The parable Jesus told of a vineyard owner hiring workers throughout the day but paying each of them the same wage for the day’s work seems to illustrate the principle, as in the title above. The parable is recorded in Matthew 20:1-16:
“…For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.’
“So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.’ And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius. And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, saying, ‘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.’
“But he answered one of them and said, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’ So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.”
It is a rather long narrative, but there are three points to be considered as insight into the “likeness of the kingdom of heaven” so revealed in this parable—the same wage being paid to each of the workers; the first is last and the last first; and many are called, but few are chosen. The challenge is to learn how those three points are illustrated by this parable. It brings me to that proverb that says, “And knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10b).
But wait! The first part of that verse also has an important input to this as well: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10a).
The first item is the way the workers were paid—each one received the same amount, although their hours of work differed. As the article title indicates, it compares to the gift of eternal life and how it comes to those who believe and receive it. No one gets more eternal life than anyone else. That seems to be a simple answer, but does anyone have difficulty with the realization that someone who receives the gift of eternal life through Christ at an early age and spends his life in service to the Lord, while someone on his deathbed accepts Christ and has no life left to live for the Lord, yet he also has eternal life? Perhaps not so much, but that is a reasonable comparison with the details of the parable.
That old Adam nature each believer spars with all day long, every day and night, has a way of crying out, “That’s not fair!” Remember how the disciples, James and John, wanted to sit on each side of Jesus when He was seated on His throne in heaven? Who doesn’t want special privileges to satisfy his self-centered soul?
The passage that sheds light on this is found in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15:
“For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.”
There is only one foundation for eternal life, and that is Jesus Christ. Likewise, there is only one full and complete eternal life. It is not handed out in pieces, depending on how well we have served. Notice in that passage how well one has served results in rewards that are not burned up by the test of fire. Yet, the foundation remains firm and sure. That is the assurance of salvation, as so stated in 1 John 5:11-12:
“And this is the testimony that God has given to us eternal life, and this life is in His Son; he who has the Son has life, and he who does not have the Son does not have life.”
That thief on the cross who believed did not have time for any good works; his only one was his recognition of Jesus as the Savior. Yet, his salvation was as assured as anyone else’s.
As an example, a man who accepts Christ on his deathbed might say, as his wife, perhaps, tells him of the Jesus he has avoided all his life, “I love you more now than I ever did before you helped me find Jesus to save me.” That comment of love may be the only “good work” he would be able to do, but it would be in the gold, silver or precious stones category and not burned up.
As Jesus said to Peter when he asked about the purpose Jesus had for that other disciple, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me” (John 21:22). Believers are saved one by one and not in groups as a whole. Believers are individually responsible to God for their own service. It is spelled out in 2 Corinthians 5:10, the reference that speaks of the judgment seat of Christ:
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”
Now, what does the phrase, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last” mean in respect to this parable? It is possible that it is an idiom, a saying, that means all entrants will be equally together at the end of the day. That seems to be the picture painted by the parable, at least. But here is another way to look at it: In short, “the first shall be last and the last first” means that being first has no meaning in the kingdom of heaven, for everyone arriving there is totally on the same level. The difference comes in what a person’s calling for service is, as Romans 12:3-4 tells us that God does measure out our gift of faith to perform that calling:
“For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function….”
Then, the phrase, “many are called, but few are chosen” — how does it fit into this parable? It is a phrase repeated in another parable, the one of a king who prepared a wedding feast for his son; invitations were sent out but none came who were expected. Instead, his servants were sent out to invite anyone to come, and many did. That parable is found at Matthew 22:1-14. In that parable, it is clear how the statement fits the passage.
But in this one, when the owner of the vineyard came each time during the day, he found men standing around, waiting—as they said—for someone to hire them. Those who responded to his invitation to go to work ended up being his chosen, while it was an open invitation for anyone to go to work. That is comparable to our sharing the gospel—the Great Commission. Some respond favorably, but many do not, then or even later.
The Scriptures are clear, in spite of beliefs to the contrary, that God does not charge into a person’s life uninvited. He honors a person’s freedom of choice, just as He did with Adam and Eve in the Garden so long ago. It can be no better explained than is done in Revelation 3:20, as Jesus pictures His approach to a person: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come into him and live with him, and he with Me.” It is also evident in the constantly repeated challenge in the Scriptures and by evangelists that “you must believe in Christ to be saved.” It is an act of the will.
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