"The Rich Will Not Make It" or "Blessed Are the Poor"
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, November 12, 1995
Copyright © 1995, P. G. Mathew
In this passage from Matthew 19, we see Jesus traveling to Jerusalem where he would be crucified, buried and raised from the dead for our salvation. After blessing the children who had been brought to him, he and his disciples resumed their journey. As they walked along, a young man suddenly came running after them.
Who was this man? We are told he was very rich and prominent. In Luke's gospel we read that he was a ruler, possibly of a synagogue, or even a member of the Sanhedrin. Matthew calls him a young man, and the Greek word means someone between 22 and 28 years of age. Because of his interest in possessing eternal life, he was probably a Pharisee, because only Pharisees believed in the resurrection and eternal life. He was a very moral man who claimed to have kept all the commandments from the time of his bar mitzvah, probably from age twelve or thirteen, when he agreed to the responsibility of keeping the commandments of God. He certainly was reverential toward Jesus, kneeling before him and calling him "Teacher." He was very earnest, running to meet Jesus. This man was making money, not wasting it in immoral living like the prodigal son. He was a very successful, responsible young man.
But this man was not satisfied with his material success, his prominence or his youth. In spite of all, he was miserable and unhappy because he understood that he was without eternal life and shut out from the kingdom of God. So he ran to ask Jesus how he could be successful in the kingdom of God and possess eternal life.
Who is Good?
His first question was, "Good teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?" That is what we read in Luke and Mark, but in Matthew's gospel it says, "Teacher, what good thing I should do to possess eternal life?" The full question possibly was, "Good teacher, what good thing I must do to get eternal life?"
Now the problem here is the adjective "good." The man used this adjective to refer to Jesus as well as to the thing he must do to inherit eternal life. Sensing the fact that the young man was using this adjective "good" relatively and superficially, Jesus directed his attention to the meaning of the word "good" in its absolute sense.
"Why do you call me good?" Jesus asked, as we read in Luke and Mark, or "Why do you ask concerning the good?" as we read in Matthew. Jesus was asking the man whether he realized that God alone is good, and all good flows from him. Jesus was correcting this young man's view of who Jesus himself was. The young man had addressed him as "Teacher," as if he were simply another rabbi.
Throughout the gospels we see people calling Jesus other names, such as Lord and King. Nathanael said, "You are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel," in John 1:49. In John 4:42 the Samaritans called Jesus "the Savior of the world." In other places he was called prophet, Messiah, and Son of the Living God. But this young man was not given any revelation in terms of the person of Jesus Christ, and therefore, he simply calls him, "Teacher."
In the accounts of Luke and Mark, Jesus responded: "Why do you call me good?" Some theologians say that by that question Jesus was denying that he was good, since only God is good, not Jesus. But that is not what he was saying. When Jesus said, "There is only One who is good," he was confirming that he was the Son of God. He wanted to see if the young man understood what he was saying, or simply using the word "good" in a superficial sense. Then he told the man to obey the commandments.
The Bible reveals what is good. The law of God is good, because it is the law of the God who alone is good. (Romans 7:12) Jesus was telling this man to discard superficial and relative notions of goodness, and to understand the absolute goodness of God's law. Leviticus 18:5 clearly tells how to enter into eternal life: "Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them. I am the Lord."
This man wanted to know which specific commandments he should observe, and in great condescension, Jesus cited the commandments governing human relationships, with the idea that if one perfectly obeys these laws, you are loving God and you are also honoring the other commandments relating to God
Look at Luke 10, beginning with verse 25, where we see a theologian coming to Jesus and asking a similar question to the one the rich young ruler asked. And in verse 26 Jesus responded, "What is written in the law? How do you read it?" This doctor of law understood God's law, so he replied "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,' and 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" That was a correct summary of God's expressed will in the Ten Commandments, and Jesus commended him for answering correctly. But then he challenged him, saying, "Do this and you will live."
The problem is that no one can keep the law perfectly and merit eternal life. Look at the reply of this rich young ruler. He said, "All these I have kept since I was a boy." Certainly he spoke this in all sincerity, but we begin to see the superficiality of his understanding. People can be very sincere and false at the same time. You can sincerely believe something to be true, but find out it is false. You can sincerely ingest poison instead of medicine, and you will die. This young man really believed that he kept the law of God perfectly, but the truth was, his lawkeeping was only external conformity to the interpretations of men.
