Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
From the Bible: Matt. 19:30; 1 Chron. 29:14; 1 Cor. 4:3
Matt. 19:30 (Holman) “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Peter asked, “What will there be for us?” (19:27). Jesus first gave two encouragements (vv. 28-29). He now gave a warning to fence the promises. This first/last enigma was very important to Jesus. He used it more than once.
The paradox meant there will be surprises on Judgment Day. The final day will disappoint many expectant hopes, and lift up many who are downcast. Our evaluations of God’s final verdicts are subject to error in at least four ways.
One, we easily misjudge God’s criteria. Our standards are not His standards. Earth’s scale is a broken mirror of the next world’s. Our judgments often center on wealth, education, personalities, abilities, acquaintances, or jobs.
The question is, did we well use the talents He gave us? To whom much is given, much is required. If Joe gained fame for using seven abilities, but was given 10, his reward will be less than Sue who used both of the 2 she was given.
Apparent success is no guarantee of special status with God. Motives, innate skills, environmental issues, and other factors must be brought into play.
God examines the heart, and makes decisions based on what He sees in it. Two people can do the exact same thing, with one of the two being rewarded, the other not. Questions beg to be answered. Was the deed done for Him, or to impress others? Was He in our thought as we did the deed? Was love for Jesus our chief motivation? Hankering for a reward can cause us to miss the reward.
We see only the deed. God measures the amount of prayer mixed in with it. This convicts me. I work hard on sermons, hours of study and writing and memorizing. Have I done it so long I now do it in the flesh? This frightens me.
What gets mixed into our deeds matters. My mother-in-law was the best green bean cooker of all time. She’s the only person I ever knew whose green beans could be eaten as a dessert. You may be wondering, what made her green bean dishes better than others’ attempts? It wasn’t the quality of the beans. A green bean is a green bean. The difference was what she mixed in with them. The Hueys kept two things near their stove at all times: sugar, and a can of lard. The more of those two ingredients that went into the dish, the better it tasted. What are we mixing in with our deeds to make them more palatable to God?
Two, we easily misjudge grace. It’s grace, grace, all of grace, every inch of the way. The more we do, and the higher we serve, the larger our debt to grace grows. Spurgeon called this “an eccentricity of grace.” We don’t have a clue what our level of accomplishment is at any given time. The equation has too many variables. The God who commands good works from us, also gives us the strength, time, and disposition to do them. Where is human merit in this?
David, a man after God’s own heart, pondered the gifts that were given to build a temple, and prayed, “Who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? For everything comes from You, and we have given You only what comes from Your own hand” (1 Chronicles 29:14).
An illustration might help. A poor Godly Bishop once gained an audience with Pope Eugenius. Knowing the beloved Bishop had nothing to give as a gift, to save him from public embarrassment, the Pope secretly gave him jewels to give back publicly to the Pope. I like this illustration. If God did not give to us first, we would have nothing to give Him. It’s all of grace.
It is impossible for us to know what our level of reward might be in any deed. God truly is ever measuring us, but He evaluates us by grace, not merit.
Three, we easily misjudge others. Wanting to think we are better than others, we tend to think lower of them in order to elevate us. Give it up. Don’t try to figure out who’s first or last in Heaven’s estimation. Being first in earthly privileges does not equate to being first in God’s favor. Many who have been first in the eyes of others, and in their own self-evaluation, will be last. Many who have been last in the eyes of others, and last in their own eyes, will be first.
Avoid trying to rank others. Don’t even try to do the same for yourself. Wait for God’s final appraisal. We will all have adequate, appropriate honor.
Four, we easily misjudge ourselves. It’s hard for us to know the truth about us because we are prejudiced by our desire to be a favorite of Heaven.
Our Master, in one of my life verses, said, “When you have done all that you were commanded, you should say, “We are good-for-nothing slaves; we’ve only done our duty”” (LK 17:10b). In other words, we can do nothing to earn merit with God. We are to do all we do out of a deep sense of gratitude for God’s love. Our task is to focus on our assigned work. It is okay to encourage ourselves by pondering the rewards briefly from time to time. But we must have a spirit willing to leave final decisions about rewards to God’s discretion.
We often don’t know ourselves. A fine line separates a clear conscience from a self-righteous attitude. Paul would not try to make a final judgment about himself. “I am not conscious of anything against myself, but I am not justified by this. The One who evaluates me is the Lord. Therefore don’t judge anything prematurely, before the Lord comes, who will both bring to light what is hidden in darkness and reveal the intentions of the hearts.” (I Cor. 4:3-5a).
Always examine yourself, and do your best, but final judgments belong to God. Don’t trust human evaluations, including your own about yourself.
Avoid the extremes of pride and discouragement. Don’t be proud. In our text, Jesus warned the disciples to beware. Nothing good would be gained by smugly thinking they were better than the Rich Young Ruler. They had no way to know for sure what they would have done had they been as rich as he was.
We are at our best when we are humble. John the Baptist felt unworthy to remove Jesus’ sandals (Matthew 3:11). The centurion told Jesus, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” (Matthew 8:8). Paul said, “I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle” (1 Corinthians 15:9). St. Augustine confessed, “I am not worthy of Your love.” Don’t be proud. Stay low before Jesus. Live bowing at the cross. Dad says, proceed on your knees.
Don’t be discouraged. Two mites seemed piddling, but those who were giving huge gifts will stand forever in the poor widow’s shadow. We measure people by how much they give. God evaluates based on how much we have kept. The widow gave more than the others because she had nothing left.
The disciples called Mary’s lavish offering a waste, but her story will be told forever. A dying thief who knew Jesus barely over 3 hours seemed trivial to onlookers, yet his story far outshines that of Judas Iscariot who walked close to Jesus for 3 years. Lazarus, whose sores the dogs licked, rests in the bosom of Abraham, while the rich man who fared sumptuously is tormented in flames.
Don’t be proud. Don’t be discouraged. Do your best. Proud believer, beware. Humble yourself. Discouraged believer, lift up your head. Something in you is meant to be a trait leading to greatness, to being first, in God’s eyes.