We’ve come in the Gospel of Luke to the eighteenth chapter and the paragraph that begins with v. 18, “The Rich Ruler” or, as Matthew tells us, “The Rich Young Ruler.”
As so frequently in the Bible, the author gives a signal as to his theme in a particular paragraph or a particular section. We have in the opening sentence a question, “How may I inherit eternal life?” In the final verse of the same section in v. 30 the Lord tells us what we must do to inherit eternal life. This is what we have learned to call the literary technique of inclusio, it’s found everywhere in the Bible and it reminds us that the material in between v. 18 and v. 30 is all about how one inherits eternal life. I won’t bore you with the details, but the entire structure of this dialogue is a beautiful example of biblical literary technique. One feature of that structure is that by it the little parable of the camel and the eye of the needle is placed in the very center, not necessarily in terms of lines but in terms of concepts, so it becomes the key thought. We will see why in due time.
By the way, there are many similarities of both theme and structure between this conversation and the one the Lord had with Simon the Pharisee in chapter 7, verses 36-50, when, you remember, Simon was offended that a woman he thought especially sinful wet the Lord’s feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You will remember the lesson the Lord drew at the end of that conversation: “he who is forgiven little, loves little.” There too the conviction of sin, the recognition of need, is the foundation of everything, as it will prove to be here as well.
v.19 There is no reply recorded to the Lord’s first question, which itself is not unusual. However we must ask why the Lord asked this particular question. Without getting into too much detail it seems that, as he often did, he was testing the sincerity of the man who had asked him the question. “Do you really mean that I am a good teacher and you are prepared to heed my advice, or is that simply the thoughtless flattery common in the middle-east?” “Good Teacher” was not an address in use among the rabbis precisely because it attributed to a man an attribute possessed only by God. [Morris, 283-284]
v.20 We have already noticed on a number of occasions that the Lord answered a question with another question to elicit from the person he was talking with a better understanding of the point under discussion.
There has been much debate about the fact that the five commandments are not in the order in which we find them in the Ten Commandments. The Lord begins with commandment number seven and finishes with number five. Every Jew knew the order of those commandments by heart. Is a point being made in their rearrangement? No one has been able to demonstrate to everyone’s satisfaction what that point would be, but give me just a moment and perhaps I’ll suggest something that will be convincing to you. [cf. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, 159-160]
v.21 Though this has been hotly contested in recent years in certain circles of New Testament scholarship, this man was no more mistaken about the fact that he had kept all the commandments of God than were his Jewish contemporaries generally. Most of them would have said the same thing and meant it. They could think that, however, only because they had departed fundamentally from a biblical understanding of both the law of God and its actual requirements and the nature of human sin. You cannot find any statement such as this man makes anywhere in the Old Testament. Read through the Psalms and be impressed again with how ready the authors of those great hymns were to confess their sinfulness and moral failure, how well they knew that they depended for salvation absolutely on the mercy of God. But by this time most of Judaism had lost the idea of a redeemer who would die for the sins of the world and had domesticated sin by a complicated theory of lesser and greater sins — so that the thing one needed to do was just make sure he didn’t commit the greater of the sins — and by a system of countervailing merit. If one committed the minor sins, he could deal with that by doing some good things that would offset the debit. Their understanding of obedience was superficial, as it must be if anyone actually believes he or she has kept the commandments of God from their youth. Sin had been rendered innocuous and largely harmless in the Jewish thought of the period. It was no longer a lethal danger to the soul. It was more an inconvenience to be managed. That this became the Jewish viewpoint should hardly be a controversial judgment. This also became the Christian viewpoint about sin and obedience at many times in the church’s history. In fact this is the viewpoint of most human beings at any point in human history. It is the way the human heart will always think about itself until its pride is broken and it is made to see things as they actually are.
v.22 You might want to put Luke 10:42 in the margin against v. 22. There too, also following hard on a question from a lawyer about gaining eternal life, the Lord told Martha that she lacked one thing, and in that context as well, that thing was an appropriate appreciation of the person of Jesus himself. [Bailey, 163]
Here may be found, I’m not sure, but may be found a reason for the re-ordering of the commandments. For this man to sell all that he has and give it to the poor and then and up and follow Jesus, would require him to forsake the obligations considered so sacred in that day and time, the obligations to his family, to his extended family and to his family home. Perhaps this is the reason the fifth commandment is placed last, in the emphatic position in v. 20. He is being asked to place Jesus even above his family in importance and loyalty, the very thing Peter will say in v. 28 that he and his fellow disciples had done. God had asked Abraham, you remember, to put loyalty to him above even the life of his son, Isaac, and Abraham passed that test. This man will fail it. [Bailey, 164]
v.25 You may be aware that there have been two different attempts through the ages to soften the blow of this little parable. One was to alter the term “camel” to “rope,” a word that in Greek differs from camel in but one letter and in the same position within the word. Think of a small enough rope and a large enough needle and the “impossible” becomes simply difficult. But there is no serious textual evidence to support the change of spelling. The other attempt was to imagine that in a large gate through which, when opened, a loaded camel might easily pass, there would be, when closed, a small postern gate that allowed the passage of people one by one without the requirement of opening the entire gate. Supposedly this small door in one of the large doors of the gate was called “the needle’s eye.” There isn’t a shred of evidence for this, however, and the point is obviously not that the thing is difficult but impossible. There is another familiar saying from the period in which it is the elephant who is to pass through the eye of a needle. The point is obviously something impossible to imagine, which is precisely the conclusion first the disciples and then the Lord drew from what he said. The whole point is that anyone’s salvation is a miracle, something that only God could bring to pass. The camel is mentioned precisely because it was the largest land animal common in Palestine.
