15 People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’” 21 “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth.
24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?” 27 Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” 28 Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!” 29 “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30 will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.”
My youngest daughter, Jenny, has particularly enjoyed a book entitled, Dear Pastor.36 The book contains selections of various letters written to pastors. Arnold, age 8, wrote:
“Dear Pastor, I know God loves everybody but He never met my sister.”
A ten year old from Fort Wayne, whose name is Tom, wrote these words:
“Dear pastor, If God gives everybody brains I think he forgot about my best friend Mary.”
“Dear Pastor, Are there any devils on earth? I think there may be one in my class.”
Annette, age 9, from Albany, wrote:
“Dear Pastor, “My mother is very religious. She goes to play Bingo at church every week even if she has a cold.”
It is obvious from this that children are painfully honest. They are unlike adults in that they do not care to conceal the truth. In our text, Jesus tells His disciples that men must receive the kingdom of God like children. Jesus did not say that men had to become children, but rather that they must become child-like, in some way, in order to enter the kingdom of God. The question that we must answer, then, is, “In what sense must we become child-like in order to enter the kingdom of God?” The answer to this question is not so universally agreed upon, nor does it lie on the surface, for us to quickly determine. And yet if we desire to enter into the kingdom of God, the answer is vitally important. It is no mere matter of curiosity or intellectual pursuit. In our study of this text, I believe that we will learn the answer, that we will learn what child-like characteristic men must have in order to enter into the kingdom of God.
Our text contains two major paragraphs, describing two separate, but related incidents. The first paragraph, verses 15-17, contains Luke’s description of our Lord’s response to the disciples’ attempt to hinder parents bringing their children to Jesus, for Him to touch, to pray for, and thus, to bless. The second paragraph contains the incident of the “rich young ruler,” who came to Jesus to learn what he must do in order to obtain eternal life, along with the response of Jesus and His disciples (verses 18-30).
There is, I believe, a clear thread of continuity which ties these two paragraphs together. In the first place, all three gospels include both incidents,37 both of which are found together in each gospel, and in the same order. Second, both paragraphs deal with how men enter into the kingdom of God. In the first paragraph, child-likeness is an aid, an essential element. In the second paragraph, being rich is a hindrance. Thus, in this passage, as so often in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus reversed the values of His day. Even the disciples were astounded at what Jesus said here.
There has been an intensifying opposition on the part of the Pharisees to Jesus, His ministry, and His message. The Pharisees have been miffed because Jesus received sinners (15:1-2), and they were greatly distressed by His teaching about money (cf. 16:14). Jesus accused them of seeking the approval of men, rather than of God, and on the basis of appearances, rather than on the attitudes of their hearts (16:15-18).
The subject of prophecy (the timing of the coming of the kingdom) was raised by the Pharisees in verse 20 of chapter 17. Jesus warned that the Pharisees would not recognize His coming (the coming of the kingdom of God) by carefully watching the signs either (17:20-21). He then taught His disciples about the characteristics of His coming, with an emphasis on their continued faithfulness and perseverance (17:22–8).
In verse 8 of chapter 18, Jesus turned from the subject of the timing and characteristics of the coming of the kingdom to the characteristics of those who would enter into this kingdom. Throughout the New Testament, the character of the recipients of the kingdom is emphasized much more than the timing of His arrival. It is not as important to know when His kingdom is coming as it is to be ready for it when it comes, so that we may enter that kingdom. Jesus was referring to the character of those who would enter the kingdom when He asked, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8).
The setting of our text, the subject at hand, is that of the character of those who will enter into the kingdom of God, when it is established on the earth. To put the matter in more contemporary terms, the issue at hand is, “Who are those who will go to heaven?” I think you will agree with me that there is no more important question in all the world. It was such an important matter that Jesus could urge the rich young ruler to give up all of his wealth to be added to that group who would enter into eternal life. The issues of our text are eternal ones. Nothing matters more in this life, or the next, than the things which Jesus is speaking of here. Let us listen well to His words, for they are words of life.
Matthew 19:13-15 Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.
Mark 10:13-16 People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.
Luke 18:15-17 15 People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
In both Matthew and Mark’s accounts, the immediately preceding context is that of our Lord’s teaching on divorce. Can it be that when Jesus held to a very high view of the sanctity of marriage, the people concluded that He also highly esteemed the family, and that they were thus encouraged by His words to bring their children to Him to be blessed?
