God chose to enter into the world in order that the world might enter into God. For reasons largely unknown to us, God chose for the entrance a small backwater in a conflicted little country, at a particularly discordant time in its history. And because God made that choice, they became of course the most important place and time in human history. But we must not therefore feel bound to the political and social categories of that place and time to interpret the life of God among us.
One of those categories is the category of royalty, of Kings and Kingdoms and thrones and castles and armies and royal attendants. That of course was the form of governance in the surrounding nations during the time most of the Old Testament was written, and continued right down to the time of Jesus and in various forms in most other places since then.
But that category for thinking about the relationship of God to His own creation is one of the things that Jesus corrected. The kingdom of heaven, as Christ informs us , is not at all like an earthly kingdom, and God’s reign is utterly different from our worldly notions.
Christ came to show us who God is. Does he show us God sitting on a throne? No, he shows us God sitting on a donkey, on the most humble of pack animals.
Does he show us God sending out his armies to conquer all potential enemies? No, he shows us God on His knees, washing the feet of His followers.
Does he show us God ruling with an iron fist over a vanquished world? No, he shows us God dying from love on a cross.
When Jesus teaches that the first will be last and the last first, he’s not saying that there will be a reversal of position, so that the lowliest in the earthly kingdoms will be the most elevated in heaven, and kings of earthly kingdoms will be reduced to servitude in heaven.
He’s teaching that what counts as royalty – as authority – in heaven is entirely different from what it is here, and that if we are to begin here and now to prepare ourselves and our thoughts for heaven’s reality, then we must direct our lives into channels of service and humility and anonymity, not so that we will receive some recompense or reward once we’re in heaven, but because, in heaven, those things are the reward.