By Pastor Glenn Pease
This is the story of the rich young ruler who, unlike the rich old ruler, Nicodemus, did not come to Jesus by night, but came to Him publicly in the daytime. All three of the synoptic Gospels tell the story, and each add something extra to the total picture. Matthew tells us he was young. Luke tells us that he was a ruler, and all three tell us that he was rich. Riches are stressed because it was not his youth or his position, but his possessions that played the major role in his great refusal. We want to look at his experience in three stages.
I. THE SEEKERS DESIRE. v.17.
Jesus was about to set out on His last journey to Jerusalem, and almost as if He knew this night would be His last chance, a young man ran up to Jesus, knelt before Him and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life? Now that is a significant question for anybody to ask, but it is even more significant in the light of the fact that this young man was a ruler in the synagogue, and was very rich. He had power, position, popularity, and possessions, plus a pure life, and was no doubt a perfect picture of spiritual success according to all the standards of contemporary Judaism. Yet, we see him running to Jesus before He gets away, and asking what he must do to have eternal life.
Where could we find greater evidence of the truth that by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified? This young man had heard Jesus speak of the life he came to give, and he was honest enough to admit that he had a desire for such life, and an empty spot in his life that nothing else had been able to fill. The degree of his desire is not only revealed in the fact that he ran, but in the fact that he came to Jesus openly when the Pharisees had threatened to excommunicate from the synagogue all who followed Christ.
Jesus knew there was a deep desire in this young man, but He knew also that he had a deep delusion as to his own capacities of goodness. He calls Jesus good master, and then asks what he must do, just as if to say, "you just tell me what has to be done to please God and be saved, and I'll do it." The first thing Jesus did was to shatter this whole false concept which was so common because of the self-righteousness of the Pharisees of that day. We know he was either a Pharisee or greatly influenced by them, for Sadducees did not believe in eternal life as the Pharisees did.
Jesus says, "Why call me good, no one but God alone is good." In other words, let's not start on this subject as if the source has no significance. God is the source of all goodness, and anything we do that is worthy of being called good is not due to our selves, but to the grace of God. Jesus refused to let religion become a mere matter of ethics where if you do more good than bad God rewards you with a home in heaven. People tend to do this, and forget that God is not only the omega, but also the alpha. He is the beginning and the end, and if we are to talk sensible about goodness, we must start with God, and see Him clearly as the source. This will eliminate self-righteousness from the start.
Jesus was not denying that He was good, but simply indicating that if the young man saw goodness in Him, it was because he was from God, the source of all goodness. Nor was Jesus denying that the young man was good in the sense of moral and ethical purity. Jesus did not teach that man could not be good, on the contrary, He says in Luke 6:45, "The good man out of the good treasure of His heart brings forth good..." We make a mistake if we think all men outside of Christ are equally sinful. The Scripture says they are equally lost, but not equally evil.
Total depravity does not mean man is as bad as he can be. It means that in no way is he as good as he ought to be, or must be to be pleasing to God. Jesus just wanted to help this young man to unlearn his shallow concept of goodness, and cause him to see he was using the term too loosely without due recognition that all true goodness is only a participation in the goodness of God. But Jesus recognized the sincere and honest desire of his heart, and so he went on to give answer to his request, and so we see next:
II. THE SAVIOR'S DEMAND. vv. 19-21.
Jesus knew that as a ruler in the synagogue He knew the law of Moses well, and so He just repeated the last six of the ten commandments dealing with moral conduct, and He said, "Certainly you know these." The young man said, "Yes, I know them. I have kept them since I was a boy. I have been trained in the Jewish faith well, and I live up to my best knowledge of it." But he implies that he is not satisfied, and that he has no assurance of this abundant and eternal life which Jesus speaks about. He wants Jesus to tell him what more he needs.
You might say that all of this is not in the text. That is true, but it is clearly implied, for Jesus looked on him and loved him. This shows us that this ruler was not a self-satisfied Pharisee trying to trick Jesus. He was a true seeker, and a very good man. Jesus said there is one thing you lack, and when Jesus sees only one thing lacking we can be sure that he was really just about as good as he thought he was. Jesus, however, went on to make a demand of this young man that revealed a lack that was spiritually fatal. He told him to go sell his possessions and give the income to the poor, and then he would have treasure in heaven, and then he could come and follow Jesus.
