This memorable encounter between the Lord and a wealthy young man serves a number of purposes in the teaching of Jesus. In a culture where wealth was almost uniformly regarded as a sign of God’s blessing and where a religious teacher was ordinarily expected to be at least well-to-do, the lifestyle of Jesus and his disciples stood out in distinct contrast. The relationship between Christian discipleship and money was, therefore, an important issue, not least to the disciples themselves. The Lord draws attention to this in his own commentary on his dialogue with the rich young man who had approached him. However, this encounter also serves as one of the Gospel’s most revealing accounts of an unbelieving man in his unbelief, even a man who was attracted to Jesus and his teaching on some level.
v.16 Luke adds the information that this young man was a ruler, a man of some substance in society. A man of his time and his spiritual culture, he assumes that eternal life is to be obtained by his doing something. Indeed, what good deed suggests that he thought that there was some specific performance that would earn the favor of God. Give him credit. He was at least concerned about the most important issue: eternal life. In any case, his attitude is manifestly not that of one who sees himself needy and helpless as a little child, as in the previous paragraph.
v.17 In a very typical way Jesus forces the man to think about what he just said and the words he just used. Just what did he mean when he spoke of a good thing? The one who is goodness itself defines it for everyone else and he has done that in his law, his commandments. When we talk about eternal life, after all, we are talking about God and about his standards.
v.19 In answer to the man’s question, which perhaps may be taken to mean, “which ones especially?” the Lord replies with a selection: commandments six through nine of the 10 commandments, then commandment 5, out of order, and then one of the two summary commandments, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
v.20 It is only because of the influence of Christianity in Western culture over the past 2000 years that people blanch at the young man’s response. Imagine, this man thought he kept the commandments of God and, so completely, that he felt he could move on to something else in his pursuit of eternal life!
But, the fact is, this is what people think whatever they may say. They still think it after 2000 years of the influence of the Bible and Christianity in the world. It is man’s natural soteriological theory, the theory about the way of salvation that is the default position of the human heart. It is also the explicit teaching of all other religions. Even if people wouldn’t claim that they were perfect, they think – vast multitudes of them think – that they have kept the commandments of God. Allen Pritzlaff, in a recent letter, tells of attending a service in a mosque in Omaha, Nebraska. “While visiting a supporting church in Omaha, Nebraska, I took a member of the church to visit a local mosque on a Friday to observe their congregational prayer. The ritual prayer, all done in Arabic and accompanied by bowing and prostrations, is always at 2:00 p.m. local time throughout North America, and the sermon by the imam (leader of the mosque) is before that, about 1:30. The imam preached in Arabic, and interpreted for himself into English. Although we both knew that Islam teaches that entry into heaven is dependant upon your works, it was still shocking to hear a sermon that so stridently preached it. He presented all the five “pillars” of Islam (recitation of the creed, prayer, tithing, fasting and the pilgrimage to Mecca) and said that if you do not do them frequently enough and properly, you will surely go to hell.”
Well, the flip side of that is that, in this imam’s view, you can and many people do keep the commandments, those required by God according to Islam, and many will go to heaven because they have kept them. And what is true in Islam is widely true in American civil religion – the sort of unexamined, superficial faith of a great many of our fellow citizens – they too think that they will go to heaven because they have been pretty good, reasonably good, acceptably good at keeping the commandments of God. They tell the survey takers this just like this man told Jesus the same thing. They think and say that even though survey takers tell us that most of them can’t actually name the ten commandments!
And there were a great many Jews in Jesus’ day who thought the same of the ten commandments and the other commandments of the law. That man is able to fulfill the commandments of God perfectly, or at least adequately, was so firmly believed by the rabbis that they spoke in all seriousness of people who had kept the law of God from A to Z. Obviously, only the person who has a very superficial view of the law and does not understand the seriousness of its demands could think such a thing. Only someone who had very little or no sense of the holiness of God could think such a thing. But such was the thinking of the Lord’s contemporaries and it is just this thinking that he protests so often and especially in the Sermon on the Mount.
