Getting eternal life is counterintuitive: those who bring nothing but childlike trust are welcomed into God’s kingdom, those who leave all for God gain all, but those who seek admittance by what they bring walk away empty-handed. To inherit eternal life, simply follow Jesus as your King and don’t turn back.
Introduction – Nearly everyone wants to go to heaven. A smaller subset, but still the majority of people, believe they are headed for heaven. A still smaller group are certain they will be with God in heaven. This group has what we call “assurance of salvation.” Yet many people lack assurance. Wouldn’t it be bliss if you could be sure you have entered God’s kingdom and gained eternal life? Is it even possible to know?
I. Eternal Life is Not For Sale
A. The extremely rich ruler tried to buy a ticket to heaven (vv. 18-21)
1. This rich man was possibly a ruler in the synagogue (cf. Lk 8:41) or a member of the Sanhedrin (Jewish Council; cf. Lk 23:13, 35; 24:20; Jn 3:1), but if he is “young” then these are unlikely. Likely he was a member of the upper classes, those who were commonly considered “first” in the kingdom of God by the people. It appears he sought assurance concerning his eternal destiny. He wanted to know if there was something more he needed to do to enter the kingdom. The question he asks is not at all wrong-headed. But Jesus discerns a problem in the way the ruler asked the question: by addressing him as “Good Teacher.” The man was flattering Jesus and perhaps building himself up as also one who is good.
2. Jesus could have launched into a gospel presentation, like Paul did when asked a similar question (cf. Acts 16:29-31). Many evangelicals would probably would smell “conversion blood in the water” and cast for the catch. But not Jesus. He can see the man admires “goodness”. So he takes a different tact with the man. It is as if Jesus replies, “Do you know who I am?” Jesus discerns the ruler has a false understanding of goodness, believing that some people can be so good that God would grade them “good enough”. Jesus knew such an idea would never lead this moral man to repent of being satisfied with himself.
Some conclude Jesus disavowed his own deity. They interpret him saying, “Only God is good, and I am not God, therefore you should not call me good.” But this cannot be what Jesus meant. First, it denies everything else Jesus said about himself. He was crucified by the rulers because the only “sin” they could charge him with was calling himself God’s Son! Second, it is clear Jesus was dealing with the rich ruler’s superficial view of goodness. We see this in the way the man puffed himself up with his law-keeping, and in the way he responded to Jesus’ command.
3. Jesus recites commandments 5-9. These entail the “second table” of the law (except the tenth: do not covet). These comprise man’s duties to his neighbor, which are easier to test by a person’s outward behavior. Why did Jesus go to the law? He is subverting the rich ruler’s self-confidence. He refers him to the law that he might gain knowledge of sin (Rom 3:20).
4. Amazingly the ruler claims he has kept from his youth all these commandments! He hasn’t understood the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus expounds the law’s true concern: the heart (Mt 5:20ff, 48). He’s never considered all the law requires and forbids (For 8th, cf. WLC 141-142).
B. Jesus set the price much too high for him (vv. 22-25)
1. Is Jesus pressing the law on the ruler so he might come to the end of his goodness? Yes. But Jesus also subtly changes from the category of law to gospel, since Jesus speaks of the kingdom (vv. 24-25), salvation (v. 26), and eternal life (v. 18). This man trusts the law to save him. So the Lord pressed him to instead trust in Jesus! That is why Jesus tells this man he must sell all and give all. It is a test of this man’s trust in Jesus. To be a disciple, one must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Jesus (Lk 9:23). Here Jesus presses these exact requirements.
