Will the Last Really Be First? (Matthew 20)

The chapter and verse numbers weren’t included in the first manuscripts of the Bible. They were added to the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Old Testament texts in the 16th-century by a man named Robert Stephanus (his son, Henri, is famous for introducing the pagination numbers still used today in many of Plato’s writings).

While Robert’s Stephanus’ work has long been the gold standard for quickly finding Bible references according to “chapter and verse”… some of his organizational decisions are not as helpful for studying the Bible as a piece of literature. Matthew chapter 20 is one such “unfortunate chapter break”.

Matthew chapter 20 begins with the word “for”. Grammatically, that word suggests that the statement that follows somehow relates with information that came before. It organically ties back to the statement in the last verse of chapter 19. 

“But many who are first will be last; and the last, first.” – Matthew 19:30. 

If you continue to read into chapter 20, you will notice there is a similar statement in verse 20 of the next chapter. 

“So the last shall be first, and the first last.” – Matthew 20:16

Often times in ancient literature, authors would use similar statements like this to function as “bookends” to draw their readers to the main point or idea of the narrative. This type of patterning is known as a “Chiastic structure”. It’s where the initial idea is repeated first and last in a narrative… and the main point the author wants to highlight is presented at the mid-point between the two similar statements. Other supporting ideas can be built into the structure as well. An example of this structure could be represented… A, B, C, B’, A’ where “A” and “B” represent supporting thoughts or details that lead to the main point “C”.

When you see similar statements in the Bible (like those found in Matthew 19:30 & Matthew 20:16) you can often look to the mid-point between them to find the author’s main point. This literary technique was likely developed to make stories easier to memorize.

The chiastic structure in this example leads the reader to the middle point, literally Matthew 20:8, where one finds the theme carried out once again. 

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.” – Matthew 20:8

Without taking away from the work of Robert Stephanus at all, I think the chapter break he chose to insert between chapters 19 and 20 is certainly an unfortunate one.

In this particular case, by following his chapter and verse distinctions, you could easily miss the similar phrases that should naturally lead you to the mid-point… and in turn… the main-point of Jesus’ story.

So what? What does it matter if we can, or can’t, find the main point of a passage? When we know the main point, then we can ask the question about how that point can influence our everyday lives.

To delve more into the practical significance of the chiastic structure found in this passage, I invite you to watch video lesson for chapter 20. You can watch the entire lesson below… or preview the other videos and download chapter lessons from The Matthew Study by visiting: THE MATTHEW STUDY VIDEOS page.

Also… be sure to listen and subscribe to the Rethinking Scripture Podcast!