A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on April 26, 2020.
And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person 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 a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit 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 children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first (Matt. 19:16–30).
“What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? It’s a timeless question really. Of course, it might be asked differently through the ages, but fundamentally the question is: What does God want from me so that I can get what I want from God? What you should hear clearly in this question is: What must I do?
The young man’s objective is noble: not fame nor fortune but to have eternal life. Matthew’s Gospel uses the verb translated “to have” eternal life, while Mark and Luke use the verb “to inherit.” In all three cases the meaning is that something is gained, something he does not yet have. What he does have is youth, wealth, and according to Luke’s Gospel, authority. In this life, he seems to have it all, except eternal life.
Eternal life is a worthy pursuit, as opposed to what Jesus referred to as “eternal fire” (Matt. 18:9). Jesus also refers to “eternal life” as entering “the kingdom of heaven,” as God’s kingdom is eternal. And, this is what this young man wants, or at least wants to know what he must do to gain it.
He’s come to the right teacher, hasn’t he? Who else would know better about good deeds than the “Good Teacher” (Mark 10:17)? But the teacher’s answer begins with a question for the student: “Why do you ask me about what is good?” The question is key. Jesus is not saying that the young man has come to the wrong person but rather: What is the definition of good?
The Definition of Good
Jesus attempts to help the young man with an answer: “There is only one who is good,” only one. Who is that “one”? Only God is good. Jesus’ statement should be a hard stop. The standard of goodness is God, and you are not him.
Because all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23), experientially the good that we are and do is relative. Such is not the case with God. God is not like good or sometimes good. It is not merely that he does good, but he is good. To better understand this concept, consider the attribute of attributes of God, his holiness. God is holy. To say God is holy means many things, but in essence it means he is set apart from us in his very being. He is God. We are not.
With this in mind, consider again Jesus’ statement confronting the young man’s question: “There is only one who is good.” Can one who is not good do enough good to merit that which belongs only to the perfectly good? The fact that God is holy presents a problem. Apart from the imputed righteousness of Christ, we are not holy. But this young man is not thinking of the holiness of God in the moment, is he? No, he is focused on himself and what he must do to achieve eternal life. He is oblivious to the perfect standard of good and the demand of God: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2).
The Demand of God
Knowing the young man’s heart, Jesus provides the demanded deeds to have eternal life: “Keep the commandments.” That’s it. Straight forward. Simple. But the young man is on a mission; he wants specifics: “Which ones?” he asks. For a Jew, there are lots of commandments, comprising what we refer to as the Civil, Ceremonial, and Moral Law. Surely Jesus doesn’t mean every single commandment, does he?
Jesus helpfully narrows the scope, giving a few commandments: The sixth: “You shall not murder”; the seventh: “You shall not commit adultery”; the eighth: “You shall not steal”; the ninth: “You shall not bear false witness”; and back to the fifth: “Honor your father and mother.” Leaving off the tenth, “You shall not covet,” which may have proven problematic for this ambitious young man, Jesus summarizes the second part of the Decalogue, quoting from Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
What does Jesus’ list of commandments reveal about this young man? First, the fifth through the ninth commandments are commandments that involve outward obedience. Even the commandment to honor parents had been reduced to outward means of obedience in Jewish culture. Clearly, this young man was not present for Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where we learn that hatred and lust break the sixth and seventh commandments. No, as if handing him a task list, Jesus has set him up with a list of good deeds to be achieved.
In fairness, what this young man has achieved is impressive: “All these I have kept.” Is that it? Is inheriting eternal life that easy? Perhaps he realizes that Jesus’ list is incomplete or perhaps he wants to further justify himself. Regardless, he asks, “What do I still lack?”
He is young, wealthy, and successful. He is conscientious, goal-oriented, and lives a very moral life. You would really like this guy. He would be such a good church member. He would regularly attend worship, study his Bible, say his prayers, give his tithes, and serve anywhere you need him. His only problem? In all of his goodness, he does not see that he cannot meet the demand of God.
The standard of good is not you or me but God, and his demand is perfection. As sinners by virtue of the Fall, it’s not that we are better (or worse) than our neighbor but that we all fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). And while we may each be susceptible to different sins, this does not make us each any less a sinner.
