Chapter 54


The Last First and the First Last


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. (Matthew 20:1-16)


This parable was given by our Lord in response to the disciples’ question in the latter part of chapter 19, verses 27-30. In fact, it appears to be a continuation of our Lord’s conversation with them. In chapter 19, verse 30, he says, “Many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.” There is no need for us to guess what that means. This parable is the Savior’s explanation and illustration of that statement.


            Our Lord’s parables are earthly stories, or illustrations, by which he demonstrated his doctrine. Always look at the parables as you would the use of an illustration in a sermon. The illustration is not the sermon. It is an illustration of the sermon, or of some point in the sermon. Even so, our Lord’s parables are not the basis of our doctrine. We do not build our doctrine upon parables. We build our doctrine upon the plain statements of Holy Scripture. The parables are earthly illustrations of spiritual, heavenly truths. We do not need to search for hidden meanings in the parables. Instead of doing that, we must look for the obvious. When we have discovered the obvious message of a parable, we have discovered all that it is intended to reveal. We should not look for more.


The obvious message of this parable has to do with following Christ, serving him, and the reward of doing so. That is what our Lord is dealing with in the context. The message of the parable is this – “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” That simply and obviously means that all true believers are the servants of Christ, all are equal in the eyes of God, and all shall have an equal, infinite fulness of reward in heaven.


The Laborers


First, the parable describes all who follow Christ as “laborers.” — “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” (v. 1).


            The parable is about the kingdom of heaven, or the church of God, the household of faith. The laborers hired to work in the Master’s vineyard are all true believers. This is not a parable about pastors, missionaries, and evangelists. It is a parable about believers. In the church of Christ there is no such thing as clergy and laity. All true believers are the servants of God. Some serve in one capacity and some in another; but all true believers are God’s servants. We are all in the ministry. Faith in Christ, in its essence, involves surrender to Christ as our Lord, our Master, and our King. It is the giving up of our lives to the rule and service of Christ (Matt. 10:37-39; Luke 14:25-33).


The place of labor is “his vineyard,” the church of God. Without question, God sovereignly uses all things according to his purpose to accomplish his will. He sometimes uses people who do not behave in normal order. But God’s order is not to be despised by us. There is no excuse for neglecting God’s order of things. He will hold us accountable (1 Chron. 15:13). If we would serve God and serve our generation by the will of God, we must find our place in his vineyard, in his church, and serve him there.


The whole affair of serving Christ, as it is set forth in this parable, is a manifestation of God’s free and sovereign grace. Wholehearted devotion in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ is a very reasonable thing (Rom. 12:1-2). Religious exercise without heart, doctrine without devotion, and religious conversation without real commitment are inexcusable evils. The very best service that we can give our Master is in itself altogether unworthy of him and unacceptable to him. (Isa. 64:6). Even our prayers and sacrifices are acceptable to God only when they are washed in the blood of Christ and robed in his righteousness. (1 Pet. 2:5).


Having said that, we must never forget that any gifts, talents, and abilities we have, with which to serve God, are the gifts of his free grace (Eph. 4:7). If one person has greater mental abilities than another, he has them by the gift of God. If any man is gifted for the work of the ministry, the gift is God’s. If one has greater means to support the work of the gospel than another, it is God who gave him the means. There is no room for boasting or for envy in the kingdom of Christ (1 Cor. 4:7).


So, too, every opportunity to serve God by serving men is the gift of his grace, arranged by special providence. Even the length of our labor and service in the kingdom of God is altogether determined by God’s sovereign grace. Some are called in the dew of their youth. Others are called in the middle of the day, as grown men and women. And some are called in old age, at the eleventh hour of the day. But all who are called to life and faith in Christ are called at the appointed “time of love.