Whatever the reason, a number of people brought their young babies to Jesus38 to be blessed. Unlike the other two gospel writers, Luke emphasized the fact that these children which were brought to Jesus were infants—babes.39 The parallel accounts of Matthew (19:13-15) and Mark (10:13-16) make it clear that these babes were being brought to Jesus to bless by placing His hands on them (Mark 10:16) and praying for them (Matthew 19:13). We are told that Jewish children were brought to the rabbi for a blessing on their first birthday.40
There are several questions which arise from these three short verses, questions which are essential to understanding this incident, its meaning, and its application:
(1) Why did Jesus react so strongly to their efforts to hinder the children from being brought to Him?
(2) Why did the disciples seek to prevent the parents from bringing their children to Jesus?
(3) What is the specific characteristic of child-likeness to which our Lord is referring, which is necessary for anyone to enter into the kingdom?
Let us seek to find the answers to these questions, so that we can ponder the meaning of this event.
First, why would Jesus react so strongly to the actions of His disciples? From our text in Luke, the distress of our Lord is not directly referred to, but in Mark’s account we read that Jesus was “indignant” because of the actions of His disciples. Jesus really was greatly distressed by His disciples’ actions.
The answer to the first question, I believe, is both simple and clearly stated in the text: the gospel itself is at issue. Jesus’ very emphatic words end this paragraph:
“Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all” (Luke 18:17).
The way in which children were freely accepted by our Lord was similar to the way in which all men must enter into the kingdom of God. For the disciples to hinder children’s access to Him was therefore a distortion of the gospel itself.
There is a very forceful parallel to our Lord’s strong reaction in the response of the apostle Paul to Peter’s actions with regard to his withdrawal from eating with Gentiles, after the arrival of a Jewish delegation. The account is recorded in the book of Galatians, chapter 2. Peter had gladly eaten with Gentile Christians until a group of legalistic Jews arrived. At this time, Peter withdrew from eating with the Gentiles and ate with the Jews. Paul’s reaction was a strong one. He publicly called Peter to task for his hypocrisy.
Paul went on to explain the seriousness of Peter’s actions, actions which on the surface may have seemed to be only a misdemeanor, a social blunder. Peter’s actions were, however, a denial and distortion of the gospel, for his separation from the Gentiles gave credence to the Jewish contention that Jewish Christians were superior to Gentile believers. The Jews wanted to maintain a superior posture. They wanted the Jews to convert to Christianity by converting to Judaism as well. Paul reminded Peter and the rest that the Law made all men equals, for all men were equally condemned, without distinction, by the Law. And it was not by law-keeping, but by faith in Jesus Christ that all men were saved. Thus, there is no distinction between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. The church is a new body, which tolerates no distinctions other than that between a believer and an unbeliever. There is one new body, one new man, made up of all saints. When this truth is compromised, the gospel is corrupted. Thus, Paul reacts strongly. This is precisely the same situation with our Lord’s response to the actions of the disciples. A rebuke was required because a clear demonstration of the gospel was being threatened.
The second question has to do with the reason why the disciples sought to hinder the children from being brought to Jesus in the first place. It is my opinion that the disciples resisted the children for the very reason(s) the Lord welcomed them. It is not difficult to imagine how things may have gotten to this point. The disciples had probably taken on themselves the self-appointed task of “filtering” those who were allowed to “get through” to Jesus. There were just too many people, they could have reasoned, for all to be allowed to approach Him. The disciples may have encircled our Lord, something like the President of the United States’ secret service people. When a powerful or influential person sought access to Jesus, I think that the disciples facilitated his approach, reasoning that this man could do much for their cause. When someone who was very sick approached Jesus, the disciples might have allowed them to get through because the miracle which Jesus performed would be good publicity. (If all this seems too crass, too calculating, too unspiritual, take a second look at the disciples’ discussions and disputes among themselves, as to who would be the greatest, and who would sit closest to our Lord, with the greatest power.)
When babies were brought to Jesus, to be blessed, it seemed like an unnecessary and an unprofitable bother to the Master, and so the disciples took it upon themselves to send the parents and children away, giving them the impression that they should not “bother” Jesus in this way. They hindered the children from coming to Jesus because they were not significant enough, because they had nothing to offer. They were “takers,” but not “givers.” They were a liability, not an asset, to the cause of the kingdom, or so the disciples thought.
Jesus set the disciples straight. The children were to be allowed to come to Him for a blessing. But why? Why were they encouraged to come? And more importantly to our study, in what way must everyone come into the kingdom as these children came to Jesus? In what way(s) must everyone who is saved receive the kingdom of God? The answer to this question, my friend, is crucial. It is crucial to all who would understand our text, for it is the key to the entire passage. And it is crucial to all who would enter into the kingdom of God, for this child-like quality is required of all who would enter.