v.26 Why did they think that rich people were more likely to be saved so that if they were saved with difficulty it would be even more difficult for everyone else? For two reasons. Riches were widely seen to be a sign of God’s blessing. So the rich, apparently, already had God’s favor. Additionally, rich people could do still better works with their money, give more to the poor, and so on. That should ensure their salvation. The rest of us can’t do works that good and so our situation is correspondingly more desperate. The onlookers were effectively describing the same view of salvation that the rich ruler had described earlier. One had to earn eternal life and that should be easier for a man with means.
v.30 So it is not as though what God had asked of this man had never been done by anybody else. The disciples had done it and done it willingly and the Lord was assuring them that they would have their reward. Don’t mistake the Lord. He has already said that salvation must be the work of God; it is impossible for man to achieve by his own efforts. But this obedience, this service that arises from an absolute loyalty to Jesus — as illustrated in the life of his disciples — is precisely the inevitable result of God’s work of grace in a person’s life. Put Christ first and a person will sacrifice even the most precious things out of loyalty to him. That is not how one is saved. That is the consequence of a person being saved by the grace and power of God. Put Jesus first and you will gladly do what others find simply too much to ask. Don’t underestimate this: leaving one’s family and one’s family home in the Middle East was virtually unthinkable. These were and are today the greatest imaginable sacrifices, indeed, betrayals of honor and loyalty, in that culture. But God must come first.
The tragedy of this conversation is repeated thousands of times every day. Men and women who have some interest, some desire to know God, who are aware of something missing in their lives, of a need for God, turn away in sadness because the good news is not a message that they can accept. It requires them to believe deeply unwelcome things about themselves and requires them to take steps that seem genuinely outrageous to them.
This wealthy young man, a man of privilege and social standing, supposed that entrance into eternal life was by some form of competitive examination. He had passed Elementary Religion with flying colors and now he wished to attempt the advanced course. But this man, in fact, like most people alas, hadn’t a clue. Far from having passed the elementary course with flying colors, he knew nothing about the essentials of salvation. He thought he had kept all the commandments of God and he hadn’t any understanding of even the first of those commandments. Money and social position were his gods. He had no living sense of God’s goodness or he wouldn’t have thrown the term around so loosely. To live with God, which is another way to speak of eternal life, one must be good and this man hadn’t the first idea of what true goodness amounts to. “Eternal life is not a graduation certificate; it is life in the company of God, and that means in the company of Eternal Goodness.” [Caird, 204-205] This man had absolutely no sense that he must become as a little child, helpless, utterly dependent, needing to be done for if he were to be saved, the point the Lord made in the previous paragraph. He was a doer and he wanted to do! It never occurred to him that his doing wouldn’t be enough; wouldn’t be nearly enough or ever enough.
He respected the Lord, no doubt having heard a great deal about him from others, having heard, of his power to heal the sick, having heard of his riveting teaching about the kingdom of God. He was a sincerely religious man. He’s not testing the Lord to catch him in some controversial statement. He wanted to know. Mark even tells us that he ran up to the Lord and fell on his knees before him. There was some urgency to his request. His interest isn’t simply hypothetical. Perhaps he wanted to be sure that he hadn’t missed something. He wanted to know what the great teacher could tell him about eternal life.
But Jesus realized that this man could not even begin to understand the good news until he had grasped the bad news. The Lord knew his man. If someone were to ask us the same question — “What must I do to inherit eternal life? — we certainly would not reply by saying that he or she needed to sell all he had and give it to the poor, as if such sacrifices would earn one’s entrance into heaven. We would think such an answer fundamentally misleading. But the Lord was unmasking the man’s critical mistake. In order to bring him to the knowledge of his need — the foundation of everything in the Bible’s teaching about salvation — the Lord tested his loyalties. What really came first in this man’s heart? What did he really understand salvation to require?