Remember the hymn “Take My Life and Let It Be” by Frances Havergal? It’s 585 and 586 in the Trinity Hymnal. It has a line that reads: “Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold.” We sing songs that say such lofty things not because we naturally think this way as unselfish people, but because singing is ideally formative. In other words, the songs we sing instruct our hearts how to worship God and how to respond to God, not merely reflecting what we think and feel in our limitations and sin. Imagine Jesus listening to the rich ruler sing that line. He’d probably think, “Oh yeah? Really? Let’s see about that.” Jesus knew the rich ruler’s heart just like he knows your heart and my heart. He knows your heart better than you do. But don’t respond by running from his penetrating heart-search. Don’t run from his faith tests. Don’t think, “Best not to say such things to God lest he call me on it, since I don’t have confidence in my sinful condition to say it with conviction anyway.” Why not? Because Jesus won’t let you off that easy. He’ll put his finger on what you’re holding back, and he will require you (he does require you) to lay it down and follow him.
2. The rich ruler became sad, because Jesus had exposed his lack of goodness. He made his choice. He failed Jesus’ test of outward behavior. He did not actually keep the law by loving God and his neighbor. He loved his wealth more, and was unwilling to give it away when commanded by God to do so. He had not kept the first command (no other gods before me) and the tenth command (do not covet). His riches were his god, and he desired them more than God. He had lots of possessions, and they had him. His massive wealth had him tightly in its grip. The man’s response vindicates Jesus’ answer. Jesus gave him the exact command he needed in order to be set free from his love of money. In the end, he would see Jesus as Good, but refuse to obey him as God. He couldn’t serve two masters (Lk 16:13). This one who appears to be “first” in the kingdom, who seems a natural fit with all his attempts at keeping the commandments, failed to enter the kingdom.
Some of you are probably saying to yourself right now, “Whew! I dodged a bullet with this sermon because I don’t love money. How could I? I don’t have any!” Not so fast. Idolatry is more complex than that. Relatively few people worship the Almighty Dollar like the “Wolf of Wall Street,” acquiring all the money they can by every immoral method they can imagine. People love money in different ways. Some love money in the bank because it gives them a sense of security, status, importance, ownership, freedom, accomplishment, loveliness, or goodness. Some people love money for what it can buy. Their wealth is tied up in possessions, because the things money buys fills those same felt needs. Everyone has a giving comfort threshold. When you feel compelled to cross that line, even for a good cause, you get upset. Why? You don’t want to dip below your personal wealth comfort level. You want to keep your riches. Your money idol has been threatened.
Although Jesus is focusing on the money idol, all this applies to other idolatries as well. I know a woman who doesn’t have much money at all. But she is rich in her own eyes. Her wealth is not money in the bank, or material possessions, but a long track record of helping people. She thinks she knows how to gain eternal life: through being a good person by helping people. When we discuss the gospel of the kingdom and the desperate need every person has of it, she puts the gospel in a category that other people need. She will rely on her own life of good works toward others for God’s approval. Idolatry is spiritually blinding. God help us!
3. Then Jesus shocked his disciples with what has become a classic saying. Who can forget the thought of a camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle! Remember hyperbole illustrates truth, not an exaggerated truth stretched to the point of incredulity. The point is not that rich people can only gain eternal life with a herculean effort. No, it is absolutely impossible for a rich man to do anything to get eternal life apart from God (1 Tim 6:10).
II. Eternal Life is Inherited
A. Who can be saved? (v. 26)
The people of Jesus’ day assumed that the rich were experiencing God’s favor, and were in a spiritually privileged position (cf. Prov 6:6-11; 10:4; 28:19). They could give of their wealth to the poor and offer expensive sacrifices at the temple. Thus people reasoned that great wealth enabled someone to “get ahead” in the spiritual life. This rich ruler seems to have done just that, with all of his commandment keeping since his youth. People must have thought the rich ruler was first in line for heaven. If it was so very difficult for him to be saved, then the average person didn’t stand a chance! “Who then can be saved?” is a question of desperation.
What class or group of people do you consider more righteous before God than others? (Hint: it’s probably a class or group that includes you! E.g., the middle class, traditional conservatives, Republicans, progressive liberals, Democrats, homeschoolers, retirees, Presbyterians, etc) Insert that class or group into Jesus’ saying: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for ______ to enter the kingdom of God.” “Who then can be saved?” you ask. Listen to Jesus’ answer: With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. This is both humbling and comforting at the same time, which is exactly where God wants your heart to be. We usually fill in the blank with a class or people group whom we despise (or we think God despises). But that is to miss the point Jesus is making. Fill in the blank the way he intended so you will come to the end of yourself and come to God’s grace instead.
