“And, behold, there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last.”
IN some of the books printed in the olden times, the authors were known to put a hand in the margin, as if to point out some passage to which they would have particular attention directed. Now, wherever we see in Holy Scripture the word, “behold,” it answers the same end. It is intended to show us that there is either something new, something impressive, or something which is speedily to transpire and, therefore, needs immediate attention. Or else there is usually something contrary to what men expect and, therefore, their consideration is the more earnestly directed to it. Seeing this, “behold,” in the margin, a signpost as it were–a directory for us to stop and pause and learn–let us do so tonight and may the Spirit of God be our Instructor, that we may listen to profit.
“There are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last.” Similar passages occur in Matthew and Mark as well as in Luke. In Matthew, the connection in which it stands shows that there Christ intended it to relate to temporal circumstances. Peter had told him that he, together with his fellow Apostles, had left all that he had to follow Christ. And his Master informed him that he should be no loser by it, but rather, he should greatly profit through having left house and lands, and children and wife for Christ’s name’s sake and the Gospel’s. “For,” said Christ, “there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last.” Brothers and Sisters, let us then hear and understand this, that circumstances shall very soon be altered. The high and mighty shall not always be so elevated! The base and mean shall not always occupy such a humiliating position! Throughout the whole history of the world, sin has been striding in high places with shoes of iron and brass, while godliness has walked barefoot through the valley.
Multitudes of most ungodly men have worn the tiara and have thrown the purple about their shoulders while a far more than equal number of the virtuous have been slaves to tug the galley oar, or have been condemned to long imprisonments, or have “wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented.” Still, Dives wears the scarlet and fine linen and fares sumptuously every day, while Lazarus lies at his gate full of sores and the dogs give him the charity of their tongues. Still Nero is on the throne and Paul rots in the Mamertine dungeon. Still a Charles II shall have the crown while the Puritan shall be found “despised and rejected of men.” You can scarcely turn to any page of history in which you do not see the wicked in great power, spreading himself like a green bay tree, while the righteous is plagued all daylong and chastened every morning!
Well, the time is coming when all this shall be changed! One wave of your hand, O Death, and where is the dignity of sin? One blast of Your breath, O God, and where are the glories of the mighty? Where are the pomp and the power of the ungodly man who vexed Your saints? See there, Dives has gone down to the nethermost pit and Lazarus is lifted to the Throne of God! See there, Nero rots and is corrupt, while Paul, on angels wings, is borne to the right hand of the Majesty on high! Poverty-stricken, having hardly a place where he can lay his head, the humble tentmaker took rank with the very lowest, but, though last, he now stands first, nearest the eternal Throne of God–
“Midst the bright ones, doubly bright.”
Proud, having all the earth at his beck, Rome’s legions at his call, Nero reigned and thought himself a god, but now the meanest slave is greater than he and they mock and jeer him, even they, the princes who lost their thrones by him and the men whom he trampled in the dust! In Hell they greet him with the cry, “Are you become like one of us?” and marvel greatly because the mighty are fallen and the proud are stained in the mire! Patience, then, patience, you who are the sons of poverty and yet the sons of God! Hush your boasting, you that are the heirs of wrath and yet the heirs of fortune–the tables shall soon turn–eternity shall undo the incongruities of life! Time, your inequalities shall all be forgotten, Justice shall right every wrong, “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”
So, Brothers and Sisters, to pass on, there is no doubt that this is equally true with regard to the world’s esteem. Formany a long year the precious sons of God, comparable to fine gold, have been esteemed as earthen pitchers, the work of the hands of the potter. For the first three centuries there was no villainy too vile to be laid at the door of the Christians. They were baser than the greatest miscreants. The world hooted them from the streets! No terms were thought bad enough for them. “It is not fit that they should live,” was the world’s verdict upon the followers of the Crucified. And even today a godly man is held in no reputation. There are no racks, ‘tis true–no prisons, no fines–but there are the jeers and the mockery, the shrugging of the shoulder, the reviling, the shame and the spitting! These have not ceased even now. Genius, intellect, science, taste, poetry and literature have their golden shrines. Godliness it just tolerated in its own conventicle.