The answer that he gave — that he had kept the commandments of God from his youth — revealed his fundamental and deep-seated misunderstanding of everything about salvation. To people who were confident of their own righteousness, satisfied with their own understanding of the world, Jesus told them, in effect, that they would have to do their best to live with that understanding. They wouldn’t be interested in his remedy because they didn’t share his diagnosis. This happened a lot to Francis Schaeffer. He was talking to a great many modern folk in the 1960s and 70s who were quite sure that they knew better than the Bible what they and what the world needed. He would explain the biblical good news, our sin and guilt, the remedy God provided through Jesus Christ and his death on the cross, the necessity of putting our faith in Jesus and forsaking all thought of pleasing God in our own strength, and they would be as unimpressed as this man was. They would either disagree that the human problem was the problem identified in the Bible — our sin and guilt — or they would object to the implications of faith in Jesus — finding simply impossible the thought of doing what Christians do and living as Christians live, whether living in sexual chastity, going to church on Sunday, or whatever — for whatever reason they would, like this man, turn away. They might be sad to do so because they might have sensed a higher goodness or detected a purpose for life in Jesus Christ that they had not found elsewhere, but, at last, to become a follower of Jesus was more than they were willing to do.
This young man went away. He was sad, but he went away nonetheless. He had looked the truth full in the face but he would not accept it. He had seen the Lord and was not willing to bow his knee. He had been made to see, if only dimly, how much he loved and trusted his money, but in the end he still loved it more than God.
Dr. Schaeffer would say to such people, “Well, then, you must ride your tiger.” It’s an apt metaphor. If you find yourself on the back of a tiger, you must hold on as tightly as you can. If you fall off, you will be eaten. I watched the film The Life of Pi on the plane ride from Atlanta last Wednesday night. This boy, an Indian immigrating to Canada, finds himself alone in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with an adult Bengal tiger. His challenge was to remain at least connected to the boat — lest he drown — without getting too close to the tiger — lest he be eaten. Well, that was what Dr. Schaeffer meant. If you refuse to embrace the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ because of what that good news requires you to believe about yourself or because of what changes accepting it will bring in train, then you must make the best of what is left to you. Try to make a life believing yourself to be better than you actually are; try your best to earn your way to heaven by imagining God to be one who would be willing to accept your paltry efforts at moral goodness. See what that sort of God will do for you.
You say,” I don’t believe in moral absolutes.” Well, ride your tiger. See how well your world will work without moral absolutes. You say, “I believe that human beings are basically good.” Well, ride your tiger. See how well your world will work with no honest acknowledgement of human sin, moral failure, and proud hypocrisy. You say, “I don’t see anything wrong with a sexually adventurous and promiscuous life.” Ride your tiger. See what comes of a life of sexual promiscuity. And, you say, “My life will be good enough for God.” Ride your tiger and don’t fall off; find out on the last day whether the living God thinks as highly of your life as you do!
The Lord wasn’t driving this man away; he was trying to save him. But until he confessed the truth about himself, until he admitted his great need, until he realized that he could not save himself and needed a savior, the Lord had no good news to give him. Very few people become Christians the first time they hear the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. It takes time to realize why this must be, why the Son of God had to become a man and die on the cross, why salvation must be by grace and through faith and not by works. And key to all of those discoveries is the recognition of the horrible predicament of man in sin. Deny that and you deny and must deny all.
As Joseph Hart put it in his great hymn,
“Let not conscience make you linger, nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness he requireth is to feel your need of him.”
The truth the Lord laid bare by his questioning of his man is that, as the Great Awakening evangelist, Daniel Rowland, once said,
“Men have need of storms in their heart, before they will betake themselves to Christ for refuge…” [Daniel Rowlands in Evans, 36]
The kingdom of God is not for the well-meaning; it is for the desperate and this man was hardly desperate. He wasn’t hoping against hope that there might be some way to heaven for a man such as himself. He was confident about his own righteousness. His account of his own obedience came glibly off his tongue without a thought. His inquiry was not motivated by despair. He was sincere enough, but as soon as the Lord tested his resolve to find the answer to his question, he gave up the question and went home. This man, who though he wanted to know about salvation was, like so many others, a prisoner of his own pride and in the final analysis he really didn’t want to know that much about salvation. Jesus asked him a few simple questions and laid bare the fact that, as much as he may have seemed to want salvation, he wasn’t going to turn his life upside down to obtain it. Such a man, at bottom, doesn’t think he would or should have to do anything so drastic to find peace with God. God will receive him; c’est son métier. It is his job.
Martin Luther gave beautiful expression to this truth, no doubt speaking from his own experience as well as from the Word of God.
