Jesus Teaches the Way to Eternal Life
Matthew 19:16-30, Key Verse: 19:21
“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.’”
In today’s passage a rich young man comes to Jesus and asks the most important question: “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” But after talking with Jesus, he went away disappointed. It seems like a big failure in Jesus’ ministry. But from studying his case, we learn the real meaning of eternal life. We learn that all things are possible with God, and that God prepares glorious rewards for Jesus’ disciples. May God bless us to understand Jesus’ teaching today.
Do you remember the last part of last week’s passage? People were bringing their little children to Jesus so he would bless them. The disciples were annoyed and tried to send them away. But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (14) Jesus taught many times that entering God’s kingdom wasn’t a matter of human importance or power or ability, but of coming to Jesus like a little child.
Right after the children left, Jesus got a very different kind of visitor. Look at verse 16. “Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, ‘Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?’” Wow, what an excellent question. It’s much better than the Pharisees’ question we heard last week—they were asking when it was okay to divorce! But here is someone actually asking about eternal life. Think about how hard it is for us to find students who are really interested in the kingdom of God or eternal life. If you were walking on the campus and some student came up to you and said, “Bible teacher, what do I have to do to get eternal life?” Think how happy you would be!
What do we know about this man who asked such a good question? Verse 22 tells us that he was young, and he was rich. Young, rich, and seeking eternal life: what an excellent disciple candidate he seems to be! Maybe Jesus should kick out all his other disciples and start fresh with this guy. He seems a lot more promising than those dull fishermen.
I’m sure that Jesus earnestly desired to lead this man to eternal life. But strangely, Jesus’ response to his question was not so positive. Look at verse 17a. “‘Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good.’” Something bothered Jesus about the way this young man asked about eternal life.
How did this man think about eternal life? He asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” He thought about eternal life the same way he thought about everything else: as something you can “get” for the right price. I guess this man had worked hard, and built up his wealth with his own two hands. Maybe, like many ambitious young people today, his resume listed a diverse portfolio of good achievements: charity work, community service… He probably felt that he was as able as anyone else, and he only needed someone to tell him what he should do, and then he could go do it, and God would pay him the eternal life he wanted. But to Jesus, his way of thinking is totally backwards.
Jesus specifically singled out the man’s use of the word “good.” “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Though it seems like common sense that you get eternal life by doing something good, the man showed that he had a very shallow understanding of God and himself. Jesus corrected him by saying, “There is only One who is good,” referring, of course, to God. If this man really understood who God is and who he was, he would not be so presumptuous as to think he is able to do something good in God’s sight. God is altogether holy and righteous, while all people are deeply flawed sinners. As sinners, there is nothing we can do that could earn any reward form God, much less eternal life. That’s why Isaiah 64:6 says that “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags…”
But most of all, I think Jesus said that only God is good because Jesus wanted this man to be changed to a God-centered way of thinking. Since only God is good, then our way of thinking should not be self-centered but God-centered. When our perspective is changed in this way, we are freed from self-consciousness and self-righteousness and can actually begin to grow in God’s image. Because God is the ultimate good, our life becomes good as much as we are focused on God’s goodness and glory, and not our own status.
Though this man had a lot to learn, Jesus seemingly went ahead and told him what to do to get eternal life. Verse 17b says, “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” Now we just said that there is nothing a person can do to earn eternal life. Then why did Jesus say, “obey the commandments”? Technically, what Jesus says is true. If anyone wholeheartedly obeys the commandments of God, he or she is worthy of eternal life. The problem is that no one has done or could do this in their natural sinful state. Then, we still have the question: why did Jesus say this? It’s because Jesus is trying to help this man spiritually. He’s starting from what the man already knows; any good Jew would know at least the Ten Commandments. They are good commands. So starting from those, Jesus wants to help the man look at himself and hopefully see his inner need.
What did the man reply when Jesus said, “Keep the commandments”? He said, “Which ones?” Wow, what a practical answer. This is a really no-nonsense guy. He must have known that the Old Testament actually has a lot more than ten commandments, and he wanted Jesus to tell him which ones were really essential. Again, Jesus complied with his request. Thank God that when the young man said, “Which ones,” Jesus didn’t say, “All of them”! Instead, Jesus gave him a subset of five of the ten commandments: “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’” and then Jesus added one other command that is the summary of them: “‘…love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Here, Jesus only mentioned commandments relating to morality and relationships between people. He didn’t say anything about the commandments that have to do with man’s relationship to God. Why? I think Jesus didn’t want to overwhelm the man with information, but just wanted him to start to evaluate his life before God’s word—specifically, to start to evaluate his spiritual condition based on how he treated others. These should be enough for the man to know that he had fallen short of the glory of God. Especially, the command “Love your neighbor as yourself” is very deep, and anyone should be able to realize that in their innate selfishness, they have failed to keep this command many times.
