By John C. Carpenter
So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. (Mat 20:16)
The English word "last" is found in many New Testament verses. Due to end times teaching, the church has become very familiar with several of these verses: And this is the Father's will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day (John 6:39); And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams (Acts 2:17); and How that they told you there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own ungodly lusts (Jude 18). The word "last" in these verses seems to refer to a season of time just before the return of Jesus Christ and the end of the world as we know it.
Interestingly, there are some other verses that seem to suggest another meaning. The first example is: For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men (1 Cor 4:9). Paul seems to be saying that because the apostles, including himself, have been so mistreated and abused, suffered so much, been made such a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men, that they must be the lowest of God's servants, worthy only of suffering and death. Additionally, the word "last" here could not be referring to the order in which God appointed His servants, for scripture indicates And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues (1 Cor 12:28).
The apostle Paul gave us a second example: In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed (1 Cor 15:52). Many interpret the "last trump" here as the trump occurring at the rapture, which is the fifth Jewish feast out of seven national feasts. In order of their occurrence, the Jewish feasts are: Passover, Unleavened Bread, First Fruits, Pentecost, Trumpets, Atonement, and Tabernacles. On all seven of the feasts, trumpets were blown while the burnt offerings and the peace offerings were being sacrificed. The trumpet blast at the Rapture, or Feast of Trumpets, is apparently the fifth blast out of seven, not the "last" in the sense that it is the final blast of the trumpet in God's timetable.
The third example is: Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds (Heb 1:2). If "last" here refers to the last decades or so before the end of the world as we know it, was the author of Hebrews suggesting that God's son has only been speaking unto us during the last generation or two? "Last" could not be referring here to the last few decades. Since we know that Christ was sent to us about two thousand years ago, He evidently began speaking to us about two thousand years ago.
In the fourth, and final example, the apostle John said, Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time (1 John 2:18). The Holy Spirit, through John, is telling us that we will be able to recognize the "last time" because the spirit of antichrist will be present with us. Yet, John, speaking over 1,900 years ago, said "even now" are there many antichrists. If the presence of the Antichrist or antichrists is the criteria for the "last" days, the "last days" began at least 1,900 years ago according to John. It is apparent that "last" does not always refer to "following all the rest, being the only remaining, or belonging to the final stage." I believe "last" in some verses refers to another meaning - lowest. This is the meaning I want to discuss in this issue. The word "last" in the New Testament is often translated from the Greek word, "Eschatos," which means "in the sense of contiguity, farthest, final [of place or time], ends of, last, latter end, lowest, or uttermost." It should be distinguished from the Greek word "Husteron," which means "more lately, eventually, afterward, at the last, last of all, or last." Husteron is found in several verses: But last [husteron] of all he sent unto them his son, saying, They will reverence my son (Mat 21:37); But found none: yea, though many false witnesses came, yet found they none. At the last [husteron] came two false witnesses (Mat 26:60); and And last [husteron] of all the woman died also (Mat 22:27). When looking at these definitions and the verses in context, it appears that "Husteron" may better fit the definition of "last" [as referring to the end of time] than "Eschatos."
One interesting use of the Greek word "Eschatos" can be found in Jesus' parable of the laborers (Mat 20:1-16). The context of this parable begins when the rich young man asks the Lord, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? In response to this question, the Lord said, Keep the commandments. (Mat 19:17). The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? (Mat 19:20). The Lord then put the man to the greatest test of faith by saying unto him, If thou wilt be perfect [spiritually complete and of full age], go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me (Matt 19:21). But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions (Matt 19:22). The Lord was testing the rich young man by asking, "if I tell you to sell or give up everything you have and follow Me, which will be more precious to you, which would you rather have - all your possessions, or Me?" The Lord knew that the man had great possessions, and that these possessions were of first importance to the rich man. This is exactly why the Lord put him to this test. At some point in our own lives the Lord will require each of us to "sell all we have" that we place of first importance and follow Him. This requirement to forsake all is verified in other scriptures: Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it (Mat 13:44-46); So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:33);Then Peter began to say unto him, Lo, we have left all, and have followed thee (Mark 10:28); and For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living. (Mark 12:44). Christ made it clear to his disciples how difficult it would be to forsake all things important to us by saying, rich man shall hardly [impractically] enter into the Kingdom of Heaven (Mat 19:23). The disciples were, exceedingly amazed, saying, who then can be saved? (Mat 19:25); But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible (Mat 19:26). The Lord was saying that for men to "give up everything they have" that is precious and important to them in order to enter the Kingdom of God was impractical, if not impossible, in human strength alone, but with the help of God, all things are possible. You are probably wondering at this point what this story about the rich young man and his salvation have to do with the parable of the laborers found in Matthew 20. The parable of the laborers is actually the Lord's answer to Peter's question, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee: what shall we have therefore? The Lord gave a 19 verse answer to Peter's question, which included the parable of the laborers. He first told Peter that when we have forsaken all, we shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Mat 19:28), and that everyone that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold [in this life], and shall inherit everlasting life (Mat 19:29). Then the Lord said a puzzling thing: But many that are first, shall be last; and the last shall be first (Mat 19:30).
