LOVERS OF WEALTH MUST CHOOSE BETWEEN FOLLOWING CHRIST OR CLINGING TO THEIR MATERIALISTIC VALUE SYSTEM (THE IDOLS OF POSSESSIONS)
Donald Hagner: The narrative now turns to the story of a young man whose great riches kept him from the full and unreserved commitment required of one who would become a disciple. This in turn leads to a brief discussion of the difficulty of the rich entering the kingdom (vv 23–26) and the rewards of sacrificial discipleship (vv 27–30). The absolute value of the kingdom provides the underlying unity of these passages. If the kingdom demands one’s all, the rewards more than compensate for the sacrifices.
Grant Osborne: (:16-30) This passage on wealth reverses that of becoming like a child in vv. 13–15 and yet at the same time tells how to become “like a child.” It turns to a major barrier against doing so—the riches and rewards of this world. The rich young man embodies this anti-kingdom perspective as he chooses wealth over following Christ. As Blomberg says, “The children turn out to be nearer to the kingdom than most might have suspected; the rich man demonstrates that he is further away than most would have guessed.” This passage also continues the emphasis on the household affairs of everyday life, now turning to the subject of money and its proper place. Finally, this story is in a sense an illustrative vignette of the saying in 6:19–21 (seek treasures in heaven, not treasures on earth).
Walter Wilson: As Jesus had explained in 6:24, it is not possible to serve both God and mammon. Wealth may not be an impediment to keeping the commandments (19:18–20), but it can be an impediment to following Jesus (19:21–22). . .
Much like the first pericope of the unit (see 19:3–9+19:10–12), this pericope has two parts, an exchange with a non-disciple about the law (19:16–22) being continued (and commented upon) by an exchange with the disciples about the kingdom (19:23–30). Each pericope begins (19:3, 16) with the non-disciple(s) approaching (προσέρχομαι) Jesus and asking him a question, to which Jesus responds with a counter-question (19:4–5, 17a). The first part of the second pericope (19:16–22) is organized around a series of three questions posed to Jesus by the rich young man (19:16, 18a, 20), while the second part (19:23–30) is subdivided by a question posed to Jesus by Peter (19:27). Besides casting Jesus in the role of a teacher fielding questions, the two parts are united by the catchwords “follow” (19:21, 27) and “eternal life” (19:16, 29), the latter creating a frame around the entire pericope. Indeed, by the time they reach the end of the pericope, the readers will have encountered an array of images for depicting participation in divine redemption: not only eternal life but also treasure in heaven, entering the kingdom, sitting on thrones, being “first,” and being “saved.”
I. (:16-22) GOOD INTENTIONS CAN’T GUARANTEE SALVATION –
ENCOUNTER WITH THE RICH YOUNG RULER
A. (:16) Desire for Eternal Life
- Coming to the Right Person = the Source of Truth
“And behold, one came to Him and said,”
- Asking the Right Question = How to Obtain Eternal Life
“Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?”
Daniel Doriani: Clearly, this man wants to know how he can fulfill the conditions that will let him obtain eternal life. He wants to know what he owes God. Better yet, what can he do so that God is obligated to him, so the Lord owes him eternal life?
Michael Wilkins: The “god” of a person’s life is whatever rules his or her values, priorities, and ambitions. The lack this young man sensed could not be filled with his wealth or his own religious efforts. It could only be filled with the perfection that comes through entering the kingdom of heaven and experiencing the inner transformation of heart; those two things will set him on the path to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect. The inner change will produce a transformation from the inside out.
Jeffrey Crabtree: The young man’s desire was right and his question revealed that he understood the purpose of Jesus’ message. Jesus was offering eternal life. However, the young man did not understand how to receive it. He was thinking works: “What good thing can I do?” Matthew’s readers know that humble belief, not works, is required (18:6) for entrance into the kingdom (21:31-32; 13:19; Lk. 8:12; Jn. 1:12; Eph. 2:8-9).