Over the years, the Pharisees had put their own interpretations on the commandments to make them palatable. In Matthew 15:3- Jesus asked, "And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, 'Honor your father and mother,' and 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father and mother, 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,' he is not to 'honor his father' with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition." They understood that although a son was to take care of his infirm parents and support them in every way, he could avoid that responsibility by saying to his parents, "Whatever was coming to you I have devoted as Corban for God." This is the classic example of how these Pharisees were nullifying God's law by their own twisted interpretation of it.
What is the correct interpretation of God's law? Jesus spoke about this in the Sermon on the Mount, particularly in Matthew 5. He pointed out the overall sinfulness in man's heart by defining anger as murder, and lust as adultery. He knew that the law dealt with the internal condition of the human heart as well as the external condition.
But this young man belonged to that class called the Pharisees who focused on minor issues, failing to understand the very purpose of God's giving of his law to man. And what was that purpose? Romans 3:20 says, "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. " And anyone who claims to have kept the law, James says in James 2:10, "yet stumbles at just one point is guilt of breaking all of it." This rich young man had no sense of sin. He claimed to be perfect--in the sense of conforming to the Pharisees' interpretation of the law. This was the religion of the Pharisees--they had no consciousness of sin. PGM Look at Luke 18:9 "To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable" about a Pharisee who was praying to himself, declaring how wonderful he was. Read what St. Paul said in Philippians 3:5-6: "If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless." This was the same corrosive idea of righteousness that the rich young man believed in. Such people "did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own," thereby refusing "to submit to God's righteousness" (Romans 10:3). How unlike the publican! The publican beat upon his breast and cried out to God, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner!"
"All these I have kept since I was a boy," the young man declared. He was not saying he was a sinner. He had no real understanding of the law of God. Only when we understand the law of God and try to keep it do we begin to understand that our sin is being increased all the time. We can only cry out in desperation, "Have mercy upon me, a sinner!"
So the perfection claimed by the young man was a phony perfection, a phony righteousness. How do we know that? Even though he was rich, famous and young, in his heart this man was miserable, restless and without peace. Phony self-righteousness cannot make anybody happy. People who rely on it are outside of the kingdom of God and outside of eternal life. They are not saved; rather, they are under the wrath of God.
What Was Still Lacking
So now the man asked another question in Matthew 19:20: "What do I still lack?" He had already asserted that he kept the commandments, but he knew he was not saved. He thought he was perfect, but he didn't feel perfect. So he asked if there was something beyond God's law that he could do.
This young man was a Pharisee, operating on the basis of his own merit. He reasoned that he did not need a Savior, because in his opinion he was not a sinner. No Pharisee would ever confess that he was a sinner. So this man did not think that he needed grace, but he wanted to earn salvation. He affirmed that he had kept the whole law, and he was sincere in that affirmation. What self-delusion! When we think that God must accept us because we are righteous, because we have done something good at one time in our lives, this is self-salvation and delusion.
As omniscient God, Jesus saw the corruption and phoniness of this young man. Desiring to uncover his heart, he replied, "If you want to be perfect. . ." and then he gave him a series of commands.
"If you want to be perfect. . ."? Now Jesus was dealing with this man. Jesus was implying that the man was not perfect, that he did not completely conform to God's law and character. So first Jesus said, "Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor. . ." and then he gave a promise: "you will have treasure in heaven."
Jesus understood that this man was trusting in his wealth. His wealth had become a stumbling block which prevented him from looking beyond it for salvation. Jesus understood that the only way this person could be brought into a place of trust in Christ was by getting rid of the stumbling block.
The next imperative was "Come, follow me." After selling his possessions and giving to the poor, he was to come and follow Jesus. Now this man was rich and young, and had probably been looking forward to a long period of time in which he could enjoy his wealth, but Jesus was saying to sell it all. He began to panic, wondering what would happen to him. He would be penniless. How would he live? You see, Jesus was asking this man to trust him completely. When the Philippian jailer asked, "What must I do to be saved?" the answer came: "Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved." You cannot have eternal life except in relation to Jesus Christ, and in following him closely as a disciple.
This man was rich, young, prominent and "perfect," but he was not happy. He was outside of the kingdom of God and did not have eternal life. Jesus Christ loved him and gave him this profound counsel, and I give the same counsel to you: If there is anything that is causing you to stumble, you need to gouge it out, cut it out, sell it off. Trust in Jesus Christ alone that you may be saved.