In the parable of the laborers, the Lord explained how the kingdom works. He said For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard (Mat 20:1). The householder [head of the family, master of the house] represents of course Jesus Christ, who is head of the church (Eph 5:23) and our Master (John 13:13). The householder hired two groups of individuals: "laborers" who worked for a penny a day (Matt 20:2), and "others" who were standing idle in the market place (Matt 20:3,5,6), to whom the Lord said, whatsoever is right I will give you (Matt 20:4). At the end of the day the Lord of the vineyard told his steward to call the laborers, and give them their hire [pay, reward, wages] beginning from the last unto the first (Matt 20:8). The steward began with those who came about the eleventh hour [5pm], then paid those who had come at the ninth hour [3pm], sixth hour [Noon], and third hour [9am], and they received every man a penny (Matt 20:9). Scripture then tells us But when the first[those hired "early in the morning, probably at 6AM] came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day (Matt 20:10-12). But the Lord politely chastened these unhappy laborers saying, friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way; I will give unto this last even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? (Matt 20:13-15) Then again, the Lord strangely said, So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many are called, but few chosen (Matt 20:16). What did the Lord mean by "first" and "last," and what does this statement about "first" and "last" have to do with forsaking all, following Christ, receiving a hundredfold in this life, sitting upon heavenly thrones committing judgment, and eternal life?
In the parable of the laborers, many believe "first" refers to those laborers hired first in the day, whereas "last" refers to those laborers hired after that. I believe they may mean something else. The word "first" in Matthew 19:30 and 20:16 is the Greek word "protos," which means "foremost [in time, place, order, or importance], best, chiefest, before, beginning, or first of all." The key parts of this definition are "foremost in importance, best, and chiefest." Later, the Lord was critical of the Pharisees, saying they loved the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi [Master], Rabbi (Mat 23:6-7). The Pharisees loved to be perceived as most important [they placed themselves first], and to be honored and glorified by men. The Lord, however, knew their hearts, and told them their future when He said, And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted (Mat 23:12). The Lord was trying to make it clear to the Pharisees that when they desired the best rooms at feasts, the highest seats in the synagogues, and to be honored and respectfully referred to as "Master," they were exalting themselves and placing themselves first. The person who places his or her desires, needs, and will before others [including the Lord], and who wishes to be served rather than serve, is placing themselves first [protos] in importance, and as a result, they will be humbled [depressed, brought low, humiliated, humbled]. Is this not what God meant when he gave the commandment, Thou shalt have no other gods before [more important than] me (Exo 20:3)? Was God not saying He wanted us to place Him "first" [protos], ahead of all other gods and men? From this viewpoint, it seems easy to understand "last" [eschatos], which I believe clearly refers to lowliness, meekness, humility, submission, serving rather than being served, and not being "puffed up" [leavened] with deceitful arrogance and pride. I believe that Christ is saying that those who place themselves first [protos: i.e., highest, most important], like the Pharisees did, will be placed by Him as last [lowest, least important] in the Kingdom, whereas those who place themselves last [the lowly, meek, humble, unleavened] shall be placed first in importance in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Placing yourself first, or most important, is leaven. Many believe that "leaven" is "sin," but scripture defines leaven as not obeying [responding to] the truth (Gal 5:7), vainglory (Gal 5:26), glorying (1 Cor 5:5), malice [injurious and worthless trouble, or evil and wickedness [grievous and vicious plots that are harmful in effect or influence] (1 Cor 5:8), being "puffed up" (1 Cor 5:2), doctrine (Matt 16:12), and hypocrisy (Luke 12:1). Additionally, Christ said, "The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened" (Mat 13:33). I find it hard to believe Christ would have compared leaven to the Kingdom if leaven were sin. Leaven is symbolic of something small that can have a great influence on an object. The most familiar example of this can be found in bread. Just add a small amount of leaven to one pound of dough, and heated over time, the dough is filled with a lot of "hot air," and now appears much larger. The characteristics of spiritual leaven are that it is not from God (Gal 5:8), takes only a small amount to corrupt (Gal 5:9), and it involves and is manifested in the works of the flesh (Gal 5:19-21). The apostle Peter referred to leaven when he described false prophets who "For when they speak great swelling words of vanity, they allure through the lusts of the flesh" (2 Pet 2:18). Jude also referred