The third question is the most important one: What is it that characterizes a child, which must characterize the way we receive the kingdom of God? There are two answers which are most frequently proposed,41 both of which, in my opinion, fall short of reality, and of biblical teaching. The first child-like characteristic is that of humility. I must begin with the biblical assertion that children, like their parents, are sinners, and they are born this way (Psalm 51:5; Ephesians 2:1-3; Romans 3:9-18). Proverbs speaks often of the foolish, wayward way of the child, which necessitates correction and warning (Proverbs 22:15; 23:13-14). A child is not naturally humble.42 In fact, children, from the very beginning they are very demanding, they expect our attention, now!, and if we fail to give it to them, they let us know. Children often butt into conversations, because they fail to have a sense of humility.
The second “virtue” of a child, according to many, is that of faith. We are told that children are naturally trusting, by nature. I believe that the book of Proverbs tells us that children are naturally gullible, and this is not the same as faith. Faith trusts in the right people; gullibility trusts in the wrong people. This is why Proverbs says so much about the kind of people to associate with, and those with whom we should not associate. It tells us of those people who would lead us astray, whom we must avoid. Children do not possess faith in a virtuous way, in my opinion.
What, then, is it about children that we must imitate? Our text provides us with several important clues. First, our text informs us that the children who come to Jesus are very young children. Luke tells us, in fact, that they are babies. Babies do not trust, nor do they practice humility. Babies are carried to Jesus. They make no conscious decisions. They speak no words. They understand no words. The next clue comes from the next paragraph: the rich young ruler speaks of his “works” from the point of his childhood onward. It is just as though Luke has put these two paragraphs side-by-side in order to show us something very important by contrast. The rich young ruler wishes to talk about that which he has done, since childhood, in order to earn God’s favor. Jesus takes children in arms, and tells everyone that they must enter the kingdom of God like these children come to Him.
Let me approach this matter from an Old Testament mindset. There were essentially two covenants which governed God’s dealings with men. The first covenant was the Abrahamic Covenant. This covenant contained God’s promise to bless men of all nations through Abraham and his seed, based solely upon His goodness and character and faithfulness. The sign of this covenant was circumcisions, which was performed on boy babies on their 8th day of life. The second covenant was the Mosaic Covenant, in which God promised to bless Israelites, on the basis of their obedience to His law. The Mosaic Covenant, as I understand it, was not binding upon a Hebrew youth until he was 13 years old (the Bar Mitzvah of today is the entrance into this relationship, making the child a “son of the law”).43 The sign of the Mosaic Covenant was the keeping of the Sabbath.
The Pharisees constantly harassed Jesus about His breaking of the Sabbath. They, along with virtually all of Israel, viewed the blessings of God as coming through the keeping of the law and thus through the Mosaic Covenant. The blessings of salvation, which God promised, were to come through the Abrahamic Covenant, and ultimately through what the Old Testament prophets spoke of as a “new covenant” (cf. Jeremiah 31:31). I believe that Jesus was using the coming of the children to Him to be blessed as an illustration of the way in which all men must come to Him for a blessing. That is, if we would come to Jesus for a blessing, we must not come in our own strength (the babes were carried), we must not come through our own understanding, our own wisdom, our own good works. We can only come to Christ in our helpless state, looking to Him and to His grace alone. We must come out of our weakness and helpless state, not out of our own righteousness. Here is the difference between all of those who came to Jesus and were “saved” and those who were “healthy” and thus never were saved, because they were too healthy, too good, too pious to need grace. The thing which commends children to Christ is their helplessness, not their goodness. And this is precisely what must characterize every person who comes into the kingdom—they come as those who are helpless and undeserving, entering into His blessings because of God’s goodness and grace, not due to their own merits. Here is the child-like quality which must characterize all who would enter into His kingdom.
Matthew 19:16-30 Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” “Which ones?” the man inquired. Jesus replied, “ ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Mark 10:17-22 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Luke 18:18-23 A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’” “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth.
Matthew 19:23-30 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
Mark 10:23-31 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” Peter said to him, “We have left everything to follow you!” “I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Luke 18:24-30 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!” “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.”
Before we attempt to interpret the story of the rich young ruler, let us begin with several important observations.
First, the rich young ruler was rich.44 This explains why the young man left Jesus, and failed to follow Him, as he was invited to do. It does not explain—may I repeat—it does not explain why Jesus said what he did to this man. Luke tells us that Jesus instructed the young man to sell all of his possessions, to give the proceeds to the poor, and to follow him, because of what the man had just said:
“And when Jesus heard this, He said to him, ‘One thing you lack …’” (Luke 18:22a, emphasis mine).
