How Difficult It Is to Enter the Kingdom!
17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’ ” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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.” 26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
We ended last week’s sermon discussing whether or not access to the kingdom of God is easy or difficult. We said it was both. It is easy because even infants possess the necessary qualities for admittance. But it is difficult because only by becoming as hopeless as a newborn baby can we enter in. This goes against every natural tendency within us, to receive the kingdom like a child rather than to receive the kingdom like a victor. A victor receives the kingdom as a reward for his efforts. A child receives the kingdom only because it has been freely given to him.
To show why it is difficult for us to become like little children in order to receive the kingdom, we come now to the question we find in Mark 10:17. As Jesus continued on his journey toward Jerusalem, he was met by a rich man who ran up to him, knelt down before him, and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is the defining question for Jesus and his ministry. And it is the central question for religion to this day.
How Good Is Good Enough?
But before we get to Jesus’ answer to this question, we read verse 18 where Jesus first addresses rhetorically the title with which this rich man has addressed him. He had referred to Jesus as “Good Teacher,” and Jesus questions him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Why does Jesus take issue with this man addressing him as “Good Teacher?”
Maybe he suspects this man is only trying to trap him in his words much like the Pharisees have attempted on a few occasions (see Mark 10:2). Perhaps he is questioning the man’s sincerity by delaying the response to his actual question. In other words, Jesus may be saying something like this: “Why have you come to ask me about eternal life if you don’t really believe in me? Do you really think I am a good teacher? Are you ready to receive what it is I will tell you? Are you really willing to grant me the same authority as God?”
On the other hand, there is nothing here to suggest that this man has been sent by the Pharisees to test Jesus. It appears to be a sincere question. So there must be more to this initial response from Jesus. I think he is not dodging the question. Rather he is going straight to the heart of the question.
God is the standard of goodness
He begins by urging this man to consider more carefully the standard of goodness that he has in mind. The man has asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Another way to ask this is, “How good must I be to go to heaven?” It is a fair and honest question, but it makes one very wrong assumption. It assumes that God does not hold us to his standard of goodness, that he will accept less than perfect goodness.
You see the simple answer to this man’s question is this: In order to inherit eternal life you must be as good as God. The problem of course is that “no one is good except God alone.” Compared to God we are all evil and wicked and sinful. God is the only standard of goodness. No one can measure up to this standard. This is something that would have been widely accepted within Judaism in Jesus’ day. God was understood to be “good” in a sense that no one else could ever be.
Now this rich man was probably only addressing Jesus with a title of respect and meant nothing else by referring to Jesus as “Good Teacher.” And Jesus was not denying anything in regards to his own deity in asking “Why do you call me good?” But Jesus wants to get this man thinking deeply about his question and the concept of goodness. If we want to know what we must do to be “good enough” to enter into God’s kingdom then we must measure ourselves by the standard of God’s goodness.
God’s standard of goodness
So what standard do we have to reveal the goodness of God to us? We do not have to guess. If we want to know how good we must be to enter the kingdom of God, Jesus urges us to consider the commandments of God. The question was, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus now replies, “you must keep the commandments of God.” Why? Because these commandments outline the standard of goodness of God himself and the standard that God expects of us.
Jesus mentions six specific commandments, which are clearly meant to be only a representation of all that God commands. Five of the six come directly from the Ten Commandments. The prohibition against defrauding may be a summary application of the eighth and ninth commandments (do not bear false witness and do not covet). So Jesus has given the entire “second half” of the Decalogue which detail proper behavior toward other people. Here we have a moral checklist of sorts to reveal to us the standard of goodness which God expects of his people.
Jesus agrees with what was taught in the Scriptures. Those who obey God’s laws will live. “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 18:5). God has not hidden from us what he expects of us. He expects of us what is true of him. The obedience that God demands is not based on arbitrary laws. Neither are God’s laws first for the ordering of society. They are first a revelation of God. They are given to show us his standard of goodness that he expects us to follow.
Why we rebel against God’s standard
This is why the Bible says that God’s laws are good (Rom 7:12). God’s laws are good because he is good and the laws of God are a revelation of God. To the extent that we can see that we should have no problem agreeing with the psalmist when he said, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psa 119:97).