“What a beautiful similitude is here, of the kingdom of grace! Such is the Church of Jesus, as a vineyard gathered out of the world’s wide wilderness; chosen (as scripture expresseth it) by God the Father; purchased by God the Son; and set apart in the regenerating and purifying grace of God the Holy Ghost. At what age are you standing? Hath the Lord called you at the early morning of life, the mid-day, the afternoon, or evening? Are you in the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts? or are you still idle in the market-place? Oh! the unspeakable blessedness of knowing, under divine teaching, that we are ‘saved and called with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace given us in Christ Jesus before the world began’ (2 Tim. 1:9).” — Robert Hawker


The Reward


Second, this parable is intended to teach us about the reward of God’s saints, the reward of those who labor in the Master’s vineyard (vv. 8-12). This was a real problem with our Lord’s disciples. They judged, by carnal reason, that since they had sacrificed more than others and had done more than others (at least in their opinion), they deserved a greater reward (Matt. 18:1; 19:27; 28:20-22). How very sad it is to see faithful men seeking great things for themselves, and sadder still to see them seeking positions of superiority over their brethren!


The God of Glory does not measure things the way we do. He will reward every laborer in his vineyard, but not as men judge that he should. He will reward his people in a way that will exalt his grace, exalt his Son, and give no room for the flesh to boast. He has no regard to the time of our service, or the amount of ground covered. God does not measure out reward according to the abilities of his servants. Heaven’s reward will not be given according to the judgment and estimation of men. God will not be impressed with the impressions we make upon men. He will not deal out his reward according to the measure of our apparent success. God will not reward us according to the measure of our gifts, neither our gifts of grace and usefulness, nor our monetary gifts for the cause of Christ.[1] God will not even reward us according to the measure of our faithfulness.


The reward that God gives to his servants at the end of the day, in heaven’s glory, will be a matter of pure grace, and will be one that makes all his people equal. Those servants who had labored the whole day “murmured against the goodman of the house, saying, 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.” And the Lord Jesus replied “the last shall be first, and the first last (vv. 11, 12, 16). And so it shall be (Rom. 8:17; John 17:5, 22). God will reward us according to the merit of Christ, which has been imputed to us (Rev. 20:12; 21:29; 22:11-12). Hawker’s comments on this verse give us the teaching of Holy Scripture regarding the rewards of God’s saints in heaven.


“The equality of wages, is a beautiful illustration of the free and sovereign grace of God; because, strictly and properly speaking, it is all free: no merit, no pretensions of merit, in one more than another, making the smallest claim to favor. The Vineyard, the Church, and the laborers in the Church, all the gift of God the Father, the purchase of God the Son, and the whole cultivation from the work of God the Holy Ghost. And however different the measures of grace, and strength, and ability given; yet the whole is the Lord’s not theirs; and every thing speaks aloud that the whole efficiency is of him. ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, said the Lord of hosts’ (Zech. 4:6).”


Degrees of Reward


Will there be degrees of reward in heaven? If we read this parable in its context (Matt. 19:27-20:21), it is obvious that the parable was given to put an end to all questions about degrees of reward among God’s saints. Yet, multitudes continue to teach the absurd doctrine. Many men, whose doctrine has been thoroughly biblical in other areas, have been in grave error concerning rewards.


            The issue by which this question must be settled is very clear. – Is God’s salvation, in its’ entirety, the work of his free grace in Christ, or is it not? If, as the Scriptures everywhere assert, our salvation is altogether the work of God’s free grace, if our works have nothing to do with it, and heavenly glory is but the consummation of that salvation, then there can be no degrees of reward in heaven[2].


            Without question, salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. No part of salvation can be, in any measure, attributed to the will, worth, or works of man (2 Tim. 1:9; Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 11:6). If it is possible to separate heavenly rewards from salvation, then one might imagine that there shall be degrees of reward in heaven; but if heaven and the glorious inheritance of the saints in heaven is only the consummation of salvation, then the doctrine that there shall be degrees of reward in heaven is but another subtle way of teaching salvation by works! It is impossible to separate heavenly glory from salvation.


The Doctrine


What is the doctrine of those who teach degrees of reward in heaven? I realize that some who teach that there are degrees of reward in heaven may have slightly different opinions than others; but basically their doctrine is the same. I do not wish to put words into the mouths of others. So, I will give you the doctrine in the words of one of its leading proponents, Merrill F. Unger.