It would be easy—too easy—for us to take our Lord’s words about selling all of his possessions and telling ourselves that they don’t apply to us, because we are not rich, like he was. But remember, Jesus said the same thing to His disciples before (Luke 12:33-34). While all may not be required to take these words literally, we must all take them seriously. It seems to me that we must all relinquish the right of possession of our goods, even though we may not all be required to sell all that we have.
Second, the rich young ruler was young. We know this fact, not from Luke’s gospel, but from the gospel according to Matthew (19:22). As a friend of mine pointed out, this means that the wealth of this man was inherited, because he did not have time enough to have earned it. It means, as well, that this person’s prosperity was no sign of his own piety, even from the vantage point of the Israelites.
Third, the rich young ruler was a ruler.45 We do not know exactly what kind of ruler this man was, but we must conclude that he was at least a man of considerable power and influence. This is significant when we remember that the young man fell at the feet of our Lord.
Fourth, the rich young ruler was very much attracted to Jesus. Jesus was a very special person to this young man. He ran to Jesus and fell on his knees before Him (Mark 10:17). He was not like the Pharisees, opposed to Jesus. He was drawn to Him. When the young man left, he left very saddened by the fact that he would not be following Jesus. (The Pharisees left mad, not sad.)
Fifth, Jesus was very much attracted to the young man. Jesus looked on the young man and loved him (Mark 10:21). Jesus’ words, spoken to this man, were designed to draw Him, not to repulse Him. Jesus wanted the man to be a disciple. I believe that Jesus was grieved when the man left, saddened by the Master’s words.
Sixth, that everything which Jesus said to the rich young ruler were intended to draw him to Himself, to encourage him to become a disciple. Jesus was not trying to put this man off. He was not trying to create any barriers. He was not even trying to test his commitment, but was endeavoring to encourage him along the path of discipleship.
Seventh, the questions which the young man asked, and the answers which Jesus gave, were from the perspective of the law. The law could not save this man, any more than it could save any man. The law could only condemn, pointing men to the need for a Savior. The rich young ruler came to Jesus asking what he could do. He came, based upon his performance of the law, and looking for some other good deed(s) to perform. Jesus therefore responded on the basis of the law, for that was this man’s frame of reference. The man first had to be lost, dependent and helpless like a child, before he could be saved. This was the role which the law played—to show men to be sinners, deserving only of divine wrath. Jesus thus chose to dwell on the law, as a means to pointing the man to his sin, and then to grace.
Eighth, this young man, even though convinced that he had kept the law, found no assurance from the law. It is amazing, but true. This man seemed to have everything. He was very rich. And yet it was he (Matthew 19:20) who first raised the question about what he lacked, only to be answered by our Lord (Luke 18:22).The law gave this man no assurance of eternal life.
Jesus dealt with the rich young ruler by focusing his attention on the matter of “goodness” or “righteousness” in two major areas: (a) His own goodness, and thus His identity as God, who alone is good; and, (b) the young ruler’s lack of goodness—sin— as defined and demonstrated by the law, and thus his need for grace—to be blessed by God as a little child.
From a composite of the three parallel passages, the young man seems to have used the word “good” in two ways in his questions to Jesus. First, the young man used the word “good” as a description of Jesus:
“Good teacher, what shall I do to obtain eternal life?” (Luke 18:18b; Mark 10:17).
Second, he used the word “good” with reference to the work he must do to inherit eternal life:
“Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16).
I believe that this man must have used the word “good” with reference to both the character of Jesus and the nature of his deeds, which he thought he must perform in order to experience the blessing of entering into the kingdom. Thus, the entire question would have been: “Good teacher, what good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?”46
Jesus therefore asked the young ruler, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone” (verse 19).
Goodness was never attributed to a rabbi, but only to God.47 Jesus wanted to press the young ruler to think about what he had said. Was Jesus truly good? If so, then He must also be God. Far from a denial of His deity, this was a challenge to the young man to recognize it and to act on it.
The amazing thing to me here is that Jesus does not seem to pause. He does not seem to press the man to give an answer. Instead, Jesus, seemingly without any hesitation went right on to say,
“You know the commandments, ‘DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, DO NOT MURDER, DO NOT STEAL, DO NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS, HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER’” (verse 20).