On the other hand, the man thinks he may still be lacking in some way. Perhaps he himself realizes instinctively that all is not well in his soul. His conscience may be troubling him. Jesus omitted the 10th commandment, forbidding a covetous spirit. That was Paul’s undoing and perhaps this man had felt such selfish desires within himself. He wants to be sure that he has done enough.
v.21 So far the Lord’s remarks must have struck the young man as quite conventional. Nothing too radical, nothing controversial. No brilliant new insight from the controversial rabbi. He says simply that one must keep the commandments. Every rabbi said that. But, now, in a few words, the Lord reveals this man’s heart, his true spiritual situation, and the way that he must take, the way of faith in Jesus, if he would be saved. Take note that the Lord doesn’t simply say that the young man must sell what he has, but that he must give the proceeds to the poor. Does he really love his neighbor as himself? Does he really? The young man thought he had kept the commandments of God. With a single statement, the Lord exposed his abject and pathetic moral failure. Far from keeping God’s commandments, he didn’t even understand the first commandment. “You shall have no other God’s before me.” But money was this man’s god. Jesus asked him to do what Peter, James, John, and Matthew had done – leave all to follow the Son of God.
And the Lord doesn’t leave it at that. It is not all demand. He encourages the man with a great promise: If he were generous in this world as a follower of Christ he would have treasure in the next world that would make his wealth now seem pitiful in comparison.
v.24 Some of you will have heard that supposedly there was a small postern gate at one of the Jerusalem gates called “The Needle’s Eye,” and that, while a camel could get through the gate, its load had to be removed from its back. Widespread as this interpretation has been in the last 150 years, it is, in fact, completely fanciful. There is no evidence that such a gate ever existed. It is a rather feeble effort to take the sting out of the Lord’s stern words. People wanted him to mean it was a bit harder for a rich man to be saved, not impossible! A camel or an elephant going through the eye of a needle was, in fact, a familiar proverb in those days and described something that was humanly impossible. It amounted to the largest animal found in Palestine of that day going through the smallest opening in common use. [Morris, 493]
v.25 The disciples’ astonishment is an indication that the spiritual danger posed by wealth and comfort and power in this world was not something they had been taught. It was not a fear that had been instilled in them by the teaching they had received growing up in the Judaism of that day.
v.26 It is, of course, true that salvation is as impossible of achievement for the poor man as it is for the rich, but that is not the Lord’s point. When one understands salvation as the gift and accomplishment of God and Christ and in no way a man’s achievement, then he will understand how riches get in the way of a person’s coming to understand his great need and his utter dependence upon the Lord and his grace. Prosperity makes a person confident, comfortable with himself, at ease, not desperate for what he himself cannot obtain.
v.27 “It is easy for us to sneer at the question, but which of us has given up what the disciples’ had? Perhaps that is why Jesus gives no rebuke but rather encouragement to the twelve.” [Michael Green in Morris, 495n]
v.29 In other words, no one is going to come out a loser who makes sacrifices for Jesus Christ and who serves him faithfully in this world. Quite the contrary. When he is rewarded in the next world, his will be reward indeed.
v.30 A point that we will return to next time. There is in the kingdom of God a reversal of the accepted order of things, of the way in which things are typically measured by human beings. The understanding of faith is very different from that based on sight. Wealth and prosperity here, if it is not submitted to Christ, will lead to the lowest and worst position in the world to come.
This young man, unlike the Pharisees and the Sadducees, had not come to Jesus to test him or to trip him up or to catch him in some controversial reply. He respected Jesus. He had certainly heard of the miracles. Perhaps on some occasion he had himself heard the Lord teach and had sensed what so many sensed who heard the Lord Jesus, that this was teaching with authority. There was an insight and an understanding and a power in this teaching that people were unaccustomed to. Even unbelievers can detect spiritual power in the teaching and preaching of the truth, especially when the preacher is as gifted as Jesus was.
I read recently of Martin Lloyd Jones preaching at the Inter Varsity Fellowship’s conference at Trinity College, Cambridge during the Second World War. He preached on the raising of Jairus’ daughter from Luke 8:41-56 and focused on v. 53: “They laughed [Jesus] to scorn, knowing that she was dead.” Lloyd Jones emphasized the limitations of human knowledge and the power of Christ. The Master of Trinity College, the historian G.M. Trevelyan, who was not a Christian, attended and, after the service, greeted Lloyd-Jones by saying, “Sir, it has been given to you to speak with great power.” [In Dudley-Smith, John Stott, i, 123] Well, perhaps it was something like that that drew this young man to Jesus to ask him the question that was pressing on his mind. He was sincere in asking the question. He thought that Jesus, of all people, would be able to answer it.
Jesus, replied to his question with a question of his own. He was seeking to make this young man reflect, to think more deeply about himself and about salvation. And then he turned the man’s attention to the commandments of God. Would any of us say what Jesus said to this man? Would we have ever told this man to go and do more works, to concentrate on obedience to the commandments of God?