B. (:17-21) Discipleship Challenge
- (:17a) Redirecting the Conversation to the Absolute Nature of Goodness
“And He said to him, ‘Why are you asking Me about what is good?
There is only One who is good;’”
This young man comes to Jesus already evaluating himself as relatively a good person who still lacks something in his spiritual makeup. He is looking with great respect to Jesus to reveal that one secret aspect of performing righteousness that will put him over the top and secure eternal life. Clearly he needs to completely revamp his perspective on goodness.
J. Ligon Duncan: And Jesus’ response to this young man, in the very first words He says to him, shows us both Jesus’ deity and His ability to look into the hearts of men. I want you to look at verse 17 at what Jesus says when He responds to the young man. The young man says to Him, “What good thing must I do in order to obtain eternal life?” Jesus’ first response is to say, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good.” Now I want you to stop right there. And I want you to recognize what Jesus has done. In a few moments, this young man is going to claim to be good. When Jesus asks him to keep the commandments, this young man is going to say, “I’ve done that. I am a good person”. And I want you to notice what Jesus has already said to him before he ever says that. “No one is good except God.”
Do you realize what the Great Physician of our souls is doing here? He is diagnosing this man’s spiritual condition before the conversation ever begins. And He is saying, “Your fundamental problem is that you think that you are good. You think that you are spiritually wealthy before the Lord. You do not recognize your own poverty. No one is good except God.” And then He says, “Now, keep the commandments.” The Lord Jesus in this passing comment before He ever gives an answer to the man’s direct question is telling us that no one is good. . .
I want you to also see that Jesus in this passage zeroes in on the question of the nature of goodness. The nature of holiness. What does it mean to be good? That is a very important question. Over and over Jesus has said it means more than to be outwardly moral. Because our actions are not only seen in the outward things that we do, the reality of the goodness of our actions is not only seen in the outward things that we do, but in our heart attitude and why we do them. Goodness begins in the heart. And it is implanted there only by God’s grace. And so Jesus is zeroing in on the crucial issue here of what it means to be good.
Charles Swindoll: I like how Jesus didn’t let the man have control of the conversation for an instant. If we read Matthew, Mark, and Luke together, it seems that the man was engaging in a bit of flattery as well as self-justification. In response to being called “good” (Mark 10:17; Luke 18:18), Jesus suggested that the man didn’t know what he was saying: “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19). Matthew’s account notes how Jesus turned this flattery into an exposé of the man’s insufficient notion of “good” (Matt. 19:17). In the rich man’s eyes, moral or ethical goodness was measured on a horizontal scale —comparing righteousness among people. In the man’s worldly eyes, Jesus was pretty high on the “goodness scale.” Jesus blasted that whole concept of horizontal righteousness and replaced it with a divine standard: “There is only One who is good” (19:17). The standard for goodness and righteousness is not how much better we are than the people around us but how we measure up to God’s perfect holiness. . .
On the one hand, this is a valid offer. Theoretically, if a person had innate righteousness and goodness, he or she would keep all the commands perfectly, with a willing heart and humble spirit, as an act of loving worship toward God. Such a person —if they ever existed —would please God in every respect and would merit eternal life. Theoretically. In reality, the only person with such innate righteousness and goodness is the God-man, Jesus Christ. He alone was born without the total depravity and fallen sinful nature that characterizes humanity. He alone is “good” in the absolute sense. And He alone could live a perfect life in obedience to God’s commands and please Him in every respect. So, while Jesus stated the truth that keeping the commands could open the door to eternal life, He didn’t bother to tell the rich young ruler that it was impossible for anybody to do it but Himself!
Warren Wiersbe: Jesus forced the young man to think seriously about the word good that he had used in addressing Jesus. . . If Jesus is only one of many religious teachers in history, then His words carry no more weight than the pronouncements of any other religious leader. But if Jesus is good, then He is God, and we had better heed what he says.