The morality of this young man is remarkable, but he has conveniently forgotten the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). Knowing the young man’s heart as well the sin which he is most susceptible, Jesus says to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” “If you would be perfect”? The wealthy young man is many things, but perfect he is not. But Christ is. What the young man could not do, Jesus did. He was born of woman and born under the law (Gal. 4:4), keeping it to perfection. He was tempted in every respect as we are yet without sin (Heb. 4:15). He perfectly meets the demand of God.
Young, wealthy, successful, and respected, this young man had it all and so did not need Jesus. And yet, Jesus was the very thing he needed to have eternal life. Far more than a Good Teacher, he needed a Savior; and that he could not accept.
The Deception of Gold
What kept this remarkable young man from following Jesus? Was it his ambition? Was it his morality? Could he not afford it? No, he was deceived by his wealth.
As Jesus explains to his disciples, “it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:23 NIV). How hard? Jesus says that “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.” For non-sewers like me, have you tried to thread a needle? It’s hard enough to put thread through the head of a needle, how about a 1000 pound mammal? Impossible!
Why is it so hard? Clearly, the disciples don’t get it; “Who then can be saved?” they ask. In their culture wealth was considered evidence of God’s favor. Proverbs says, “Much wealth is in the house of the righteous” (Prov. 15:6 NASB) and “The crown of the wise is their wealth” (Prov. 14:24). Wealth is indeed a blessing from God, but it is not the only blessing and can cause problems. Despite the many cautions of the deception of gold in Scripture, the Jews held to a kind of first-century health and wealth gospel. In other words, if there were anyone who would inherit eternal life, who would enter the kingdom of heaven, it is this young man. Consider the evidence of his life; he even has the net worth to prove it! Like many Christians today, their cultural belief blinds them to what Jesus is teaching. They do not understand his Word, because they believe something else.
Wealth and its comforts can lead to a sense of pride and self-sufficiency, leading to an arrogance that believes you can do whatever you want to do. It can encourage an illusion of stability, independence, and protection. The deception of gold can lead you to live like you have no need to pray for your “daily bread,” as if you have plenty in surplus. It can also lead you to become consumed with protecting such a comfortable lifestyle.
Sadly, the wealthy young man walks away sorrowful, because his gold is worth more than his soul. It is often the most educated, the wealthiest, the most successful in this life who cannot see the necessity of God’s grace, a gift sovereignly bestowed, impossible to earn. But in Christ there is good news: “with God all things are possible.” In the fullness of time, God sent forth his son to redeem those who cannot keep the law so that, whether wealthy or poor in this life, we might become the children of God, inheriting eternal life, by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone to the glory of God alone. Indeed, “with God all things are possible.” And as the redeemed children of God, by his Spirit, he reveals to us the fleeting pleasures of gold, calls us to follow him, leading us to the delight of glory.
The Delight of Glory
Unfortunately, while all who are in Christ have inherited eternal life, there remains a temptation to compare ourselves with others, especially unbelievers. We who are the recipients of God’s saving grace somehow want to boast of our good deeds compared to the lost and dying. Like Peter we want to tell the Lord all we have given up for him, all we have done for him, compared to those who don’t know him at all. This is of course misguided. Whatever we do for the Lord, is by his grace, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Let us learn to say with Paul, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Cor. 11:30). Instead, Peter wants a comparison and contrast.
In his mercy, Jesus explains that what we do by God’s grace for Christ in this life will be rewarded in the next. Not as a means to merit eternal life but in love for Christ. Not as a means to achieve entry into the kingdom of glory but in living for God’s glory.
Unlike the rich young ruler, the disciples had neither riches nor authority, and yet in the new world they will “sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Likewise, for “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for Christ’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life,” abundant life unmarred by sin. Success in this world does not equate to success in the next, “many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Therefore, let us not glory in this present darkness but delight in the glory to come, where Christ shall reign upon his glorious throne.
For, in that new world by God’s grace we will live in the inheritance of eternal wealth, rejoicing not in what we have done but in the redemptive work of the eternal Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord.
 Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).