A Promising Encounter
Well we took a bit of a break over the Christmas season but now it’s time to turn our thoughts once more to Luke’s Gospel which we have been studying over the last couple of years.
This morning we are going to consider a man who had a desire for spiritual blessing but who was confused about just how he might secure eternal life for himself. As we think about him and the encounter he had with the Lord Jesus I trust that our own thinking about these things will be challenged and clarified.
The Rich Ruler and his Question
A man came up to Jesus and he had an important question that he wanted to put to him. This person was influential in the society of the day, he was a ruler. We’re not told exactly what sort of ruler he was, perhaps he was a leader in his local synagogue or maybe he was involved in leadership on the national level, whoever he was he was an important man. More than that he was a wealthy man too and the importance of this fact will become evident as the encounter between him and Jesus develops. When you add in the detail found about him in Matthew’s Gospel that he was young to boot you can see he had just about everything going for him.
But with all this he still was aware of certain needs he had.
We should highlight at the outset that being rich was usually interpreted by the Jews as indicating the blessing of God on a person’s life. (Some rich people were despised eg. tax collectors but that was because they gained their wealth by dubious, dishonest means which was not compatible with the blessing of God.)
The man who came to Jesus that day gave every impression of being a fine upstanding figure in the community and we have no reason to doubt that he was just that. He didn’t have any skeletons in his closet and could, without fear of contradiction, publicly declare his law-abiding lifestyle.
This man had a spiritual interest and concern and made the most of his opportunity of asking Jesus the question that was evidently troubling him:
v.18 "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
What a great question! I wonder whether you have ever taken the time to stop and think about this question for yourself.
This man had spiritual interests and spiritual concerns and he came to the right person for help, he came to Jesus. He did this because, for all his awareness of spiritual realities, he knew that they remained for the moment beyond his grasp. He wanted to know how what he must do to ensure that he might be sure of enjoying them.
The ruler began with a question that referred to eternal life but as the episode unfolded other descriptions of those spiritual realities which interested him are also disclosed. We are to understand from this that the spiritual blessings which are designed to be known and enjoyed by men and women are not limited and insignificant but are instead rich and full. This is how our text refers to them:
treasure in heaven
entry into the Kingdom of God
The Saviour and his Response
A great question... and yet Jesus’ reply may strike us as being a bit tetchy. After all the man was being polite wasn’t he in calling Jesus "Good Teacher" so why did Jesus have to pick him up on what he said? For that is just what he did:
v.19 "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone."
What Jesus did was to encourage the man to think more carefully about what he actually said – assuming of course that the words he used were not meant as mere mindless flattery.
If God alone was good what did the rich man imply by calling Jesus "Good Teacher"? Who did the rich man really think Jesus was?
If Jesus was really the "Good Teacher" and we certainly shouldn’t understand Jesus’ reply to be denying that that was just who he was, then what was the implication for the rich man when he heard Jesus’ answers? Surely he should take that teaching exceedingly seriously!
If God alone can be described as good what exactly was the rich man aspiring to when he asked what he had to do to inherit eternal life? Did he imagine he could somehow make himself "good" and so deserve eternal life?
It seems as though Jesus right from the outset wanted to call into question the understanding the rich ruler has of goodness and of the pursuit of goodness as the way to secure spiritual blessing.
Of course we still come across the same misunderstandings today don’t we. Many people will still respond to the question "Who was Jesus Christ?" with the simple affirmation that he was "a good or a great teacher". They won’t necessarily have any understanding of what he actually taught and may well not have the slightest intention of heeding those teachings anyway.
What do you make of Jesus Christ?
Well we’ve looked at how Jesus responded to the way the ruler spoke to him and now we must turn to his reply to the meat of the question:
"What must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Now it was not the first time that this question had actually been put to Jesus. Back in Lk.10 we find a lawyer asking it. He wasn’t desperately interested in knowing the answer and used the question to test Jesus. Questions aren’t always what they appear to be! Sometimes they can be honestly put but sometimes the intent is completely dishonest. Here in Lk.18 there is nothing to suggest that the question is being asked in anything but a serious manner.
As with his response to the lawyer in ch.10 Jesus here also immediately sent the rich ruler back to the Law of God quoting several from the Second Table of the Law:
v.20 "You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour your father and mother.’"
The 10 Commandments are good and Jesus upheld them – there is nothing wrong with these laws; the fault is not to be found in the law of God but in the rebellious heart of the sinner. The most that any of us can do is to secure a degree of outward conformity to the law’s requirements.
If men and women imagine that they can do more than this and please God by their own efforts, if they imagine that by keeping the law they can make themselves good enough for God, then let them go to the Law and let them try!
It is noteworthy that in both cases those who posed their questions to Jesus wanted further clarification!
The rich ruler evidently thought that his track record was pretty good. He was convinced that he had done enough to keep the specific laws to which Jesus referred:
v.21 ""All these I have kept from my youth."
And yet he still had a sense of not yet having done enough. Where was he going wrong? What was he missing? What did he still need if he was to inherit the eternal life that he wanted?
Mt friends let me tell you that there is no way to spiritual life and satisfaction by the route of keeping (or trying to keep) the law. The rich ruler had not yet realised that. He hadn’t come to realise either that the most the Law can actually do for the sinner is to show him that he has indeed fallen short of God’s standards and that he stands in need of help.
