man recognizes this but he doesn't ask any more questions to find out how there could be grace.

When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” Matthew 19:22-25

The problem was not that the young man was rich. I want to be very clear that Jesus is not saying there is anything wrong with being materially successful as a Christian in this life. It is not a sin to be rich and it is not a foregone conclusion that rich people are too evil to enter God's Kingdom. God made King Solomon the richest man to ever live, his failures did not include the fact he was wealthy. However, Jesus has said that the pursuit of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Why is this? Because having great possessions and pursuing great possessions takes our eyes off of where our true treasure should lie and Kingdom we should be pursuing above all else!

The disciples have heard this young man's spiritual pedigree, if it is true, and he has kept the law to perfection. Yet he is unwilling to leave the comfort of his wealthy life to follow Jesus. That brings back to the question we were already beginning to ask, "Who then can be saved?"

But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Matthew 19:26

On our own merit, we cannot enter the Kingdom, but with God all things are possible!

And that's good, because even Jesus' disciples are totally missing the point in this moment.

Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first. Matthew 19:27-30

What is beautiful about Jesus' answer to Peter, is that He does promise that there will be a reward for the sacrifices we make in this life as we follow Him; that is the good news. However, what Jesus makes equally clear is that much may be asked of us in His Name including leaving behind those we hold most dear. Yet even that should not be a reason for us to fall into the trap of pride, "But many who are first will be last, and the last first."

As we move into the next chapter, Jesus begins to tell them a parable that explains exactly what He means by this first and last statement.

The Reward for the Laborers

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went.Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.” Matthew 20:1-16

Whether you are asked like the rich young man to give up your possessions and follow Jesus or you are asked to choose between your family and following Jesus, whether you lose a job because you will not compromise your integrity before God or whether you are tortured and executed because you will not deny Him... the reward for the laborers is God's to give. Whether we become Christians as children or do not choose to accept His grace until our deathbed... we are not entitled to a greater or lesser reward than what God chooses to give. He is the King and we are the laborers in the vineyard!

Can You Drink My Cup?

And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” Matthew 20:17-19

This is the third time that Jesus has warned His disciples of what will occur in Jerusalem. It may seem somewhat out of place in the conversation Jesus was just having between the rich young ruler and the disciples. So look at it this way...

Part One

(paraphrasing of course)

Rich Young Man - "What good deed must I do to enter the Kingdom?"

Jesus - "You must be perfect and great sacrifices may be asked of you."

Peter - "Who then can be saved?"

Jesus - "With man, it's not possible, but with God all things are possible."

Peter - "What reward do we get?"

Jesus - "You will sit on twelve thrones judging the tribes of Israel. But don't be surprised when others also receive a reward, because the King can reward according to His generosity and not necessarily according to your perceived merit."

The Bridge

Jesus - "I am going to Jerusalem where I will be condemned to death by the religious rulers, handed over to the Gentiles to suffer and to die. Then three days later I will rise."

Now we begin part two...

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Matthew 20:20-21

Notice, that none of the disciples argue with Jesus now about what He is predicting will happen to Him in Jerusalem. On the other hand, someone was paying a lot of attention when He just brought up those twelve thrones the Apostles would sit on as their reward. Also, remember this mother's question in the context of the disciples asking who would be greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. These followers of Jesus are more concerned about their rank and what is "owed to them" for their sacrifices than they are about why Jesus insists that He must suffer and die at the hands of both the Jews and the Gentiles! Nevermind, that not a single one of them has asked what He means by, "and he will be raised on the third day."

Before we get too far gone in our own pride thinking that we would be at least a little more curious and a little more concerned for Christ's wellbeing had we been present, let's think about our own attitudes when it comes to serving in the Church. Do we volunteer to help wherever our gifts may be useful and with the motivation of building the Kingdom? Do we volunteer to be seen as "good" Christians? Do we volunteer to be thanked by our fellow Members? Or do we not volunteer at all because someone else surely will hear the call and step up?!