Why didn’t Jesus not pause for a response from the young ruler? Why did He then go on to the law, and to these specific commandments? The purpose of the law was to expose men as sinners, unworthy of God’s blessings (according to the Mosaic Covenant), and only worthy of His wrath. Before this man can really act on the goodness of the Lord Jesus, he must first come to the painful realization of his own sin. No man needs the goodness of God if he has goodness of his own. Jesus thus pressed the man to consider his righteousness in the light of the law, since this was the basis for his righteousness, in his own mind. He was thinking in terms of his works, and thus he was thinking in terms of law, not grace. He was trying to come to Jesus, as an adult, as it were, and not as a child (previous paragraph). Jesus was graciously and gently trying to show him that this way of approach was not possible.
The portion of the law to which Jesus referred was that which governed man’s relationship to man.48 It may seem incredible to us that anyone could claim, as did this young man, to have kept these commandments perfectly.49 Given a starkly literal interpretation (which Jesus refuted in the sermon on the mount—condemning the heart attitudes which underlie each sin), one can see how the man could claim to be blameless. He had not murdered, nor had he committed adultery. He did not need to steal; he had not lied in court, and he honored his parents.
Why did Jesus begin with that part of the commandments which dealt man’s relationship to man? Why did He not begin with the first commandments, which stipulated man’s relationship with His God? I do not know. It may be that a man’s relationship to his fellow man is more tangible, more easily seen to be lacking. Idolatry, or the lack of having God as the sole object of one’s love, obedience, and trust, are not so easily measured. Perhaps it was because men were more sensitive to the commandments which regulated horizontal relationships. Since men tend to judge on the basis of outward appearances, according to man’s judgment, to gain man’s approval, then these commandments Jesus referred to would be uppermost in the mind of the legalist, among whom the rich young ruler should surely be included. He was a friendly legalist, even one who felt kindly toward Jesus and wished to follow Him, but a legalist none the less.
The young man asked Jesus what he still lacked, even after having kept these commandments (Matthew 19:20). Jesus’ reply would give him the answer. But before we consider His response, let me point out that this young ruler was very perceptive. The rich young ruler rightly believed that even by keeping the law perfectly, he would still lack what was necessary to inherit eternal life. He was right in this. No man could keep the law perfectly, but even if he did, it would not make him worthy of the blessings of the kingdom, of eternal life. To draw upon Jesus’ earlier words, one who fully kept the law could only say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty” (Luke 17:10). The truth of this is the reason why Jesus did not argue with the man about his claim to have perfectly kept the law. Even if he had done so, it would not have merited him a place in God’s kingdom, as the man himself implied. Thus, Jesus did not attempt to argue this point.
Several key questions remain for us to answer. First, why can our Lord say that the rich young ruler lacked only one thing, and what was it? Second, why, when the young man asked what he must do to obtain eternal life did Jesus answer him in terms of having treasure in heaven?50 Third, why did Jesus seem to separate having treasure in heaven from following Him? Fourth, why did Jesus tell the rich young ruler to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, as though this would make him perfect, and earn eternal life for him?
In seeking the answer to the first two questions, let us approach this matter from a broader perspective. Assuming there is only one thing that a man can lack, so as to fail to attain to eternal life,51 what would that one thing be? I believe that the answer is clear: righteousness. The law was given to prove all men to be sinners—to lack the righteousness required for God’s blessings. Thus, the man’s problem was really singular. He failed to be righteous, even though he thought of himself as a law-keeper. And even if he did keep the law perfectly, he would still be but an unworthy slave (Luke 17:7-10). The law proved the young man, as all others, to be a sinner, lacking the righteousness which would merit God’s blessings under the Mosaic Covenant. The Law did teach, “Do this and live” (Leviticus 18:5), but no one did it.
How could this deficit in righteousness be solved? Once again, there was only one solution: the righteousness of Christ. Jesus had come to die in man’s place, bearing the penalty of his sins. He had come also to offer His righteousness in place of their sin. He came to save. He came as God’s only means of salvation (John 14:6). The problem of the rich young ruler would be solved only in Christ.
The second question is this: “Why did Jesus speak of having treasure in heaven, when the rich young ruler asked how to obtain eternal life?” I believe that it was because this man had a wrong set of values. If he had truly valued Jesus for who He was, he should have gladly given up all that he owned to obey and follow Him. This, I believe, is why Jesus first focused the man’s attention of his use of the word “good” in relation to Himself. If he really believed Jesus to be good, he would realize that he was God, and should, like the man who bought the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46), have gladly sold all for that which is vastly superior.
Jesus spoke of “treasure in heaven” because the man’s great problem was that of his treasure, a wrongly valued treasure, an earthly treasure—his possessions, his wealth. Jesus speaks of “treasure in heaven” because it is that of ultimate, infinite, value. He speaks of it, I believe, because it is unlike earthly treasure. Money was this man’s idol, that which he loved more than God, and thus he could never love the Lord God with all of his heart, mind, soul, and strength. God was a means, not an end, and money was this man’s end, his prize, his goal, his ultimate good.