Craig Blomberg: Jesus is diverting attention from the young man’s inadequate criteria for entering into life and focusing on the standard of divine goodness.
D. A. Carson: In the absolute sense of goodness required to gain eternal life, only God is good (cf. 1Ch 16:34; 2Ch 5:13; Ps 106:1; 118:1, 29). Jesus will not allow anything other than God’s will to determine what is good. By approaching Jesus in this way (esp. vv.16, 20), the young man reveals simultaneously that he wants something beyond God’s will (v.20) and that he misconstrues the absoluteness of God’s goodness.
Donald Hagner: The issue in Matthew, however, concerns the definition of the good. God has given the commandments precisely to define righteousness, and Jesus, loyal to the law, stands behind them. While Jesus interprets the meaning of those commandments, they themselves are the beginning point for the definition of righteousness. One who seeks eternal life should accordingly look to the commandments.
- (:17b-19) Relationships Viewed through the Prism of the Law Reveal Hidden Sin
“but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.
He said to Him, ‘Which ones?’
And Jesus said, ‘You shall not commit murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother; and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Stu Weber: The man’s next question revealed his misunderstanding still further. He did not understand that God required absolute perfection. He seemed to presume that God graded on a curve and that his “goodness” was better than many. Jesus let this man know that anything less than perfection is no “good” at all. A righteous man would have to keep all of the commandments perfectly. The man, grasping for possibilities, assumed that there must be some special set of commandments that made a person particularly righteous.
Daniel Doriani: We are tempted to question Jesus’ judgment here. When the rich man asks what he should do to gain eternal life, we expect Jesus to present the standard evangelistic reply: “You cannot do anything. You need to repent and believe and trust Jesus to do it for you. He offered God his perfect obedience all through his life, and he offers his obedience to you if you trust in him. Further, he died on the cross for you to atone for all of your sins, and he rose again to gain the victory over death.”
The standard reply is absolutely true, but Jesus said no such thing. He told the man who trusted in his strength to be strong and obey the law. Then, when the man asked, “Which ones?” Jesus surprises us again. We expect him to lead the man to the first, vertical commandments, “Have no other gods; cherish no idols; love the Lord of Israel.” But Jesus takes him to the horizontal or social laws: do not murder, steal, bear false witness. That, of course, is the sort of command the man thinks we can keep. Among the social laws, Jesus even neglects to say “You shall not covet” (Ex. 20:17)—the commandment that would have forced the man to examine his motives. So Jesus’ reply seems only to toss fuel onto the flame of the man’s inflated self-confidence. . .
Jesus does not quibble. He accepts the man’s self-judgment and moves on. It is as if he says, “Ah yes. Sorry. I was not aware of your achievement. You have perfectly fulfilled God’s law and want to do something more? Very well then, perhaps there is just one more thing you could possibly do: ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’” (19:21). . .
Of course, the Lord does not ask everyone to sell his goods and so to live as a disciple. If wealth is not our god, something else is. But the Lord asks everyone to give up something. There is a cost to discipleship for everyone; everyone must give up the god he worships. . .
Observe the way Jesus reaches hearts, then and now. When the man said he had perfectly obeyed God’s law, Jesus let the claim pass, without comment. He said nothing of the small, private sins that we commit every day: boasting and pride, envy and lust, self-pity and anger, gossiping and complaining. Instead Jesus gave him the great work he sought, because the command would become a mirror to the man’s soul, so he could see himself as he was. He would see that he was not quite the servant of God that he imagined. He was the flag on the rope as two teams—two gods—played tug of war for his soul. The rope danced back and forth as the claims of God and the claims of money tugged at his soul.
Stanley Saunders: When pressed to identify which commandments he has in mind. Jesus points the man toward the Ten Commandments, especially those which focus on human relationships, which he underlines by adding to the list the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (19:19; cf. 22:39; Lev 19:18).
