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Why Does Jesus Say the "First Will Be Last"?

  • Dave Jenkins Contributing Writer
  • 2020 6 Nov
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Matthew 20:16, “So the last will be first, and the first last.”

The condition of a sinners’ heart before the Lord matters, for He not only knows but sees the heart of man and whether they belong to Him or not. Further, He sees the hearts of the people of God and the way they render service under His searching gaze. The Lord owes salvation to no one but gives it freely as a gift of His grace, so we have no right to complain when grace is shown to others as it has been shown to us.

What Is Leading Up to This Verse?

The context of Matthew 20 begins in Matthew 19:1 and runs through 20:34. The Galilean ministry of the Lord Jesus has now ended, and Jesus and His disciples begin the journey towards Jerusalem. In 19:3-12, Jesus explains the sanctity of marriage and reveals the tragedy of the rich young man (Matthew 19:16-22) in contrast to the gracious reward awaiting those who follow him (Matthew 19:23-30). This then leads to the parable of the vineyard workers in Matthew 20:1-16.

Jesus then gives the third prediction of His death (Matthew 20:17-19) and sets an example for community sacrifice, suffering, and service (Matthew 20:20-28). As he and his disciples begin their ascent to Jerusalem, Jesus mercifully heals the blind man in Jericho (Matthew 20:29-34).

After promising Peter a great reward for leaving everything behind to follow Him (Matthew 19:27-30), Jesus tells the Parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1–16).

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Grape on a vine

Matthew 20:16 and the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

The Old Testament prophets sometimes spoke of Israel as the vineyard of the Lord (Isaiah 5:1-7; 27:2-11; Jeremiah 12:10-11). When Jesus spoke of a landowner hiring idle day-laborers for his vineyard, his listeners would have thought of the Lord urging individuals, even those on the margins of society, to join his people (Matthew 8:1-17; 9:10-13; 20-22; 32-34; 11:5; 12:9-14; 15:21-31; 17:14-21).  

The Parable in Matthew 20 about the workers and the vineyard is found only here in Matthew 20:1-16 and is given in response to Peter’s question in Matthew 19:27. Peter wanted to know the reward that would be given to those who give up everything to follow Him. Jesus’ response helps the disciples, and Christians today, understand the truth about the Kingdom of heaven. 

Matthew 20:16 means that a disciple of the Lord Jesus should not measure their worth by comparing it with accomplishment and sacrifices of others, but should focus on serving the Lord and others with a heart of gratitude in response to the grace of God. 

Jesus is not denying degrees of reward (1 Corinthians 3:14-15) but affirming that the generosity of God is more abundant than anyone would expect: all the laborers except the very first got more than they deserved. 

Furthermore, Jesus’ teaching here is not saying all there is about rewards (Matthew 25:14-30). By grace alone, the Lord makes all Christians citizens of the Kingdom of God regardless of their service or zeal. None deserve the grace of God, nor any rewards, so we should not be resentful of fellow Christians who are influential or prominent, but humbly serve the Lord where He has placed us.

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How Will the First Be Last?

Jesus first made the statement about the first being last in Matthew 19:30. The first statement's context is made in the encounter with the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-30. The young man Jesus spoke with turned away from him, unable to give up his great wealth (Matthew 19:22). Jesus’ disciples asked the Lord what reward they would have in heaven since they had given up everything to follow Him (Matthew 19:27-30). Jesus promised them “a hundred times as much” plus eternal life (Matthew 19:29). Jesus' response in Matthew 19:30 is, “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

Jesus’ point in Matthew 20:16 illustrates the point made to the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-30. The point isn’t that the rich are always last in heaven, nor are the poor always first. Neither is the point that Christians will enjoy influence and wealth in this life or that earthly rank translates into a heavenly rank. Jesus’ point is that God, who sees the heart, will reward accordingly.

The disciples are an example of those who may be first, and they were poor, but the rich young ruler is an example of one who may be last. His wealth did not make him last, but his response to Jesus did. The best way to understand Jesus’ point in Matthew 19:30 and 20:16 is all Christians, no matter how hard they work during their lives, will receive the same reward: eternal life. The thief on the cross in Luke 23:39-43 was limited to a moment of repentance and confession of faith in Jesus, received the same reward as Timothy, who served the Lord for years. The ultimate reward of eternal life will be given equally to all based on the grace of God in Jesus.

Matthew 20:16 helps Bible readers understand there will be many surprises in heaven because heaven’s value system is far different from the earth's. Those who are esteemed and respected like the rich young ruler will be frowned upon by the Lord. God will reward those despised and rejected, like Jesus and the disciples, and even as some Christians are treated by the world today.

Jesus wants Christians not to get caught up in worldly thinking and fall into error but be faithful to Him. Those who are first in their opinion of others may be shocked to learn on Judgment Day they are last in the opinion of the One that matters most, the Lord God.