For the moment the rich ruler was blind and still failing to see what his problem was even though he was well aware that he did have a problem.
Jesus next move was to shine fresh light into his life and it was light that would expose the man’s inability to save himself because he couldn’t change his own heart!
Jesus’ Second Answer
v.22 "One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."
The rich ruler had expressed his desire to inherit eternal life but now we find that he had other priorities in his life. He had come to Jesus calling him "Good Teacher" and now he was actually being invited to follow him as a disciple. If he accepted he would get to hear all the good teaching of that Good Teacher that the Father had given to him. He would get to know Jesus in a deeply personal way and in seeing Jesus he would see the Father. In short the invitation offered him the very eternal life he said he wanted because elsewhere Jesus explained that the very essence of eternal life was to know God and Jesus Christ whom he had sent (Jn.17:3).
So the rich ruler was now within touching distance of what he said he wanted – in following Jesus he would have eternal life and treasure in heaven – all he needed to do was to make Jesus priority N°1 in his life.
And is this not exactly what the great commandment of the law requires?
Mt.22:37 "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind."
But the rich ruler had another love that occupied his heart! And it was to show him his inability to gain what he wanted by trusting to what he could do for himself that Jesus put his finger right on that rival affection. This rich man was wedded to his wealth! He wanted eternal life yes, but he wanted his worldly wealth more. He was unwilling and unable, to lay aside the idols that had filled his heart and so he was forced to turn away disappointed and sad.
Now we must be clear about this: Jesus was not teaching to gain eternal life everyone has to sell what they have and give the proceeds away. Salvation is not "bought" in this way. But this rich man had a particular problem with his wealth and it was his wealth that was stopping him from becoming one of Jesus’ true followers. When Jesus told this rich man that he had to get rid everything he had he was basically teaching that whatever it is that might keep us from becoming his followers must go. This is because he and he alone can save us!
If you are not a Christian I wonder if there is something in your life that is stopping you coming to Christ? It might be wealth – your house your possessions etc. but it might be any number of other things. It might be family and friends, reputation, work or leisure... Whatever it is it is not worth it!
Mt.16:26 "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?"
The rich ruler wanted to be told the truth but never dreamt that salvation would be so costly. He had thought salvation to be an easy thing to secure if only he knew what he had to do. In that case he thought he’d do it and all would be well. He hadn’t realised how serious the situation was, how serious the matter of sin is. Sadly he wasn’t ready to put all his trust in Jesus even though the Good Teacher invited him to come and follow him. And Jesus would have had him!!
Jesus would have you too – he doesn’t turn sinners away but he takes them on his terms not ours!
As the ruler turned away Jesus made a surprising declaration. It’s a striking and a memorable phrase which surprised folk then and goes on surprising people today:
vv.24-25 "How difficult it is for those who have wealth 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 person to enter the kingdom of God."
I said earlier that riches then were seen as a sign of God’s blessing and not as heavy burden to bear. So many today act as though all their problems would be solved in an instant if only they were rich(er). And now Jesus declared that it was so very difficult for a person who was already the recipient of God’s blessing to enter the Kingdom of God and be saved. The onlookers thought quite the opposite – who more likely to enter that Kingdom than the one already so signally blessed?!
Yet Jesus seemed to be saying that a rich man simply couldn’t enter that Kingdom – just as it was impossible for a camel (the largest animal around) to go through the eye of a needle (the smallest space) so the rich man wouldn’t be able to enter.
The Crowds are Incredulous and Peter seeks reassurance
If that’s the case, they said, then how on earth can anyone be saved? (v.26)
And they were of course right. If man were left alone to rely upon his own efforts then none could possibly enter the Kingdom of God. But the good news is that salvation is not something man has to earn or secure for himself but it is something that God gives through Jesus!
v.27 "What is impossible with men is possible with God."
I wonder whether some of you have never come to Christ because you‘re still focusing upon yourself and you keep running into impossibles – God could never forgive you, you could never keep it up, etc. Well listen to what Jesus says "nothing is impossible with God"!
Peter had been following the exchange between Jesus and the rich ruler and now somewhat tentatively applied what Jesus had said to the ruler to his own situation and that of his fellow apostles. If what was necessary to gain entry to the Kingdom of God was to sell all and follow Jesus wasn’t that what they had done when they had left their homes to be his disciples?
(Nb. that Peter equates "his leaving all" with the requirement "to sell all". It is clearly not the fact of selling that was important but the making sure that nothing should be allowed to keep people from coming to Jesus.)
Peter was right, of course, they had left everything to follow Jesus, but Jesus added a few more words to prevent Peter from drawing wrong conclusions from this.
The human spirit, you see, is always trying to find ways of taking the credit for what God gives so freely. Perhaps Peter was being tempted to think that God was somehow in his debt since he had left everything for him. Well if that were the case then Jesus’ words quickly quashed all that – God is no man’s debtor!
vv.29-30 "Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life."
How could Peter boast of what he had given up when he had already received far more in return! All Peter could really boast about was the wonderful free grace of God in the face of Jesus Christ who gives and gives and gives again!
As we close let me summarise what this particular little episode tells us.
The rich ruler was interested in eternal life and we learn here that:
Is only for those who abandon self-reliance and follow Jesus
Is only received because of God’s doing, not ours
Is a secure reward that more than compensates for losses in this life.
To God be the Glory.