Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The last shall be first

by John D Ramsey

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I love my job. I like the people with whom I work; I like helping other people be productive; I like the intellectual challenge my job provides – I swim in a sea of SQL. Most of the time, I like the laughter at work. I do not, however, like the intellectual challenge of trying to work productively when there is excessive laughter. Until the end of the year, I am trying to focus on a project, so today I donned the headphones and chose Bob Dylan to mask the noise surrounding me.

As The Times They Are A-Changin’ droned in my ears, I wondered how many people hear these lyrics and miss the Biblical allusion in the last stanza, “. . . the first one now will later be last, for the times they are a changing’.” I do not pretend to have specific insights into what Bob Dylan intended by this song, nor do I ask. A couple years ago, I listened to Sean Penn’s recording of Bob Dylan’s Chronicle’s: Volume One, and I concluded that Bob Dylan prefers to be misunderstood regardless. Still, Bob Dylan was not the first to say that the first will be last. A relevant question, therefore, might be whether Dylan understood whom he was quoting.

Four times in the Gospels Jesus says that the last will be first and the first will be last. One other time, Jesus deals with just one side of the equation. Mark, in his Gospel, writes,
They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

Mark 9:33-35 (NIV)
Jesus’ disciples argued among themselves about who would be greatest in the kingdom. They apparently acted like bickering children who imagine that Mom and Dad cannot overhear their quarrelling. When Jesus confronted them, they were silent. No one wanted to confess. It is not as if they could decide among themselves who would be first and who would be last in the kingdom. The kingdom of God is not a democracy; nor is it a competition. The kingdom of God exists to glorify God above everyone else.

Jesus tells his disciples that he who would be first must be the servant of all. We often read this to be a reminder that we are supposed to serve one another, and this is true. However, one of the beauties of Scripture is that it can be true on multiple levels. When Jesus said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all,” he alluded to himself. Although we should strive to emulate Jesus’ humility, we cannot approach it. Paul explains,

[Jesus] being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

Philippians 2:6-7 (NIV)

In our home in the evening, we have begun reading with the little girls the story of Jesus’ nativity. I want them to become familiar enough with Luke 2 that they can read it aloud themselves without stumbling over words and phrases. I want to impress on them that the nativity is not merely a story about a baby’s birth, but rather encapsulated within the infant in the manger is the Creator himself. Jesus humbled himself to become a man. Once he became a human, he never ceased to be human. Jesus is forever both Son of God and Son of Man. Moreover, Jesus’ birth portends his death.

And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death
even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:8 (NIV)

Jesus embraced his death with humility and obedience. Why does Jesus’ nativity necessitate his obedience to death? The writer of Hebrews explains,

Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

Hebrews 9:27-28 (NIV)
Man is condemned to die, and Jesus, fulfilling all obedience, endured this judgment. However, Jesus did not carry the penalty for his own sin upon the cross; rather, he carried the sins of the whole world. Jesus became the servant of all.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:9-11 (NIV)

Jesus Christ made himself the servant of all men. He voluntarily became the last, or the least, and thereby carried our sins into judgment by his death on the cross. Dying, resurrecting from the dead, and coming again, he brings salvation to those who are waiting for his return.

Though times are a-changin’ in ways that even Bob Dylan probably could not anticipate, the outcome of all things is sure. He who made himself last, he who served all men by carrying their sin upon the cross, will be first. Before him, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess him Lord.

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