Many people are very happy superficially but they do not think. They think happiness is not thinking. But the moment they begin to think seriously about themselves, that they could die at any time and face a holy, righteous, eternal God, then they begin to get upset, miserable, wretched, restless and are without peace. The truth is, their youthfulness, their material possessions, and their prominence cannot satisfy them. In spite of it all, if they are thinking people, they are miserable and wretched.
If you realize this, then for you the gospel is glorious. Jesus told this man to sell all and follow him, implying that he will give him eternal life, and not only that, he said he would also receive a hundred times as many houses, lands, fathers. mothers, brothers, sisters and children, in terms of his connection with the new community called church that God was raising up in the world.
The Ruler's Choice
What was the man's response to these commands? He went away grieving. In Mark 10:22 we are told he was crestfallen, because he was very rich. The condition of his heart had been revealed, and all his righteousness was proven to be external and superficial. No wonder Jesus said, "Your righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees and the Sadducees." At heart this man was a materialist, an idol-worshiper, and an atheist. The rich young ruler loved money more than Jesus, more than the kingdom of God, and more than the eternal life and inner peace he did not have. He had come to the right person to find eternal life, but did not receive it. His story is one of most tragic stories in the entire Bible. He came to the living bread, but he was not hungry. He came to the living water, but he was not thirsty. He came to the Savior, but he was not a sinner. And so the Bible says he went away from Jesus. He came to Jesus because he was miserable, but he went away from him most miserable.
In reality, he was an atheist. In his treatment of chapter 6 of Matthew, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones discusses how communism was called atheistic materialism, implying that the Western form of materialism is not atheistic. Lloyd-Jones corrects that view and says that all materialism is atheistic. Look at Luke 16:13-15: "'No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.' The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, 'You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable to God,'" and I believe he is speaking about materialism.
We think that if we have money, we can solve all problems. A rich man is popular in the world, but one who trusts in money is atheistic, and an abomination in the sight of God. This rich young man was a lover of money, not a lover of God. He was not a lover of eternal life, even though he spoke superficially about possessing it. He was a lover of things, a lover of this world, and a slave of money. It is absolutely impossible to serve money and God at the same time, and in 1 John 2:15 the apostle says if you love this world, the love of God is not in you. They are mutually exclusive. Either money dominates your life, or God does.
The Deception of Riches
What is the danger in materialism? The Bible speaks about the deceitfulness of riches. It is like morphine or anesthesia. It deceives you. This young man was a slave to his money. To him, materialism is like wearing a python. He loves his python, and feels warm as he cuddles it, but the python will soon crush him to death.
Jesus gave the man the best counsel for avoiding this danger, but he walked away from it. In Genesis 4 we see Cain becoming angry. His countenance also fell, and God came to him, "Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?" But Cain rejected God's counsel and killed his brother. How sad to be given counsel, to be given the gospel, and yet walk away from Jesus Christ!
The Bible warns about trusting in riches. In Luke 12 Jesus counseled others who thought that life consisted in possessions. Jesus told the story of a rich fool whose land produced great crops. He decided to build larger barns and say to himself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." He worshiped materialism! But he was a fool. He didn't understand that that night his life would be gone, that he would die, and that he would have to give an account to God. And in Luke 16 we see a rich man and a poor man. The poor man died and went to the bosom of Abraham, but the rich man died and went to hell, where he was in torment. He had trusted in his riches, rather than in God. Do any rich people enter the kingdom of heaven? In 1 Kings 19 Elisha was plowing when Elijah came and touched him with his mantle, calling him to follow him. He stopped plowing, killed the oxen, gave a feast and left to follow Elijah. This was his response to the gospel. He didn't have any problem selling and distributing his wealth.
In 2 Kings 5 we read about Naaman, a successful Syrian general who was afflicted with leprosy. The gospel was preached to him by a young captive Israelite girl. Because of her testimony, he traveled to Israel to seek healing. The king of Israel could do nothing, but Elisha sent word to have Naaman come to him. Naaman expected this man of God to come out and do perform some miracle, but Elisha did not even come out of his house to meet him. Through a messenger he said, "Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed." Naaman became angry and almost lost his salvation. He was rich, wealthy and famous--why should he get off his camel and wash in the muddy Jordan river? But his servants pleaded with him, so he got off his camel, went down to Jordan River, exposed his leprosy to everybody, and dipped himself seven times. He was saved.
