Q. Please explain what two curious statements mean Biblically: “Many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:30; cf. 20:16); and “Many are called, but few are chosen” (22:14; cf. 20:16).
A. Matthew 10 and following has to do with Christ’s postponed but coming Kingdom and certain realities of it. In the midst of this section is the account of the rich young ruler, who indicated a desire to follow Jesus but then refused and went away sorrowful after realizing that he would have to forfeit everything to follow Christ. After this incident, Peter remarked to Jesus, “See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?” (Matthew 19:27). In other words, the disciples had done what the rich young ruler had not done. Jesus then replied that they would have much in rewards—a throne next to His, a “hundredfold” of believer brothers and sisters to make up for those they had left behind, and eternal life. However, Jesus cautioned in verse 30, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
He meant no less than two things here. First, He was warning about attitudes. A person can strive for rewards but be motivated by pride and selfishness. The rich young ruler illustrated this point; but followers of Christ, too, can have wrong motivations. Second, Jesus was warning that God is sovereign and that He, not finite man, will give out rewards as He, not they, sees fit. God’s ways are not man’s ways. What people might think is unfair, God sees as fair. Or what God sees as unjust, people often see as just.
Jesus illustrated this second point in chapter 20 with the story of the landowner “who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” The parable goes on to relate how he hired some workers for a denarius a day, a normal day’s wage for a rural worker of that time. Later the landowner thought he could use more workers, so he hired them. At the end of the day’s work, each of the workers received one denarius regardless of how many hours he had worked. Howls of protest rose from those who had worked all day. But the landowner was correct—he had paid the workers what they had agreed upon.
When Jesus rewards His servants someday, there will no doubt be surprises. Some will have thought they would be first, but will be last instead, while others who appeared to be last, in Jesus’ perfect evaluation, are first. I came across an anonymous saying that summarizes it well: “Deeds of merit as we thought them, He will show us were but sin; Little acts we had forgotten, He will show us were for Him.” Wow! It’s both convicting and encouraging.
As we look at “many are called, but few are chosen,” keep in mind that the gospel of the Kingdom and the nation of Israel are intertwined. Because this statement does not appear in Matthew 20:16 in newer manuscripts on textual grounds, I will turn to 22:14. John 1:11–13 says, “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Jesus came to His people, the Jews, with the message and invitation of salvation, but they rejected Him. Yet they believed they would possess the Kingdom (and they indeed will have their part in it after going through seven years of tribulation and will finally accept their Messiah). But Jesus taught that only the “chosen” would be the elect, both Jew and Gentile. Sadly only a few Jews accepted their Messiah and salvation, though they were called (invited). They claimed to be God’s people but refused His only begotten Son.
These statements can have application for life in general as well. That pride goes before a fall is something seen in everyday life. People in many areas of life who seem to be at the bottom can emerge first, and vice versa. Concerning the statement that many are called but few chosen, this tragedy is seen often: the gospel is given out and relatively few respond to it and are saved. Many people have died without trusting Christ as their Savior, even though they had the opportunity.
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