The first shall be last, and the last shall be first

On several occasions, in different contexts, Jesus swapped the first with the last. He said it both ways: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” and also, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” In some contexts—such as the parable of the workers in the vineyard, in which twelve-hour workers were paid the same amount as one-hour workers—Jesus seems to be saying that all are equal, that no one is first and no one is last. That approach appeals to contemporary culture, where much emphasis is placed on the equality of all people. But a more careful study of the words of Jesus in their context, and in the teaching of his Church, shows more significance to his saying than merely, “No one is first and no one is last because everyone is the same.”

Most of us want to be first. Few of us achieve the humility of Paul, who called himself “chief of sinners” and “least of the apostles.” But none of us deserves to be first. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We all have failed to meet our Maker’s specifications. We all need to be rescued from our sins and from evil, redeemed from the cost of our misdeeds and failures, and reconciled again to God who made us. We cannot rescue or redeem or reconcile ourselves. We need Jesus to do these things for us.

Jesus is the only-begotten Son of the Father, and the entire universe belongs to him. He became human, like us in every way except that he never sinned. Jesus is first in a way that none of us can be first—first in divine power and glory, and first in human purity and perfection. When rewards are distributed for a righteous life, not only is Jesus first in line—he is the only one who deserves a place in line.

But Jesus, who is first, becomes last for all of us. By making himself last, Jesus makes each of us first. He puts us in the front of the line by surrendering his position to us. Being last, Jesus takes upon himself our guilt and our punishment. He goes to the cross for us so we can be rescued and redeemed. He takes for himself death, the wages of sin, so that each of us can receive the free gift of everlasting life.

God is not fair. He makes the first last, and he makes the last first. But God’s injustice is not opposed to us. God’s injustice is in our favor. Jesus is generous and does not complain that our reconciliation with God is unfair to him. Jesus gladly cheats the system, taking away our sins and giving each of us the blessings earned by his perfect righteousness.

The first becomes last to make all of us who were last into the first. No longer enemies of God, we have become the adopted children of God. In that sense we all are equal. But the first and the last trading places leads to more than equality—it leads to rescue, redemption, and reconciliation. Jesus has done this for us, because of his holy love for us. J.

Be reconciled

“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

These words teach us that Jesus cares deeply about how we get along with one another. Jesus says being reconciled to a brother (a fellow Christian) is a higher priority than giving gifts to God. Jesus does not say that reconciliation can replace our gifts to God; the gifts are still offered, but reconciliation comes first. Jesus hints that our relationship with God can be blocked by problems between us and our fellow believers. Jesus does not say outright that God will reject our gifts if we are at strife with other Christians, but the implication is present, and many Christians assume that is what Jesus means. Jesus clearly insists upon the importance of being reconciled to any brother who has something against us.

Most religions of the world encourage such behavior. Take responsibility for your mistakes. If you have hurt someone, perform restitution. Our goal is to do no harm; but when we have done harm, we want to pay for our mistakes and failures.

Jesus appears to be teaching the same message with these words. After all, he is not talking here about offering forgiveness to those who have sinned against us—that topic arises later in his sermon. Jesus describes instead a situation in which your brother has something against you. If you have done wrong, Jesus says, you have an obligation to go and be reconciled to your brother.

How does this teaching conform to the message Jesus delivers about Christians being blessed, being recipients of gifts? Has Jesus changed his mind already about his gifts? Is he restricting the gift, attaching strings to the gift, setting requirements we must meet before we receive the gift? From the entire message of the Bible, we know that Jesus would not withhold forgiveness from a believer who failed to apologize to a fellow Christian. The gifts of Jesus are not left at the altar during reconciliation; our gift to God sits for a time at the altar. When Jesus says, “go, be reconciled to your brother,” this too is part of the Gospel promise, the blessing, the gifts he provides each of us. Since Jesus has already forgiven us for all our sins, his forgiveness is able to reconcile each of us to whichever brothers we have harmed. Jesus will bless them also with the gift of mercy, the ability to forgive us for our sins.

Every injury done to another person is a sin against God. Every such sin is forgiven at the cross of Jesus Christ. Instead of ignoring our relationships with others as we focus on our relationship with God, Jesus wants us to know that those relationships are fixed through our relationship with God. “Go, be reconciled to your brother,” Jesus says, and the gift of grace smiles at us through these words. When Jesus told a lame man to walk, the power of his word made that man able to stand and walk. When Jesus tells us to be reconciled, the power of his word makes reconciliation happen. J.

Christ in Genesis: the Tower of Babel

Like the account of Noah, the account of the Tower of Babel seems at first glance to indicate nothing more than God’s wrath and punishment. Yet Christ is present even in this short section of the Bible. We perceive the wisdom of God’s judgment, and we also pick up a clue about the final reconciliation of the world to God through Jesus Christ from this account.

The descendants of Noah gathered on the plain of Shinar, which is now in modern Iraq. Here they decided to bake bricks and build a city which would include a tower with its top in the heavens. These actions violated no specific commands of God, nor does God frown on our modern cities with their many towers and skyscrapers. The purpose of the builders, however, contradicted the will of God. They said, “Let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” God had said, “You, be fruitful and multiply, teem on the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:7).

The people who wanted to make a name for themselves said, “Come, let us build.” God said, “Come, let us go down.” Father, Son, and Holy Spirit investigated the city and the tower and the hearts of the builders. God said, “Nothing they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” In my opinion, this statement of God was meant as irony. He was echoing what the builders believed, not what God knew to be true.

God’s response to their pride was to cause them to speak a variety of languages so they could no longer understand each other. Not only did each of them hear the others speaking other languages; each of them was convinced that he or she was speaking the right language while the others were speaking the wrong languages. Humble people learn how to communicate with one another in spite of language barriers. Proud people, even today, insist that they are speaking the right language; they say that other people should learn their language if they have anything to say to them. Because these people were proud, they were unable to work together. They abandoned the city and the tower and were dispersed over the face of the earth. This dispersal was exactly what God had wanted, and it was exactly what the builders had hoped to avoid.

Judgment and punishment are one answer to sin. Forgiveness and reconciliation are another answer to sin. God prefers the second answer. Therefore he sent his Son, the Word made flesh, to atone for sin and to reconcile the world to God. When the time was right, Jesus offered his body as a sacrifice. He died and was buried. On the third day he rose again from the dead. He spent time with his disciples, explaining what he had done and why. Then, forty days after his resurrection, he ascended into heaven to fill the universe in every way.

Fifty days after his resurrection, Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit on his Church. Everyone in the city heard the sound of a rushing wind—a signature event, since in the Biblical languages (Hebrew and Greek) the same word means both wind and spirit. Those who believed in Jesus were marked with tongues of fire. They began to talk about Jesus, and the various people from various parts of the world all heard the Christians sharing the good news of Jesus in different languages—each listener heard the Gospel in his or her own language.

With this miracle, God showed that sins were forgiven and reconciliation had happened. The results of sin—including the judgment which resulted in many languages—were reversed by the work of Jesus. God dispersed the many nations, but from those many nations he has assembled one Kingdom, which is the Holy Christian Church. In this Church, the work of Jesus and of the Holy Spirit continues to be accomplished all over the world. When God gathers his people, they come from every tribe and nation and language, united by one Savior and by one Holy Spirit. J.