"The Last and the First"
(Delivered Sunday, January 6, 2008 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
God is not as we would expect Him to be. As we learn about Him from the Bible, we discover that He is not like us. He doesn't think like we think, and doesn't respond to things as we respond, and doesn't do things as we would do them.
Long ago, in Isaiah 55:8-9, He said,
This morning, as we continue our study of the Gospel of Matthew, we discover yet another example of how God's ways are higher than our ways, and how His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. It's found Matthew 20:1-16; and in the parable our Lord told of the workers in the vineyard.
Jesus spoke to His disciples and said,
According to strictly human standards, it would be a very unfair labor practice to pay the same amount to someone who only worked for one hour as someone who had worked at the same job all day. If we define "fairness" as treating all people equally, then the man in Jesus' parable is an "unfair" employer. We certainly can't say that he was "unjust" of course; because he contracted with some to pay them a certain amount for a day's work, and he kept his promise. But he wasn't "fair", by human standards, in that he didn't give people equal treatment.
I was sharing this passage with a friend the other day, and he said it well; "If the AFL-CIO had read this, it would had have a fit!" The AFL-CIO would insist that things be done according to human standards of equality. We would naturally expect that God would do things—at the very least—as human standards of fairness would demand.
But then, the AFL-CIO doesn't operate on the principle of grace. And thankfully, God does. His ways are higher than our ways; and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts.
That's a point that's illustrated to us wonderfully in this parable.
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Think about the context in which this parable was spoken. A man had come up to Jesus and wanted to know what he needed to do in order to have eternal life. The man was young, rich and powerful. He was, in every respect, a success by this world's standards. And yet, he knew that he didn't have eternal life.
Since he wanted to know what it was that he himself needed to do to earn eternal life, Jesus told him. He had made his riches his 'god'; and he would need to forsake his false god by selling all he had, giving the money to the poor, and faithfully following Jesus. But as a result, the man went away in great sadness. He knew that he could never do, in his own power, what Jesus said he needed to do to have eternal life. And this "teachable moment" gave Jesus the opportunity to stress to His disciples that God doesn't save men on the basis of what they can "do”—that is, not on the basis of human merit—but rather on the basis of His grace. "With men this [that is, obtaining eternal life] is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matthew 19:26).
This set the disciples to thinking. They certainly weren't powerful and successful in this world's eyes. And yet, they had done what the rich young ruler did not do. And so, speaking behalf of the others, Peter said to the Lord, "See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?" (v. 27). Jesus told them;
Jesus assures them that they didn't need to fear. He wouldn't forget their sacrifice for Him. He would faithfully give back to them all that they had given up for Him. And what's more, they would have the very thing that the rich young ruler could not earn for himself in his own power—eternal life.
But lest any of His followers should become arrogant and look down their noses at others; or think of themselves as "greatest in the kingdom" because they did more, or sacrificed more, or followed longer—or, on the other hand, lest any of them should be discouraged in their service to Him and think that they will never amount to much in His kingdom—Jesus then adds this additional affirmation: "But many who are first will be last, and the last first" (v. 30).
And to help explain this remarkable statement, Jesus goes on to tell the parable that's before us today—the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Jesus lets His followers know that on the great day in heaven when we all give an account of our service to Him, and when the rewards for service are given, the predominating principle He will operate on is NOT one that the world operates on.
It will not be on the basis of human merit; but rather on the principle of "grace".
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Now; this parable has something very important to teach our church family.
Each genuine believer and follower of Jesus in this church family has a part to play in the work of the kingdom. And our Lord assures us that we can give ourselves fully over to that work. But we must understand that our service to Him is all a matter of grace—through and through; from beginning to end. If we don't keep that in mind, we won't have the right attitude about our work or about others whom He calls into His labors.
On the one hand, we may end up looking upon ourselves as so unworthy of being in His service that we are hindered in doing the work He actually calls us to do. We may feel that we've come to believe on Him too late in life, or that we've spent too many years in sin to do anything of significance for the kingdom. Or we may fear that we're too unskilled or untalented to do anything that would really count for much to Him. And this parable lets us know that, because He operates on the principle of grace rather than human merit, we can give ourselves faithfully to His service in whatever area He has called us—knowing that we work for a Master who does not measure the value of His laborers as the world does. He is overwhelmingly gracious to those who serve Him.
But on the other hand, we may end up looking so highly upon ourselves that we look at others as "unworthy". We may begin to feel that we will deserve a higher place of honor in His kingdom because we have walked with Him longer, or because we repented of our sins sooner, or because we have labored more diligently, or that our efforts were more valuable in human terms than others. And this parable reminds us that, because our Lord operates on the principle of grace rather than human merit, we need to do our work for Him in the kingdom with a humble attitude.
Our Master evaluates His servants in a far different way than the people of this world do. He loves to shower His grace on those among His followers who are the most unworthy in this world's eyes. When it comes to the work of His kingdom, "many who are first will be last, and the last first".
And that's how this parable helps us. Knowing some of the truths about the rewards for service in Jesus' kingdom that we find in it will will help us keep a proper attitude in our labors.
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First, we need to know . . .
