As Christians, I hope we’re all praying for opportunities to speak to people about Jesus. We try and get to know our neighbours and colleagues, and we take an interest in their lives. As we have opportunity, we speak to them about deeper things. Once in a while (I wish it were more often!), someone might ask, ‘So what is it you believe in this church?’ I love it when that happens, and try and say a quick prayer even as I answer, asking for God’s guidance, wisdom and help. When asked such a question, I want to make sure that the main thing I’m sharing is about the identity and work of Jesus Christ. I won’t be answering such a question focusing on denominational distinctions or relatively unimportant matters, but hope to share something of Jesus’ love and offer of forgiveness.
In this fascinating encounter, Jesus is asked a wonderful question by the rich young ruler. The other gospels tell us that he is both young and wealthy, so piecing them together he’s become known as the rich young ruler. He comes respectfully to Jesus and even calls him ‘good’. He’s not asking about trivial matters, or even for advice about how to sort out relationships or about how to experience greater self-esteem or happiness. He’s asking what is arguably the most important question any of us can ever ask- how do we get to Heaven? What do we need to do to ensure we have a place in Heaven when we die? Imagine this ruler was your neighbour and he asked you this question. How would you answer him?
At many levels, I find the way in which Jesus answers the question surprising! He starts off by asking the man why he has called Jesus ‘good’. At first, this doesn’t seem like a particularly important thing to be asking about. Of course, it must be, otherwise Jesus would not have asked it. Likewise, rather than talking about himself as the bread of life, or the way the truth and the life, Jesus points the man back to the 10 commandments. Why? And to top it all off, he asks the man to go and sell all his possessions? Was that really necessary? Would we ever ask someone to do that? Perhaps you are even wondering how successful Jesus’ approach was, because the man who comes to Jesus with deference, enthusiasm and a brilliant question, ends up leaving crestfallen.
Remember, Jesus has just been telling the disciples that to enter Heaven we must come to God in helplessness and dependence, just like a little child. He’s told us salvation isn’t about what we can do for God, but what God can do for us. The ruler’s question is what must ‘I do to inherit eternal life’? In one sense, he cannot do anything. He needs Jesus to do something for him, to pay the debt of his sin. Here’s an example of someone coming in the opposite way to a child. Instead of a sense of need and helplessness, this man sincerely believes he is basically good, and that he can negotiate his way to Heaven.
What makes this passage so relevant for people in Scotland today? It is relevant because most people in Scotland think in the same way as the rich man, that they are basically good people, and there are things they can do to earn their own way to Heaven. Sadly, the rich young man does not see the identity of Jesus properly, and is blind to his own brokenness and need. In Luke 18, it is the blind beggar who can see spiritually, whereas the rich young ruler can see physically but is blind spiritually.
1. Blind to Jesus’ identity
In verse 19, Jesus asks the question: ‘Why do you call me good?’ Then he says: ‘No one is good except God alone’. Let’s not rush past this part. When Jesus says ‘No one is good except God alone’ he can only mean one of two things: either Jesus means that he is not good, because only God is good, or he means that yes, I am good, because I am God.
So, the rich young ruler considers himself to be a good person, and in effect, Jesus says to him ‘I am the only one who is truly good.’ Only Jesus perfectly kept the 10 commandments. No one else has even come close to doing so. Being good people is beyond us, and that becomes more obvious as we begin to see the holiness and goodness of God.
2. Blind to his own sin
Notice too that Jesus clearly states that ‘no one is good’ except God. In other words, Jesus is telling this man that he is not good. Likewise, Jesus reminds us today, whether it offends us or not, that we are not good people either. What’s the best way to understand that we are not good people? By reading the 10 commandments! Because if we truly understand and reflect upon the commandments, they act as x-rays, revealing what we are like on the inside, in our hearts.
One of the key verses in the Bible which proves that the commandments expose our sin is Romans chapter 3: ‘Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.’ (Romans 3:20) When we read out the 10 commandments, we should become aware of the sin in our hearts.
We read ‘do not commit adultery’. Many of us have never cheated on our spouse, and outwardly broken this command. But Jesus says that if we look lustfully at a woman then we have broken this command inwardly. (Matthew 5:28) Our thoughts are wrong and displease God. Likewise, if we get angry with other people, then most of the time we are breaking the spirit of the 6th commandment, do not murder. Which of us has always honoured our parents? Which of us has ever been jealous of what other people have? You might not consider yourself to be a liar, but have you ever exaggerated something in order to make yourself look better and someone else look worse?
Each of the commandments is like a cardiogram, exposing all the moral filth and decay in our hearts. When Jesus recites the commands to the rich young rules, how should have the ruler responded? He should have said, like the tax collector in the parable ‘Lord, have mercy on me a sinner’. Instead, he says: ‘All these commandments I have kept since I was a boy’.