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names of god, jehovah nissi

What Does This Parable Teach Us about the Kingdom of Heaven?

Here in the Parable of laborers in the vineyard, we learn that God makes entry into His Kingdom possible for all types of people, with no distinction based on their abilities, efforts, or social standing. Joining the people of God, entering the Kingdom, and experiencing salvation come by the power of God through the grace of God, apart from anything that can be done to earn them.

Because of this, many whom the unbelieving world system of values would assign to the lowest place in any system of government or culture will occupy the highest place when God fully established His rule at His Second Coming. 

What Does This Verse Mean for Us Today?

People today equate fairness with getting what they deserve. If I say, “I deserve this” and then state what I deserve in terms of demanding my rights be satisfied, I’m arguing I deserve fairness because of my rights. All people deserve to be treated fairly because every person is made in the image and likeness of God. When it comes to fairness and eternal life, what we deserve isn’t eternal life, but hell. Eternal life is so precious because Jesus came in His Incarnation under the sentence of death, giving us eternal life.

In the Parable, the master gave all as he promised, a fair and agreeable wage. Central in the ministry of Jesus was eternal life, and so the lesson is that God never deprives anyone of anything they deserve and never gives us less than what we deserve. 

The biblical God is not only the Creator, but He is our Covenant Lord as Christians. By all rights, the One who gives life and sustains life has the right to tell us what to do and to tell us what our lives should be like. By all rights, the Lord has every right to be a cruel taskmaster, but He is not. The Lord is always fair.

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Question marks, what would you say about the tough issues

Is This Verse Fair?

The accusation often goes out that the Lord is unfair in judgment. What sinners deserve is death and damnation, but what the Lord gives sinners through the finished and sufficient work of Jesus is grace and mercy. There are two choices here in response to this teaching: salvation by grace or damnation by works; no one is good enough to earn God's presence apart from Jesus. In the death of Jesus, the wrath of God was fully satisfied by Him. The Lord, in His death and resurrection, has given man the greatest gift ever so His own could be forgiven, adopted, and loved by Him. 

In the Parable, in Matthew 20, everyone gets one denarius, which is what a worker needs to live. The payment represents eternal life, and the workers represent the people of God. Some people work hard and long like Timothy, others only serve Him for a little while. Others, like the thief on the cross, believe in Jesus and go immediately to heaven. 

The story Jesus tells us helps us understand the fairness of God’s justice and also celebrates the Lord Jesus's generosity. Whether we have believed in Jesus at a young age or an old age, we all have received the greatest gift of God possible in the grace of the Lord Jesus. Jesus’ point here is that He is fair to everyone whether they labor all day or one hour in His name. The workers' point in the story is that the people of God know that God mistreats no one, so if they stumble, they stumble over the grace of God and His generosity, not His injustice. 

God is gracious to those who deserve nothing, for it is His sovereign pleasure to give good gifts to the people of God, which is why all Christians receive the same gift, eternal life. The Parable means that even when Christians balk at the generosity of the grace of God from time to time, we do so because we have within us remnants of the Pharisees. This is why every Christian needs to meditate on the generosity of God, turn from our pride, and trust in the perfect righteousness of Jesus alone as recovering Pharisees (1 John 1:9; 2:1-2).

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Love the Giver More Than the Reward

The Parable of the workers in the vineyard helps Christians to delight in the grace of God that is theirs in union with the Lord Jesus. It also serves as a warning that we should never serve Jesus for the sake of a reward we think the Lord owes us. Such an attitude shows that we love the reward rather than the giver of the gift, which also reveals the force of Jesus’ warning in Matthew 20:16, “So the last will be the first, and the first will be the last.” 

The rich young ruler is significant in this story because he wanted power and prestige but wasn’t willing to follow Jesus. The greatest danger in the world is that we will do what God asks and then focus on our performance rendered to Jesus rather than to the Lord to whom we render it. The Lord Jesus knows this and loves the people of God enough to warn them about it. With that said, He also does more than warm us about it, but He calls us back to Himself to delight in the grace of God and the gifts of God, so to love him heart, mind, and soul (Matthew 22:37-40).

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Dave Jenkins is the Executive Director of Servants of Grace Ministries, the Executive Editor of Theology for Life Magazine, and the Host of the Equipping You in Grace Podcast and Warriors of Grace Podcast. He received his MAR and M.Div. through Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter at @davejjenkins, find him on Facebook at Dave Jenkins SOGInstagram, read more of his writing at Servants of Grace, or sign to receive his newsletter. When Dave isn’t busy with ministry, he loves spending time with his wife, Sarah, reading the latest from Christian publishers, the Reformers, and the Puritans, playing golf, watching movies, sports, and spending time with his family.


This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.

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