But we are more likely to rebel against God’s laws than we are to keep them. Why is that? It’s because we do not desire God. Our depraved hearts have an appetite for sin rather than for God’s goodness. We instinctively believe that God is not good and that what will truly satisfy us is something other than God.
Sometimes we rebel blatantly by doing what God forbids. But that’s not the only way to rebel. There is another way that is more subtle, and it is pictured for us in this rich man. Having heard Jesus refer to the commandments of God, he proclaimed, “all these I have kept from my youth.” (v. 20). This was not an exaggeration. The Jews did not think that the commandments of God were an impossible standard. It was believed that people could keep the entire law and thus be found blameless in God’s sight. The Apostle Paul himself claimed that as a Pharisee he had not failed to attain the righteousness of the law, being found blameless according to its demands (Phil 3:6). This man believes he has been obedient to what God has commanded. Yet he remains unsure that this is enough. He asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life” because he is concerned that all that he has done will not be sufficient to satisfy God’s demands.
Jesus does not challenge this man’s claim to righteousness by the law. And he does not question the man’s sincere desire to be right with God. Mark tells us that Jesus “loved him.” This is the only time in Mark that Jesus is said to love someone. Jesus wants this man to find what he is searching for. And he knows why this man has been unable to gain the assurance of eternal life that he desires. There is “one thing” that he lacks. “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (v. 21).
Jesus has diagnosed this man’s problem. What this man “lacks,” ironically, is helplessness. He has great possessions. He has fulfilled the law. He lacks nothing and that is why he lacks everything. His self-sufficiency is what is keeping him from being a disciple. Mark tells us that “disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (v. 22).
In giving this instruction to the rich man, Jesus was not appealing to the demands of the law. Nowhere else in Scripture are we commanded to take a vow of poverty. Jesus is not asking this man to become more pious. He knows what it is that is keeping this man away from the eternal life he seeks and he makes him face this enemy head on. The problem for this man is not desire but rather what he desires. And this is how this man’s heart has subtly rebelled against God.
You see, Jesus is inviting this man to become one of his disciples. But what stands in the way is this man’s earthly treasures. If he must decide between Jesus and riches, he chooses the latter. Jesus makes him decide because he knows what this man lacks is a desire for the kingdom. The kingdom is synonymous with the King. As we said last week, the King has no unhappy subjects. If this man does not desire the presence of the King more than anything else then he will not be satisfied with the kingdom.
But what about all his law-keeping? According to Jesus it was not enough. Without a desire for God himself all our obedience to God’s demands are only a subtle way of rebelling against God. Tim Keller explains,
You can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or by keeping all of them diligently. It’s a shocking message: Careful obedience to God’s law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God.
In other words, Jesus has identified the idol of this man’s heart. His religious devotion was only a cover-up for his idolatrous desires. But God cannot be fooled. Jesus unmasks the true desire of this man’s heart. He does not really want what God offers to him. He is more satisfied with what he can accomplish for himself.
This is what the idols of our hearts do to us. They are directing our affections away from the only One who can truly satisfy our deepest desires. And we all have our idols. Ask yourself this question: Are you content receiving what God freely gives you as a little infant who would have nothing apart from what God offers? Or would you rather “grow up” and seek out your own satisfactions? What is it that Jesus might ask you to give up only because it stands in the way of your devotion to him?
The idols of our hearts drive us away from following Jesus. We find ourselves pursuing a million lesser things because we do not believe that God alone is good. We think we can find satisfaction somewhere else or in something else. This rich man rejected Christian discipleship because he simply could not accept the fact that Jesus was better than his possessions.
And we can see why he could not accept that. Following Jesus leads to a cross. It simply does not look as inviting as what this man was able to accomplish for himself. How can we ever hope to so be satisfied with Jesus that our idols no longer have any appeal to us?
The Difficulty of the Kingdom
It won’t be easy. That’s why when the rich man walked away Jesus turned to his disciples and proclaimed, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (v. 23). Even the most devoted religious people like this rich man will struggle to see the infinite value of the kingdom over the treasures promised by our idols.
Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle
Jesus offers one of his noteworthy analogies to show just how difficult it will be for us to overcome idols in our quest for the kingdom. “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” (v. 25). There is no reason to soften the obvious force of the analogy by suggesting some clever reinterpretation to the imagery. Jesus is saying that it is impossible for a rich person to get himself into the kingdom of God.
