Questions From Readers
No, resurrection is not the topic of discussion. Two classes of persons come in for consideration. One class thought to be first in God’s favor ends up last or left out altogether, and the class thought last or left out comes into the foremost position of favor. The self-exalted religious leaders in Israel were not only materially well supplied but also rich in spiritual privileges and opportunities, first in line for divine blessing, so they thought. In their sight the poor, common people were contemptible and called ‘am haarets or “people of the earth”, as being beneath their feet, the last ones to be worthy of notice by God. Yet Jesus told the exalted ones that the time was coming when they would be shut out of God’s kingdom arrangement, pictured by Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and the prophets, and in their stead would come the despised ones to recline at the table in the kingdom of God. By speaking of these incoming ones as being from east, west, north and south Jesus showed they would be not only the common people from among the Jewish nation but also poor persons from all nations. Such downtrodden Jews and despised Gentiles were the last ones so far as a chance for God’s kingdom was concerned; or at least so reasoned the conceited religious ones who put themselves first in line for divine blessing. So it was with these classes and relationships in mind that Jesus concluded with the words: “There are those last who will be first, and there are those first who will be last.”—Luke 13:23-30; 16:14-31, NW.
Those desiring to be rich in comforts, whether in a material sense or in public esteem and reputation, will find it extremely difficult to enter the Kingdom; whereas those who willingly divest themselves of comfortable belongings and good worldly reputation to serve God under persecution will be blessed. Such lowly ones may be put last on the list for divine favor according to this world’s rating, and the lofty ones of the world may be put first on the list. Yet, it was after contrasting these very classes of rich and poor that Jesus said: “Many that are first will be last and the last first.” (Matt. 19:24-30; Mark 10:23-31, NW) The uses of this expression in Matthew and Mark have a different setting from that in Luke, but the principle being established is the same; namely, that those rich in spiritual privileges and opportunities and apparently first in line for divine blessing, such as the clergy class, wind up last, and lowly ones thought by the exalted clergy to be the last to ever rate any divine favor are put first by God.
At Matthew 20:16 the principle is stated in still another setting. An illustration is given of a householder who hired laborers to work in his vineyard, agreeing to pay them a denarius for the day’s work. At the third, sixth, ninth and eleventh hours of the day he brought in new groups of workers, promising to pay them what was just. At the end of the day all were given a denarius each, regardless of how long they had worked. Those who had worked all day got what they had agreed to, yet they grumbled because those working only an hour got just as much. The householder told them he had lived up to the agreement, and that he could do as he wished with what belonged to him. He sent them on their way, and concluded with the expression about the first being last and the last first. (Matt. 20:1-16) This illustration applies since the Lord came to his temple in 1918, and the conclusion came in 1931 when payment came in the form of the new name, Jehovah’s witnesses. Some who had been in the truth longest became offended, murmured, and left. They were not satisfied with the new name putting them on a level with all other publishers, and did not want to live up to it by doing the witnessing work. So these one time foremost ones, due to their years in service, became last or left out, and those more recent in the truth and more lowly took their places.
So applying the expression to these two classes, it becomes understandable in all its different settings, and makes sense whether referring to situations in Israel in Jesus’ day among the Jews, or referring to the addition of Gentiles to the church class, or to conditions in Christendom in these last days. The exalted clergy class once thought to be first are abased to last, and humble ones abased to last God exalts to first position with him.—Luke 14:11.
But how do we know that to be last means to be left out altogether? The same way that we know those “called the least in the kingdom of heaven” are left out of the Kingdom entirely. By the context. It implies that those referred to as “least in the kingdom” were the scribes and Pharisees, and specifically said they would never enter the Kingdom, nor would anyone else whose righteousness did not exceed theirs. It is this same clergy class that is also spoken of as the first who become last, so “least” and “last” must betoken the same fate. (Matt. 5:17-20) Some may cite Matthew 11:11 as proof that “least in the kingdom” means to be in it, where Jesus said when speaking of John the Baptist: “He that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” However, here “least” is translated from a different Greek word than it is in Matthew 5:19, and should be accurately translated “lesser”. (NW Dy; AS, m.; Ro) All in the heavenly kingdom are lesser ones in comparison with Christ Jesus, who is the one “called great in the kingdom”, for he is the only one to perfectly keep and teach the Law. It is also the context that shows those first ones who become last are thrust out, not entering the Kingdom arrangement, no more able to do so than a camel can go through a needle’s eye. We might even illustrate it by present-day expressions. When we say, “That’s the least of my worries,” we mean it is not a worry at all. When we say, “That’s the last thing I would have thought of,” we mean we would never have thought of it at all. So the first that become last are left out entirely.
● Why was Aaron not punished with leprosy as his sister Miriam was when they spoke against Moses?—G. M., Pennsylvania.
The record of this event is found in Numbers chapter 12, and a plausible explanation can be given. Aaron at that time was high priest in Israel, and according to the requirements of the high priest as given in Leviticus chapter 21, and particularly Le 21 verses 20, 21, no Israelite of the household of Aaron, who had a plague in his flesh, scurvy or other blemish, could be high priest. So, if Aaron had been smitten with leprosy he would have been ejected from the priesthood, or at least for seven days that the leprosy would continue as in the case of Miriam. (Num. 12:15) It was evidently his office that saved Aaron from such dire punishment. Also, the record is plain that when Miriam was smitten with leprosy it was a painful experience to Aaron and caused him to cry out on her behalf, which brotherly pain that he felt was no doubt punishment enough for him. We would often prefer to endure pain ourselves than to have those we love dearly undergo it.—Num. 12:10-12.
However, Miriam’s sin in this murmuring against Moses may have been greater than Aaron’s, may have been more of a personal complaint on her part. It may have been a case of woman against woman, with Aaron siding in with his sister rather than with his sister-in-law. (Num. 12:1) Miriam murmured against Moses because he had an Ethiopian woman for his wife. Evidently there was some jealousy in the matter. Moses was a prophet of Jehovah God, and his wife would partake somewhat of his glory. She would be respected for what Moses was, and she could be looked upon as the first lady of the land. Now as circumstances indicate, Miriam was the first lady of the land. When the Israelites came through the Red sea and Moses sang his song on the other side, Miriam took the lead among the women of Israel and led them in singing God’s praise and was counted as a prophetess in Israel. (Ex. 15:20, 21) That gave her the standing of first woman in Israel, and she evidently exercised some influence because of that. Perhaps her high station in Israel was being put in the shade by the wife of Moses, and it rankled. And while it was certainly not right for Aaron to criticize Moses, it was even more presumptuous for Miriam to do so, in view of the woman’s assigned place of subjection to the man in the congregation of God. So God punished her with leprosy, and that humbled her in the sight of everyone. For seven days she was on the outside, and then she was brought back and restored to her station. In time she died and was buried with restored respect in Israel and in the favor of God.