Ellen G. White Writings

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The Signs of the Times

August 9, 1899

“The Last Shall Be First, and the First Last”

The kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a householder, which went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the market-place, and said unto them: Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even was come the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the laborers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the good man of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong; didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way; I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last; for many be called, but few chosen.”

In this parable Christ employed an illustration with which all were familiar. In Europe this custom still remains. Those desiring to find work wend their way to the market-place, and there stand about, hoping to be employed. And those, also, who are in need of workmen go also to the market-place.

This lesson was called forth by the disputing of the disciples as to who should be greatest. It is a continuation of the lesson of the preceding chapter. Here we read that Peter said to Christ: “Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed Thee; what shall we have therefore?” And Jesus answered: “Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of His glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or land, for My name's sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life. But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.”

Christ gave this lesson to reach down through the ages to our time. He saw that there would come into the church a spirit of self-righteousness, leading men to think that by their works they could earn heaven. In the parable those who were hired first, represent those who bring into their service an envious, self-righteous spirit. Because they had been first in the field, they claimed the preference. “Friend,” answered the master, “I do thee no wrong. In giving thee a penny, I have kept my part of the agreement.”

There are those who, whenever they make any advancement, take credit to themselves. If the Lord helps them, they are uplifted by pride, as tho by their own goodness they had advanced. They are eager for flattery, and jealous if they are not placed first. They feel superior to all others. These fail to treat the poor and needy as they should. They act unjustly and unrighteously. Christ does not desire to have them in His service, for they are eager for reward, and think they should receive a compensation for everything they do.

God sees not as man sees. Man judges by appearances; the Lord judges the motives. He knows whether sincerity and fidelity are brought into the work. Our Saviour repeatedly declared that the first should be last, and the last first. Unconsciously men act out their true character. Some work in a humble, lowly way, but they are imbued with the Spirit of God, and constantly they do little things to help others. They bring into their service a spirit of self-sacrifice and self-abasement. They long to do more for their Redeemer. These are the ones who will stand first. They think little of what they do, and are astonished to see that the Lord has noticed the kind word spoken to the disheartened, the gift bestowed to relieve the distressed. But the Lord measures the humble, childlike spirit of love and tenderness, in which these acts were performed, and makes the reward proportionate.

We should all have respect unto the recompense of reward. But, while we desire earnestly to receive blessing, we must have perfect confidence that Christ will reward all according to their works. Paul kept ever in view the crown of life which was to be given to him, and not to him only, but also to all those who love Christ's appearing. But it was victory through Jesus Christ that made the crown of life so desirable to him. Jesus would not have us ambitious to obtain reward, but ambitious to do God's will because it is His will, irrespective of the reward we are to receive.

The gift of God is eternal life. The Lord desires all who receive His grace to trust entirely in Him. He calls upon us to exercise pure, simple faith, trusting in Him, without a question as to what recompense we shall receive. We are to work heartily in His service, showing that we have perfect confidence that He will judge righteously.

In the account of the judgment scene, when the reward is given to the righteous, and sentence is passed on the wicked, the righteous are represented as wondering what they have done that they should receive such reward. But they cherished an abiding faith in Christ. They were imbued with His Spirit, and, without conscious effort, they performed for Christ, in the person of His saints, those services that bring a sure reward. But their motive in working was not to receive compensation. They regarded it as the highest honor to be allowed to work as Christ worked. What they did was done from love to Christ and to their fellowmen, and He who has identified Himself with suffering humanity accredited these acts of compassion and love as tho done to Himself.

Unconsciously those on the left hand, also, act out their proud, selfish spirit. In their lifetime they did not cherish the attributes of sympathy and love. Self was exalted, and the fatherless and widow, in their sorrow and poverty, received only inattention and neglect at their hands. Yet, in the parable, they are represented as asking: “Lord, when saw we Thee an hungered, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto Thee?” The answer comes: “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of the least of these, ye did it not to Me.”

Our every endowment, our every talent, we owe to the Lord. Every victory gained is gained through His grace. Therefore, it is entirely out of place for us to boast. “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth Me, that I am the Lord which exercise loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight, saith the Lord.”

“Who is among you that feareth the Lord, that obeyeth the voice of His servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? let him trust in the name of the Lord, and stay upon his God. Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks; walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of Mine hand; ye shall lie down in sorrow.” The slightest degree of self-sufficiency prevents a full appreciation of God's goodness and mercy. When Ephraim spoke tremblingly, he exalted himself in Israel, but when he offered to Baal, he died. God declares, “To this man will I look, even to him that is poor, and of a contrite spirit.” The ornament of a meek and quiet spirit is in the sight of God of great price.

“Many are called,” Christ said, “but few are chosen.” If we would remember that we are on test and trial before the heavenly universe, that God is proving us, to see what spirit we are of, there would be more serious contemplation, more earnest prayer. Those who work in simplicity realize that of himself man can do no good thing. They are full of gratitude and thanksgiving for the privilege of holding communion with God. Interwoven with their service is a principle that makes their gifts and offerings wholly fragrant. They have the same confidence and trust in God that a child has in its earthly father.

It is not so much for our activity and zeal that we are rewarded, but for the tenderness, the graciousness, the love that we have mingled with our work for the sick, the oppressed, the afflicted. Those who see the necessities of others, and yet pass by on the other side, too busy to minister to the purchase of Christ's blood, who are so eager to do great things that they forget the little things, will find themselves last and least when, in the judgment, the settlement is made. Salvation is wholly of grace. Love and humility are the traits of character that give the possessor the first place in the kingdom of God. Actions which express this love and humility call forth from Christ the words: “Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me.”

Mrs. E. G. White

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