We now focus on a section of the Gospel that deals with the question of wealth in relation to the kingdom of heaven. The passage includes a confrontation between Jesus and a rich young man, and then the teaching of Jesus on the subject. The tone for the message is set by the little incident that comes before this material, the blessing of the children (19:13-15). The disciples did not like the idea of all the children being brought for blessing, but Jesus did not want it prevented: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” What Jesus means, of course, is not that the kingdom of heaven is made up of little children, but that the kingdom of heaven is made up of people like them, that is, who have a child-like faith (which is what the account in Mark and Luke stress). Jesus sees in them the kind of humility and un-encumbered trust that he is looking for in people.
But in the rich young man he does not find it.
16 Now a man came to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
17 “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.”
18 “Which ones?” the man inquired.
Jesus replied, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.”
20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said, “What do I still lack?”
21 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.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 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.”
25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
28 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. 29 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. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”
We have in this passage the report of an incident with a rich young man that triggers a discussion about possessions and the kingdom of heaven. The rich young man claimed to be righteous, and so wanted to know what thing to do to guarantee eternal life. He thought the kingdom could be earned this way. Jesus’ response was designed to probe how righteous he actually was--did he obey the letter of the law only, or the spirit as well?--and to show him the true way to eternal life. The instruction to sell all and follow Christ was designed to reveal that the man treasured his earthly possessions more than the heavenly hope, that he would rather maintain his lifestyle than become a follower of Christ.
The second half of the passage records Jesus’ teachings on the incident. Here we have a parallel claim: the rich young man had claimed to have kept the law, now Peter claimed that he and the disciples have left everything to follow Jesus. Peter’s words reflect something of the age--they have done something that deserves God’s favor. Jesus mildly rebuked them, but graciously told them of their inheritance in the kingdom which will be far greater than what they might have earned--it was by grace. Then, with an enigmatic saying Jesus explained that the rich and famous down here may not be the rich and famous up there.
The structure of the passage is this:
I. Jesus advises the rich man to give everything to the poor (19:16-22)
A. The rich man desires to know what to do to inherit life (16).
B. Jesus tells him to obey all the commandments (17-19).
C. The rich man claims to have kept all the commands (20).
D. Jesus tells him to be perfect he must give all to the poor (21).
E. The rich man went away sad (22).
II. Jesus teaches the disciples about the kingdom of heaven (19:23-30).
A. Jesus declares that it is hard for a rich man to enter (23, 24).
B. The disciples wonder who can be saved (25).
C. Jesus explains that nothing is impossible with God (26).
D. Peter claims that the disciples have left all for Christ (27)
E. Jesus promises rewards in the kingdom (28-30).
The passage is not a miraculous work passage to authenticate the person of Christ--we are past that now. And it has no quotations from the Old Testament to show that he is fulfilling the plan of God. No, it is a passage about the teaching of Jesus on entering the kingdom of heaven, in a culture that misunderstood the relationship between the priorities of this life and those of the life to come. Jesus is here seen as one who has authority; and so the young man seeks him out for the answer. But the man wants the best of both worlds.
In both halves of the passage the format is dialogue, and the two sets of dialogue open the way for Jesus to offer clear teachings. In both parts the questions and statements of the people seem straightforward; but the replies of Jesus have deeper meanings that have to be studied. So once again we have a rather simple encounter that uses dialogue; but the dialogue has much deeper meaning than a simple question and answer discussion. Therefore, to understand what Jesus was saying, we have to study the Old Testament background a bit on the commandments and their use, then look at the culture of Jesus’ day to see what the prevailing ideas were, and then look at parallel passages and teachings in the New Testament on salvation.
There are a few difficulties in the passage that will need to be explained in the study. The first is Jesus’ statement that there is only One who is good. Some have thought that this was Jesus’ indication that he was not good, or that he was not God. But since it is in a question posed to the young man, it has a more profound meaning than that, as we shall see. Jesus was asking the man why he called him good; he was looking for an acknowledgment by the young man of who he was, and a commitment to follow him as Lord and Savior. The second is Jesus’ advice to sell all and follow him. That does not sound like the New Testament teaching on the Gospel, as the response of the disciples indicates. If that were the way to get to heaven’s kingdom, it would be based on works and not grace, but even more significantly, hardly anyone would enter. What was Jesus doing in telling this man to sell all he had and give to the poor? We shall see that there are two instructions here, and the first simply opens the way to the important one: “follow me.” And the third difficulty comes in Jesus’ seeming endorsement of abandoning home and family to follow him. How does that harmonize with the righteous duty of taking care of children and family, or, what did Jesus mean when he talked of those who leave such concerns? Jesus was not calling for people to ignore their duties to take care of their families; but he was calling for a radical shift in priorities and commitments.
