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And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. (Matthew 19:29-30)
Jesus promises that those who have left “everything” for his sake in order to labor for the kingdom of God will receiving a hundred times as much in this present age (cf. Mark 10:30). And in the next age they will receive eternal life. Somewhat mysteriously, he adds “but many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first”. What exactly did he mean? What does it have to do with receiving eternal life in the next age?
Before we continue, let us make it clear that eternal life is not equivalent to reward in the next age. Eternal life, that is salvation, is given by grace through our faith and not by our works (Ephesians 2:8-9). Therefore every believer will receive the same salvation, as it were; every believer will enter the kingdom of heaven. But we will not all receive the same reward in the next age—which will be above and beyond and in addition to eternal life. Our reward in the next age will indeed be determined by the quality and quantity of our works in obedience to the Lord’s commands in this life (2 Corinthians 5:10). But here Jesus is clearly speaking about eternal life or salvation which is by grace.
For the meaning of “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” let’s proceed to the very next chapter where Jesus continues his teaching on eternal life.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:1-16)
That Jesus is still teaching about eternal life is clear from the equal wages the various workers received from the landowner regardless of how long or how much they worked in his vineyard. We believers will all receive the same salvation, whether we believed as a child or at the very last moment on our deathbed. But there will be a difference: “…the last will be first, and the first will be last.” What could that mean here?
Could it mean that in some sense we who believe and labor during these last days will in some way enter into the fullness of eternal life before those who believed and served in the early days? Perhaps no one will enter into this fullness of eternal life to reign with Christ until after Christ returns to establish His kingdom on earth. At that time the last will enter first, and the first will enter last.
We who have lived during the last days will not have “waited” long before entering. But those early disciples will have “waited” 2,000 years. In the sense of “waiting” we will have entered first.