Eternal life is a fringe benefit, and not the ultimate goal. The rich man wanted to live forever, but he did not really want God. He wanted to live forever, I fear, but with the kind of life he presently knew. He did not want a “better life,” but only a longer life, one that would not end. Jesus had to instruct him that “eternal life” is but a part of being one with God by faith in His Son, and that such “life” is different not only in its duration, but in its composition. This is why, in my understanding of this text, Jesus differentiated between “having treasure in heaven” and “following Him.” The disciples differed from this man in that they gave up all to follow Jesus, not in order to have eternal life. Jesus was the attraction, the goal, the ultimate good of the disciples. Money, and a long life to enjoy it, was the goal of the rich young man. He, it would seem, wanted to protect himself from the folly of the rich fool of chapter 12 and the rich man of chapter 16, and live forever, so that he would not have to be parted from his money. Thus, Jesus finds it necessary to first part him from his money if he would truly follow Him, and enter into life eternal.
When Jesus told His disciples to sell their possessions and to give the proceeds to the poor (Luke 12:33), the words were virtually the same as those found in our text, but the message is not the same. For the disciples, the issue was not salvation, not entering into the kingdom (Jesus had just told them that the Father had chosen gladly to give that to them, 12:32), but discipleship—following Him. For the disciples, this was not a work to do in order to earn God’s favor (or was it? cf. 18:28), but an expression of their faith in Him, and in His promises to provide for them. Possessions may not only keep a man from heaven, as they did the rich young ruler, they may also hinder one’s discipleship (cf. Luke 8:14).
The rich young ruler was not the only person who was sad. From every indication, Jesus was saddened by his departure as well. It is only at the point of this man’s departure that any of the gospel writers tell us that he was rich. This was a key factor in his decision to depart, for Jesus’ words of explanation point to his riches as the root of his problem:
And Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”53 (Luke 18:24-25).
It was, then, according to our Lord, this man’s riches which kept him from the kingdom. Jesus told the man to rid himself of his riches, not so that he could merit his salvation, but so that the one barrier between him and heaven could be removed. This is why Jesus said the man lacked one thing. There was one thing keeping the man from heaven, one thing that meant more to him than God—his riches. To have rid himself of this idol would have freed the rich young ruler to trust only in Christ, and to follow Him. To keep his wealth meant that he could never put Christ first, could never love and trust in Him with a whole heart, as the law commanded.
This man’s problem was not seen as an isolated instance by our Lord, but as an illustration of how things tend to be. Rich people suffer from having too much, and when they realize that they must hold nothing more precious than God, they often chose to walk away, rejecting Christ and the salvation He alone can bring. True it was that God promised to prosper the pious, those who kept His law (Deuteronomy 28:1-14), but it was also true that the Old Testament warned against trusting in one’s riches, instead of in God:
Keep deception and lies far from me, Give me neither poverty nor riches; Feed me with the food that is my portion; Lest I be full and deny Thee and say, “Who is the Lord?” Or lest I be in want and steal, And profane the name of my God (Proverbs 30:8-9).
It is in the context of the rich young ruler that we can best understand the words of our Lord, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).
The disciples were caught totally off guard by Jesus’ words. They had, like most of their Jewish brethren, equated piety and prosperity. They viewed riches as a sign of God’s favor. And now, Jesus was telling them something virtually contradictory to this. Jesus taught that one must become like a child to enter into the kingdom, but that most of the rich would never make it. This just didn’t make any sense to the bewildered disciples, who asked with utter astonishment, “Then who can be saved?” (Luke 18:26)
The answer of our Lord was, “The things impossible with men are possible with God” (Luke 18:27).
The salvation of the rich, humanly speaking, is impossible. It takes a miracle. And thus, our Lord told His disciples that while this was not humanly possible, it was with God. We could go on to say that the salvation of any person is humanly impossible, and that only God can and does save men. Thank God that the things impossible to men are possible with Him.
The disciples do not really understand, nevertheless Peter seems to serve as the spokesman for the rest when he asked, “Behold, we have left our own homes, and followed You” (Luke 18:28).
The inference of these words is more clearly stated by Matthew, who reports these additional words, stated as a question to the Lord Jesus: “What then will there be for us?” (Matthew 19:27).