B. No man can buy it, but God does bequeath it (v. 27)
No one, no matter how spiritually privileged, ever paid his own way into the kingdom of God. Eternal life is not for sale. Your goodness and good deeds are offensive to God when you offer them in exchange for the kingdom. Instead God is pleased to bequeath eternal life to his followers.
Consider an estate auction. Everything there is for sale, but the best things never come to auction. The precious portion of the inheritance is freely given to the heirs. It would be outrageous if someone approached the family conducting the estate auction and asked, “Good family, what must I do to gain access to the good stuff, the precious things not up for auction?” Some things aren’t for sale! The family didn’t do anything to gain access. That’s the point. They inherited it. It was bequeathed to them graciously because of their relationship to the benefactor. The rich ruler asked how he might inherit eternal life, but he wasn’t really thinking of inheritance. He wanted to do something to gain eternal life. But someone may object, “That’s fair for an estate auction, but what about eternal life? How can I have a relationship with God so he will bequeath to me entrance into his kingdom? Surely there is something I must do.”
III. Eternal Life Has One Condition
A. Follow Jesus and don’t look back (v. 28)
The disciples thought hard about this—the camel, the needle, selling all. Peter, probably speaking for all of them, reminded Jesus that they had left everything to follow him. They wanted assurance that they had inherited eternal life. Had they met the one condition? Had they passed the “sell all” test? Had they followed where the rich ruler had turned back?
B. Follow Jesus with a childlike faith (vv. 15-17)
Earlier Jesus pointed to babies as an example of the kind of faith required to inherit eternal life. At first the disciples didn’t understand how to get eternal life—that it requires childlike trust in Jesus. They tried to prevent parents from bringing their little ones to Jesus. But Jesus seized that moment to teach God’s kingdom belongs to “such as these.” Now it seems the disciples finally began to understand. Following Jesus and not looking back requires a childlike faith, without which no one will enter God’s kingdom. Jesus said to each of the Twelve as he found them, “Follow me,” and they immediately left all and obeyed (Mt 4:19-20; Lk 5:27-28; Jn 1:43-46). By following, had they demonstrated childlike trust in Jesus? Had they shown evidence of entering God’s kingdom? Had they followed Jesus into eternal life? Yes! The disciples have passed the test because God has enabled them. God has made entrance into his kingdom, which would have been impossible, possible for them.
C. Follow Jesus who is our eternal inheritance (vv. 29-30)
1. Jesus taught no matter what his disciples give up for the sake of the kingdom, God’s good gifts are always of surpassing worth and greatness. They will receive treasure in heaven, as Jesus promised the rich ruler if he would trust and follow him (v. 22).
2. This is a spiritual idea, that anything one gives up for the sake of following Christ will receive the full equivalent (and more!) in Christ. For leaving one’s family to follow Jesus, disciples will gain a new family (the church; cf. Mk 3:34-35). For leaving one’s life in this age to follow Jesus, disciples will gain eternal life in the next age. The eternal inheritance is Jesus, following him, united to him by faith, and receiving all kingdom rewards as they are bound up in relationship to Christ.
Conclusion – These are some of the blessings believers have inherited in this age (Heb 6:5), and will experience fully in the age to come. Peace of God that passes understanding (Phil 4:7; Isa 26:3). Unspeakable joy and full glory (1 Pet 1:8). The light of knowing God’s glory in Christ’s face (2 Cor 4:6). God’s love that the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts (Rom 5:5). Ability to endure trials for Christ’s sake by faith, hope, and love (Rom 5:3; 2 Cor 12:10). Rejoice in suffering shame for Christ’s sake (1 Pet 1:8; Acts 5:41). Assurance of God’s love and life in his presence forever as his blessed child: heir of eternal life.