This post was first published December 3, 2018. –ed.
Jesus made a regular habit of upending established social conventions. The Lord spent much of His earthly ministry illustrating the sharp contrast between the world and His heavenly kingdom. One of those key teaching moments is found in the preface and epilogue to Christ’s parable of the vineyard.
Christ’s story is framed with a single, simple proverb: “Many who are first will be last; and the last, first” (Matthew 19:30). The same concept is repeated at the end of the parable: “So the last shall be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16). An echo of the proverb is also found in the parable itself—in that key phrase in Matthew 20:8 where the landowner instructs the steward how to pay the workers their wages: “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first” (Matthew 20:8)
Jesus used variations of that same proverb on other occasions. We find it, for example, in Luke 13:30: “And behold, some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last”; and in Mark 10:31: “Many who are first will be last, and the last, first.”
The proverb is also something of a riddle. What does it mean? It’s not saying precisely the same thing as Mark 9:35: “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” Or Mark 10:43–44: “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all.” Those verses elevate humility and self-sacrifice. Those are imperatives: commands instructing us to be humble servants rather than seeking prominence and power.
But the proverb that goes with this parable is an indicative, a simple statement of fact: “The last shall be first, and the first last.” What does that mean, and how would it work? In a foot race, for example, the only way for the last to be first and the first to be last is for everyone to finish simultaneously. If everyone crosses the finish line at exactly the same instant, the first are last and the last are first. Everyone ends in a dead heat.
That, of course, is precisely the point Jesus was making in the parable. Those hired first and those hired last all got exactly the same pay. All of them, from the first to the last, got the full benefit of the landowner’s generosity, in equal shares.
What spiritual lesson is woven into that story?
The lesson is actually quite simple: the story is a precise picture of God’s sovereign, saving grace. Since sinners are all unworthy, and the riches of God’s grace are inexhaustible, all believers receive an infinite and eternal share of His mercy and kindness, though no one really deserves it. “In Him we [all of us] have [complete] redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:7). He “raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6–7 NKJV, emphasis added). That speaks of all who are redeemed. It is the Father’s good pleasure to give them the kingdom (Luke 12:32)—all of them, and in equal abundance.
The dying thief who repented in his final moments entered paradise, where he is enjoying eternal life and everlasting fellowship with Christ just the same as Peter, James, and John, who literally gave their lives in service to the Savior.
The landowner in the parable represents God. The vineyard is the kingdom, the sphere of God’s rule. The laborers are believers, people who come into the service of the King. The day of work is their lifetime. The evening is eternity. The steward, perhaps, represents Jesus Christ, to whom has been committed all judgment. The denarius represents eternal life.
Note: this pay is not something the workers have earned. It is not given to them like a minimum wage in a fair exchange for labor done. It is far too much for that. Rather, this represents a gracious gift, a lavish endowment that exceeds the best reward any day worker could ever merit.
So this is the point: If you are a genuine believer, you receive the full benefits of God’s immeasurable grace, just like everyone else in God’s kingdom. Your place in heaven is not a timeshare where your access is determined by the length of time you spent doing the Lord’s work. The blessings of redemption are not doled out in quotas based on one’s personal achievements. Forgiveness is not measured by weighing our good deeds against our sins, nor is it partially withheld if we have sinned for too long or too badly.
Everyone who enters the kingdom receives the full abundance of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness. That’s true no matter how long you have worked in God’s kingdom. It’s true no matter how hard or how easy your circumstances are. It’s true whether your service was minimal or maximal; whether you die as a martyr in the prime of life or live a fairly peaceful life and die of old age. It’s as true of those who come to Christ in adolescence as it is of those who genuinely repent of their sins at the end of a profligate life.
When this earthly life is over, if you are a believer, you will go to be with Christ, just like that thief on the cross (Luke 23:43); just like the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 5:8); and just like every other saint who has died since.
Heaven is not a reward for long service or hard work. Some people serve Christ their entire lives, and some for a very short time. We all enter into the same eternal life. We all will receive the same spiritual blessings in heaven.
If that seems inequitable, remember that it is far more than any of us deserve. The benefits of the kingdom are the same for everyone because we are redeemed in the first place only by God’s grace, and nothing else. That’s truly good news for you and me; we don’t have to earn our way into the kingdom. Heaven is not based on our merit.
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