Remember that we are considering in this section of Mark a series of vignettes that accent some aspect of Christian discipleship. We have so far considered how loyalty to Jesus bears on the relationships of Christian husbands and wives and its implications for Christian parents. Now we turn to the particular way in which the followers of Jesus must think about their possessions or the other things that they are attracted to in this world. There is no doubt an intended contrast in the juxtaposition of this paragraph with the one that precedes it. The rich man with his possessions and social status – Luke identifies him as a ruler – forms a striking contrast with the helpless babies of the previous anecdote. He proves himself unwilling, as it turns out, to enter the kingdom of God as a little child.
It is interesting that up to this point in the Gospel no one, even among the Lord’s own disciples, has asked the great question so clearly.
Once again the Lord surprises. Standing before him is a man who would seem in every respect to be a highly desirable recruit for the new movement and the Lord responds to his sincere question in a very undiplomatic way. He puts the seeker, as we would call this man, on the spot. The reason why the Lord replied with this particular question has long been debated. But this much is clear: the Lord’s counter-question suggests that the problem he detected in the man concerned his knowledge of God and his knowledge of what makes a person good. In any case, the Lord forced the man to think about what he had said.
The man’s answer jars us because we have been so well taught that no one can keep the commandments, not least because they require the obedience not only of the outward act but of the motives and attitudes of the heart. But the fact is this pessimism about obedience was not part of the Jewish religious consciousness. Quite the contrary. That a person could keep the commandments was so firmly rooted in Jewish thinking of the period that the rabbis spoke in all seriousness of people who had kept the commandments from A to Z. Even people who didn’t keep the commandments perfectly could get close enough so that a bit of mercy on God’s part would close the gap. Still, so far the Lord’s remarks must have seemed quite conventional to this man. I am to keep the commandments. Every rabbi said that. But now, in a few deft strokes, the Lord will lay bare the heart of this man, his true allegiance, and his understanding of what is truly good.
The first part of the Lord’s answer uncovered the true loyalty of the man’s heart and the second part provided the true answer to the man’s question about how to gain eternal life. He thought in terms of obedience to the law and he needed instead to think of following Jesus. And the sacrifice required is more than worth it. The eternal treasure one will receive in submitting his or her life to Christ far, far exceeds what even very wealthy people enjoy for only a short time in this world.
The man could not know the true God, in whom alone is found true goodness, because he was, at last, an idolater. He loved his money and as Jesus said on another occasion, one cannot love both God and money.
Christ’s own disciples had the same sort of questions about wealth and worldly possessions. They also tended to think of them as blessings not as impediments to salvation. Indeed, in that culture, wealth was universally understood to be a sign of God’s favor. Hence the disciples’ difficulty: if the rich can’t be saved, who does enjoy the favor of God and who can be saved?
You’ll notice that Jesus universalizes the danger. It is hard to enter the kingdom of God – a point the Bible makes in a number of ways – it is for anyone and everyone. Riches only make it harder still.
The metaphor is known to have been in use in Jesus’ day. It amounted to the largest animal known in Palestine of that day going through the smallest opening in common use. It was absurdly impossible. That was his rhetorical point.
Here we encounter a man who turned Jesus down; who refused to become his disciple. And it was not for a lack of any of those things we often blame when a person fails to make a commitment to Jesus.
The evangelist in this case was Jesus himself. No more perfect representative of the Gospel can be imagined. His example and his understanding of both the gospel and the human heart have never been bettered, in fact not approached by even the most successful of Christian evangelists through the ages. There was nothing wrong with the messenger.
What is more, the man himself was interested in precisely the right question. Unlike many, if not most of his contemporaries in the Jewish church, he felt the force of the question. Perhaps his intellect wasn’t entirely satisfied by the pat answers he was getting from the rabbis; perhaps he knew something was wrong, his conscience was troubling him. In any case, the man was concerned about precisely the thing that ought to concern every human being. Concerned enough to go to Jesus and fall to his knees in front of him in full view of others. The great Scottish lay evangelist of the 19th century, Brownlow North, almost did not become a Christian at all because, though sick and thinking himself dying, he was too embarrassed to get out of bed and kneel to pray to God for mercy because a servant girl was in the room. But this man had no such concerns. He was seriously concerned to know the most important thing human beings can know.
The Lord has put eternity in our hearts, as we read in Ecclesiastes, but very few people are ever concerned about eternal things. Why, you and I would give our eye teeth for someone to come up to us and ask us: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” We spend a great deal of time thinking about how to bring up that question, or how to make the issue meaningful to someone, or how to bring a conversation around to it. And here the man comes right up and blurts out the right question. Further, he was young. Matthew tells us that and young people are, in the nature of the case, more amenable to dramatic changes in life than older people are. There was nothing wrong with the situation. It was tailored made for an evangelistic triumph.
