Question: “What did Jesus mean when He said the first will be last and the last will be first?”
Answer: Jesus made the statement “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” in His response to the disciples’ asking what reward they would have for giving up everything to follow Him (Matthew 19:27-30; Mark 10:28-31). He reiterated this truth in Matthew 20:16 at the end of the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. This statement is not, as many believe, a description of the reversal of earthly roles in heaven. There is no hierarchy in heaven wherein the poor and oppressed will rule over the rich and powerful when we get there. Nor will those believers who enjoy wealth and prestige on earth be somehow abased in heaven.
When Jesus told the disciples they would be greatly rewarded in heaven for what they had given up on earth, He was assuring them that there would no longer be a distinction between themselves and other believers of higher social rank or greater power. In heaven, those considered inferior on earth—the fishermen, tax collectors and shepherds—would have equal rank with the scholars, the priests and the Romans who came to Christ for salvation. It’s not a matter of exchanging positions; rather, it is a leveling of all ranks into one. The lowly disciples, who were last in the eyes of many, would be equally exalted in heaven, while those who are elevated in their position on earth would be equal with those who are considered last on earth. In other words, there will be no distinction as to first and last because all will be the same. Jesus further reiterates this point by telling His disciples that those who wanted to be great in the kingdom would do so by being the servant of all (Mark 9:35).
The message in Matthew 20:16 “the last will be first, and the first last” is that no matter how long or how hard a believer works during his lifetime, the reward of eternal life will be the same given to all—an eternity of bliss in heaven in the presence of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), whose life of service was limited to a moment of repentance and confession of faith in Christ, received the same reward of eternal life as the apostle Paul. Of course, Scripture also teaches that there are different rewards in heaven for different services, but the ultimate reward of eternal life will be achieved by all equally.
Recommended Resources: Bible Answers for Almost all Your Questions by Elmer Towns.