Gaming the System
Vacation Bible School, 1984. Me in my “I Love VBS” t-shirt, the leader blows a trumpet which means “get in line”. Every child runs as fast as they can to get in line for the march around a paper mesh Jericho wall. Rumor has it that the wall is going to come down at an unspecified time on an unspecified day (turned out to be the last day). Everyone wants to be first in line to see the carnage. Elementary school imaginations run wild when hopped up on Red Dye 40 and Kool-Aid with copious amounts of sugar coursing through the veins.
I hear the trumpet blast so I turn and burn. Only to run full contact into my neighbor, Jason. He’s in a full sprint to the back of the line. In shock, I ask if he heard the trumpet, and warned him we would get “left behind”. He responds with a confident, “No,” and tells me to hang back. Curious, I ask why. He explains he listened to the lesson in church taught by the youth minister in a chicken costume. I hadn’t made it past the chicken costume so I was still a little confused about where Jason was going. Jason tells me that, “Jesus said, ‘The first will be last,’ so I’m gonna be last in line so I will be first.” It didn’t take long for me to see the benefits, I get to be first with less effort. So, I was with him and we both walk to the back of the line.
The phrase, “the first will be last and the last, first” can be found in the synoptic gospels: Matthew 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31, and Luke 13:30. Jesus makes statements like this over and over in the Gospels. We often pass over them with an affirming nod and a yep. All the while, not having a clue. When we consider those sayings of Jesus, we realize that they go against logic. They go against our common experience and everything we know about the world. They go against how the world works in general, especially socially. They are counter intuitive to the natural mind. They confound us and confuse us just like they did His disciples.
When Jesus says things like, “the first shall be last,” we can often think like 8-year-old me. See it as just another way to be great. A way to be great with less effort. That kind of thinking is very similar to modern notions of oppression and victimhood as the metric for gaining social power. The logic is simple: if I am the most oppressed and needy, often defined as “the last”, then I ought be promoted to being first. Yet this is not what Jesus meant by being last. It’s not at all the meaning of His paradoxical teaching.
When Jesus said the last will be first, He’s not giving us a new and different way to be first, like Jason and I thought. It’s not a cheat code for gaining power and influence. In context, Jesus was teaching us to quit worrying about how to be first. Jesus is telling us to quit buying into the system that sells you on the idea that self-serving greatness and power are valuable pursuits. People and cultures define power and greatness in different ways. Some have defined it as having social media influence or wielding political power even as holding an institutional position. No matter how we define “power” or “greatness”, seeking it is not a valuable pursuit.
Many ministers believe this lie today and misinterpret Jesus’ words to support ideas such as equity. On the other side, many more ministers ignore the teaching and act like ministry is a competition. Both believe the lie that gaining position, platform, or influence, will insure them of greatness and power. The “last will be first” is not a new, more cunning and covert way to be first. The right way is choosing to not play the game, and instead be an equal opportunity servant, no matter where that gets you. We shouldn’t forget being a servant got Jesus nailed to a cross.
The idea that being last is a formula to get glory and greatness is a common enough misunderstanding. In Mark 9:35, Jesus teaches, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Jesus taught “simply focus on serving others”. Jesus’ own example is key in this regard for he lived out what it meant for “the last shall be first”. Such a principle is actually the truth behind the Christ Hymn of Philippians 2:6-11.
In Phil. 2:5, we have a parallel here with Mark’s disciples. Paul’s readers were embroiled in selfish conflict much like the disciples in Mark. Both were guilty of “selfish ambition and vain glory”. Paul’s answer is to tell the Philippians to “have the same mindset as Christ.” Paul understood that Jesus set the standard. He who, in His true essence was “in very nature God”, was in His incarnation “the very nature of a servant.” He never sought glory for Himself but instead “made Himself nothing” and left the glory up to God.
Here we have the goal of every christian life. Be a servant and leave the rest to God. This principle must be the pursuit of every believer. Our greatness will be determined by the extent we serve wherever we minister, and our glorious reward will be equivalent with our heart for service, not what we did. From Mark and Philippians, a principle can be constructed:
Principle: Serve others, and leave the greatness up to God.
Here is the twist, when you think about it. The result of Jesus’s refusal to demand recognition and his decision to die on the cross is that God “exalted Him to the highest place.” Here, Paul has Jesus’ human nature in view. He was not exalted above all simply because he was God from eternity past. That would’ve been a no-brainer and an aspect of Christ we could not be called to imitate. Paul highlights the fact that He was exalted in His human nature because He refused to play the glory game and because of His willingness to give the greatest sacrifice asked of anyone in world history.
Jesus is an example we are to follow, yet without assuming it will bring greatness in the eyes of the world or even the church. The text makes it clear, Jesus was not exalted until after His death. Paul also reminds us of this by stating we all will receive “the crown of glory” when Christ returns, the implication is, we dare not seek it now. We dare not make christian service into a competition. Everyday people find new ways to make christian service into a pick-up game for bragging rights. So, let us remember, we should not claim we have all the answers, or that we get all the revelation just to appear more gifted than others. We dare not claim to know how things should be run or be firmly convinced that the way to do things is your way. David Garland reminds us:
“A church filled with prima donnas who want to control everything rarely ministers effectively to those inside or outside the fellowship.” 
So, in the end, greatness in the eyes of God is being the kind of person who, like Christ, serves others with the faith to leave the rest up to God. God wants a church of servants, led by servants, who leave the greatness up to God. Games are for children, so let’s grow up and put away the competition, for the last will be first.
A few ‘heart’ questions to consider
- What is more important being an ‘influencer’ or being obedient to the glory of God?
- Is living in obscurity a scary idea, even if your life honors God?
- Will you serve out of self-interest or put the interests of others first in your service?
- Will you live to game the system or opt out of the system?
- Will you treat ministry as competition or just serve, leaving the rest to God?
 David Garland, Mark, NIV Application Commentary, 371
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