I may be addressing some Christians, especially some young converts who feel it very hard to have the cold shoulder in society, to be neglected by their friends, to be threatened by their parents, to be forsaken by all who once counted them to be good. Yes, patience, patience, patience! You that are the last for Christ shall be the first with Christ by-and-by! Those that are first today in honor and think themselves great and famous because they will never yield to fanaticism,because they will never be enthusiastic after Christ–they shall be among the last! The day comes when they shall “awaketo shame and everlasting contempt.” The organs of public sentiment will change their tone. The world that honored the ungodly shall see their shame. The eyes that once looked slightingly on saints shall be made to honor them as the noblest of the noble and they that hated Christ shall be lightly esteemed. Let those two thoughts be riveted upon our memories!
But I choose to dwell rather upon two other thoughts. The first part of my text seems to me to teach wonders ofGrace. .
- Here, surely, is A WONDER OF GRACE–“There are last that shall be first.”
Here is Divine Sovereignty–choosing the last to make them first. Here is Sovereign Grace–forgiving the greatest sin to make the brightest saint. Here is Almighty Power changing the most degraded, turning the current of the most strong-minded sinner and making his soul “willing in the day of God’s power.”
What does it mean, those that are last? I take it, if I understand the sense aright, it means this–there are some that are
last in pedigree, born of impious parents in some low hovel, in some dingy room, an attic or a cellar, in some court where the first sound that reached their ear was blasphemy, and the first sight that greeted their eye was drunkenness. How many we have of such in London who are, indeed, last if we consider their birth! Poor things, they are born not simply to poverty, but they seem to be the nurslings of vice! One’s eyes might weep tears of blood when we think how unhappily some children are placed in the very first moment of their advent into society. Glory be to God, however, there are some of these that shall be first! God will find His jewels in the dens, alleys and slums of London–and take up to His Eternal Throne those that were the sons of harlots and the children of the thief–that they may sing forever of His amazing Grace!
Last, too, they are in education. Turned out into the street to pick up from every boy the vice he has acquired, to learn from evil men, villainy of which their young hearts would not have dreamed. If you should go into our Ragged Schools, especially some in the very lowest neighborhoods, or if you would hear Mr. Gregory, the missionary in St. Giles’s, tell his tale of all the sin he sees and the education that our young men of St. Giles’s get, O gentlemen of St. James’s, it might well make you blush–blush with shame that you are not doing something for them–shame for yourselves that you let your neighbors live like this! They are still your neighbors, though they are hidden behind the tall houses of your gorgeous streets and crescents, your squares and terraces! Well, these are last in education, but glory be to God, some who were trained for the gallows and tutored for the convict settlement, shall, nevertheless, be taught of the Lord and inducted into the fellowship of the saints! Irresistible Grace shall come and pluck them out of the furnace, hating the garment spotted with the flesh, yet esteeming them that they, also, may be jewels in the Redeemer’s crown!
Then, again, they are last in morals. At eventide, see her as she goes out to hunt for souls. See him, too, as at eventidehe reels from gin palace to gin palace to drink, to swear, to curse. Ah, we are not without those who are last in morals in this huge den of vice, this city of iniquity! Could Sodom find sinners that would match with the sinners of London? What do you think? Could Tyre and Sidon outdo the iniquities that are near our doors and may be seen in our own streets? I think not! You need not, tonight, go many steps when once the sun is down before you will see under every gaslight some that are last. Blessed be God–some of them shall be first! Praise the Lord, you angels, there are some of them here tonight, some of them saved! Some of them snatched from the fire and they will sing in Heaven–and they do sing on earth right sweetly to the praise of the love that has made the last to be the first!
Some of these appear, beside their moral debasement, to have the last disposition that could ever be susceptible of Grace. You know the men I mean. Men that when you look into their faces, you feel you would not like to meet them on a dark night. There are such men whose very countenances betray a stolidity and hardness that is not altogether common to men. Do you remember what the Scotsman said to Rowland Hill when he looked long into his face? Rowland asked him, “What are you looking there for?” “I was looking at the lines on your face,” he said. “And what do you think of me?” said Rowland. “Why,” said the man, “I was thinking that if it hadn’t been for the Grace of God, you would have been one of the biggest scoundrels living.” And Rowland said ‘twas even so. He felt that himself. And I think we have all felt so. We have all felt, as one good man said, “There goes John Bradford if it were not for the Grace of God.” To the ale-house, to the prison, to the gallows–each of us might have come if Sovereign Grace had not prevented!