What have you learned from trying to obey God’s commandments? Paul wrote that the purpose of the law is actually to show us that we are sinners. When we earnestly seek to keep God’s commands, we find that we are totally unable to do it, because sin is living deep in our heart. Then we realize that we can only come to God on the basis of his mercy.
But this young man continues to amaze us. Look at verse 20. “‘All these I have kept,’ the young man said. ‘What do I still lack?’” What did he say? “All these I have kept.” Wow, what an exemplary person! I guess he was so principled and diligent and managed his life so well. He never cheated on his wife, always sent his mom flowers on Mother’s Day, never robbed a convenience store, and always submitted his income tax return on time. What about the last one? Did he love his neighbor as himself? Well, maybe he thought he never purposefully hurt his neighbor, so he’s okay.
However, immediately after saying “all these I have kept,” the young man begged Jesus, “What do I still lack?” What a question: “What do I still lack?” According to what Jesus said, and his answer, “all these I have kept,” he should have been confident of entering eternal life. Yet he couldn’t get away from the feeling that he still lacked something. It’s a very revealing statement coming from a rich man. He had everything anyone could want in this world, but somehow all he could think about was what he lacked. Whatever this young man knew about keeping God’s commands, and practiced, it didn’t give him any assurance of eternal life.
Are you lacking anything? In fact, the world is still full of people very similar to this rich young man. They are healthy and able and have all of life’s necessities and even good job prospects, but somehow that doesn’t give them peace. Their heart is crying out, “What do I still lack? What is missing from my life?” By the way, Mark’s gospel says Jesus looked at this young man and loved him. Jesus loves this kind of young person. Jesus’ heart is burning with compassion to help people find what they are lacking.
To answer the young man’s question, “What do I still lack?” Jesus gave just one more command to follow. Look at verse 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.’” Interestingly, Jesus didn’t say, “If you want eternal life”; he said, “If you want to be perfect.” What does that mean? One commentator I’ve read said that this young man had the passion for perfection. His desire went all the way up. He didn’t want to miss out on anything. There is something admirable about such ambition.
Maybe because his ambition was so high, this young man needed a really big challenge from Jesus. “go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Jesus called him to be one of those people who gave up everything in the world for the life of seeking God. We have all heard about such people, of course; and this passage is famous for making people nervous. People worry if that’s what they have to do. But this is not an absolute commandment that everybody must follow to be saved. It is Jesus’ specific direction for this man. Why did Jesus give him this direction? It was not because selling everything and giving to the poor was the “good thing” he could do to earn eternal life; rather, it was to set him free what he humanly thought was good, namely, his worldly wealth, and to depend completely on God.
We know that eternal life is given freely as the gift of God’s grace in Jesus. But Jesus didn’t want to just give this man the gospel as a formula to recite and say, “now I’m saved.” Jesus cared about his soul in detail. Jesus knew the man’s wealth was a stumbling block preventing him from being totally devoted to God and serving his neighbor. What did he lack? He lacked the love of God in his heart. So far in his life, his approach to God had been superficial. But if he obeyed this command and started to follow Jesus, he would begin to be changed.
We should see that Jesus’ command is so hopeful and gracious. Jesus did not condemn the man, but invited him to start a new life. He was giving him an opportunity to stop building his life on the wrong foundation and start building it on the right one. Jesus was helping him to practice his word, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (6:19-21)
But the most important part of this command is the last two words: “Follow me.” By saying this, Jesus was offering himself to be this man’s personal shepherd. Jesus offered the rich man a scholarship in his school of discipleship. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. By following Jesus, the man would find eternal life. By the way, this is the command that we also have to obey to receive eternal life: follow Jesus!
If this rich young man had accepted Jesus’ direction, all his questions would have been resolved and all his needs fulfilled in the course of following Jesus. Everything in his heart would have been healed. He would have become truly rich. His life would have become an amazing and victorious adventure, ending in eternal glory. He would have understood what David wrote in the 23rd Psalm, when he said, “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”
But this young man missed all of that. Look at verse 22. “When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.” He failed to become Jesus’ disciple. Jesus’ short interaction with him had revealed his problem exactly. He could not join Jesus’ ministry, because he loved money more than God. Notice that he didn’t argue with Jesus; he knew that what Jesus said was right. Yet, he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t change his priorities. And so, despite his earnest desire and ambition, the man left with his issue unsolved. Jesus did not chase after him; he let him go. Maybe later the man would hear about the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But we don’t really know. The young man went away, and we never hear any more about him.
