What Matters in the End

Norbert Lieth

Through His interactions with His Apostles and by means of a remarkable parable, the Lord demonstrates what matters in the end and how His prophetic Word will be fulfilled. An interpretation and encouragement for our personal lives.

What will matter when Christ returns? What matters to us now? Catherine of Siena once said, “Sleep no more, for love of Christ crucified, and for your own profit, during the little time that remains to us: for time is short, and you are to die, and know not when.” When the rich young man asked the Lord what good things he should do to obtain eternal life, “he went away sorrowful” because the Lord said to him, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Matt 19:21). Peter then asked what he and the other Apostles would receive, since they had given up everything for the Lord. Jesus answered with a view into the future of the messianic kingdom, using a parable that is remarkable in terms of redemptive history.

The Twelve Thrones of the Apostles
“Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? And Jesus said unto them, 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 lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life. But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first” (Matt 19:27-30).

By “regeneration,” the Lord means the reconfiguration of all things. It concerns the renewal of the earth for the messianic kingdom. This means that Jesus will come again. And when He appears, this earth will be reshaped and creation set free (Rom 8:18-23). Jesus’ throne of glory will be established in Jerusalem (Matt 25:31), and His twelve Apostles will sit with Him on twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel. This judging role involves co-ruling, since they are sitting on twelve thrones.

It’s worth noting that Jesus addressed Peter’s questions. He didn’t minimize them or reprimand him for exaggerating. To the contrary! The question is so important and genuine that the Lord gave it a serious answer. He knew about the future of His Apostles: they would leave their homes, be separated from their families, relinquish their possessions (Matt 4:20-22), be hated and persecuted (Luke 21:12), and forget themselves for Jesus’ sake.

Applying this to ourselves, the meaning of what Jesus said to the Apostles with respect to the messianic kingdom is: the Christian life doesn’t consist of flights of fancy, wealth, or earthly peace. It is instead accompanied by hatred, persecution, criticism, rejection, hardship, and danger. Christians are led to Jesus by way of the “Via Dolorosa.” But Christians are also led by Jesus into glory. Christians have a peace and a living hope in God, and will judge the world rather than being judged with it (1 Cor 6:2-3).

Yes, it’s worth it to follow the Lord. It’s worth it to overcome and let go. It’s worth it to make a decisive choice. It’s worth it to sacrifice for His sake.

The Messianic Kingdom
As previously mentioned, Jesus is explaining the messianic kingdom on earth. He isn’t yet speaking of the body of Christ, His Church, or even the Apostle Paul. The focus is on twelve thrones for twelve Apostles, not thirteen. We can see from the story of the rich young ruler that good works are important to enter this kingdom and receive eternal life. But on the other hand, Paul later emphasized that we don’t enter heaven through our works, only by faith. Jesus told the rich young man that anyone clinging to wealth will have a difficult time getting into the kingdom; a camel is more likely to pass through the eye of a needle! In light of this, Peter began his question with, “Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?” (Matt 19:27).

The Position of the Twelve Apostles
The fact is, Jesus’ Jewish Apostles had a special position. They belong to the foundation of the Church (1 Cor 3:10; Eph 2:20). They will be with us in heaven (1 Pet 1:4). But they also have a special position that is theirs alone in relation to Israel and the messianic kingdom. Explicitly, these twelve individuals will sit on twelve thrones (Judas having been replaced by Matthias: Acts 1:15-26).

There is a parallel in Revelation 21:14. It describes the New Jerusalem, which has twelve stones as its foundation. These stones bear the names of the twelve Apostles. This shows that, looking back, their journey had been worthwhile. Some of them were forgotten in history: Andrew, Bartholomew, Thomas, Philip, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas the brother of James, Matthew … all were likely martyred, with the exception of John. But God engraved them all in the new Jerusalem, and will place them on thrones in the future. We can see what mattered in the end.

God will also remember your deeds. Some people have become known as great men and women in church history; others have been completely forgotten and aren’t mentioned anywhere. But the Lord knows them and knows about them! “For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have showed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister” (Heb 6:10). Whatever you have done in the church or in your family is known to God.