There are men who seem naturally more coarse, more rough, more wild, more outrageous than others. They have furious passions, they have a fiendish temper. What other word could I use? They have a temper that seems to make them like very maniacs over a little provocation. They know not what to do but stamp and rave, and say they know not what! These are the last men you would think could be saved. Yes, but there are many of them that have been made first.Strange is it that God picks out the very men whom we would throw away–the most worthless, the most hopeless, hapless and helpless. Sovereign Grace had fixed its eye upon them and said of each one of them, “I will have that man.” That man’s will stood out stoutly and resisted to the uttermost the pleading voice of salvation, but Grace would have him! O that strong will of his, how useful it is now in the cause of Christ! That hard heart of his, now softened, seems to give a holy courage and a dauntless and a fearless manner which would be unknown to men of a different mold! “There are last that shall be first.”
What inferences do we draw from all this? We draw these lessons. There is an encouragement for some of you who think you are last. I bless God there are always some of the last ones coming into the Tabernacle. God deliver us from having an exclusively respectable congregation! I like to see men of all classes. I like to see the poor come in and I like to see the base and vile come in–and I know they do. I feel like Rowland Hill, when it was said to him, “It is only the tag, rag, and bobtail that go to Surrey Chapel.” “Ah, then!” he said, “Welcome tag, and welcome rag, and welcome bobtail–these are just the sort we want to see come into the Chapel.” “Ah,” I hear someone say with a sigh, “that means me, that means me! I am one of those men. I am one of the last.” Then there is encouragement for you! Mercy’s gates stand wide open and Christ invites you in! Trust Him at this very hour, for, “there are last that shall be first.”
And, Brothers and Sisters, what cause for humiliation to us who are saved! Were not we the last? I am sure, when I look at that headstrong boy, when I think of that hard, stubborn boy that never did and would not yield–when I think of that child who could bear any measure of chastisement but never would make an apology for anything–and then think of myself saved by Grace, I marvel! How is it that God should choose such an one as I am? And I think you can all say, “Why me, Lord? Why me?” And you can put it down to this, “There are last that shall be first.”
And what a reason this is why you and I should serve Christ, too! What? Did He look on me when I was last, and will I not work for Him? Stand out of the way, you groups of cold-hearted men! Stand out of the way, you careless professors that cannot serve your Master! I must and will do God service, for I owe Him more than you do. Mary, I implore you, by the gentleness of your spirit, stand back, stand back! I must alabaster box over that blessed head, for I havemuch forgiven and, therefore, I love much. I must do much for Him. Give me great sinners to make great saints! They areglorious raw material for Grace to work upon and when you do get them saved, they will shake the very gates of Hell! The ringleaders in Satan’s camp make noble sergeants in the camp of Christ! The bravest of the brave are they. God send us many such and we will sweep before us yet the hosts of evil and drive iniquity into the depths of the sea. “There are last that shall be first.” O dear Friends, I wish the net would catch some of the last right now. I know that young man over there thinks that Christ will never save him. “There are last that shall be first.” I know that young woman has written it down in her conscience that she is an odd person–she is sure to be passed over–one of the last, I see. Ah, and you shall be among the first! Only believe Christ, only trust Him! He is God! He can save you! He is Man! He is willing to save you!Trust Him, His promise is given! He will save you, He will wash you from every sin and bring you with joy before His face at the last!
II. But now I must take the second part of the text, as briefly as possible, and speak of WONDERS OF SIN. “There are first that shall be last.”
First in ancestry, hushed to your slumber with a holy lullaby, candled on the knee of piety, hanging at the breast of tenderness and love–from your mother’s arms you shall go to the frightful grasp of the Destroyer! And from a father’s rejected counsel to the sinner’s direst doom!
“There are first that shall be last.” First in training, taught in the Sunday school, prayed over, wept over.