In Matthew 13, we are told about the treasure that is hidden in a field and the pearl of great value, both of which speak about the gospel and salvation. Seeing the treasure, a man covered it up, sold all that he had and bought it. Finding the pearl, the merchant sold everything and bought it. Why? God gave them revelation of the value of the kingdom of heaven.
It Is Hard for a Rich Man to Enter the Kingdom of Heaven
This materialism, this love for the world, is so serious. When Jesus said, "It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven," the disciples were astonished and asked, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus replied, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." The disciples were given revelation from God, and they were saved. But look at Lot's wife. She was almost saved, but instead became a pillar of salt. Look at Judas. He was with Jesus Christ. He heard so many sermons and probably preached the gospel himself, as well as healing the sick and driving out demons. But he did not experience salvation. He sold Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Look at Demas. Paul said, "Demas, because he loved this present world, has deserted me. . ." (2 Timothy 4:10).
Who is a rich man? He is one who trusts in his money, in his beauty, in his power, in his knowledge, in his false religion, in his self-righteousness. A rich man is any person who refuses to believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why does he not believe the gospel which offers free salvation? Because he is rich.
In Revelation 3 we are told that the church of Laodicea was rich. In fact, in 60 A.D. there was a great earthquake which devastated Laodicea. Rome offered to help rebuild the city, but the Laodiceans refused any aid, saying they had enough money themselves to rebuild. In Revelation 3:17 the church says, "I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing." That is the problem of rich people. They are self-sufficient and say they need nothing. When they hear the gospel, it does nothing to them. But what does Jesus say about this church? "You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked."
I am not saying riches and material possessions are bad, nor am I saying that rich people cannot go to heaven. Abraham, Job, and Joseph of Arimathea were all rich, but they did not trust in their riches. They trusted in God. A person can be rich and, at the same time, experience a sense of sin and unworthiness and lostness, so that he or she cries out to God like the publican, "Have mercy upon me, a sinner." Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
The Miracle of Salvation
The disciples were shocked. "Who then can be saved?" Here was a rich Pharisee who could not enter the kingdom of heaven. The Pharisee was saying that he did not need a Christ, and that he was able to save himself, even though God never accepts a Pharisee's definition of perfection and righteousness. But there was another problem. The Jewish people believed that if a person was rich, it was because he loved God and God had rewarded him with material blessings. If, as Jesus was saying, rich people favored by God could not enter into heaven, then the disciples reasoned that no one could be saved. Do you see the shock therapy Jesus was using? Don't ever think that the monies you are amassing are due to divine favor. If you are a Christian and if you have money, I assure you that you will not trust in your money. You will distribute it and do good with it, but you will trust in Jesus Christ alone.
"Who then can be saved?" We must be born again, born of the Spirit. Eternal life is a gift that God gives us. We are like the dead Lazarus (Ephesians 2:1-10; John 11) who was buried and rotting. To pretend that such a person can be justified before God by his own merit is foolishness. It takes a miracle for Lazarus to come out of his tomb. But there is one who kept all God's laws perfectly--Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, the Messiah, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, the Savior of the world. He was sent into this world, became man, and kept the law perfectly. He paid the penalty of our sins, and by his death our sins have been removed and punished. By his life of perfect lawkeeping he bestows upon us his perfect righteousness with which we can meet God who is perfect and good.
In Luke 10 Jesus told Martha only one thing is needful, and that one thing certainly is not money, but rather the gift of the perfect righteousness of God in Jesus Christ to us miserable sinners. By him we are saved forever and have eternal life. By him we are in the kingdom of God, which is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. The rich young ruler lacked one thing--he needed to leave all to follow Christ. We must leave all to become disciples of Christ. Isn't that true? We cannot trust in our mothers, fathers, jobs, money, children, position, education, profession, or anything else.
The shocked disciples asked Jesus, What about us? We left all. Do you think we will be saved? Oh, absolutely. Jesus promised three things: hundredfold houses, lands, and relationships, meaning we will be part of a newly-constituted people of God, the church; sufferings in this present world; and eternal life in the age to come.
There is a coming age, and it is coming soon. I counsel you to pray that God give you a sense of poverty and humility before this almighty God who is perfect, all-righteous, and all-holy. Don't ever say that you are not a sinner. That is delusion. When God's Spirit works in you, you will confess, "Have mercy on me, a sinner. I am lost." And if you are poor, you will repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will have eternal life.
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Copyright © 1995, P. G. Mathew
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