"But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first." (Mat 19:30)
I was asked by my lovely wife this morning what is meant by "the first shall be last; and the last shall be first." As I pondered it and searched the scriptures, I found that the Lord Jesus Christ used this phrase, or a variation of it, on a few occasions referring to different things.
Computer programmers and accountants understand the concept of FILO (first in last out) or LIFO (last in first out). When shelves are stocked in a grocery store, the first items are pushed to the back and are the last to be purchased. There is a sense in which the Christian life is similar to this. Those who were regenerated and converted in the first century will have waited much longer than Christians living today to receive their glorified bodies at the return of Christ. Those who bear the yoke faithfully from youth until their last breath will partake of the same eternal life as those who were converted at the end of their lives and faithfully served Christ for their last six months on this earth.
Jesus taught this principle in the parable of the labourers in Matthew 20. In that parable, Jesus told of a householder who hired men early in the morning to work a full day in his vineyard for a penny (Mat 20:1-2). He hired more men after three hours and more again after six hours (Mat 20:3-5). At the eleventh hour, he hired yet more labourers and promised to pay them whatsoever was right (Mat 20:6-7). When the day was spent, the householder called the labourers and paid them each a penny, beginning with those that were hired last and ending with those that were hired first (Mat 20:8-10). Those that had worked the entire day were incensed and murmured against their master, complaining that they should have been paid more than the last men hired since they worked far longer than they (Mat 20:11-12). The householder explained to them that he paid them the penny that they agreed to work for and that he could pay the rest whatever he wanted (Mat 20:13-15). Jesus summarized this parable of the kingdom of heaven by saying, "So the last shall be first, and the first shall be last..." (Mat 20:16). Those who labor in the kingdom of God their whole lives will be blessed with the same eternal glory as those who take Christ's yoke upon them in the eleventh hour of life.
Here is another way in which the last shall be first. There was a time when the disciples had "disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest" (Mar 9:34). Jesus sat them down and explained to them that "if any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all" (Mar 9:35). The way to the head of God's line is not by exalting oneself and fighting to get to the front, but rather by humbling oneself and serving others from the back. When we do this, God will move us from the back of the line to the front, for "God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble" (Jam 4:6). Instead of cutting in line, Christians should rather "humble [them]selves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift [them] up" (Jam 4:10), for the first shall be last and the last first.
Here is yet another aspect of the last being first. In this life there will be many false converts who appeared to be first as they crept into churches and worked their way up the social ladder, but when they get to Jesus Christ's throne on judgment day, they will be told by the Son of God, "I know you not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity" (Luk 13:27). The humble Christians who denied themselves and "[strove] to enter in at the strait gate" (Luk 13:24), instead of walking the broad way that leads to destruction with the phonies, will be first in God's estimation on that day.
Luk 13:28-30 - There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out. 29 And they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God. 30 And, behold, there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last.
There is one final way that the last shall be first. True Christians are those who forsake anything and everything that they must to follow Jesus Christ, believe and obey His gospel, and be a part of His kingdom on earth which is the local church. Peter once asked Jesus, "Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?" (Mat 19:27). Jesus answered him saying,
Mar 10:29-31 - ...Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel's, 30 But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life. 31 But many that are first shall be last; and the last first.
Those that leave their father, mother, husband, wife, children, house, or lands for the sake of Jesus Christ, His truth, and His church will be last in the eyes of their family and the world. They will be despised and ostracized (Heb 10:32-33). They will be cast out, and men will separate them from their company (Luk 6:22). They will lose their previous life, including their friends, relationships, and reputation. Such Christians will be losers in the eyes of the world. But, as Jesus said, "he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it" (Mat 10:39). They will be last in this world, but first in the world to come.