“There are first that shall be last.” First in privileges, sitting under a faithful ministry, warned, exhorted, entreated,pleaded with. “There are first that shall be last.” Having much light and knowledge, having an awakened conscience, but quenching it, having the warnings of the Spirit, but stifling them. “There are first that shall be last.” Regularly in the house of God, well-read in Scripture, well-trained in Doctrine, understanding the way of God, but not running in it, knowing your duty but doing it not. “There are first that shall be last.” O my Hearers, I speak to thousands of you that are among the first tonight! When I said there were last ones here, I glanced for the few, but oh, how many of you belong to the tribes and families of men who are of the first! You are not Sabbath-breakers, the most of you–you go to a place of worship. You are not heathens–you have a Bible, sometimes you read it–and you know what faith in Christ means, if you have it not in your hearts. O London! London! London! You fair metropolis of merchandize and wealth! How are you exalted to Heaven by your privileges! Christ is now preached in the corner of every street, in your parks, in your fields! Christ is preached in your theatres. He is preached where every man can hear of Him if he will. First and foremost as you stand, O inhabitants of London, the envy of many nations and their refuge of the oppressed of all nations–how many of you shall be worse off than the savages of Africa or the cannibals of New Zealand? “There are first that shall be last.”
I cannot preach on this text. I have not the strength. I have not the power of thought to point out this solemn Truth of God as I gladly would and to thrust it on your consciences. I can only thus make it ring and sound in your ears by saying again, “There are first that shall be last.”
Remember, if it is so with you–and this is the conclusion of the whole matter–your being last will involve awful responsibilities because you were first! You cannot perish as others do. If you do reject Christ, how shall you escape whoneglect so great a salvation? Sirs, I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than for you in the Day of Judgment! Besides this, how shall you escape from the remorse of your conscience, when conscience, wide awake, shall cry, “You knew your duty, but you did it not”? The caverns of Hades shall say, with dull and dreary echoes, “You knew your duty, but you did it not.” Every revolution of eternity, as it brings some fresh crisis of your pain, shall say to you, “You knew your duty, but you did it not.” Banished from Heaven to Tophet, from the Temple of the Lord to Gehenna, from the voice of the minister to weeping and wailing, and gnashing of teeth, from the song of the sanctuary to the howling of the Pit–this, this shall be the edge of the sword, this the tooth of the devouring worm–“You knew your duty, but you did it not!”
O you first ones, God help you! If you ever should be last, how terrible will be your doom! Let us then engage in great searching of our hearts tonight. I search my own soul now–what if I, standing first in Gospel privileges, the teacher of this people–what if I be among the last? My Brothers, you the elders and deacons of this Church, the first in our Israel–what if you are among the last? You young men and women of our Catechumen classes, of our Bible classes–you young men of our College, first, most hopeful of all–what if you are found among the last? You Sunday school teachers and superintendents, you who teach young children the way to Heaven–what if you learn not the way to Heaven yourselves? What if you, the first, should be the last? You, the Beloved of my soul, whom these hands have baptized into the Lord Jesus Christ! You with whom we have had sweet communion at the blessed feast of the Lord’s Table–what if you, the first, should be among the last? I can but reiterate the cry. I can but stand here, like Jonah, and cry aloud with one unvarying note of warning, “Take heed, you first, that you are not among the last!” And what shall we all say, rolling the two sentences into one? O Grace, make me among the first! Let me not be among the last at the last! O God, help me now to escape from Hell and fly to Heaven! I do accept Christ as my Savior–
“‘Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to His Cross I cling.”’
Say that in your souls after me, you who feel it–
“Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To You whose blood can cleanse each spot
O Lamb of God, I come.”
Trust the Master now, my Hearers. Say in your spirits, “Yes, we’re guilty and vile! Save us, Lord, or we perish.” Let the cry of your repentance and the utterance of your faith go up to Heaven in one sound! And then God commissions us to say to you, from His Word, that He absolves you from the guilt of all your sin when you have believed in Jesus Christ His Son. He that believes on the Son has everlasting life and shall never perish! He shall never come into condemnation,but the love of God shall rest on him in time and eternity. God grant it to us all, for His name’s sake!