by Pastor Keith Graham
Please read Luke 18:18-23, and keep your Bible handy. Thank you!
Sometimes we can learn as much from our sinless Lord Jesus Christ by what He does NOT say as we can learn by what He DOES say. Let me refer you to another portion of Scripture, to help illustrate this.
In John 10:22 and following, we find the record of one of Christ's encounters with the Jewish religious leaders who opposed Him. When Jesus says, "I and the Father are One", they want to stone Him. When Jesus wisely asks what good work from His Father has made them want to stone Him, they reply, "For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God."
Picture that. A group of people are in a heated religious debate. One party angrily says to the Other, "You are claiming to be the eternal, almighty Creator!"
Now if someone told you or me that they understood us to be claiming deity, what would you or I do? Unless we had really "gone off the deep end" and WERE actually claiming that, there would be only one thing to do. The only sane and upright response would be to assure the person immediately that there must have been a communications breakdown somewhere! You or I would say, "Hold on there! Back up! You took what I said the wrong way! That's NOT what I'm saying."
What do you suppose would be the response of a Man Who was not only sane and upright, but WITHOUT SIN, if someone badly misunderstood His words?
If the Lord Jesus Christ wanted to teach that He was only a man, only a teacher of good ethics and morality, or even only a prophet, here was the perfect opportunity to do so. He could have calmed down his opponents. He could have launched into a dissertation about Who He really was, for John the apostle to record for posterity. And, He could have kept Himself from the threat of being stoned!
In other words, He could have killed three birds with one stone.
Our Lord doesn't do that, does He? We find no correction...no restatement...no "Hold it! You misunderstand Me!" Those who hate Jesus say to Him, "You make Yourself out to be God". The fact that Jesus does NOT deny this THUNDERS with significance!
If this were a message on John 10, we would delve into the amazing things which Jesus does go on to say to His opponents in that passage. Suffice it to say that essentially He proclaims - for those with ears to hear - just Who He is. He IS the eternal, almighty Creator, come in the flesh!
Do you see how that which Jesus does NOT say in John 10 tells us so much?
We have a similar situation in our text for today in Luke. The ruler begins with the question, "Good Teacher, What must I do to inherit eternal life." The reaction of the Lord Jesus is instructive. If there were no such thing as eternal life, what might the sinless Christ have said?
"Eternal life? What are you talking about? I'm here to teach that when we depart this earthly life we simply go back into the dust, and that's the end."
Jesus doesn't say anything like that, does He? Of course not! The first thing from this portion of God's holy word which I want you to let sink into your ears and hearts is that eternal life is a reality. And by implication, so is the unthinkable alternative, what used to be called perdition - eternal death. Throughout His response to the ruler, we see Jesus assuming that eternal life is quite real, and that no one should be careless about it. No one should simply assume he will go to heaven at death. We might call that idea "justification by death". That's what many who know little about justification by faith actually believe! They glibly assume that when they die, they will automatically step into heaven. Not so!
Here's a man expressing concern about his eternity...concern about his soul...concern about where he will go when he dies. This is a concern we all should have. For His part, Jesus wants to tell him the way to inherit eternal life, and how to have assurance that he will inherit it.
Jesus is going to answer the ruler's all-important question, but He is going to do it by drawing out the ruler first. Do you what I mean by that - draw out? I mean that Jesus is going to make the ruler think hard, and honestly face his real condition, in order to give him a solid answer to a good question. As we see at the end of the account, the ruler goes away very sorrowful, apparently rejecting Jesus' answer.
Did he ever come back to the Lord, and inherit eternal life? The Bible doesn't tell us. But God does tell us in His word, at 2 Peter 3:9, that "He that not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." Jesus wants the ruler to hear the way of salvation, and he wants us to hear it as well. He wants the gospel preached to all the world.
Are you in the same place as the ruler today...wondering where you are going to go when you die? Do yo desire to inherit eternal life? Let's follow along as Jesus draws out the ruler, and allow His Divine wisdom to draw us out as well. Let's apply the answer Jesus gives the ruler to our own hearts and lives.
The first thing Jesus says might surprise you. Look at it in verse 19: "Why do you call Me good? No one is good but God alone." Maybe while He was on earth Jesus did not teach that He is Divine after all! Is this response the same as if He said, "I'm not good, because I'm not God"? One thing we will see today as we go on...as we watch the Master lead this young ruler along to inescapable conclusions...as He draws him out, is that Jesus is actually again responding in a way that shows us Who He is - GOD! But we'll come back to that shortly.