“God works by contraries so that a man feels himself to be lost in the very moment when 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. He must be consumed with horror. I know a man [he is, of course, talking about himself] who has gone through such pains that had they lasted for one tenth of an hour he would have been reduced to ashes. In this disturbance salvation begins. When a man believes himself to be utterly lost, light breaks. Peace comes in the word of Christ through faith.” [Cited in Here I Stand, 82-83]
John Bunyan was only giving expression to the same truth in a more popular way when in his great allegory of salvation, The Holy War, he writes of the Lord’s first attack 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, who was assisted by Mr. Justice.
Both Luther and Bunyan were saying — in their own distinctive voices — that a person must know himself or herself a sinner and guilty and helpless before a just and holy God before the truth of salvation can dawn in the heart. Jesus came into the world to save sinners; he is interesting and precious and desperately important only to those who know themselves to be sinners. And that is why the Lord dealt with this man as he did. We might have expected a very different answer to the man’s original question, but as the conversation unfolded it became clear what the man needed was first a true sense of the problem; only then could he understand and embrace the solution.
Bunyan has a character in The Holy War whose name was Mr. Loth-to-Stoop. This man thought too well of himself to believe what the Bible said about men being such inveterate sinners, being so bad, and living such unworthy lives. When King Emmanuel was preparing to make war on the City of Mansoul, Mr. Loth-to-Stoop was sent out of the city to seek to negotiate terms. Diabolus, the king of Mansoul, would surrender half the city, or surrender the whole city if only he be allowed to remain a citizen of the town, or if only he be allowed to return to visit from time to time, and so on. Mr. Loth-to-Stoop was seeking a lowering of the terms, something less than unconditional surrender. But Emmanuel refused to negotiate. He would have the city of Mansoul on his own terms, absolute as they were, and on no other.
And the Lord was doing nothing but teaching this man the same lesson. To the young Mr. Loth-to-Stoop, who had come to inquire of him, Jesus said, “You do not really know what you are asking. You want to know what little thing you have to do to inherit eternal life. But you must first learn that there is nothing you can do. Your case is hopeless. Every effort you make makes matters worse rather than better. You can no more gain entrance to eternal life by your own paltry efforts than a camel can pass through the eye of a needle. But what you cannot do, God can do. You will gain salvation when you come to me not asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” but “Lord, save me; for I am lost!”
Alexander Whyte told 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 they hoped to issue to a young minister. He had preached as a candidate the Sunday before and had delivered an eloquent address on the subject, “The Dignity of Human Nature.” The elder had been captivated, but the old saint had been exasperated. “I hae no doot but that the lad is all you say he is, but it’s clear to me that he disna ken that he’s fallen yet, an’ he’s no the minister for me.” There can be no understanding of salvation, of what it is, what it takes, how men obtain it, what happens to them once they have obtained it, I say none of that can be understood, until the need for it, the soul’s clear and present danger, is known and felt.
So much of what you hear from people nowadays in the western world, so much, alas, of what you hear from professing Christians, suggests that they also are not desperate for salvation and have not come to Jesus in full awareness that he is their last and only hope; that they are not clinging to him lest they slip away to hell forever. They, like this man, think Jesus a good teacher, they admire many things about his life and even his program, but they are still dictating the terms by which he will receive their loyalty.
They should take a hard look at this man. He was in all likelihood a far more seriously religious man than they are. He was probably more upright than they are, as people measure such things. He was devout in his religious observances. Now think of the future of that man.
Alexander Whyte, with his vivid imagination, in a sermon to his congregation on this very passage, concluded in this way:
“‘One trembles to think of the career and end of this once so promising youth.’ Then he made the congregation ‘see him wheeling down the black depths of the inferno, circle after circle, until just as he disappeared on his way down its bottomless abyss, he, who had been bending over the pulpit watching him with blazing eye, shouted, “I hear it! It’s the mocking laughter of the universe and it’s shouting at him over the edge, ‘Ha! Ha! Kept the commandments…”’”
You won’t hear too many sermons like that nowadays. People won’t stand for them. But I tell you, with the authority of God’s holy Word, that Whyte saw the future as it is and the future of that young man, unless he repented later, as it must have been. Do you really want to know, really want to know, how to inherit eternal life? I’ll tell you. Bow before the Lord Jesus and acknowledge your sinfulness and your comprehensive disobedience, great and inexcusable as it is: your pride, your vanity, your self-absorption, your indifference to God and others, your obsession with the trivial at the expense of the vital, your lack of love, your dishonesty, your willingness so often to give vent to your most unworthy desires and feelings, your willingness to give way to sinful unworthy thoughts — thoughts you don’t express lest others think less of you — as if God could not see your thoughts and did not know your heart, your uselessness to other human beings, how there will be scarce a ripple when you leave this world, and I could go on and on. Acknowledge your terrible need and your utter helplessness.
Do you want to know how to inherit eternal life, really? Bow before the Lord Jesus and from your heart, say to him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”