First and Last in the Kingdom of God

courageous alex kendrick sherwoodEvery Christian should know the story of “Courageous” (2011). Shane (Kevin Downes), a friend of fellow policeman Adam (Alex Kendrick) and a member of his inner circle, is discovered stealing drugs to help cover personal and family expenses. He’s taken to jail. Meanwhile, a Hispanic carpenter named Javier (Robert Amaya) befriends Adam and takes his place in the inner circle. Unlike Shane, he has real faith in God.

This story is fictional, but one just like it is true. William “Devil Anse” Hatfield (1839-1921) of West Virginia, an agnostic, befriended Randolph McCoy (1825-1914) of Kentucky, a Christian, in the Civil War. These men and their families became enemies in the decades following, leaving 12 people dead. Finally, in 1891 Hatfield sacrificed an innocent family member (think Jesus) to the McCoys to end their blood feud. He believed in Jesus 20 years later and was baptized. Hatfield then founded a church. McCoy died in a house fire, a drunken and cursing backslider.

“The first will be last and the last will be first” (Matthew 19:30, 20:16). We hear this sentence often in relation to the end times, not knowing it is how God always works. Throughout history, what God promises to one person or nation he then gives to another. This event is more than an end-times prophecy. It’s a spiritual kingdom principle and it hinges on human obedience to God.

Esau was the firstborn of Isaac and Rebekah’s twin sons; Jacob came second (Genesis 25:25-26). In Bible times the firstborn was promised a double portion of his father’s property, the birthright. Other sons received little or nothing. The birthright promise became a reality only when the firstborn son received his father’s blessing before the latter died.

jacob and esauBefore the twins were born, God chose Jacob as inheritor: “the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). He then took Esau’s birthright and blessing. Some people accuse Jacob of deceit, but unlike his brother he valued the birthright. One can’t have the blessing without it. Esau despised his birthright by selling it for food (25:31-34). He should have known he would lose his father’s blessing, even before Jacob deceived Isaac (27:36; Hebrews 12:16-17).

Some people think Rebekah was wrong to help Jacob, yet she had God’s promise that he would inherit his father’s property (Genesis 25:23). Surely she told Isaac what God had told her before their sons were born. Did Isaac listen? No. He wrongly preferred Esau over Jacob for his food, just like Esau wrongly preferred food over his birthright (25:28). Rebekah couldn’t trust Isaac’s judgment anymore, so she took matters into her own hands (27:6-13). God loved Jacob and hated Esau because he knew their characters (Malachi 1:2). Rebekah and Jacob rightly valued the birthright and blessing more than anything this world could offer them.

“The first will be last and the last will be first.” The story of Jacob and Esau was repeated in the priestly lives of Eli and Samuel and in the royal lives of Saul and David, with great consequences for the fledging nation of Israel. Eli became high priest because he was of the tribe of Levi, yet both he and his sons were wicked men. Eli had no spiritual discernment, confusing silent prayer with drunkenness (1 Samuel 1:13-14). His sons defiled tabernacle sacrifices and lay with women who assembled there, while Eli refused to dishonor and replace them (2:13-17, 22, 29; 3:13).

Eli-Questioning-Samuel-Regarding-The-VisionGod chose Samuel to be high priest in Eli’s place, a “faithful priest who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind” (1 Samuel 2:35). God had promised that the tribe of Levi would serve him “forever” (2:30). That promise had a price – obedience. Eli and his sons took it for granted and lived in disobedience, so God cursed them (2:31-36, 3:12-14). He explained that “those who honor me I will honor and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed” (2:30). Personal character and faith in God are vital traits.

King Saul didn’t know Israel’s priestly history or even that Samuel lived in Ramah; he never sought a divine word from him (1 Samuel 9:6). Saul needed the Holy Spirit to become “another man” and prophesy (10:6). He was handsome and tall while his father was “a mighty man of power,” physical traits that worldly-minded people would admire (9:1-2). I think God chose Saul because Benjamin was the smallest tribe and his father’s family the least in it (9:21). God wanted the glory for his choice.

Saul’s poor decisions and disobedience led God to strip the kingdom from him, even though he would have “established” it “forever” (1 Samuel 13:13). Saul didn’t know that “to obey is better than sacrifice” (15:22) and that “forever” has a price. He feared and obeyed his people instead (15:24). So God chose David, “a man after his own heart,” to be king in Saul’s place (13:14). Although Judah was a larger tribe, David was the youngest of his family (15:11). Unlike Saul and Samuel, who “look[ed] at the outward appearance,” God always “looks at the heart” (15:7).

Jesus-and-phariseesThe final exchange in Bible history was the most tragic. Like many in Israel, the Pharisees were physical, not spiritual, descendants of Abraham (John 8:33, 39). John the Baptist warned them that God could make stones descendants (Matthew 3:9; cf 1 Peter 2:4-5). Then Jesus prophesied that outsiders will “sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness” (Matthew 8:11-12). The kingdom would be taken from Israel and given to a nation bearing fruit (21:43). What happened to Esau, Eli, and Saul would happen to all Israel because of unbelief (Romans 11:20-13). Despised Gentiles – spiritual Jacobs, Samuels, and Davids – took their place in God’s kingdom (9:3-8, 30-31).

I can’t prove it, but I think a final spiritual exchange will take place before the rapture. Cultural outsiders will enter the kingdom of God through faith, while the children of promise will be cut off through unbelief. Let us not be lazy in pursuing God’s kingdom but cast off sin and run with endurance (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Hebrews 12:1). To God be the glory (Romans 11:36).

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