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God’s Word for You

Luke 13:30 the last first

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, September 12, 2018

30 “You will see: There are those who are last who will be first, and those who are first who will be last.”

Why is this both a comfort to us and a warning?

This saying or something like it was repeated by Jesus several times during his ministry: in connection with describing those who have left family to follow him (Matthew 19:29; Mark 10:29), as the summary of the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:8,16); encouraging a childlike faith in Capernaum (Mark 9:34); and now, in connection with describing the inclusion of the Gentiles in the kingdom of God. There is an echo of it in Balaam’s fifth oracle: “First among the nations was Amalek, but its end is to perish forever” (Numbers 24:20, NRSV). The words must be understood in their context. Here, as often with Jesus, they are a mashal or enigmatic saying. It seems simple enough, but only faith can truly understand it.

On first glance, we might think that the “last” are the latecomers, those who are later in time. But Jesus means something else, because Jews and Gentiles have their origins in the bodies of men who were contemporaries. We might think of the origin of the people of God as being with the Hebrews, in which case we would travel back to the Patriarch Eber and those who lived in his days. He was the ancestor of the “Eberites” or, as they are better known, the Hebrews (Genesis 10:21). His sons, Peleg and Joktan, marked a great division. “In his (Peleg’s) time the earth was divided” (1 Chronicles 1:19). Or we might think of the division of peoples, Jew and Gentile, with Abraham, or with Isaac, or certainly with Jacob. Jacob’s son Judah is the source of the term Jew. Or we might go back earlier to the brothers Shem, Ham and Japheth. All of these Patriarchs lived in the very remote past, long before the Israelites were captive in Egypt and were brought out by Moses.

Whatever way we think about these things, it is not lateness in time that Jesus has in mind when he says “last.” It is one’s distance or remoteness from the grace of God. The Lord, delighting to show his glory in man’s weakness, extends the kingdom of God even to those who are outside the kingdom to call them in. Then those who are last—outside—become those who are first—inside. This is the gospel to the Gentiles.

Think about the work of a shoemaker. He takes a wooden form, cuts leather pieces and stitches them around the form to make a shoe. The final product, the shoe, is the valued thing. But it’s as if the Lord came along and said, “I want all the scraps of unused leather, too—and I even want the old wooden form.” That’s the offer Jesus makes to the Gentiles. They were useless, outside the kingdom of God and outside the way God’s people thought about the kingdom. Yet God has invited the Gentiles; the scraps. This is the sweetest gospel to all those of us who come from the Gentile races. Danes, Chinese, French, Russians, Africans, Japanese, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, Scots, Norwegians, Germans, and even the English and the Irish have a place in God’s kingdom through faith in Jesus Christ.

But this saying is not only the gospel, it is also the law. It is a warning to the Jews, to those who were once inside his grace. It’s not as if time or God’s growing boredom with his children sends them off once again like a stupid husband failing to recognize the priceless qualities of his wife as she grows old alongside him and he forgets the quality of her devotion and faithfulness. This warning is for those Jews who did not recognize that the promised Savior was standing before them. It’s also is a warning for us not to become complacent with our faith. Luther said, “It is to frighten the greatest saints.” Just because we enjoy God’s favor is no reason to expect that God will favor us always no matter what becomes of our faith. This is why we focus our attention firmly on the cross, to know the penalty paid by our loving Lord. We respond to his love with our faith, our trust, and our devotion.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

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Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.