Jesus keeps speaking, after responding to the ruler's opening question with a question of His own, as Jesus so often did when He spoke with people. Before the ruler can answer His question, the Lord Jesus says this in verse 20: "You know the commandments, 'Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.'"
Now in order to see just how Jesus makes the ruler think and honestly face his own condition in life, we're going to have to talk about these commandments which Jesus lists for a moment. What are these commandments? Where do they come from? I hope you all recognize that these five phrases - 1. Do not commit adultery, 2. Do not murder, 3. Do not steal, 4. Do not bear false witness, and 5. Honor your father and mother - are five of the Ten Commandments, that is the moral Law of God which every human being in every age is obliged to love and keep from the heart.
On another occasion when a crafty expert in the Law of Moses asked Jesus to identify the greatest commandment, Jesus replied by summarizing the Ten Commandments. He summarized them in two great precepts: 1. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" and 2. "Love your neighbor as yourself". In keeping with Jesus' own infallible summary of the Law, and in keeping with the teaching of the book of Exodus that God originally gave Moses the Ten Commandments on two tablets of stone, written with the finger of God, we recognize two "tables" of the the Law: 1. our duties toward God, and 2. our duties to one another. The commandments of the first table are "God-ward" commandments, and the commandments of the second table are "man-ward" commandments, both showing us how to live in the way that is pleasing to God.
Let's go back now to the conversation between Jesus and the rich young ruler. And we know from verse 23 that the ruler is not only rich, but EXTREMELY rich. The commandments that Jesus mentions are all commandments from the second table of the Law. Why does Jesus refer to commandments from the second table of the Law, and not mention any commandments from the first table, namely - 1. you shall have no other gods before Me, 2. you shall not make any graven images, 3. you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, and 4. remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy?
The answer lies in how the ruler approached Jesus. "Good Teacher", he calls him. The ruler sees Jesus as a man...a good man, to be sure, but as just a man. To draw him out, to lead his thoughts onward, Jesus meets him there. As recorded in the next chapter of Luke - chapter 19, verse 10 - Jesus said that He came to seek and save that which was lost. In seeking the lost, Jesus meets them where they are. He first speaks to the ruler about the Law as it addresses relationships among human beings - how God requires us to treat our neighbor. But there's something else very interesting here...
If we were to turn to the Ten Commandments in Exodus chapter 20 or Deuteronomy chapter 5, we would discover it quickly. There are actually SIX commandments on the second table of the Law, and Jesus only mentions FIVE! The commandment Jesus omits is commandment 10, "You shall not covet".
Now there's an old-fashioned word. What does covet mean? The American Heritage Dictionary includes these meanings: "To feel immoderate desire for that which is another's...To wish for longingly." When we covet, we are greedy for things we don't have. We are not content with what God has given us. Even if we greedily long for something that is not the personal property of our neighbor, we are greedy about the personal property of someone, "the earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof" - all things ultimately belong to God. When we are covetous, our minds are set on earthly things to the detriment of our spiritual health and to the dishonoring of God. In Colossians 3:5, Paul the apostle goes so far as to say that covetousness is idolatry. And this is what we see in the ruler's life.
Why does Jesus omit the last commandment? It is not in vain that the Bible instructs us about the ruler's riches. Jesus perceives the man's fatal love affair with money, although in his own mind, the ruler has kept the Law - OUTWARDLY. Indeed, it would seem incongrous that this particular man had ever been picked up for shoplifting...he probably didn't outwardly steal! Having never broken into someone's house or hijacked a donkey cart, he thought he kept the commandment against stealing. But as James says, "For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all".
The ruler in effect did steal INWARDLY, on account of his covetousness! The man was probably OUTWARDLY very respectful to his parents, and so thought he had kept the fifth commandment. But did he receive his estate after years of inwardly longing for the passing of his parents, so that he could come into their money? We don't know, the Bible doesn't say that. Nevertheless, the wise and perceptive Jesus knew "where he was coming from." By omitting the commandment against coveting, the One Who searches the hearts put his finger on something in his lifestyle about which the ruler was blind.