to leaven when he described "ungodly men and filthy dreamers who are murmurers, complainers, walking after their own lusts; and their mouth speaketh great swelling words..." (Jude 1:8-16). The Lord warned us to Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees (Mat 16:6). The Lord told us what their leaven was when He said to them, O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times? (Mat 16:3) and said to His disciples, Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy (Luke 12:1). The leaven of the Pharisees was their hypocrisy. Because of their traditions (Matt 15:2) and because they considered Abraham their father (Matt 3:9), the Pharisees viewed themselves as spiritual pillars who would automatically enter the Kingdom. They thought, and liked to promote the impression, that they were larger [more important and spiritual] than they truly were. Christ cleared up their delusion when He said they were blind leaders of the blind (Matt 15:14),did not understand Christ's sayings (Matt 19:11), would not enter the Kingdom, or allow other men to enter (Matt 23:13), and omitted the more important matters of the law (Matt 23:23). Christ best summarized how He knew they were leavened when He said, But all their works they do for to be seen of men (Mat 23:5), and Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity (Mat 23:27-28). The Jewish leaders behaved outwardly in ways that deceived men into thinking they were more religious and righteous than they truly were. The result of all this leavened hypocrisy, falseness, and deception was that the Kingdom of God was taken from them (Matt 21:43). Christ clearly explained the principle to us when He said, Whosoever therefore shall humble [eliminate the leaven] himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Mat 18:4), And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all (Mark 9:35).
Jesus Christ told us clearly how important He must be to us, that He must come first, when He said, If any man come to me, and hate (love less) not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26). In this context, the word "hate" means to "love less." Christ wants us to love Him more than our father, mother, wife, children, brethren, sisters, and even our own life. If you are a Christian, you have probably had at least one season in your life when things were so difficult you said "I didn't realize what I was getting into when I began following Christ, I didn't know then how hard the walk would be, how much sacrifice I would have to make, how much I would suffer, how much I would have to give up." The apostle Paul said, ye are not your own, For ye are bought with a price (1 Cor 6:20-21) , and nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? (Rom 9:20-21). You no longer own yourself; you are now His. Christ is the potter, and you are the clay vessel. Christ has paid the price and bought you (1 Cor 6:20). He has the right to do with you as He pleases, and you have the obligation to let Him.
The Lord wants our entire life, and expects us to understand in advance what being a Christian is going to cost us, that it is going to cost us our lives. Christ said, For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish. Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be ablewith ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace. So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:28-33). The Lord is making it clear that the price we must pay for following Him is to forsake all that we have. Additionally, Jesus Christ is interested in what you do, and not what you say you will do. Christ said, But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work today in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you (Mat 21:28-31). Christ places first the individual who "repented, went, and did the will of His father." The individual who said he would serve Christ, but did not do the father's will, is placed last in the Kingdom of God. Once you have begun your walk with Christ, there is no going back, no turning back, no looking back. There is no such thing as asking Christ to redeem [purchase, buy] you, and then asking Him to return you and get a refund. Christ clearly taught, No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62), and the gifts and calling of God are without repentance (Rom 11:29). The father of one of the Lord's apostles died, and the apostle wanted to go bury his father before he went with the Lord. The Lord made it perfectly clear how important it is that He be placed first [protos] in our lives by saying to the apostle, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead (Mat 8:22). The Lord is saying "if you want to please me and do my will, if you want peace and joy, if you want life now and eternally, come with me and humbly follow in my footsteps. Do not look back and continue to be interested in those dead things. Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead. Follow me and drink of the water of life." At first glance, this may seem rather hard to you, but the Lord wants nothing to come before Him, even burying one of our own family members. The apostle Paul revealed his insight into this issue, saying, Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14). You must place yourself last, and the Lord first. You cannot follow Him while walking in front of Him.