“Rewards are offered by God to a believer on the basis of faithful service rendered after salvation. It is clear from Scripture that God offers to the lost salvation and for the faithful service of the saved, rewards. Often in theological thinking salvation and rewards are confused. However, these two terms must be carefully distinguished. Salvation is a free gift (John 4:10; Rom. 6:23; Eph. 2:8-9), while rewards are earned by works (Matt. 10:42; Lk. 19:17; 1 Cor. 9:24-25; 2 Tim. 4:7-8). Rewards will be dispensed at the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10; Rom. 14:10). The doctrine of rewards is inseparably connected with God’s grace. A soul being saved on the basis of divine grace, there is no room for the building up of merit on the part of the believer. Yet, God recognizes an obligation on his part to reward his saved ones for their service to Him. Nothing can be done to merit salvation, but what the believer has achieved for God’s glory God recognizes in His great faithfulness with rewards at the Judgment Seat of Christ.”


            Here are five things involved in the teaching that there will be degrees of reward in heaven, as stated by Mr. Unger.


1.       Salvation is limited to the initial experience of conversion. — In the Word of God salvation is presented as the work of God’s free grace in bringing sinners into heavenly glory, and includes election, redemption, justification, sanctification, preservation, and glorification in and with Christ (Matt. 10:22; Rom. 8:28-30; 13:11; 2 Cor. 2:10; 2 Tim. 1:9; 1 Pet. 2:4).

2.       It is possible for a person to be saved and not be a faithful servant of Christ. — Nothing can be more contrary to the words of our Lord (See Luke 14:25-33). There is no such thing as a believer who does not live in submission to Christ as his Lord. Believers do not always act faithfully; but they are all faithful. To be a believer is to be one who is to be a saint (sanctified) and to be numbered among “the faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:1).

3.       Men and women, by their service to God, put God under obligation to reward them. — What an atrocious statement! Is it possible for a sinful man or woman to do anything to merit God’s favor, to earn God’s blessing? Can a mere man oblige the Almighty? We are debtors to God. He is not, and cannot be made to be, a debtor to us![3]

4.       There will be two judgment days, one for believers and another for unbelievers. — The Word of God never hints at the idea that Christ will come again twice, once in secret and then in open, or that there will be two distinct resurrection days, or that there will be two separate days of judgment. Such fabrications are but the inventions of men, in an attempt to make the Word of God fit into their theological systems.

5.       Believers will yet have to suffer for their sins! — The doctrine of degrees of reward in heaven unashamedly declares that those for whom Christ has suffered all the wrath of God, whose sins he put away, will yet suffer in heaven for their sins after God saved them, that they will suffer the everlasting shame of heaven’s loss in the presence of those who earned a greater measure of glory, those who by their great goodness obliged God to give them a greater inheritance! The Lord God says otherwise. He declares that he will never charge his people with sin (Rom. 4:8; 8:32-34). The doctrine of degrees of reward in heaven is nothing less than a Protestant version of purgatory. Heavenly glory is not everlasting sorrow, but everlasting bliss.




Such doctrine is not without unavoidable implications. If the doctrine of degrees of reward in heaven is accepted, then it must be acknowledged that heaven’s glory is not the reward of grace, but the payment of a debt. It must also be acknowledged that heaven is not a place of unmingled joy, as the Scriptures assert (Rev. 7:15-17; 21:1-5; 22:2-5), but a place of mingled joy and grief. If the doctrine of degrees of reward is accepted, it must also be accepted, contrary to the plainest statements of divine Revelation, that God does withhold some good things from them that walk uprightly, and some evil shall fall upon the just (Psa. 84:11; Prov. 12:21). Again, if the doctrine of degrees of reward in heaven were accepted, then we would be forced to conclude, in direct opposition to the universal teaching of Holy Scripture, that the blood and righteousness of Christ will not alone be sufficient for our acceptance with God, — that some part of God’s favor, some of the blessings of God, must be earned by us, — that salvation is partly a matter of works and not altogether the gift of God’s free grace in Christ. These implications are inescapable, as well as utterly blasphemous. Yet, they must be accepted, if we accept the doctrine of degrees of reward in heaven.


            Why has this issue been stated so dogmatically? Why have I dealt with this so pointedly? It could have been passed over with little or no notice. Few, if any, would have realized its omission. Here are five reasons for my decision to write as I have on this matter.


1.       The doctrine of degrees of reward in heaven is totally without foundation in the Word of God. Not one passage referred to in support of this doctrine even hints that some saints will have more and some have less in heaven. Not one of the crowns mentioned in the Bible are said to be given only to certain believers. All the saints before the throne have the same golden crowns, crowns which they gladly cast before the feet of the Lamb (Rev. 4:10).

