“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Paradox of “The Last Shall Be First”

1. “The Last Shall Be First”

The prideful and haughty will be humbled and brought low by God’s judgment. On the other hand, those who are humble and lowly, God will honor and exalt. Those who are meek, God will reward, and those who are poor in spirit, God will fill. This theme is very common in the Old Testament (for example, see 1 Samuel 2:7-8; 2 Samuel 22:28; Job 5:11, 22:29; Psalm 18:27, 37:11, 138:6; Proverbs 16:19, 18:12, 29:23; Isaiah 57:15; Ezekiel 21:26; Daniel 4:37) and is also present in the New (for example, James 2:5,1 4:6,10; 1 Peter 5:5-6),2 especially in the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels:

“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” – Matthew 23:12, cf. Luke 14:11, 18:14

“Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” – Matthew 20:26-28, cf. Mark 10:44-45

“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 18:3-4

“Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.” – Luke 9:48

“Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.” – Luke 22:26

“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” – Mark 10:15, cf. Luke 18:17

“Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 19:14
The one who is last will be first, the smallest will be the greatest, he who serves others will be honored, and little children will receive the kingdom of heaven! Perhaps most beautiful, though, are the Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.”
– Matthew 5:3-6, cf. Luke 6:20-26
As we saw briefly (see “The Paradox of Jesus”), it was this truth that Jesus lived out in his ministry. He devoted his time largely to the weak, needy, or oppressed in his society. He intentionally embraced and cared for children, women, and sick, crippled, or disabled people in a way that others did not, and he did not shy away from eating with those who were looked down upon by society, whether because of their work (“sinners” like Zacchaeus the tax collector; cf. Matthew 9:12-13) or ethnicity (non-Jews, such as the Samaritan woman at the well).3 He took the man who was lowly in heart and poor in spirit by the hand and lifted him up, and he rebuked the proud Pharisee. And at the cross, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). In Jesus Christ we find the visible image of the God described by Mary as recorded in the “Magnificat,” the Song of Mary:
“He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.”
– Luke 1:51-53
1 James alludes to Jesus’ Beatitudes when he writes “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (2:5).
2 In Psalm 45:4, “the king” is said to “ride out…for the cause of truth and meekness.” Humility is a virtue, a treasure to be sought after (cf. Proverbs 11:2).
3 The acceptance of the poor, the oppressed, or the outcast is a theme not only in the Gospels, but in the Bible generally, both OT and NT.

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