No. Of course not! We would talk about believing in Christ, about faith as opposed to works. But the Lord Jesus knew his man. He knew his way of thinking. He was familiar with what to him was the modern mind. He could see right into this young man’s heart. And so he did what the Bible so regularly does. He set out the bad news first. There are commandments to keep. There is a standard that God has set for human life. The rich young man rises to the bait. With confidence he claims to have kept all of those commandments. The man must be brought to see the truth about himself and Jesus, the skillful psychologist as well as the skillful teacher, knows how to make someone see even truth that is unwelcome and unpleasant and difficult to believe.
So, in order to bring this man to a knowledge and, still more, a conviction of his need, he springs the trap. The man has said that he has kept the commandments of God. Really? Let’s see if that is so. And Jesus gives him a further command, a command that so plainly and so unmistakably places God and others first and this man and his worldly prosperity second. If we claim to love God and love our neighbor let us prove it. If we have kept the commandments of God from our youth, let us demonstrate that comprehensive obedience. After all, this young man came to Jesus asking “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” He seemed to think that there was some greater act of obedience, greater than anything he had yet offered to God, that would certainly guarantee him entrance into eternal life. Jesus told him, in effect, that the love of neighbor as yourself is best expressed by a deed that would greatly benefit your neighbor. And as we are talking about pleasing the holy God, surely we ought not to suppose that half-measures would be enough. No, if you want to go to heaven by your good works, then do some really good works. Show yourself a man who loves his neighbor, really loves him, and then, come follow me.
To people who were confident of their own righteousness, of their own capacity to satisfy the requirements of God and heaven, Jesus said, well, let’s see you try and he put them to a demanding test. And they never met the test. They couldn’t. It wasn’t in them to do what the Lord’s relentless logic required of them. Francis Schaeffer, who often met people who were considering and thinking about the Christian faith but who were, at last, unwilling to make the commitment, used to say to such people that there was nothing left for them but “to ride their tiger.” Ride it until it eats you up. You know how it would be to ride a tiger. You would have somehow to stay on its back up near its head so that it couldn’t reach back and grab you with its huge, sharp teeth and tear you off. If it ran you would have to cling to its neck for dear life; if it walked you would have to take great care not to be caught unawares. You would have to remain alert at all times for fear of being suddenly devoured. Well its like that for such people who come to Christ but are unwilling to commit themselves to him on his terms. Jesus told this man that he had to live on what he believed, to rely on what he had given himself to. Then he would have to see what came of that. If one says and really means nowadays, “I don’t believe in moral absolutes,” all we can say is “Ride your tiger.” See what you can make of life without moral absolutes. See if you can live a life that is consistent with your beliefs that does not lead you to despair. See if you can look your beliefs in the eye and face them squarely. “Ride your tiger.” And when you tire of trying to make falsehood work, then come back to Christ. You’ll be ready to follow him then, no matter the cost, no matter the sacrifice.
Jesus was not like some modern evangelists who are so anxious to see people saved that they 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 as his followers, 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 Christ was going to cost a great deal: was going to cost pride, cost energy and effort, perhaps cost friends, 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 their eyes fully open! And believing in God’s powerful grace, they did not doubt that the Holy Spirit could draw to Christ even that man who saw with perfect clarity just how great a sacrifice this commitment would require of him.
And it is so no matter the sacrifice; not only for the rich who are anxious to hold on to their money and don’t want to use it for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. There are many sacrifices, many prices to be paid for following Jesus.
John Stott tells of having spoken at the University of Michigan some years ago and, during the time he was there, he went to the barber shot at the Student Union to get his hair cut. A young mathematics teacher came in and engaged him in conversation, describing some of the intellectual difficulties that he found with the Christian faith. John Stott heard him out and then ‘took the liberty of telling him of the change from self to unself that would have to take place if ever he committed his life to Christ, how he’d have to make Christ the centre of his life, and himself move over to the circumference.’ The lecturer listened to this with some dismay, and then blurted out, ‘Gee, I guess I’m very reluctant for this decentralization!’ John Stott seized on that word and often told the story because he thought “decentralization” ‘a magnificent modern word for conversion,’ for coming to faith in Christ. [Dudley-Smith, i, 384]
Well there are a great many people who go away from Jesus, sad or not, not because they are wealthy and fear the hit to their wallet that Christian commitment will require, but because they see the decentralization that must come and are unwilling to accept it. They want to stay in the center.