The first thing to notice about this demand is that it is an exceptional case, and is, therefore, not to be taken as a pattern for everyone, for it was not what Jesus demanded of others. This was a very unusual thing for Jesus to do. Ordinarily He welcomed people to come to Him, and though many ceased to follow Him because His demands were too great, we do not see Jesus asking men to give up all their possessions to follow Him. Jesus accepted the plan of Zaccheaus to give half of his goods to the poor. Why then did He make it so hard on this eager young ruler? Jesus, as the Great Physician, does not deal with His patience in a stereotype manner. He has no cut and dried procedure. He prescribes the medicine to fit the disease. He does not give cough syrup for cancer, nor penicillin for pimples. If a problem is mild he prescribes a mild remedy, and if serious, he uses powerful medication, or even radical surgery.
This almost perfect moral young man appeared to be as spiritually healthy as one could possibly be, but Jesus saw something in him that called for radical surgery if he was to ever find eternal life. I am sure the Bible records the fact that Jesus loved this young man just because his demand would seem to be so cruel as to make us wonder. I am sure a doctor takes no delight in discovering cancer in one of his patients, but once he does he has no choice but to do all he can to save his patient. No matter how radical and painful the procedures might be he has to move ahead. This is exactly the case here when Jesus looked into the heart of this earnest seeker and saw the cancer of covetousness. Outwardly he was dedicated to God, but inwardly he was devoted to gold, and it may well be that he did not even know it until Jesus touched his inner idol and asked him to give it up.
The one thing he lacked was a total commitment of his total being to God. He had one area of his life reserved for self, and that was his possessions. His possessions possessed him. It was only one area of his life that was not yielded to God, but it made all else worthless for eternal life, for it was an idol that took the place of God as the ultimate value in his life. One thing of this magnitude is all it takes to rob you of God's best. F.B Meyer tells about when the power plant at Niagra was finished it would not work. Scientists and engineers failed to solve the problem. They sent to Scotland for Lord Kelvin. When he arrived he spent ten minutes and found the problem. Everything was perfect and ready to go but on thing was lacking, but that one thing made all that was right of no value until the one thing was fixed.
So it is in the spiritual realm. We do not say that there are not good people who live pure and honest lives apart from a dedication to Christ, but we must say, if the Gospel is to have any meaning at all, all of man's goodness without Christ lacks the one thing needful to make it of any eternal value. All but one is as good as none when that one is Jesus Christ.
Jesus had to be radical in his demand on the rich young ruler because he was so utterly deceived by the power of possessions. He kept all the commands dealing with conduct, but was unaware that he was breaking those more spiritual ones dealing with our loving God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. Love of wealth had subtly infiltrated his inner man and had gone so far that when it came to showdown as to who was to be his God-the Lord or mammon-he chose the last, and thereby became an idolater.
Jesus eased the tension as much as possible by appealing to the fact that he would have reward in heaven, but the sacrifice was too great and he couldn't surrender and submit to the Lordship of Christ. It was too great a risk. The cost was too high, and he was not sure he wanted to gamble with the good life he now had. Some men are in the street widening business. They try to make the straight and narrow way a super highway, and open it up to all, but Jesus makes it clear that under no circumstances will God share His throne with any false God. Jesus had no convenient plan by which you raise your hand, come forward, and receive eternal life, and then ignore Christ and the church the rest of your life, and go on serving your petty idols with the hope that heaven will offer you even more of what you love most in time. What must I do was the question of the seeker, and the answer was to renounce your idol, but the price wasn't right, and so we see thirdly-
III. THE SEEKERS DESPAIR. v. 22
He came seeking and went sorrowing. He came with hungry desire, but went with heavy despair. No one ever goes from Christ and is glad about it. There is no substitute for the Savior. It is either sacrifice your idol and surrender to His lordship, or go your way in sorrow. You can decide to go, but you can't decide to be happy about it. You would think that if it made him sad to chose the way he did, he would realize the folly of his choice. This is the hope that many have for this young ruler. Certainly, they say, he must have come back to Christ at a later time after he thought over his decision. Many others, however, feel that if that was the case we would have a record of it, and so it is likely that he was lost even though loved by Christ.
There are good arguments on both sides, and there is no way of knowing which one is true. One's theology does not determine one's view, for Calvin thought he was lost, and Spurgeon, a strong Calvinist, felt he was saved. All we have in the record is that he chose gold over God and silver over the Savior. The value of the whole account for us is that it teaches a very serious and solemn truth. To try and give God only second place in your life is to give Him no place at all, for He will not share His throne. He is either Lord of all, or not Lord at all.