Dale Ralph Davis: ‘How tragic to see a man who knows the commandments, but not himself’.
This man is blind to his own sin. And so, in love, Jesus continues to expose the chronic condition of his heart, morally speaking. He does so with a simple instruction: ‘Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ This blunt instruction forces the man to choose between Jesus and money. Which does he love most? His wealth matters more to him that God. His wealth is his idol, and he will not let it go, and so at this point, is unable to receive eternal life from Jesus.
When Sarah’s mum and dad were considering going out together, Mairi said to Iver that he had to give up the cigarettes if they were ever going to be a couple. Iver made a good choice, which revealed where his loyalties lay. More seriously, this passage reminds us that God will not accept being second best in our lives. This is first commandment stuff. Anything in our lives which is more important to us that God is an idol, and must go. Does money matter more to you than God? Cars? Your spouse? Your family? Your work? All these things are common idols of our day and age. Is your own happiness and autonomy more important to you than following Jesus? Then you have made an idol of yourself. You have placed yourself at the centre of your world, usurping God’s rightful place.
This is extremely serious stuff. In order to be saved by Jesus, we must let go of our idols, as these idols are barriers of salvation. Jesus is not being cruel with the rich young ruler. He is shining a spotlight on his sin, to give him the opportunity to repent and ask God for mercy.
Because it is only when we understand our own sinfulness and lostness and brokenness that we will want Jesus to be both our Saviour to rescue us, and our Lord to rule us and have the preeminent place in our hearts and lives. God is a jealous God and will brook no rivals. Let’s pause and ask ourselves at this moment, what matters most to me in my life? Whatever it is, that is our idol. The question is, are we willing to let go of this follow Jesus wholeheartedly?
3. Explaining our faith today
When we have opportunities to tell others about Jesus, we must clearly explain to them about both the goodness of God as well as the sinfulness of all human beings. It is all those ways we break God’s rules which make up the huge moral debt we have with God. It’s a debt we cannot ever pay from our own resources. Do you do that when explaining the gospel? We need to. And we need to do it sensitively and lovingly, but it will be painful nonetheless and might produce a hostile reaction.
Jesus dealt with the woman at the well in John chapter 4 in a similar way. He said to her ‘Ho and call your husband’ knowing full well that she had had multiple partners. He lovingly homes in on her immoral actions so that she will understand her need for the mercy of Jesus. In that instance, she does let go of her idol, and finds forgiveness and fulness in Jesus. She is faced with the choice of following Jesus, or seeking satisfaction from relationships with men. She makes the right choice.
The gospel is indeed good news. But in order to understand the good news, we first need to hear about the bad news.
Mark Dever: ‘One of the early stages in becoming a Christian is, I think, realising that our problems aren’t fundamentally that we have messed up our own lives, or have simply failed to reach our full potential, but that we have sinned against God. And so, it begins to dawn on us that we are rightly the objects of God’s wrath…’
So, we need to explain to people, that sure, compare yourself to other people and you look like you are doing ok, but we need to measure our lives against the character and commands of God, and only then can we see just have far we have fallen short of his standards, and how much we need to be saved.
4. Is it harder to for rich people to become Christians?
Yes! That’s what Jesus is saying. We see from the parable of the sower the impact wealth can have on us spiritually. ‘The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.’ (Matthew 13:22)
‘… give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, Who is the Lord? Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God.’ (Proverbs 30:8-9)
Kent Hughes: ‘There is a proper fear of being rich. There are disadvantages to having wealth – primarily what it can to the soul. How easy it is for an earnest man or woman to become so attached to material riches that he or she forgets what is infinitely more important…’
J C Ryle: ‘…riches incline their possessors to pride, self-will, self-indulgence, and love of the world.’
We need to be honest – it world terms, most of us are wealthy and have everything we need. We can easily start to trust in our own resources and disown God. We can easily be dominated by always wanting more stuff, and this chokes us spiritually. Truly, it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God; in other words, it is impossible in our own strength.
‘Those who heard this asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus replied, ‘What is impossible with man is possible with God.’ (Luke 18:26-27) In the next chapter Zacchaeus comes to faith in Christ, despite all his wealth and despite the love of money which he had. But a miracle took place in his heart. Something supernatural happened to him. God worked salvation. God saved him. Because of God’s power and grace, repenting from our idols and following Jesus is possible. Salvation is from the Lord. God can break the hold that riches have on a person. May God be at work in more and more people in our communities, freeing them from their idols, causing them to see their own sin, to turn from it, and put their trust in Jesus as Saviour and Lord.