Jesus was willing to force this admission upon this young man – the admission that there was a commitment involved that he was unwilling to make, a price he was unwilling to pay – first because very few are converted the first time they hear the truth and often the truth must percolate for a time before a person will embrace it and second because it is the truth, after all, that must be embraced. Fact is, this man had no conviction of his sin; he did not understand his need. He would never have come to Christ sincerely in that state of mind. Jesus often said that he did not come to call the righteous but sinners, that is, he did not come to call those who think they are righteous. They will never come, not really, even if they pretend to, because they don’t see any real need for Jesus, for his cross, for his resurrection. Only those who know how far short they fall, can see why it must be Jesus Christ and no one else, no matter what the cost of following him.
There is no point in bringing a person to a commitment to something less than the true faith of Jesus Christ, to let a person imagine that he is following Christ only because he doesn’t know what it means, because he hasn’t been told what it means to follow Jesus. Our task, as evangelists, is to imitate Jesus. He didn’t hide the truth, the real implications of Christian faith. He spelled them out, even if it meant that such a young man as this must go away sad. He went away but he had the truth in his mind and who knows how that might work at him and upon him in days, weeks, and months to come.
Some of you will remember clearly David Wells preaching in our church several years ago. He was the preacher, if you remember, for the celebration of the 20th anniversary of my pastorate here in 1998. He has taught for many years at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston and has been through those years one of the evangelical church’s most consequential theologians.
Listen to him describe his own encounter with Christ as a young man, perhaps not so unlike this young man who came to Jesus. In his case the evangelist, John Stott again, was as straightforward about the nature of the commitment as Jesus had been. This was at a South African university in 1959 and David was a student of architecture.
“I was an unbeliever at the time and had no Christian friends. I did see the publicity regarding [John Stott’s] visit…and decided to go along once. I actually came in at the end of the week’s series of addresses. That night, John was speaking about the cost of Christian discipleship, a cost he said which should be weighed carefully before a Christian commitment was made … I listened to about half of John’s talk and stumped out, muttering about religious fanatics! However, two weeks later, I was with a group of students who were painting in the mountains outside Cape Town. Pieter Peltzer, who was a lecturer in the School of Architecture, took us. The first night, around the camp fire, he spoke of his own faith in Christ. It was exactly what John Stott had been talking about.
I had been very friendly with a Jewish student who was fascinated by philosophy and he had gotten me immersed in it, too. As I went to bed that night in the mountains, and pondered these things, it became clear that the issues I had been thinking about in philosophy – such as the existence of absolutes and their nature, as well as the problem of evil – seemed to be answered in Christian faith. So, that night, in a shaky way, I committed myself to Christ.
I had been quite rude to several of the Christian students in my residence, so when I returned the first thing I did was to go to them and apologize for what I had done and identify myself as a new Christian.” [Dudley-Smith, i, 414-415]
Given the fact that there are very many more rude people and cowardly people in the world than rich people, I suspect that many more people have turned away from Christ because they saw clearly that if they committed themselves to Christ they would have to apologize to and humble themselves before a wife or husband, a son or daughter, a friend, a boss, a fellow worker or a neighbor or because they saw early that they would have to stand up before others and identify themselves as a Christian. But the Christians in David Wells’ life made it perfectly clear to him that a commitment to Christ would require just such steps on his part, the very things that his sinful nature would resist doing with might and main. But a real commitment will always surmount that resistance and it did in his case.
But, back to that rich young man who knew what Christ was asking of him but was unwilling to make such a sacrifice. What of him? Alexander Whyte preached a sermon on this text that was long remembered by those who were in the church to hear it. One of those who was present that Sunday morning describes the electrifying ending of that sermon.
“‘One trembles to think of the career and end of this once so promising youth.’ Then he made the congregation ‘see him wheeling blindly 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!”’” [G.F. Barbour, Alexander Whyte, 300-301]
He hadn’t kept the commandments – not a one! That was what Jesus proved to him. But to admit that truth and act on it – to come to Christ for salvation; to repudiate himself as his own savior – meant sacrifice. And he was unwilling.
Like it or not; believe it or not; this is the exchange and the only exchange that human beings ever make. Christ and sacrifice now for limitless treasure and joy and brilliant light in the world to come or No Christ and no sacrifice for Christ in this world, with as much pleasure as the tiger will allow you to enjoy, and no treasure at all, emptiness and darkness and unfulfilled longing and gnashing of teeth in the world to come.