See, then, what Jesus draws out of him. In verse 21, we read that the ruler's response to Jesus' citation of those five commandments is: "All these things I have kept from my youth." Do you see the glaring inconsistency here? If the ruler really knew and cared about God's Law, he would have wondered why Jesus omitted not only the commandment against coveting, but the entire first table of the Law as well. And then, if he had asked Jesus why He omitted them, Jesus would have continued by telling him...by asking him, have you REALLY kept the Law...all of it? But he was not one who loved God's Law from the heart, he was merely seeking to use the Law to JUSTIFY HIMSELF! What must I DO to inherit eternal life, he asked at the very outset, showing that his perspective was that he must earn heaven. To inherit, you don't DO, you patiently wait and trust. And now is asserting, "Oh yes, I've kept the commandments! My own great purity has been sufficient to please God!"
Look back in verse 9 of Luke 18. The context of Scripture always helps us understand Scripture. "And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others...". The parable of the Pharisee and the publican follows. Then a teaching that shows we must receive the kingdom like little children follows that. Next is the record of Jesus' encounter with the rich young ruler which we are looking at today. Luke the inspired author of this gospel is giving us teaching from Jesus about this very thing...how to be justified before God! He is showing us the all too common trap that we human beings fall into of seeking to justify ourselves. He is showing us that this is not possible for us, that only God can justify sinners!
"And when Jesus heard this", is what we read next, in verse 22. Jesus now sees that He is going to have to take off the boxing gloves, so to speak. Jesus realizes not only that the ruler is hardened in his covetousness, but that he is spiritually near-sighted, to the point of blindness! If he is going to learn the way to eternal life, the ruler needs to be awakened! If you are in the place of the ruler, wondering about your eternal destiny, are you also in his place regarding where you think you stand with God? That sinner actually believed he was right with God because of his imagined keeping of select portions of God's Law! Do you believe you are right with God because of your own goodness?
The ruler was in need of understanding something that we must understand today. Paul wrote it to both the Romans and the Galatians: "by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified." That is, keeping the commandments can never earn heaven for us! What we must do to inherit eternal life is abandon the hope that anything we might ever do by way of obedience to God's Law can make us right with God! Yes, the Law is good and holy, and indeed shows us how to please God...but we are totally unable to keep it! Inwardly, we are by nature "full of dead men's bones and all uncleannes". All our imagined obedience is utterly worthless. The ruler must see this. If we are in the position before the Lord that the ruler was, we must be made to see it by God's word and His Spirit.
Jesus Christ sees before Himself a man blind to his sin, seeking to justify himself before God, and yet feeling that something is not quite right...he really wants to KNOW for certain about his eternal destiny. Are you in the place of that ruler? Listen as Jesus lovingly but firmly demolishes the ruler's false hope of SELF-JUSTIFICATION: "One thing you still lack", Jesus begins to reply.
What is that one thing? The ruler lacks a proper relationship to God! He is thinking he needs just a little guidance from a good teacher. Jesus knows that he is dead in trespasses and sins, without saving knowledge of God, far from inheriting eternal life. He has vainly focused on parts of God's Law which he thought he could keep to earn heaven, but he has forgotten all about the God of the Law and of heaven! The ruler, idolatrous in his covetousness, is in reality a worshiper and servant of Mammon: that is, his confidence is in material goods, in riches.
What is the remedy for the rich young ruler? What will fill this gaping hole and meet the lacking of this "one thing"? How can a man be saved who thinks he is a ruler and is called a ruler by men, but is actually one ruled over by Mammon? What is the remedy for anyone trusting in earthly things...in their job, in their social status, in their talent, or in anything else?
What we have in the next words which Jesus speaks is a call from heaven to this man to CHANGE GODS! Look at the second part of verse 22:
"Sell all that you possess, and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me."
Let's look a little closer at each of these phrases which together speak to the ruler's great need - the answer to "the one thing" which the ruler lacks.
First, Jesus says: "Sell all that you possess, and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven." Someone will say, well then - isn't Jesus telling him to do a good work to inherit eternal life - sell your goods to give to the poor? Does being a Christian mean I must do that? The answer is that it MIGHT mean you must do that. Now I know that as soon as those words went out of my lips, everyone hearing them concluded, "Whew! That's not me, that's for somebody else!" But wait! As I said, it might mean that for you, and even if it does not mean exactly that, it does mean something equivalent for every single Christian.
1 John 3:17 says "But whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart against him, how dwells the love of God in him?" When I read that, one thing I conclude is that it's God's will for some Christians to have the world's goods - so that there are some able to share with those in need. When I read affectionate greetings in Paul's letters to certain brethren and the congregations meeting in their houses, I conclude that it is God's will for some Christians to have houses - where the saints can be shown hospitality.