2.       It is totally contrary to the plain statements of Holy Scripture (Rom. 8:17, 29; Eph. 1:3; 5:25-27; 1 John 3:1-2; Jude 1:24-25). Can there be degrees of holiness, degrees of perfection, degrees of faultlessness, degrees of glorification? Nonsense!

3.       The doctrine of degrees of reward, of heavenly rewards earned by personal obedience, makes service to Christ a legal, mercenary thing.


            Such doctrine promotes pride. If one person could obtain a bigger crown, a higher rank, or a greater nearness to God by his works than another, he would have every reason to pop his suspenders, strut around heaven, and have those poor, crownless people, living in the back street slums of the New Jerusalem, bow and scrape before him.


            Not only does the doctrine promote pride, it threatens punishment. It attempts to put God’s people upon a legal footing before him, threatening the loss of reward and everlasting shame, if we do not do what is expected of us. This horrendous doctrine would make all God’s saints mercenaries, inspiring obedience and faithfulness by either the threat of punishment or by the promise of reward. I challenge anyone to find a single example of such base, carnal threats against redeemed sinners in the New Testament. Such doctrine is as offensive as it is unscriptural, because it both dishonors our God and assumes that God’s people do not really love Christ, that they are not motivated, inspired, and governed by that love, and by their hearts’ concern for the will and glory of God.


4.       This base, carnal doctrine of earned reward in heaven robs Christ of the glory of his grace and makes room for human flesh to boast before God.


            If you and I do something that puts God almighty in obligation to reward us, then we have a right to boast in his presence. If we do something by which we merit a higher standing than others in glory, why shouldn’t we boast about it?


5.       The doctrine of degrees in glory has the obnoxious odor of works about it; and there is no room for works in the kingdom of grace. — The God of Glory will not be worshipped upon an altar of hewn stone (Ex. 20:25). He will not be worshipped upon an altar built by our hands. There is no room for the baggage of works in the strait and narrow way.


No Tears


There is one text of Scripture which both destroys the doctrine of degrees of reward and assures every believer of an everlasting fulness of joy in glory. The text to which I refer is Revelation 21:4. — “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” There will be no tears in heaven!


            Without question, there is much weeping in the way to heaven. Faith in Christ brings deliverance from all curse and condemnation, but not from pain and sorrow. There are many things that believers suffer in this world along with other men. Because the world is a world of sin, it is a world of sorrow. God’s saints suffer physical pain and sickness, domestic troubles, financial losses, and bereavement, just like all other people in this world.


            Added to these earthly sorrows, there are many things that bring tears to our eyes, about which the world knows nothing. We struggle incessantly with inward sin and unbelief. There is a warfare in our souls, a warfare between the flesh and the spirit, a warfare from which there will never be a moment’s truce, until we have left this world.


            There are even some precious tears that we shed here that will be dried on the other side of Jordan. Here we shed bittersweet tears of repentance, but not in glory! Here we often weep in sympathy because those we love are in pain or trouble, but not in eternity! Here we weep with brokenhearted concern for others, but not in heaven. Here our hearts often break and our eyes swell with tears because we long for Christ’s manifest presence, but not in the land of our inheritance!


            Even now, our heavenly Father does much to dry our tears. The believer’s life is not a morbid, sorrow-filled existence. Not at all! But we do have our sorrows. Yet, even in the midst of sorrow, our Lord gives us great comfort (Isa. 43:1-6). As our days require, he gives us grace sufficient to meet our every need. He gives us a measure of resignation to his will. He teaches us to trust his providence. He reminds us of his gracious purpose. He causes us to remember his promises. He blesses us with the sense of his presence. He floods our hearts with the knowledge of his love (Eph. 3:19). He reminds us that the cause of our pain is his fatherly love for his erring children (Heb. 12:5-12). And he causes our hearts to be fixed upon better things (Col. 3:1-3; 2 Cor. 4:15-18).


            Yet, in heaven’s glory our God will wipe all tears from our eyes. Impossible as it is for us to imagine, there is a time coming when we shall weep no more, when we shall have no cause to weep. Heaven is a place of sure, eternal, ever-increasing bliss; and the cause of that bliss is our God. Heaven is a place of joy without sorrow, laughter without weeping, pleasantness without pain. In heaven there are no regrets, no remorseful tears, no second thoughts, no lost causes, no sorrows of any kind!


