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Red Light, Green Light

Xandra Carroll

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me

Revelation 3:20

There’s a hill between the grocery store and my apartment, and whenever I’m on my way home from shopping, the same scenario plays out on the road. The moment the light at the bottom of the hill turns green, all the cars launch into motion. The hill is steep, and older cars start to lag. Powerful trucks and sports cars whip around the slower vehicles, screaming up the hill as fast as possible. But at the summit is another light, which always turns red just in time to stop everyone. Eventually all the cars settle in next to each other just as they were before, the sports car and the old clunker idling side by side.

I think about this hill as a metaphor for life. Sometimes it feels like we aren’t getting anywhere. We’re flooring it up the proverbial slope but we’re barely moving. All around, others seem to be faring much better. Perhaps you feel this way today; everyone else at work seems more capable, or all those other families have perfect kids who have perfect grades. Yet other times it seems we’re on top of the world. It feels like we cracked the code—like we have life all figured out. We find ourselves looking down on others who can’t keep up. Being king of the hill is exhilarating, but it’s a precarious place to be whenever judgment creeps in. On the other hand, being at the bottom of the pile can leave us embittered and full of self-loathing.

What is success in the eyes of God? What is failure?

People like to quote Jesus as saying, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” But Jesus never said that, at least not according to Scripture. What He did say was, “Many who are last shall be first, and many who are first shall be last” or “Some who are last will be first, and some who are first will be last” depending on the translation (Matthew 19:30; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30).[1] Similarly, in Matthew 20, Jesus tells a parable about laborers in a vineyard who are paid equal wages even though some were found later in the day, and at the end of the parable He draws upon the comparison, “In the same way, the last will be first and the first will be last.”[2] The distinction is important. Jesus’ teaching about the first being last and the last first is not so much an all-out inversion as it is a leveling of the playing field. Jesus always speaks about the last being first and first last within the context of people comparing themselves to each other.

In his work The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard calls this concept the “reversal formula.”[3] Expounding on this point, Willard explains that Jesus’ statement is more about “the meaning of the availability of the heavens” to anyone who seeks God than it is a mathematical formula.[4] In this reversal formula, Jesus does not encourage those seen as successful to give up their careers for the sake of being first later. Nor does He encourage the acedia of those seen as failures to retain their position. Rather, Jesus is challenging the way we see each other as king of the hill or bottom of the pile. Willard writes, “In general, many of those thought blessed or ‘first’ in human terms are miserable or ‘last’ in God’s terms, and many of those regarded as cursed or ‘last’ in human terms may well be blessed or ‘first’ in God’s terms, as they rely on the kingdom of Jesus. Many, but not necessarily all. The Beatitudes are lists of human ‘lasts’ who at the individualized touch of the heavens become divine ‘firsts.’. The gospel of the kingdom is that no one is beyond beatitude, because the rule of God from the heavens is available to all. Everyone can reach it, and it can reach everyone.”[5]

In the Luke 13 occurrence of lasts and firsts, Jesus has just been asked by a Jewish listener if only a few people will be saved. Jesus responds that many who expect to “enter the door” will not be able, while others who are less expected—people “from east and west, and from north and south”—will come and recline at the table with Him (Luke 30:29 ESV). It’s hard for us to appreciate the startling cultural implications of this. For a Jewish audience, the thought of a foreigner reclining at table with Jesus was preposterous. As a case in point, Peter later faced fierce persecution from people in Jerusalem because he had eaten food in a Gentile home (Acts 11:2-3). In the ancient near east, those sitting down to a meal together would recline sideways on the floor around a low table that some cultures called a triclinium.[6] It was customary to lean against the person behind you to help keep you up as you leaned on one arm and ate with the other. Thus, all the people circled around the table were pressed very close to each other, leaning against one another’s chests (see John 13:23). A Jew was considered defiled if he or she touched a Gentile. Therefore, the thought of Gentiles reclining at God’s table where some Jews were absent was inconceivable. Yet Jesus, knowing that all nations were meant to come to Him through the people of Abraham, the father of nations, replied, “Behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:30 ESV).[7]

Picture someone you envy. Take a moment to pause and reflect. Imagine that person carefully in your mind. Why are you jealous of them? What do they have that you wish you had?

Now picture someone you look down on. How do you think you are better than him or her? If that person were invited to a special party where you weren’t allowed, how would you feel?

Finally, picture the road of life through God’s eyes. Some are successful by the world’s standards—they fly up the hill unencumbered. Others are failures by the world’s standards—they can’t seem to gain momentum, and everyone is flying past them. But there, at the top of the hill, we are all greeted by a cross. We are stopped dead in our tracks by a holy stoplight of sorts. There we stand before Him, shoulder to shoulder—the weak and the strong, the proud and the meek, the have-lots and the have-nots. After our 80- or 90-year-long game of red light, green light, we find ourselves on equal footing—the Joneses we tried to keep up with next to the Boo Radley from the end of the street. Here we will behold Him who was both greatest and least, the lion of Judah and the lamb who was slain. No success can surpass His victory, and no meekness can surpass His humility. As we read in 2 Corinthians 5:10, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (ESV)

Jesus came to remind us that He has leveled the ground. Our constant comparisons get us nowhere. Our successes will not save us, and our failures will not condemn us. Only Jesus is successful enough to make a way for the lowly to come back to the Father and recline at His table. Only Jesus is lowly enough to open the door to the proud so that all who humble themselves before Him may enter in. Jesus, the greatest and the least, spreads His arms wide and invites us all into His Father’s house.

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20 ESV).

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[1] Pollus (πολύς) is used in Matthew and Mark; Esei (εἰσί) is used in Luke.

[2] Matthew 20:16 ISV

[3] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, 1st ed. (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998), 138.

[4] Willard, 114

[5] Willard, 138

[6] Consider for instance the triclinium of the Corinthians. See Anthony C. Thiselton, First Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2006). 

[7] See Genesis 17:5