It is not a very pious question, really. Peter’s thinking, once again, was not according to God’s thinking, but man’s (cf. Mark 8:33). When you stop to think about it, Peter’s thinking was not all that different from that of the rich young ruler. The rich young ruler was not willing to give up his wealth to gain eternal life and to follow Jesus. Peter was asking Jesus what benefits there were for those who did follow Him. Both were thinking materially, and in terms of benefits. What’s in it for me?
Jesus’ answer to this question was as gracious as His response to the question of the rich ruler. Luke’s account emphasizes not only the eternal benefits (which Jesus also promised the young ruler), but the temporal benefits as well (not mentioned to the young ruler, who was already too concerned with the present “good things”). Jesus promised that those things the disciples held dear, but gave up to follow Him, would be rewarded 100 fold, in this life, and that eternal life would also be given in the age to come.
It is at this point that Jesus chose to reveal, once again, but in even greater detail, His impending rejection, suffering, death, and resurrection. Since the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying (verse 34), why was this even said? We will look more carefully at this in the next lesson, but one purpose of Jesus’ words was to put everything in our passage into perspective.
Jesus foretold His sacrifice. The disciples, just before, had reminded Jesus of all they had given up to follow Him. Jesus’ response was a gentle correction, for they had not really given up anything at all. In reality, they had made a great investment. If a person can give up something and be repaid 100 fold in this life, and in addition receive eternal life, this is no sacrifice! But Jesus’ prediction of His coming sacrifice served to put all other “sacrifices” in perspective. Did the disciples think they were giving up a great deal. Let them ponder what the Savior was about to sacrifice—His very life!
And so this prophetic passage, which speaks of Christ’s sacrifice, serves to put all other “sacrifice” to shame. Little children have nothing to give, and thus they do not sacrifice. The rich ruler thought he had to sacrifice that which meant the most to him, and thus chose not to follow Him. The disciples, too, thought that following Jesus was costly. While they were willing to do so, they looked for a reward for doing it. But Jesus, in verses 31-34, taught us that the eternal life which He offers to men is not obtained by our sacrifices, but only by that which Christ made at Calvary, the sacrifice of His life, of His blood, shed for us. Here is the ultimate sacrifice, which puts all others to shame. Let us never glory in any sacrifice but His.
What a contrast this passage puts before us. The little child, who has nothing to offer, who does not even have the will or ability to approach God, is the one who is our example, as to how we enter the kingdom of God. And the rich young ruler, the man who has virtually everything, is typical of those who do not enter the kingdom. The three things this man possessed are the three things our culture most values. It values youth, for it is in one’s youth that he has his vitality, his health, his strength. It values wealth, for wealth affords us the ability to buy all the things we think are beneficial to us. It values power, for if we have power, we can control our environment, and we can keep others from controlling us.
And yet these three benefits are really hindrances to eternal life. In our youth, we foolishly suppose that we have time in our favor. We think very little about death, because it seems so distant, so remote. We think little about eternity, because the present is so inviting, so promising. Our wealth seems to offer us all that we could want, and so we hunger little for God. We relegate God to a distant second place, at best. We plan to call on Him at some other, less comfortable, time. And our power and position deceive us into supposing that we have everything under control, when it is only in our weakness that we are strong in His might, that we look to Him to do that which is not humanly possible.
When it comes to eternity, it is those who think they have the most “going for them” that have the greatest barriers to trusting in Jesus Christ for forgiveness and the righteousness that leads to eternal life. This is not to say that those who are poor, who are weak, and who have no position are a “shoe-in” in the kingdom of God. No one comes to the Father, except through Jesus Christ. Have you done this, my friend? Have you recognized that your greatest assets, in human terms, are really liabilities, if they cause you to think you do not need God’s grace? Have you realized that the things you love most are really idols, false gods, which turn your heart from worshipping and serving the only true God? May you cease to love the “blessings” of God and come to love God as the supreme Gift and Giver of all good things.
My Christian friend. Perhaps you do not possess wealth, power, or youth. You may be congratulating yourself on the sacrifices you have made for God. As I understand this text, and as I think through the Scriptures, there is a sense in which we are called to a life a self-denial and sacrifice. But there is also a sense in which we make no sacrifices at all. The man who found and purchased the “pearl of great price” (cf. Matthew 13:44-46) did not think of the price he paid as a sacrifice at all. It was a bargain. What good is it, Jesus said, if a man gained the whole world, to lose his own soul? What loss is it, to give up riches, power, and even life itself, if we gain God’s gift of eternal life, and experience the joy of our salvation? How can we speak of sacrifice when giving up things in this life results in a 100 fold blessing now, and an eternal blessing as well? We should think much more in terms of our Lord’s sacrifice, and much less in terms of our own. And yet even He rejoiced in the blessedness of giving up Himself for the salvation of lost sinners. What a Savior!
