The Ground at the Cross is Level

So the last will be first, and the first will be last” —Matthew 20:16, NIV.

It’s amazing how much of our thinking revolves around getting the advantage over someone else. We strive for achievement, promotion, recognition and appreciation—all those things that give us “a leg up” as the saying goes. So it’s not surprising that many people reading this verse immediately apply it in the same way. We use it to warn those who are getting cocky, or who think they are one step ahead of everyone else, that things may not turn out as well as they think. Of course, we don’t apply that same rule to ourselves when we’re the ones who seem to have an advantage over others!

We use the verse to console others, and ourselves, when we seem to be at a disadvantage. Someday, we say, we’ll be “top dogs” — the Bible says so!

It turns out that we are all wrong about what Jesus was saying in this phrase.

The saying comes at the conclusion of a parable that Jesus was sharing with His followers and is actually the second time in this discourse that the Lord uses the phrase. In the first case (Matthew 19:16-30) Jesus is responding to a concern expressed by His disciples. They’ve just had an encounter with a rich man who wasn’t willing to commit his possessions to Christ in order to follow the Lord wholeheartedly. The disciples, true to today’s way of thinking, asked Jesus what benefit there was then in following Him if they had to give everything up to do so. Funny how we always seem to ask “what’s in it for me” before we make a commitment — even to God!

Jesus assured His disciples that they would not be the losers by giving up everything to follow Him. Those, like the rich man who tried to hang onto his possessions at the expense of following Christ, would be the losers. Those who were totally committed to putting Christ above everything else would find themselves totally satisfied.

In the parable Jesus took this idea to the next level lest His audience believe that there were levels of salvation. The story revolved around workers hired to help in a vineyard. Some of them came in early in the morning and worked all day. Others were hired later and some even came in just an hour before the end of the day’s labour. When they gathered to get their pay, those who had worked all day were upset that they were paid exactly the same as those who came in an hour before the end of the shift. When they complained, the owner of the vineyard reminded them that they had agreed to work for a certain sum and that was what he was paying them. That he was paying those who came in at the end of the day the exact same amount was his right. Then Jesus gives us the famous phrase, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

The message is that when it comes to salvation, there are no second-class citizens in the kingdom. The thief who was crucified next to Jesus and who received forgiveness just before he died shares the same measure of salvation as I do, even though this year I am celebrating fifty years of walking with Jesus. We are equals.

If coming to Christ early in life could gain me a gold medal compared to the thief’s last place finish, then it could be said that I “earned” at least some of my salvation. But salvation can’t be earned. It’s the free gift of God given to those who come to Him in repentance and faith just as Galatians 2:8, 9 tells us, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God—not of works, so that no one can boast.

To me it’s a wonderful feeling to know that I don’t have to compete for God’s full love and acceptance. There is no “corporate ladder” to heaven that requires me to outdo someone else to impress God and gain His favour. I accept His offer of forgiveness, submitting to Him all the things that I thought would fill the void that only He can fill, and He takes care of all the rest.

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