The heart of the issue here is not the material goods of the ruler. They are not evil in themselves, material things never are. Good or evil lies in how people use material things. The heart of the issue here is the place his riches held in the ruler's life and heart. Every one must turn his back on whatever it is that takes God's place in his or her life, which can only stand in the way of receiving God's free gift of salvation - of having the true treasure, the treasure in heaven. The ruler needed to tear down his high place...to get rid of his idol. But that's not all.
The "the one thing" which the ruler lacks is addressed also by Christ's second phrase, "Come, follow Me". I said earlier that we would come back to seeing how Jesus again makes an astounding claim to God-hood. How do we see that in the simple words, "Come, follow Me"? We see it by the place that Jesus claims in the life of someone who wants to inherit eternal life. Jesus Himself is the answer to the ruler's opening question. Jesus IS the way to eternal life. "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man comes to the Father, but by me", says Jesus at John 14:6. In other words, self-righteous ruler, you spoke better than you knew! You were indeed addressing the only good Man, the sinless Messiah, Immanuel - "God with us", in the flesh!
Jesus says that the ruler must give up all his worldly treasures - for His, that is Jesus' sake! To give up anything we hold dearer than Him for Jesus, to love Jesus supremely, to follow Jesus at all costs, to turn away from SELF-JUSTIFICATION and trust Jesus for justification - that's what it means to walk in the way of the greatest commandment, to be in a right relationship with God! This is "the one thing" which the ruler lacked, and which anyone apart from Christ lacks! Jesus tells the ruler that He Himself, the Lord Jesus - not the advisor Jesus, not the religious figurehead Jesus, not even only the good teacher Jesus - but the LORD Jesus must have first place in his life ! Who but God can claim our allegiance in this way?
The externalistic, in-the-flesh, so called Law keeping of the Jewish rulers will never justify. The only way to be justified before God is through faith in the Savior Who kept the Law perfectly for his people, died to take upon Himself the penalty due them for breaking it, and rose victoriously from the dead to show that He had succeeded in purchasing salvation. He is now able to save to the uttermost all who come to God by Him. Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, Galatians 3:6. The true Christian likewise is justified by faith...by believing God...by putting absolute and utter trust in God incarnate. In Jeremiah 17:5, the prophet wrote"Cursed is the one who trusts in man". This is no mere man who stands before the rich young ruler. This is indeed the eternal God! Following Him in this gospel way is the only way to be certain of eternal life.
Jesus is telling the ruler that to be in a right relationship with the true and living God, 1. Turn away from coveting 2. Then, deal with the first table of the law that you have forgotten - trusting in and following ME by faith.
In other words, Jesus' answer to the ruler expresses the universal call of the gospel: Repentance...that is, doing a 180 degree turn..."about facing" from sin; and faith - putting confidence in the Lord and His promises, and living by them. When Paul gave his parting counsel to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, he said his witness to both Jews and Greeks was one of "repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ."
The ruler made a choice which we can only hope was not his final one, before it was too late. It can become too late if we don't inherit eternal life now in this day of gospel's open invitation. When it becomes too late, there is never again any hope of eternal life, but only the certainty of just condemnation to eternal death...separation from God forever, and nothing ahead but the endless, horrible, conscious torments of hell. And too late may have been the next day...or the next hour...or the next moment for the ruler. Too late may be the next day, or the next hour, or the next moment for you. The rich young ruler went away from Jesus very sad.
The word in the original language used to describe the ruler's sorrow is the same word used to describe Jesus' own sorrow later in His life, in the garden of Gethsemane. That's how grieved the ruler was upon learning the answer to his question, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus' words must have sunk in. The ruler didn't have a problem understanding them, but in accepting them and acting upon them.
Which reminds of some other words of Jesus, found at Matthew 7:24-27: "Everyone who hears these words of mine, and acts upon them, may be compared to a wise man, who built his house upon the rock. And the rains descended, and the floods came, and burst against that house. And yet, it did not fall - for it had been founded upon the rock.
And everyone who hears these words of mine, and does not act upon them, may be compared to a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand. And the rains descended, and the floods came, and burst against that house - and it fell, and great was its fall."
What must I do to inherit eternal life? What must you do to inherit eternal life? Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. Follow Him. Will you do it today, or go away sorrowful? What place does Jesus Christ have in your life?
originally preached February 2, 1997
Go to Pulpit Archive
Go to Home Page