The fellow obviously knew about Jesus and had been very impressed with what he had heard and perhaps what he had seen himself. He came to him with the question that was most pressing in his mind. He believed that among all the men whom he might consult on the point Jesus was most likely to give him the answer he needed. He had respect for the man he was consulting. He believed him likely to give him the right answer.
Still more, the Lord liked, even loved, the young man. That is a striking detail, is it not? That love, no doubt, was conveyed to the man and those who were witnesses of this encounter by the Lord’s look and the tone of his voice. The conversation was cordial, sincere, and serious and it led to a bond being formed, at least such a bond as could be formed in such a short time. The young man did not put off the Lord by what he said and Jesus was impressed with him. We tend to think of his reply to Jesus in v. 20 as impossibly arrogant, but in fact he wasn’t saying anything more than most of his countrymen would have said – anything more than most human beings in all times and still today would say – and the Lord’s reply suggests that he took the man at his word. He had lived an exemplary life as the world measures such things. He was, we would say, a good man. All the ingredients, including mutual respect, were present for a happy outcome. Sometimes personalities intrude and complicate evangelism. Not here.
And, finally, with his accustomed insight the Lord put his finger deftly on the real issue almost at once. The conversation didn’t head off down a variety of rabbit trails, as our conversations with unbelievers often do, who skillfully deflect the sharp point of the gospel by asking us about this or that: What about those who never heard the gospel? What about the sincere practitioners of other faiths? What about good people who aren’t Christians? What about all the bad things Christians have done? There was nothing of that. Jesus got right to the essential point and made the man realize what is and must be the answer to the question he had asked. This was an unusually revealing and helpful conversation.
Non-Christians and too often Christians themselves are too quick to blame the church or the individual believer for the failure of the world to embrace the gospel. The church is undermining the message with its poor example, it communicates the message in the wrong way, it fails to respect the people it is speaking to, and so on. You have heard the criticisms as I have. They are easy to make because we are very imperfect people; no doubt there is usually some truth in those criticisms.
But, the fact is, here a perfect evangelist, communicating the gospel perfectly, to an interested seeker, completely failed to secure the man’s assent. And that same failure to secure the unbeliever’s assent happens more often than not. Most American adults say that they have been “witnessed to” by a Christian, and most of them say it was an unpleasant experience. But the problem is not primarily that the gospel was presented in a muddled way or that personalities intruded or that the unbeliever was put off by some failure of respect on the evangelist’s part. The problem here and the problem usually is rather that the unbeliever does not want to make a commitment to Jesus. The implications of that commitment repel him or her. The person may even be somewhat sad that he cannot follow Jesus. He sees or she senses beautiful and happy things surrounding him, but the full measure of commitment required is too much.
It is not an accident that this memorable encounter between the Lord and the rich young man is reported immediately after his remarks concerning the little children who were brought to him that he might bless them. The kingdom of God belonged to such babies, Jesus said. Well this man was asking in other words how he might enter the kingdom of God. Among the children of the covenant many are saved before they know themselves lost. But among the rest their salvation requires a response to Jesus which itself arises out of the presence of certain grand convictions in their hearts. Without those convictions salvation is impossible because Jesus Christ, whom they must trust, love, and follow without reservation, will forever remain uninteresting, irrelevant, or, as in the case of this man, overly demanding. Consequently they will not come to him, however much they may otherwise be interested in securing safe passage to eternal life. These convictions are not necessary to make us welcome to Christ; they are necessary to make him welcome to us. [Duncan, Just a Talker, 51]
And the first of these convictions is the one the Lord Jesus sought but did not find in this rich young man. It is the conviction of sin and guilt, the realization that we have offended God – not in minor ways but comprehensively, viciously, and willingly – that we are rightly and justly subject to his holy wrath, and that we are incapable ourselves of clearing our debt to his justice. In other words, it is the conviction that we need to be saved, cannot save ourselves, and so we need a savior! Unless and until a person really believes that he or she needs to be saved, the gospel message, the message of the Bible about Jesus Christ will never prove really interesting or relevant and it will never gain the urgency that it ought to have in a person’s heart. As Joseph Hart put it in one of his hymns:
What comfort can a savior bring
To those who never felt their woe?
This is what the great Welsh preacher Daniel Rowland meant when he said that “Men have need of storms in their hearts, before they will betake themselves to Christ for refuge.” This man was well-meaning to an extent. He wanted eternal life. But the kingdom of God is not for the well-meaning. It is for the desperate.