The mother may have begun this conversation, but it's fairly evident very quickly that her sons probably encouraged her to ask this question on their behalf. Jesus does not address His answer to their mother, but directly to them.

Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” Matthew 20:22

What is the cup He is about to drink? Through His trial, suffering, and death, Jesus is about to drink from the cup of the wrath of God for the sins of the world. The audacity of these two men to answer Jesus, that they are able to drink that cup. This should probably be recorded in a book of records somewhere as the greatest "Be careful what you wish for." moment of all time!

He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” Matthew 20:23

If there is an answer to the question, who will sit on the right hand and left hand of Jesus in Heaven? I don't think we have it, besides knowing that Jesus is sitting at the right hand of the Father waiting for His enemies to be made His footstool. What we do know is that both of these brothers suffered greatly for the Gospel.

About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, Acts 12:1-2

According to Church tradition, though we cannot confirm it according to the Scriptures, John during the reign of either Nero or Domitian was imprisoned on the Prison Island of Patmos with other persecuted Christians where he would have been forced to work in their mines. There is even one story of him being tossed into a boiling vat of oil, but surviving! While we can't confirm all of the details, John himself says in Revelation:

I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. Revelation 1:9

Church tradition holds, that though John suffered greatly in prison, he was eventually released and died a natural death (one of the only Apostles to do so.)

Needless to say, their fellow disciples were very upset about this question being asked and even more upset that the answer might indicate that the brothers would receive their request if it was the will of God!

And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mattew 20:24-28

Therefore, here is your wrap-up of part two.

The mother of the sons of Zebedee - "Can my sons sit at the two most honorable positions in your Kingdom, at your right hand and at your left?"

Jesus - "You don't know what you're asking! Can you suffer what I am going to suffer?"

The sons of Zebedee - "Yes, we can!"

Jesus - "You're going to suffer, but that doesn't guarantee you these positions of honor in the Kingdom, that's not mine to give."

The disciples - "How dare you! (to the sons of Zebedee)

Jesus - "Your position in the Kingdom doesn't matter, serve one another as I have come to serve and give my life!

The King of the Universe had come to live a pauper's life harassed by a needy and broken world, to suffer and to die on their behalf taking their sins upon Himself. The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven had left glory to do this! How could anything we give up in our lives on this earth measure up to that sacrifice? What is supposed to mark us as different from the world is not our attitude of self-righteousness or lordship and judgment but our love and service of one another and the lost. What is supposed to mark us as different is that we should look more like our King than we look like the world!

"Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!"

Back at the end of the parable where Jesus asks,

"Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’" Matthew 20:15

The footnotes of the ESV translation add, "Is your eye bad because I am good?" Another way of saying to the laborers, "You agreed to serve for a denarius and you have received what was agreed upon. I chose to give the full day's wage to the men who worked only an hour, is not my money my own to give as generously as I desire?"

The disciples have just proven the point, that they are comparing amongst one another what rewards they ought to be entitled to in the Kingdom. How fitting is it then that this chapter ends with a miracle for two blind men?!

And as they went out of Jericho, a great crowd followed him. And behold, there were two blind men sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was passing by, they cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” The crowd rebuked them, telling them to be silent, but they cried out all the more, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” And stopping, Jesus called them and said, “What do you want me to do for you?” They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” And Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him. Matthew 20:29-34

I pray, that Jesus would have pity on us as well to remove from us the things that are blinding us from truly following Him; the desire for more money, the desire for power, position, or influence; letting relationships take God's rightful throne in our lives; people-pleasing; the distractions of this world; literal blindness.

I too have struggled with all of these things in one way or another throughout my life. It is not easy to surrender and humble myself before God. If it were up to only my own actions, it would be impossible! Thanks be to God, for His grace that He makes it possible through the life of His Son laid down as a ransom for many that even I can be saved!

Have you surrendered to Him and accepted His grace in your life?

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