1. THAT IT'S A PRIVILEGE TO BE CALLED INTO THE WORK OF HIS KINGDOM (v. 1).
Jesus begins by saying, "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard" (v. 1).
In those days, a normal day was reckoned from sunrise to sunset; and so, "early in the morning" would refer to some time before 6 am. There was a job to do. There were grapes to be harvested. As soon as he could—before the sun arose—the landowner went out to gather workers into his vineyard.
The Lord Jesus has work to be done. It's the work of advancing His kingdom. It has been started long ago; but it carries on to this day. And if anyone should be called into that work in any capacity, it should be looked upon as an unspeakably great honor. They would be working for something that will be eternal and that will outlast everything else in this world. And what's more, they would be working for a Master who will never fail to reward those who faithfully serve Him.
Have you been called to some particular work of service in the Lord Jesus' kingdom? There is ample work to be done; and each one of us has something we can do. Have you been called to teach a Sunday School class? Have you been called to provide some repair or maintenance work in the house of God? Have you been called to visit someone who is sick? Have you been called to provide transportation or meals to someone? Have you been called to share your faith in some particular setting? Do you see something in the work of the kingdom that needs to be done that you have the unique capacity to do; and are you feeling God's call to get to work?
If the Lord has called you into the service of His kingdom in any capacity, you need to think rightly about that call. You need to know that it is a great privilege to be called into His service. Rejoice in it; and rise up immediately and get to work! Give yourself fully to that thing the Lord has given you to do. Don't hold back, waiting for something better to do. Don't put it off, looking for some other time. Do what He has called you to do now for His kingdom's sake!
And remember Paul exhortation;
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So then; the landowner set out early in the day to gather workers into his vineyard. Jesus tells us that he gathered some in that early morning hour, and that he entered into an agreement with them: "Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard" (v. 2). A “denarius” was the rough equivalent of an average working man's wage for a day. It was a standard wage for day's work. And so, that agreement being settled, off they went to work.
But clearly, the landowner needed more laborers than those he had just sent. So, he set out to gather more workers. And this is were we discover another principle about our Lord with respect to the work of the kingdom . . .
2. THAT HE SOVEREIGNLY CALLS HIS LABORERS AS HE CHOOSES (vv. 2-7).
We're told that the landowner entered into an agreement with the first men he hired in the early morning. But then, as the day progressed to the third hour after sunrise—that is, about 9 am—he saw some men standing "idle" in the marketplace. He told them, "You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you" (vv. 3-4).
Then, as the day progressed further, to the noon hour, he did the same. He found some men standing around unemployed; and he put them to work and sent them off into His vineyard. And again, at about three in the afternoon, he found more men standing idle; and he did the same with them (v. 5).
All through the day, it seems, the man was finding able-bodied men who were idle, and calling them into service into his vineyard. Even to the very last hour of the day—the eleventh hour (that is, about an hour before sundown at 6 pm)—where're told "he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, 'Why have you been standing her idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one hired us'" (vv. 6-7).
Pause for a moment and think about this last group of men. For them to still be standing around in the marketplace near the end of the day suggests that they were in desperate need of work. No one had hired them up to that point; and it looked as if they would have to go home to their families with nothing to show for the day—nothing to bring home for food and necessities. It would have been perfectly understandable if, at that point of the day, they had simply gone home in despair. But they stayed; still hoping for work. Even if they were only paid for one hour's worth of work, it would have been better than nothing.
The landowner found them and said to them, "You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive" (v. 7).
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Now the landowner didn't just post a notice at the marketplace the day before and accept everyone who showed up for work. Instead, he went out periodically throughout the day, found men who were unemployed, and sent them to work personally—promising them that he would pay them whatever is right.
And here, again, we find an important lesson to remember in the Lord's work. Our Lord sovereignly calls whomever He chooses to work in His field. He not only chooses whoever He wishes, but also whenever He wishes. Some He calls in the early morning. Some He calls later in the morning, or at noontime, or in the early afternoon. And some He even calls at what almost seems like the last minute.
Some of us were called into His service at the early years—as little more than children. And if we were, we should be grateful that He spared us from wasting many years in sin. Others of us were called into His service while we were in the midst of the pursuit of a career, or while we were in the middle of making a name for ourselves; or perhaps, it was while we were in the midst of wasting our years in sin. And if we were, we should be grateful that He called us at a time in life when we still have strength to serve Him, and before we suffered more of a loss than we already had. And others of us were called into His service while we were in the later years of life. Perhaps we may feel at that point that we've wasted too many years to be of any use at all. Our best years may be gone; and we may feel that whatever good there might have still been in us had been squandered away in sin and selfishness. And yet, if He has called us even then, He yet has something for us to do.
The point is this: We should never question His sovereign choice! Now; if He has called us at the 3rd hour, and we put Him off until the 9th hour, then shame on us! We must come when we are called! But if He has called you even at the eleventh hour of life, praise Him and go! Whenever He called you into His service, don't question the fact that He called you when He called you! Go to the vineyard and work—knowing that He knows what He has planned for you to do, and that He will reward you rightfully for your faithful service
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Another encouragement we find from this parable is . . .