So in studying this passage we will have to consider several topics: the acknowledgment of sin as opposed to self-righteousness; the surrender to Christ as the way to eternal life; the rewards of the saints and their future responsibilities; and the nature of the heavenly kingdom and the community of believers who will be there.
A. How to obtain eternal life (16, 17a). The young man who approached Jesus is described by the three synoptic Gospels as rich. Mark does not say anything about his age, but describes him as running up to Jesus and falling on his knees before him. Matthew records here that the young man said, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
Here we have a significant problem in comparing the Gospel accounts. Mark and Luke read: Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good--except God alone.” But in Matthew “good” does not modify “teacher,” but is made part of the question. And Jesus’ answer is adapted to that wording. Some have suggested that “good” was originally in both places, and the different accounts preserve it in one or the other places; but that is not very convincing (“Good teacher, what good thing”). The determining factor in correlating these two passages is the understanding of the main point of the episode. The rich young man wanted to earn his place in the kingdom, and he was far from the humility of faith that is required (see the blessing of the children). In answering him Jesus was neither claiming to be incompetent to judge what is good, nor denying that he himself was good. Jesus wanted to show him that he did not understand goodness, for it is God’s will that determines what is good. The young man revealed that he wanted something that was apart from God’s will, and that he did not understand the goodness of God. It is probable that the man said, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” and that Jesus said, “Why do you ask me questions regarding what is good?” Matthew’s summary of the exchange with his placement of the word “good” in the answer of Jesus was designed to focus our attention on the central meaning of the exchange, that the man thought he could earn it by doing that extra good deed. Matthew’s way of summarizing the conversation fits well with the normal latitude that the evangelists have in reporting the essence of the events and dialogues in such a way as to clarify the meaning of them. The gospel writers often reword some of the material to make the point very clear to their respective audiences.
The point then is that this young man thought there was some good thing he could do, besides keeping all the commandments, that would guarantee his place in the kingdom. He was not humble and trusting (like the little child), but confident and self-righteous; and he had the wrong idea of what goodness was, as Jesus’ response showed. What he wanted was to earn “eternal life,” that is, a life that is approved by God and that will guarantee access to the kingdom. He thought that Jesus, being a good teacher, would be able to give him that answer of what to do.
But Jesus’ response was first to question his understanding of what is good. This is certainly no confession of sin by Jesus, as some have suggested; rather, Jesus was probing to see if this man understood the standard of goodness. God is good (Jesus was not focusing on himself, or his relation to the Father); that is, the standard of goodness was God and his will. If God is good, then one has to conform to God’s will to do what is good. If anyone wanted to do that which would guarantee eternal life, it would mean finding and doing the will of God. This statement thereby opened the way for the discussion of the commands.
B. Obey the commandments (17b-19). In the exchange that follows Jesus tells the man to obey the commandments. His answer is intended to imply more than what is stated. In the Old Testament the keeping of the commandments was an expression of faith, as it is in the New Testament as well. Jesus was not saying that salvation was by works of obedience; but he was saying that obedience is the genuine evidence of faith. A true believer obeys the commands of God.
But his instruction was also designed to uncover the arrogance and self-righteousness of the young man who thought he had kept all the commands. Thus, Jesus began by listing the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and fifth commandments from Exodus 20; and then he added “love your neighbor” from Leviticus 19:18. The reference to the ten commandments was clear and easy to understand; the inclusion of the command from Leviticus opened up other obligations not specified.
C. The claim to have kept the commands (20). And yet the young man claimed to have done all these things throughout his life. There is a self-righteousness at work here. And yet, it is not a very confident one. The young man’s additional question of what he still lacked shows that he still did not think his obedience was enough to gain salvation. To him there still had to be some good work that was over and above the keeping of the law, and that would give him the certainty of eternal life. In the first century this was a common idea: people who lived by the commandments looked for that one big thing they could do that would assure them of the life to come.
D. How to be perfect (21). Jesus then told the young man that if he wanted to be perfect he would have to sell all and follow him. Jesus was answering the question of the young man concerning what he had to do to find eternal life. The answer, essentially, was to come (by faith) and follow Jesus. But since the wealth was going to be the hindrance, he needed to sell it all and give it to the poor. By selling off his wealth and giving it to the poor the young man would not only be removing a competing element for his devotion to God, but also show that he was being obedient to the law, for loving the neighbor as the law said would require him to do something for those in need. Unfortunately, he had a divided heart--he could keep the external commandments, but he did not want to surrender his life to the Lord and radically change his priorities and practices.