But who was still left? Jesus’ disciples. They saw and heard everything that happened. Now Jesus wanted to help them understand it spiritually. Look at verses 23 and 24. “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich 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 someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’”
Why is it so hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven? It is because wealth easily becomes our security and substitute in place of trusting and relying on God. We might think we have no problem with this, because we’re not rich. But the US is so prosperous that even the poorer people here are rich compared to most of the world. In our sinful nature, it is too easy for any of us to trust in the power of money rather than trusting in God. And as Pastor Moses Yoon said at our Bible study on Friday, that corrupts our soul. It makes us materialistic people who only see value in things money can buy.
Look at verse 25. When the disciples heard Jesus’ words, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” We are used to Jesus’ teaching about the blessings of being poor in spirit. But the disciples, not so much. They thought that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing and favor; they probably even had a hidden desire to become wealthy by following Jesus. Maybe they thought once Jesus became King of Israel, they would all receive cabinet positions with seven-figure salaries. So if it was hard for the rich to be saved, then who could be saved?
Now it was time for the disciples to learn about salvation. Let’s read verse 26. “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’” Can you push a camel through the eye of a needle? Someone said that you could do it if you put the camel in an industrial-strength blender or wood chipper and totally liquefy it; then you could pour the camel through the eye of a needle. But I think if you do that it’s not really a camel anymore. A camel passing through the eye of a needle is an impossible operation. Do you know what is also an impossible operation? For a sinner to enter the kingdom of heaven. But God, by his almighty power, which can even make a camel pass through the eye of a needle—though I have no idea how—this God can also change a sinner’s heart so that he or she repents, receives Jesus’ grace, and becomes an heir of eternal life.
God can even change a rich person’s heart. Joseph of Arimathea was afraid to confess Jesus before the Sanhedrin, but when God changed his heart through Jesus’ death on the cross, he became courageous to testify to Jesus, requesting Jesus’ body and giving Jesus his own tomb. Salvation is the humanly impossible operation of God giving a sinner a new heart to love him and keep his word. This is what we pray to happen to the students we meet and teach the Bible to. We know it’s not something we can make happen by our efforts. But we preach the gospel because with God all things are possible.
Even though Jesus said nothing is impossible with God, it seems like the disciples were still bothered. Look at verse 27. “Peter answered him, ‘We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?’” Indeed, there was a difference between the rich man and the disciples. Unlike the rich man, Peter had obeyed Jesus’ calling, leaving behind his family and fishing business to become a disciple. Maybe it was not as hard for him, because he was a working-class man without as much to leave behind. That’s one of the advantages of not being too rich, as many of us know. But now that Jesus had apparently bad-mouthed being wealthy, fear entered Peter’s heart—fear that there would be no reward at all for following Jesus. In his fear, Peter got a case of the “gimmes”, saying “What will there be for us?” Did you ever get the “gimmes”?
Graciously, Jesus did not rebuke Peter for his seemingly selfish question. Jesus was happy to assure his disciples of a great reward for anyone who makes sacrifices to follow him. Look at verses 28-29. “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, 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 wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.’” Jesus promised the Twelve that they would indeed have high positions in his coming kingdom. Such positions cannot be obtained through selfish ambition but only through humbly following Jesus. Then Jesus promised a reward to everyone who has left behind precious things to follow him. What they receive, in the form of a new spiritual family and lasting spiritual possessions, will be a hundred times greater than what they lost, and finally include, yes, eternal life. Thank God for Jesus’ rich promises, which can heal all our sense of loss.
I am amazed whenever I think about our coworkers who are sincerely following Jesus in this materialistic world. When I hear our coworkers’ testimonies, in every case it’s a unique miracle of grace that they began to follow Jesus, leaving their old life behind, understanding that only God is good. And they have made real sacrifices and suffered things that were not easy or enjoyable to go through. They are really special people with a spiritual value system who deserve great respect and surely have a reward in heaven and on earth.
Though we are undeserving, still God wants us to have great confidence in his reward for following Jesus. Jesus only gave one qualification to this, in verse 30: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” The order of the kingdom of heaven will in many ways be a reversal of the earthly one. One application of this is that we should not compare ourselves to others in terms of who has sacrificed more or served more. If not for the one-sided grace of God and his mighty power working in us, we all would have failed to become Jesus’ disciples, just like the rich young man did. So we can only humble ourselves in thankfulness for God’s mercy, and pray to keep on choosing God’s kingdom and his glory over temporal things.
Today we saw how Jesus tried to help one rich young man have eternal life in his heart. As shepherds of “rich young students”, we should grow in the wisdom of Jesus to see what their spiritual problems are, challenge them with Jesus’ words, and then pray for God to work in their heart. When we share Jesus’ heart desire for their salvation, God is pleased to do his impossible work through us. Let’s pray for many young rich men (and women) in this nation to love God and respond positively to Jesus’ challenge. Those who give up their idols to follow Jesus have a great reward. May God bless you to know eternal life in Jesus.