            Without question, if our God did not wipe away all tears from our eyes, there would be much weeping in heaven. We would forever weep over our past sins, over unconverted souls forever lost in hell, over all our wasted opportunities, over our unkindness and lack of love to our brethren here, and over the terrible price of our redemption. These things and many others would cause us to weep forever. But God will wipe away all tears from our eyes. It is written, “There shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying; neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away!”


            Our great God shall in heaven’s glory remove us from all sin, remove all sin from us, and remove us from all the evil consequences of sin. He will remove us from every cause of grief. He will bring us at last into the perfection of complete salvation, and every desire of our hearts will be completely gratified. — We will be like Christ! – We will be with Christ! — We will see Christ! — We will love Christ perfectly! — We will serve Christ unceasingly! — We will worship Christ without sin! — We will rest in Christ completely! — We will enjoy Christ fully! — We will have Christ entirely!


            Will you be among the blessed company of the redeemed? Will you be with Christ in glory? You will only enter into glory if you are worthy of heaven. You can only be made worthy by the merits of Christ. If you are worthy of everlasting glory, you shall have all the glory of heaven itself, without degrees, perfectly. The very glory that God the Father gave to the God-man Mediator, that great Mediator has given to his people (John 17:5; 22). Trust Christ and all the glory of Christ in heaven is yours. All who believe on the Son of God are heirs of God, and more. – We are joint heirs with Christ! In Christ we are one. Christ is our Reward. — “In that day shall the LORD of hosts be for a crown of glory, and for a diadem of beauty” (Isa. 28:5).


The Master


Third, this parable reveals much about the character of our God and Savior represented by “the householder.” He is just in everything he does (vv. 7, 13). He is faithful (v. 13). And he is sovereign in all things, doing with his own what he will, especially in the exercise of his grace (v. 15). Every blessing and privilege of grace is God’s free gift. He bestows his gifts upon whom he will. And it is right for him to do so.


Free Election


Fourth, in verse 16 our Savior once more declares one of his choice themes, the free and sovereign grace of God in election. — “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.” He first asserts emphatically that he has, indeed, made all his servants equal. When we stand before him in glory, “the last shall be first, and the first last.” There shall be no distinction of honor, place, or reward among the glorified. The reason for this is clearly stated. — “For many be called, but few chosen.” Salvation is, in its entirety, the result of God’s eternal, electing love.


            Many are called” by the preaching of the gospel. But being called by the preaching of the gospel, and being chosen by God’s eternal purpose of grace are very distinct things. When the gospel is preached to sinners, every one within the sound of the preacher’s voice and all who hear are called by the gracious sound. All are, by the authority of God’s Word, commanded of the sovereign God to hear and obey. But this outward call that is issued to all in the preaching of the gospel differs greatly from the inward work of grace, wrought by God the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the chosen. That effectual call of the Spirit, wrought in the redeemed, comes “not in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance” (1 Thess. 1:5). That call is the result of God’s election. As the Apostle Paul puts it, “We are bound to give thanks alway to God, for you brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath, from the beginning, chosen you to salvation, through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth, where unto he called you, by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:13-14; Eph. 1:3-4; 2 Tim. 1:9). The whole work of grace, from regeneration to glorification, is the result of God’s everlasting love for his elect in Christ (Jer. 31:3; Rom. 8:28-30).





[1] Men applaud and honor very wealthy people who make large gifts out of their abundance to churches and charitable causes, while poorer people who give far greater gifts (though utterly insignificant in the eyes of men) out of their meager supply are ignored. The Lord Jesus measured the gifts of those who “cast money into the treasury” not by the amount they gave, but by the amount they kept for themselves (Mark 12:41-44).

[2] Salvation involves all that is required to bring a sinner from the ruins of the fall into the glory of heaven.


[3] Let the reader ask himself: “What have I ever done, or even thought, that is worthy even of God’s acceptance?” – If, as every child of God humbly acknowledges, sin is mixed with all we are and do (1 John 1:8-10), and our very righteousnesses are filthy rags in the sight of the infinitely holy Lord God (Isa. 64:6), we certainly cannot “oblige” the Almighty by our deeds!