And it was precisely this man’s lack of desperation; it was his calm self-assurance that was his undoing. He thought of his entering eternal life, as most people always have and do today, in terms of being a good person, doing right – and he had the typically low standards that human beings have – being good enough was well within his reach. He would never have said, it would never have occurred to him to speak of how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God. He expected Jesus to tell him to do something to guarantee a place for himself in heaven. It might have been something impressive or expensive. He no doubt had faced that possibility in his mind before he ever sought out the Lord to ask his question. He was ready to make sacrifices. But he wasn’t prepared to become a follower of Jesus with all the sacrifice that would have entailed for him.
The man proceeded on the assumption that it wasn’t hard to enter the kingdom of God, he could get there easily enough and, so long as this is true, why give up a comfortable life, the enjoyment of the pleasures that money can buy, his own status in the community and so on. You only make sacrifices of that magnitude if you absolutely have to.
There can be no understanding of salvation or true embrace of it until the need for it, the soul’s clear and present danger is known and felt. As one commentator helpfully sums up this rich man’s state of mind, he thought he had passed elementary religion with flying colors and now wanted to attempt the advanced course. He was asking the Lord to prescribe the syllabus whereby he could graduate with honors into eternal life. The Lord Jesus in effect told the man that far from passing elementary religion with flying colors, he had failed it. He did not yet grasp the one fundamental principle of all true faith, viz. that anyone’s salvation, including and especially his own, is not a matter of his achievement but is rather nothing short of a miracle of divine grace and mercy. It is the redemption of the utterly undeserving. And so it is a matter of a relationship with the Redeemer himself. Jesus himself is the answer to this man’s question. “Come follow me!” And those who understand that, who grasp the nettle both of human sin and of God’s great mercy, are willing, more than willing, to make any sacrifice he might ever ask of them if only they might be numbered among the faithful followers of Jesus Christ.
This explains why Paul, when he had a man ask him virtually the same question, did not reply as Jesus did. The Philippian jailor had cried out in a paroxysm of fear, “What must I do to be saved?” But that man did not need to be convinced that he needed salvation and that his case was hopeless so long as he relied on himself. He knew that. He was already terrified of the wrath of God. So Paul went straight to the good news: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved and your household.” People’s experiences are very different. The Lord awakens some to new life with a sword and others with a kiss. Thomas Halyburton, who now lies buried next to Samuel Rutherford in the St. Andrews cathedral church yard said of his experience of coming under the conviction of his sins and his guilt before God, “As tired as I was, I was afraid to close my eyes lest I awake in hell.” [Memoir, 120] But, whatever their experience may be, men and women must believe themselves in great need and they must realize that Jesus alone can do for them what must be done if they are to find eternal life. It is when they believe that that all calculations of how much they will be willing to sacrifice to follow Jesus disappear.
Jesus was not like some modern evangelists who in their anxiety to see people saved hide the truth from people who seem to be interested. They hide the radical implications of faith in Christ, the sacrifices that one must make to be his follower: the hatred of the world, the temptations and opposition of the Evil One, the long struggle ahead to put to death the remnants of one’s sinful nature, all the difficulties that come to a man or woman who believes in Jesus and follows him. The great evangelists of Christian history never hid those things. They were quite willing, as Jesus was, to tell someone who was considering Christ and faith in him that a commitment to Jesus was going to cost a great deal: was going to cost pride, cost energy and effort, perhaps cost friends, sometimes even one’s family, certainly cost money, and in some places and some times cost one’s very life. They wanted anyone who came to Christ to do so with his or her eyes wide open! And believing in God’s powerful grace, they did not doubt that the Holy Spirit could draw to Christ even that man or woman who saw with perfect clarity just how great a sacrifice this commitment would require. Levi, that is Matthew, had left his lucrative tax-collecting business to follow Jesus. Peter, James, and John had left their livelihood as fishermen to become the Lord’s disciples without knowing anything really about what the future would bring. But this man was not ready to make that kind of a commitment. And the reason, as always, was because he didn’t really think he had to. Hardly anyone did in that day; few do in ours.
It is very likely that had Jesus answered this man the way many of his followers would have answered him in the centuries since, the man might very well have walked away sure of his salvation, his basic disagreement with the truth of God undiscovered. His unwillingness to have salvation on God’s terms would never have been disclosed. But Jesus paid the man a compliment and in perfect and bracing truthfulness answered the question he had asked. It was not the answer he had hoped to hear but it was the correct answer to the question he had asked.