The word “perfection” throughout the Old Testament has the basic idea of undivided loyalty and complete obedience to the will of God. And what Jesus was demanding for entrance into the kingdom was just that, true discipleship, meaning, a complete surrender of the self to Jesus as the Savior. To enter into eternal life requires surrender to the claim of God on the life, explained clearly through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In other words, to obtain eternal life a person must realize his or her sinfulness in not measuring up to the goodness of God (the commandments have not all been kept; we are not perfect), and surrender to the will of God revealed in Jesus Christ (receive Jesus as Savior and Lord).
What is clearly revealed here is that doing the will of God must ultimately find expression in following Jesus. You cannot do God’s will and not follow Christ. That is because throughout the Old Testament the promise of the coming of the Messiah was the will of God. And, apart from allegiance to him by faith, there is no salvation. The rich young man’s compliance with the commandments was worthless, because it did not include surrender to the will of God in Christ Jesus.
E. Deaf to the appeal (22). Given the choice of his money of surrendering to follow Christ, the young man chose his money. For him salvation was impossible, because he was not willing to surrender to the will of God. He was hoping for another good deed to do to cap his obedience to the commandments; but he was not willing to surrender himself and his wealth to follow the Lord.
A. A rich man entering the kingdom (23, 24). Jesus was not saying that there will be no rich people saved--the Old Testament is filled with samples of wealthy people who surrendered to the will of God and remained wealthy and who will have a share in the kingdom. But in the days of Jesus the people had come to accept the teaching that the rich would automatically be in the kingdom, primarily because their richness was seen as a clear evidence of God’s blessing on their life (and poverty was seen as a punishment for sin--the poor were called sinners). But Jesus here made it clear, that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom.
Indeed, as verse 24 says, it is humanly impossible. The saying compares the difficulty to that of a camel going through the eye of a needle. Today, tour guides in Israel/Palestine love to tell tourists that the eye refers to the eye gate, a smaller gate in the big gate, and that a camel has to get down and squeeze through--a sign of humility. But there is no support for that view at all. Jesus’ point is that it is impossible with men--and that is how the disciples understood it.
B. Who can be saved (25)? Jesus’ answer greatly astonished the disciples. It went against the conventional thinking of the day. They asked who could be saved? In this context “saved” is the same as “entering into the kingdom” or “obtaining eternal life.” The disciples reasoned that if the rich people, that is, those who were so blessed by God (and therefore must be the righteous), can hardly get in, then who else could be saved?
C. thing is impossible with God (26). The response of Jesus makes it clear that salvation is by the grace of God: “With man this (salvation for everyone) is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” In other words, God is a God who specializes in the impossible, as history reveals. And salvation is impossible, apart from the work of God. If salvation is possible with God, then people, rich or poor, must seek it from God--and that requires complete self-surrender by faith to his will and plan.
D. The disciples have left all and followed Christ (27). Peter’s response reflects the common notion of deserving or earning God’s favor--they have left all, Peter protested, just as the Lord advised the rich young man. So it did not seem “impossible” for the twelve. And if they have made such a sacrifice, what will they get in return?
E. Jesus explains that the rewards are by grace (28-30). Jesus did not immediately rebuke Peter’s contention, but his answer ultimately showed Peter that he had missed the point. The reward that is to come to them, the twelve, in the day of renewal, as well as for all believers, far surpasses any sacrifice they might have made here. It is not a fair reward, if people were looking for what is fair; it is a reward too great for the sacrifice, because it is by grace.
Jesus looks ahead to his glorious reign at the consummation of the ages (the “renewal” referring to the beginning of the kingdom) and declares that his followers will have a share in that kingdom. The New Testament teaches that believers will rule with Christ on earth (see Rev. 5:9, 10; Luke 22:30; 1 Cor. 6:2). But here Jesus singles out the twelve to sit on twelve thrones judging Israel. Some scholars interpret “Israel” here to mean the Church, symbolized by “Israel,” and that the apostles will have some authority over the whole company of the redeemed. But that view does not do justice to the usage of the terms in the Book of Matthew that clearly distinguishes Israel and the Gentiles. Apparently Jesus was promising that the twelve apostles would judge national Israel at the consummation, probably for its rejection of its Messiah. Clearly, Jesus is the judge who pardons and condemns; but he has chosen to share the administrative duties in his kingdom with those who have proven faithful.