The First Shall Be Last, and the Last Shall Be First
Regarding the messianic kingdom, Jesus told His disciples, “But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first” (Matt 19:30).

The Pharisees, elders, and scribes were the first to stand before the people. The Apostles, however, are the last. Paul writes, “For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men” (1 Cor 4:9). But in the end, they will be the first to sit on the throne with Jesus.

The generation living when Jesus was on earth can be considered the first. These people in Israel had Jesus among them. However, since they rejected Him and loved their own lives, they became the last. They lost the messianic kingdom. During the Great Tribulation, the last generation of Israel will once again give up everything like the Apostles. They will be overcomers and martyrs. And so, they are raised to first position and enter the messianic kingdom.

“And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years” (Rev 20:4).

A Parable for Redemptive History
The Lord then underscores this principle of first and last with a parable: 

“For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers 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 marketplace, 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 labourers, 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 goodman 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” (Matt 20:1-16).

The point of a parable isn’t to establish dogmatics from each little detail; clearly defined teaching is found in the epistles. Rather, parables seek to showcase a specific truth. So, the aim of this parable is to explain that in redemptive history, there were people who were once first who became last, and vice versa.

The Fivefold Call
The vineyard owner is a depiction of God. It’s noteworthy that he goes five times to call people to work in his vineyard: “early in the morning” is 6 am; “the third hour” is 9 am; the “sixth hour” and “ninth hour” are 12 and 3 pm respectively; the “eleventh hour” is 5 pm, and “even” is 6 pm. The vineyard owner only negotiates a wage of one denarius with the first group of workers—not any of the others. When settling the accounts, the first are disappointed and grumbling against their master. They insist on justice. They can’t understand what their lord is doing.

The meaning can be understood in terms of redemptive history. The following interpretation isn’t necessarily one originally intended by the Lord in every detail, since He wasn’t yet speaking about the Church as His body. But it’s definitely noteworthy that applying it to the whole of redemptive history works well.

First, those called first thing in the morning (at 6 am), who agree to work for wages, are reminiscent of early Israel. There was a covenant with Israel, a law: “Do this and you will receive.” Israel always invoked this covenant. And Israel was not at all agreeable, but jealous when the Lord called others without conditions. As Paul writes: “What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone” (Rom 9:30-32).

Second, those who are called at 9 am are not negotiated with and are merely told, “whatsoever is right I will give you.” These are representative of the Apostles (Acts 1). They are the first of a new Age of Grace (9 am) after the Age of the Law (6 am). Theirs is a time of transition. The first stand on a foundation of law,  the others on faith and trust (cf. Rom 1:5).

Third are those called at 12 pm and 3 pm. These two times are connected with each other. This is an illustration of the calling of the first Jewish church (Acts 2—10), and the somewhat later addition of the Gentiles (Acts 10—28).

Fourth, at 5 pm, the vineyard owner goes out again and calls the final workers to his vineyard. This is the last hour before the end of the working day, when the accounts are settled. In terms of redemptive history, this could indicate the end times we’re living in today. John writes prophetically about when the time of the Antichrist becomes apparent, “Little children, it is the last time…” (1 John 2:18). And Paul writes, “And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed” (Rom 13:11).

Fifth, it will finally be 6 pm. The lord of the vineyard comes, calls his workers over, and settles accounts with them. He says, “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen” (Matt 20:16). The ones who are called are Israel under the Law. Israel invoked the Law and lost. They were under obedience to the Law. The “chosen” or “elect” refer to the Church of Jews and Gentiles, and to the Age of Grace they exist in. They become conquerors and are under faithful obedience. “Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace. And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work. What then? Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded” (Rom 11:5-7).

As far as redemptive history is concerned, the first became last and the last became first.

Personal Application of the Parable
The personal application is: allow yourself to be called!

It may be the last hour; we’re living in the end times, and Jesus wants to use you. “Redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Eph 5:16). C. H. Spurgeon said, “Time present is the only time I may ever have.”

One day, we will all look back and see what mattered in the end. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor 15:58).