What does placing the Lord of the household "first" and ourselves "last" really mean? I believe it means following Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit hour by hour, day by day, and trusting Christ to judge righteously your works and meet you daily needs. The Lord said, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men (Matt 4:19), and Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me [in importance], let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me (Mat 16:24). In fact, Christ made it clear that if you do not hear His voice and follow Him [place Him first], you are not His sheep. He said, My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me (John 10:16, 27). When we place Christ first, what characteristics will be seen in us? Humility will be the first one seen. Christ said, Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest[most important] in the kingdom of heaven (Mat 18:4), and whosoever shall exalt himself [place himself first] shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted (Mat 23:12). Paul described himself as Serving the Lord with all humility of mind... (Acts 20:19). The second characteristic that will be seen in one who has placed Christ first is obedience to God's will. Christ said, For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother (Mat 12:50), and Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven (Mat 7:21). The author of Hebrews beseeches us to let God Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever (Heb 13:21). Why should we not submit to God's will, since Christ did? If we desire to be first with God, we must remember The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord (Mat 10:24). The Lord gave us the best model of obedience by saying, I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me (John 5:30), and For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me (John 6:38). Christ humbled himself and was strictly obedient to His Heavenly Father. Christ put himself last, and His Father first, and as a result His Father put Christ first. Lastly, when the Lord says, "Go into my vineyard and work," we must have complete trust in the Lord of the vineyard to meet our daily needs, but also trust him to make a righteous judgment about our eternal hire [reward]. He promises to meet our daily needs saying, seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added [given by God] unto you (Mat 6:33). All "these things" represent our food and clothing needs (Matt 6:31). We must not trust in riches (Mark 10:24), ourselves (Luke 18:9), power (Luke 11:22), other men (John 5:45), or in human or fleshly ability (Phil 3:4). God wants us to trust in Him and His judgment, because As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the LORD is tried: he is a buckler to all them that trust in him (2 Sam 22:31). David exhorts us to trust in the Lord (Psalm 4:5), whereas Isaiah prophesied that in His name shall the Gentiles trust (Mat 12:21). Lastly, the apostle Paul tells us that we should trust the Lord because God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus (Phil 4:19). Christ trusted His Father and so should we.
So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen (Mat 20:16). What do "first" and "last" have to do with many being "called" and few being "chosen?" Called is the Greek word "kletos," which means "invited or appointed to a vocation." Chosen is the Greek word "eklektos", which means "select, favorite, chosen, or elect." Not everyone is called, or invited by God to "go and work in His vineyard." Scripture tells us that "many" are called (Matt 20:16). The many that are called fall into two categories of laborers: the first and the last. By God's definition, the "first" are those laborers who set their own value or wage for their work because they do not trust the householder to rightly judge and pay them "what is right" at the end of the workday (Matt 20:2), were always enviously comparing their pay with others (Matt 20:12), and were always complaining that they should have received more (Matt 20:10). In essence, these are the laborers who are primarily concerned about themselves. Their eyes, and heart, are on their pay. They are selfish and focused on material, temporal rewards rather than spiritual, eternal rewards and are, what I believe, the Scriptures refer to as hirelings. The Lord says that because they place themselves first, He places them last. Conversely, there are "last" workers who are just the opposite. These workers for the Lord are not concerned with their pay because they completely trust the householder to judge righteously and pay them at the end of the day "what is right", do not compare their wages with others, and are contented with their wages. These workers work for the Lord because of their love of the Lord and His work, and not for what they can get out of it. They are unselfish, and focused on spiritual, eternal rewards rather than material, temporal rewards. Because they place themselves last, God says He will place them first in importance in His Kingdom. When called by the householder to go work in His vineyard, the hireling goes because of his love of the reward. The others go because of their love for the Householder and His work. In God's view, the last [lowly, humble, who place themselves as least important and God as most important] shall be first [most important to God], and the first [arrogant, prideful, who place themselves as most important and God as least important] shall be last [least important to God]. God has a special love for those who place themselves last and Him first. I believe that for over 1900 years we have been living in the "last" days, in which "the last shall be first, and the first last." Many have been called, but few place God first and, as a result, are truly chosen and special to God's heart. When you place yourself last, God will consider you special and shall place you first in the Kingdom of Heaven. He has promised this. AMEN.
                                                           A Judeo-Christian Bible Study
"But without
faith it is
impossible to
please him:
for he that cometh
to God must
believe that he
is, and that he
is a rewarder
of them that
seek him"
(Heb 11:6)

Subject-Verse Index