Finishing First by Finishing Last (Matthew 19:16-30)

I know it is difficult to believe that the overly-competitive pastor of the church wrote a topic into the summer series like this one! But remember this – the main theme verse of the Bible still stands… 1 Cor. 9:24 – Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.  (I’m kidding … maybe.)

Here are two big ideas that go along with our theme for this week. The way to really win in life, and to win as well for eternity, is …

  1. to prioritize other people more than oneself
  2. to prioritize God’s Kingdom more than our material world

Accomplishing both of these ideals is counterintuitive to our instincts, demanding that we have a bottom line faith and trust in God and his care for us.

Our title today of finishing first by finishing last comes from Matthew 19:30. This is the finale verse in a teaching section following the story of a rich young man who walked away from a conversation with Jesus, being very sad – sad because he was unwilling to give up his riches for the Kingdom. The verse says … But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

Let’s review that story quickly …

Matthew 19:16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

The picture we get here is of a troubled fellow who is uncertain of his position in the kingdom of God. And of course, Jesus would be able to see and know what truly constituted the central issue in his life and the condition of his heart.

17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

Understand here that Jesus is not saying that one works his way to heaven by his good deeds, but rather that the keeping of good deeds (such as in the commandments) is an indicator of the condition of one’s heart and soul.

18 “Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

So Jesus quickly lists five commands in a row, but seems to intentionally skip the 10th commandment about covetousness, finishing rather with the summary statement from Leviticus 19:18 – about loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

The young man had a guilty sense that not all was well. And when Jesus says “perfect” here – read it as “complete” or “full.”  And Jesus goes to the heart of the matter with this man, and that is his covetousness and hoarding of riches. He was ultimately trusting in them rather than God.

22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

He could not give up his wealth; he could not find the ability to trust God and live in the unseen and the unknown, needing rather to find confidence in what he could hold onto.

23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The more one has, the more one has to lose. And this can add to the complication of trusting in God alone. Material gain can be a mixed blessing for sure.

25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”

26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

The disciples are astonished by this because it was the general teaching of the time that the possession of wealth was an evidence of the blessing of God. If those blessed by God’s goodness cannot be right with God, then who can be?  And Jesus says that really nobody can without God’s power and work in their life.

And we can imagine how this is going through the mind of Peter, who says to Jesus …

27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

It was true that the disciples had dropped it all to follow Jesus – business, homes, family … everything.

28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

Jesus says that God can be trusted to be a just and fair accountant for eternity!  At the end, great reward is there for those who do as the disciples did in giving it all up – they specifically being told of a future of honor in the Kingdom.

So, for many of those who may appear to be last, materially speaking, may end up first, spiritually speaking, and at the time that really counts. And that is counterintuitive to our natural way of thinking.

Let’s summarize this today with a single statement: Money and possessions can control you in this world as you allow it to grow destructive roots, or you can control it and build foundations of eternal value.

You can indeed finish first, but you do that by finishing last on purpose – having a heart of generosity for others and for God’s kingdom, all the while trusting God to meet your own needs sufficiently.

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