Are we actually growing? Are we moving forward and allowing ourselves to be led into the unknown? Or are we stagnating, even retreating? Wim Malgo, the founder of Midnight Call Ministries, always said that “standing still is going backward.”

Someone once stressed that, “Through His death and resurrection, Jesus did everything to bring you to heaven. But now He also wants to bring heaven to earth through you!”

Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf saw a Passion painting by Italian painter Domenico Fetti with the caption, “This have I done for you; now what will you do for Me?” This moved von Zinzendorf to give his life to Jesus anew. He became the leader of the Unity of the Brethren Church (later the Moravian Church). They worked among Inuits, the Khoekhoe, Indians, and slaves. Von Zinzendorf financed much of it with his own fortune.

God takes your decision very seriously. Maybe you’re thinking, “I’m unfit; I’m full of mistakes; I need to prove myself a lot more first.” But nobody is too unfit or unsuitable for God. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Show me a man who has never made a mistake, and I will show you one who has never tried anything.”

Was the drunken Noah suitable? What about the elderly Abraham and his wife, who once served idols in Chaldea? Or Jacob the liar? Moses the murderer? Rahab the prostitute? Young dyspeptic Timothy? The irascible Peter? The sleepy, frightened, and constantly failing disciples? None of them were fit, and yet they all allowed themselves to be called; they were sincere and devoted in their hearts. They kept the Lord in mind, even if they failed occasionally.

Do you know what’s special about the bumblebee? Bumblebees shouldn’t really be able to fly. They are physically unsuited to it. All the laws of nature oppose a bumblebee flying: from its physique to its too-short wings, to its weight. But the bumblebees don’t care; they fly anyway.

Don’t assume that it always has to involve something outwardly great. But it may. If you feel the urge to do more, give in! Missions, theological training … Michael Kotsch cites D. L. Moody as an example: “Moody had become wealthy through his business in the Chicago boot and shoe industry, and retired from business life in 1860 in order to be able to fully pursue his spiritual calling. He didn’t perceive this as a loss because, according to his conviction, a person can only find real happiness through complete surrender to God.” 

Your calling may be in your church, among youth, or in your family. Distinguished church and publishing house founder Johann Gerhard Oncken is an example of God’s diversity of vocations. Michael Kotsch writes: “Oncken was known for his belief that not just a few staff, but all members of a church should be active in missionary work … In 1862, while traveling to England, the theologian Dr. Guthrie asked him, ‘How many missionaries do you have?’ Oncken replied, ‘Seven thousand!’ The clergyman replied, ‘Pardon me, I was asking about the number of missionaries.’ ‘I know,’ Oncken replied, ‘but every member of our church is a missionary.’” Or, “When asked, ‘Why doesn’t your church have a bell tower?’ one of the church brethren aptly replied, ‘We don’t need bells; we invite people personally.’”

Being a missionary doesn’t mean that everyone needs to have super evangelistic skills, but rather that everyone uses the gifts they were given by the Holy Spirit. These gifts can be very different. Someone has a gift of prayer, another that of hospitality, pastoral care, an especially pleasant nature, service, deacon’s ministry, church work, serving through visits, or in their families. For example, don’t say, “I’m just a mother!” What do you mean “just”? Don’t let the world’s opinion tear you down. The world and its influencers have no idea what will matter in the end.

A doctor in China summarized her complete trust in God with the following sentence: “If you have Jesus in your heart, it doesn’t matter what work you do or what position you hold. All that matters is that you love Him and are loyal to Him!”

Scripture says of the vineyard owner in the last hour, “And about the eleventh hour [5 pm] 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…” (Matt 20:6-7).

Are you still standing idly by, thinking, “I haven’t been called”? He says to you, and to all of us, “Go ye also into the vineyard.” God doesn’t just select certain individuals; He wants to use everyone in His vineyard. Hans Gerd Krabbe expresses this in the following prayer: “Lord, teach us to remember that each one of us will one day have to answer to you for what he has done here on earth and for what he has failed to do. Teach us to remember that you have gifted and commissioned each of us to make peace, practice love, sow joy, awaken hope! Please help us to do so.”

When the big settling of accounts comes, we’ll know what really mattered.

Midnight Call - 07/2022

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