Following the Lord’s example, the great preachers of the Christian faith have dealt with men and women the same way. Here is Martin Luther.
God works by contraries so that a man feels himself to be lost in the very moment when he is on the point of being saved. When God is about to justify a man, he damns him. Whom he would make alive he must first kill. God’s favor is so communicated in the form of wrath that it seems farthest when it is at hand. Man must first cry out that there is no health in him. … In this disturbance salvation begins. When a man believes himself to be utterly lost, light breaks.
John Bunyan was saying the same thing in a more colorful way when in his great allegory of salvation, The Holy War, he describes Emmanuel’s first assault on the city of Mansoul being led by four captains. The first was Boanerges, whose ensign was carried by Mr. Thunder; the second was Captain Conviction, whose ensign was carried by Mr. Sorrow; the third, Captain Judgment, whose ensign was carried by Mr. Terror, and the last, Captain Execution, whose ensign was carried by Mr. Justice.
Bunyan and Luther were simply saying in their own distinctive ways that a man must know himself doomed apart from Christ before he will be willing to make the sacrifices that are inevitably entailed in a commitment to Jesus. Even the promise of an eventual reward, such as Jesus makes to the young man here, is not enough to persuade most people to risk so much at present to be a follower of Jesus. They can see their money, they can’t see heaven.
Now I don’t suppose that this rich young man really thought that he had lost all hope of eternal life by turning away from Jesus at this point. He was unhappy that he couldn’t enjoy the fellowship of Jesus – no doubt he knew about the miracles and wanted to be a part of all that – but we should not imagine that he thought he was exchanging his money now for hell later. He was still sure he would get in. And it was for that reason that he wasn’t willing to make the sacrifices Jesus was requiring. I don’t imagine that he really grasped what the Lord had revealed about the real condition of his heart. He left still thinking that he was a righteous man and did not really understand that Jesus had unmasked his unrighteousness. He thought he had kept all the commandments and Jesus, in a sentence, proved that, in fact, he loved his money more than God and much more than he loved his neighbor.
There are multitudes of such people in the world and far too many of them in the church. They want salvation, they want the frisson, the emotion, the thrill of eternal things that they can find in church, but they want these things on their own terms. Bunyan has such a character in his The Holy War. When King Emmanuel was first preparing to attack Mansoul and capture it from Diabolus, one Mr. Loth-to-Stoop was sent out of the city to negotiate an agreement. Diabolus would surrender half of the city, or surrender the entire city if only he be allowed to remain a citizen of the town, or surrender the city if only he be allowed to return and visit, and so on. Mr. Loth-to-Stoop, in other words, was seeking a lowering of the terms, something less than unconditional surrender. But Emmanuel refused to negotiate. He would have Mansoul on his own terms and nothing less.
Now, give this rich young man some credit. He took the issue more seriously than most do. In one recent survey, 63% of Washingtonians identify themselves as Christian. But one has but to ask those 63% a question or two, as Jesus asked this man, to know that they are Christians on their own terms, not on Christ’s terms. They have not gone away sad as this man did. They haven’t taken the issue to be nearly as important as this man did. But, in the end, their situation is the same as his. Jesus, in effect, said to the young Loth-to-Stoop who had sought him out that he could have eternal life but that he would have to obtain it on the Son of God’s terms. He knew he was not willing to be a Christian on Christ’s own terms and so he went away. He was sad but he went away nonetheless. He was not desperate. He was not convinced that he needed salvation and that Jesus alone could save him. And so the sacrifices Jesus said he would have to make were too great. They were not cost effective in his calculation.
Alexander Whyte tells of a godly old woman in a Glasgow church who was being asked by one of her elders to sign her name to a call being issued to a young minister. The young man had preached the Sunday before in the church and had delivered an elegant address on the subject, “The Dignity of Human Nature.” The elder had been captivated, but the old saint had been exasperated. “I have no doubt but that the lad is all you say he is, but its clear to me that he doesn’t know that he is fallen yet, and he’s not the minister for me.”
You believers say it again – in your heart of hearts right now say it to the Lord – command what you will O Lord, but give what you command. I will make any and every sacrifice, not only because I want eternal life – though I certainly do want that – but because I want you to know how much I love you for what you have done for me and how fully I understand how little I deserve what you have given to me.
And if there is someone listening to me who knows himself or herself to be like this rich young man – you want eternal life but you want it on your own terms – ponder this man as he goes away sad, dimly aware that he has given up something of terrible importance but still mesmerized by his worldly interests, comforts, and pleasures. And think of him as his life came to its end, his money doing him no good, his having to leave it all behind to face the judgment of God. You don’t think he made the right choice; I know you don’t.