Jesus then extended the promise of rewards to all who made sacrifices to follow him. Here he was referring to the cost of discipleship: some people had to abandon family relationships when they chose to follow Christ, and for them there will be full and abundant compensation in the kingdom. This kind of sacrifice is often hard for westerners to understand, especially in a country where people generally do not care what others believe. But in the days of Jesus when people left the traditions of the family and the teachings of the Pharisees and followed Jesus alone, it often meant a radical break with family (and it still does in families that are rigidly Jewish, and also Islamic). Jesus is not saying that people should abandon their little children and not fulfill their family responsibilities. However, Jesus was declaring that to be his disciple meant a radical change in the priorities in life. And if by following Jesus someone has sacrificed a relationship with a family or family member, that person will find in the Messianic community a far greater family that truly cares for all things spiritual and practical; and that person will also have found eternal life. The language Jesus used here is figurative: abandoning a father does not mean a hundred fathers will replace him, but that there will be an abundant provision from God to compensate for the loss.
Jesus closed his teachings with a proverbial saying--many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. Like so many proverbial sayings, this is open to differing interpretations. But in this context the message has to do with who has a reward in the world to come. It is clear that eternal life (both the salvation and the life in the world to come) is a work of grace; and the common notion that the rich, powerful, and prominent of this day will advance in the kingdom beyond the poor, the weak, and the obscure, is here denied. A rich man on earth is not guaranteed a greater place in the kingdom than a poor man, even if people think the rich are blessed by God; that is a worldly notion of eternal life (remember that the widow who gave a pittance was received by God above those who sounded the trumpet). Those who surrender to the Lord with a childlike trust will find advancement in the kingdom and great reward; but that surrender will involve being willing to relinquish all that this world has provided for the sake of serving Christ.
Again dialogue serves as the effective way of communicating truth. The questions of the young man first, and then Peter, raise the issues that Jesus wanted to discuss. The report of the conversations allows the readers to enter into the dialogue, listening for what Jesus had to say.
But the whole passage with its issues must be interpreted within the historical and biblical contexts of the first centuries. After all, the young man and the disciples reflect the beliefs of their day, that is, the standard Jewish teaching that when people please God by keeping the commandments they not only have a share in the world to come, but will find great rewards in this life--wealth. Jesus repeatedly set about to tell people that they missed the point, that there was something much more basic to it all--a complete surrender to God’s will as revealed in the person of Jesus the Messiah.
The main lesson that must be developed in this passage concerns eternal life--how to obtain it. It is helpful to note first what does not obtain it--good works done without surrendering the will to the Lord. There is a place for good works of course--they will be the evidence of a living faith in the Lord. But salvation is by the grace of God; and without faith it is impossible to please God. Jesus was not simply testing the man to see if he was perfect; no, he was calling the man to follow him with undivided loyalty, and to do that he would have to jettison those things that prevented him from following Christ. So the only way to find eternal life is to follow Christ, i.e., believe in him and live according to his teachings (Jesus himself gave up all the riches of glory to meet the needs of poor sinners here on earth). To do that calls for humility (not self-righteousness) and undivided loyalty (serving Christ alone, and not Christ and mammon). For those who do surrender their lives to God and come to faith in Christ and follow him, God will give them eternal life, and God will also abundantly bless them, certainly in the kingdom if not now as well.
The practical message to the person who is considering becoming a Christian is clear: completely surrender your life and your substance to Christ. To surrender to Christ means that one must put Christ first in all things. If wealth, or position, or life-style, or family hinders one’s loyalty to Christ, then that has to be dealt with radically. The radical discipleship Jesus taught does not allow for people to serve God and mammon; their loyalty must be to him first. Salvation is by God’s grace, through faith; and that faith is a radical commitment to follow Christ as Savior and Lord.
For the disciples of Christ the truth of the Gospel must not be confused with notions of the world, the current ideas of wealth and prosperity. Wealth is not necessarily a sign of God’s blessing on a person; and poverty is not necessarily a sign of God’s judgment. Believers must not evaluate spirituality on the basis of worldly standards. In the age to come the righteous will be rewarded with a share in the reign of Christ. But those rewards will be given by God to people for faithful service, and not necessarily to people who had wealth and power here. To please God believers must follow Christ wholeheartedly, and make doing the will of God the top priority in their life. If God grants them wealth (as he did with Solomon), then that is fine; but if getting wealth overrides the commitment, then there is a real problem. If making money, or a name, become the primary goals and leave no room for serving Christ, then being a success by the world’s standards will mean that they are a failure with God and will not have the rewards of the faithful.
The theme of God’s sovereign grace underlies the whole passage. No one should ever say, “I have been obedient to the LORD and therefore he should bless me this way or that.” Salvation is by grace; rewards in the life to come are by grace; and all of it is the decision of God alone. This will be the theme of the next section of the book.