The disciples understand just enough of what Jesus is saying that they are “amazed” (v. 24) and “exceedingly astonished” (v. 26) at his teaching. If it is that difficult for the pious rich man, what might that mean for everyone else? Riches were understood to be a sign of God’s blessing, so the point is that if even those who are blessed by God in this life cannot enter into the kingdom, then what hope is there for anyone. “Then who can be saved?” is their exasperated question.
All things are possible with God
The disciples have basically asked the same question as the rich man, only this time Jesus answers their question directly. “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (v. 27). His answer is first of all an agreement with their conclusion. It really is impossible for anyone to achieve the criteria for entrance into God’s kingdom. Left to ourselves, we have no hope of being saved.
But the impossible situation created by human depravity and the lure of idols is no dilemma for God. This is, in fact, where God seems to show up (see the impossible situation in Mark 9:20-27). Jesus tells us that real salvation is made possible only by God. We cannot find our own way into the Kingdom. Our situation is hopeless apart from the intervention of God.
The Reward of the Kingdom
Let’s summarize what Jesus has been saying. He told the rich man that if he wanted to do something to inherit eternal life then he needed to keep the commandments. But far from being a checklist to keep, the commandments are intended to reveal the character of God to us. So we fall short of the demands of God’s law if our commandment keeping does not lead us to follow Jesus and to desire him over everything else. Jesus calls his disciples to make him their Treasure and so to pursue him as their sole ambition in this life. The rich man walked away from Jesus because his possessions were a greater lure to him than Jesus was.
The cost of human commitment
But there were twelve other men surrounding Jesus who had seemed to accomplish this highest demand. Peter spoke for them, “See, we have left everything and followed you” (v. 28). Some of them had left successful careers in fishing and tax collection to shadow Jesus on his journeys around Israel. Their sacrifice was real as are the sacrifices of scores of other Christians throughout history who have denied themselves material satisfactions because of their commitment to Christ. These have witnessed to us that it is not impossible to be saved from the idols that enslave us.
The value of divine treasure
Commitment to Christ will look like sacrifice. Some will leave behind houses and family and possessions and fame and success to pursue their joy in Jesus (v. 29). But they will not do so reluctantly. Those who follow Jesus do so because they find their satisfaction in him. In reality, they sacrifice nothing.
The kingdom of God simply cannot be purchased. We don’t barter for it with our merits. We don’t earn it with our sacrifice. If we are tempted to say, “we have left everything and followed you,” Jesus says to us, “No one has to sacrifice anything to follow me.” He means that the treasure of Christian discipleship is so substantial that we will have no way of imagining that we ever gave up anything of any real value to follow Christ. David Livingstone, who spent his life as a missionary in Africa, understood this truth.
People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. . . . Away with such a word, such a view, and such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering or danger now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause and cause the spirit to waver and sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall hereafter be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice. Of this we ought not to talk when we remember the great sacrifice which He made who left His Father’s throne on high to give Himself for us.
And the treasure is not just what awaits us beyond the grave. It includes that, for in the age to come we will receive eternal life. But Jesus says “now in this time” we will receive a hundredfold more than what we might have gained by walking away from him.
What are the rewards to be received now for every true disciple of Jesus? Clearly Jesus does not mean we will receive a literal one hundred times the number of parents and children! There is nothing here to suggest that he is promising material prosperity, for along with the rewards promised are persecutions (v. 30). The promise is a new kind of existence in this life in which the currency may be different but the joys are just as real. This new existence is life in the kingdom of God.
So if Jesus is not promising material treasures, what is he promising? We are not told explicitly, but a good guess is that he is promising himself as this bountiful reward. He promises to be for us one hundred times the joys we might receive from anything else.
Our passage concludes with this pithy statement from Jesus: “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” The Christian gospel turns everything on its head. Only by setting aside the vain ambitions of this life in favor of Christ as our one holy ambition will we find the joy we long for, the joy of eternal life. What makes the kingdom difficult to enter is the lure of the idols of our heart. And the only hope we have of breaking free from these vain idols is found in the power of the gospel. It is by the gospel that God does the impossible and makes Jesus more desirable than anything else.
 Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (New York: Dutton, 2008), 36-37.
 Cited in Samuel Zwemer, “The Glory of the Impossible” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, Ralph Winter and Stephen Hawthorne, eds. (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1981), 259.