37 “The narrative of Luke, which from ix. 51 has covered a field mostly not covered by the other Gospels, here again links up with Matthew and Mark.” Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1951 [photolithographed]), p. 454.
39 “Babes”— “Old word for infants. Here Mark 10:13 and Matt. 19:13 have paidia (little children). Note ‘also’ (kai) in Luke, not in Mark and Matthew. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Braodman Press, 1930), II, p. 234.
“In any case brephos must be rendered here as in ii. 12, 16: comp. i. 41, 44; Acts vii. 19; I Pet. ii. 2. AV. has ‘babe,’ ‘infant, and ‘young child.’” Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to S. Luke (Edinburgh: T & T. Clark, 1896 [reprint]), p. 420.
“For, the Lord declared, of such is the kingdom of heaven; it belongs to those who are as receptive and trustful as little children with their natural humility and whole-hearted faith.”
“A little child who is brought up naturally receives artlessly what is given to him, without doubting the good intentions of the givers—he believes whole-heartedly that what is given to him is good for him and accepts it without thinking conceitedly that he deserves it.” Geldenhuys, p. 454.
42 A friend pointed out that in Matthew chapter 18, verses 2-4, Jesus told His disciples, “Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:4). Does this statement not contradict my contention that children are not humble? I do not think so. Jesus is not saying that we should have humility, just as the child has humility. Jesus was saying that we should be humble, just as the child was. That is, the child’s humility consisted of him being powerless, weak, and having no reputation or claim to greatness. It was not that the child had humble thoughts, but that the child was, indeed, humble. So, too, the disciples thought of greatness in terms of power and position, not in terms of weakness and dependence. They were strong when they were weak, not just when they thought they were. I think Jesus is speaking of the actuality of humility, not the attitude of it, so far as His reference to the child was concerned. Jesus was saying, as it were, “Look at him, in his weakness, and be like him,” not “Listen to him, and seek to imitate his attitude.”
43 “The man answered that he had kept all these from early days—presumably ever since the age of thirteen, when he became bar mitzvah, personally responsible to keep the commandments.” F. F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1983), p. 175.
44 Note, however, that none of the three gospel writers tells us that this young man was rich in their introductory statements. It is only after the man is said to go away saddened, at the end of the account, that we are told the young man was rich.
45 “Luke alone tells us that this man was a ruler. The term is a very general one and, according to Gerhard Delling, ‘denotes Roman and Jewish officials of all kinds.’ In this Gospel he sees the rulers as a group of people distinguished from the elders, scribes and high priests. (TNDT, I, p. 489).” Cited by Leon Morris, The Gospel According to St. Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 266.
47 “‘There is no instance in the whole Talmud of a rabbi being addressed as ‘Good Master’” (Plummer, in loc.). Only God was called ‘good’ by them (cf. Strack-Billerbeck at Mark x. 17).” Geldenhuys, p. 461, fn. 2.
48 The citations of the law are not identical in the three parallel accounts. Matthew and Mark’s lists are identical, except that Mark adds, “Do not defraud” (10:19), and adds, “love your neighbor as yourself” (omitted by both Mark and Luke). Luke reverses the order of the first two commandments cited (forbidding adultery and murder—Luke’s order).
51 We must conclude one of two things, concerning Jesus’ answer to this man: (a) either our Lord was reducing the whole law to one essential matter (when many “things” could have been shown to have been lacking in this man’s obedience to the law), or (b) there really was only one thing lacking. I am assuming the latter to be the case. It is to be noted, however, that the young man’s question seeks only one deed, one action, one deficiency. He did not ask Jesus what good things he must do to inherit eternal life, but only what good thing he must do (cf. Matthew 19:16).
52 As you will note, I have included verses 31-34 here, even though they are not indicated at the beginning of the lesson. A more thorough exposition of these verses will be given, but their contribution to our text will be briefly mentioned here.
53 “Belone means originally the point of a spear and then a surgeon’s needle. Here only in the N.T. Mark 10:25 and Matt. 19:24 have rhaphidos for needle. This is probably a current proverb for the impossible.” A. T. Robertson, II, p. 236.
“Some expositors attempt to make this pronouncement sound less drastic by translating kamnlou by ‘cable’ or ‘rope,’ or by changing trnmatos bellonns into ‘a narrow passage for pedestrians.’ They have, however, no ground for this and, in addition, it is unnecessary to try to alter the pronouncement. Jesus intended to say something drastic and to make His hearers realize how humanly impossible it really is.” Geldenhuys, p. 461, fn. 7.