3. THAT THERE IS A DAY OF REWARD FOR ALL THOSE WHO SERVE (v. 8).
There comes a time when the twelve hours of daylight are spent; and the work must come to an end. So; Jesus tells us that "when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward [or 'foreman'], 'Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first" (v. 8).
Now; everyone may have been called a little differently. Some were called early; some were called later; some were called near the end. But for all who were called to work, there was a final call to come and receive their wages. And this reminds us that, no matter what our particular call to service in His kingdom may be, our Lord will forget no one. He will faithfully reward all those who faithfully served Him. As the writer of Hebrews says; "For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister" (Hebrews 6:10).
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But this is where the surprise comes in. The landowner deliberately commanded that the workers be paid in the reverse order from what would have ordinarily been expected—that is, "beginning with the last to the first".
Here's where we see another important principle we need to remember . . .
4. THAT HIS METHOD OF ACCOUNTING WILL DISPLAY HIS GRACE (vv. 9-10).
When those who were called to work in the vineyard at the eleventh hour came, they expected to be paid a mere portion of a day's wage. And yet, to their surprise, they were paid a full denarius—a full day's wage.
I suggest that this was an act of goodness on the part of the landowner. Knowing that they had not been able to work a whole day because no one had hired them, he nevertheless gave them what they did not deserve. He gave them the means to provide for their families. He didn't reward them on the basis of human merit; but rather on the basis of grace.
And do you notice that he specifically commanded that these last workers be paid first? He did this so that his grace to them would be displayed to those who followed after. He elevated those who were last to the place of being first, in order to display His grace to those who were first through his kindness to the last.
When they saw that the last workers were paid a denarius, they expected that they would receive more than they originally contracted for. Perhaps those first workers even anticipated that they might receive twelve denarii—since they worked twelve hours! But instead, they received the same amount as those who had worked only an hour.
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When I think of the experience of these last workers, and of the great grace that was shown to them, I think of the story of the thief on the cross next to our Lord.
Luke tells us that, as Jesus hung on the cross, one of the criminals who hung next to Him blasphemed Him; saying, "If You are the Christ, save yourself and us" (Luke 23:39). Mark, in his Gospel, even lets us know that the other criminal had chimed in and was blaspheming the Lord almost to the very end (Mark 15:32).
But something had happened in the heart of that dying criminal. He eventually turned to the first criminal and said, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” We're told that he then said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom;" and that Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise" (Luke 23:40-43).
Think of that! There was no time for this criminal to do any good deeds in order to make himself worthy. He didn't have any time to reform his life. All that he had time to do was to call out to Jesus and say, "Remember me when you come into Your kingdom." He was literally called at the eleventh hour—even, we might say, at the 'eleventh hour' of the eleventh hour! And yet, Jesus promised that he would be that very day with Himself in Paradise! And his single act of service to the kingdom—giving us an example of how to be saved—has done more for the service of the kingdom than any human being could estimate!
Truly, the last shall be first! Our Lord's wonderful method displays His grace!
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This leads us to the other workers; and to a final principle . . .
5. THAT WE HAVE NO RIGHT TO GRUMBLE AT HIS GOODNESS TOWARD OTHERS (vv. 11-15).
They, of course, did grumble against the landowner. "These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day!" I suspect it was quite a picture—those last workers, holding their denarii with amazed looks on their faces; standing next to those poor, tired, sweaty, filthy first workers with angry looks on their faces. Jesus says in the parable that one of them had to be told to take his denarius and go; which makes me wonder if he had even refused at first to receive it. Literally, he was told to "take it up". Perhaps he had even thrown it down in anger.
These first workers were grumbling as if they had been treated unjustly. But there was no injustice on the part of the landowner whatsoever. They had agreed—from the very start—to work for a denarius; and that's exactly what they received. It's interesting to note, however, that the other workers didn't agree to work for a denarius. The landowner told them to go work in his vineyard; "and whatever is right you will receive".
The landowner explained to one of the more vocal of the first workers, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go. I wish to give to this last man the same as you" (vv. 13-14). And why? It was because he didn't measure his laborers on the basis of human standards of merit; but rather on the basis of his grace.
It was his right to do this; since it was his money to do as he wished. And what's more, they were wrong to to think wrongly about him because he was good. If they had been thinking rightly, they would have accepted their denarius graciously; and also would have rejoiced gladly at the goodness of the landowner on display.
Not only had the last become first because of God's grace; but the first became last because of their evil attitude of heart.
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Our Lord's parable is summed up for us, both at the beginning and at the end: "Many who are first will be last, and the last first". This is because He is a Master who values His laborers on the basis of His own sovereign grace rather than on human merit.
May we be both warned and encouraged by this parable. May we be warned never to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think. May we remember that if we are in His service at all, it is a great privilege; and that we should praise His grace. And may we be encouraged never to think ourselves too unworthy of His service. If He calls us at any point in life, He does so as He chooses; and He is able not only to use us powerfully, but also to reward us graciously.
Our great God is not like we are. He thinks in a higher way that we think, and he does things in a higher way than we do. Let's be careful to think rightly about our service in His kingdom; and let's be joyfully about our work!
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