Jeffrey Crabtree: Jesus may have used these particular commandments to show the young man his sin. The law promised life (Lev. 18:5; Dt. 30:11-20; Rom. 7:10; 10:5) to all who obeyed it but because no one was able to obey it fully (Rom. 8:3), the law only brought condemnation and death. As Paul later taught in Romans 7:7-8, one function of the law is to show sinners their sin and sinfulness (also 3:20). Jesus may have referred this man to the law, then, to convince him of his sin.
William Barclay: Jesus cites one commandment, as it were, out of order. He cites the command to honour parents last, when in point of fact it ought to come first. It is clear that Jesus wishes to lay special stress on that commandment. Why? May it not be that this young man had grown rich and successful in his career, and had then forgotten his parents, who may have been very poor? He may well have risen in the world, and have been half-ashamed of his family back at home; and then he may have justified himself perfectly legally by the law of Corban, which Jesus had so unsparingly condemned (Matthew 15:1–6; Mark 7:9–13). These passages show that he could well have done that, and still have legally claimed to have obeyed the commandments. In the very commandments which he cites, Jesus is asking this young man what his attitude to other people and to his parents is, asking what his personal relationships are like.
Grant Osborne: In v. 17 he turned the man’s focus from self to God, now he turns that focus also from self to others. The basic problem is that he has lived only for himself and his possessions. The Decalogue makes it clear that one can only find “life” by centering first on God (the first table) and then on others (the second table). “As yourself” (ὡς σεαυτόν, see further on 22:39) means to love those around you as deeply and as sacrificially as you love yourself. . .
The man needs ethical completeness, true obedience to all God has said in his revealed Word. So Jesus turns to the primary problem in the man’s life. His possessions have clearly become his god and have thus replaced God in his life. Therefore, the only recourse is to do what must be done with all idols: get rid of them. Moreover, if he is truly to “love his neighbor,” he must sell the idolatrous possessions and then give the money “to the poor.” This does not mean he had never engaged in almsgiving; he could not have said he had kept “all” the commands if he had not. Jesus is not talking about almsgiving but about idolatry.
- (:20-21) Repentance Hinges on Total Abandonment to Follow Jesus
a. (:20) Spiritual Blindness
“The young man said to Him,
‘All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?’”
b. (:21) Specific Discipleship Test Geared for the Rich Young Ruler
“Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’”
Charles Swindoll: When the young man claimed that he had kept all those commandments, Jesus let it go. I’m sure He could have poked and probed, revealing some area of neglect, a secret lust or hatred, a disrespect of parents, or some other blind spot. But instead, Jesus once again went straight for the jugular: in this case, the source of the man’s pride, power, and self-confidence —his riches.
J. Ligon Duncan: All of us have different sins that vex us. All of us have pet sins. And they’re different in each. Each of us have different temptations. Each of us have different inclinations. And those sins, those root sins, those grand sins which are the cause the source, the fountainhead of other sins, those sins give us a clue to the state of heart. We may look outwardly moral to everyone around us, but when we deal with ourselves in the quietness of our own room, and we look at our own hearts, and we know the things that we struggle with that maybe even those closest to us don’t know about, we know in our heart of hearts we are not good. We know that we cannot earn our way to salvation, because our hearts are in a state of rebellion. And Jesus is zeroing in on this man. He wants to get to his root sins. When Jesus says to him, “keep the commandments,” Jesus is not telling this young man salvation is by work- salvation is by earning it- salvation is by your good works- Jesus is using that statement as a spiritual diagnostic tool in order to force this man to look at his own heart and recognize that he hasn’t kept the law.
Jeffrey Crabtree: Jesus was specific about how the young ruler could possess eternal life, requiring three things:
(1) The young man was to dispose of his wealth. He was to liquidate everything.
(2) He was to give the proceeds to the poor. This was one way he could love his neighbor as himself, and his almsgiving would be transformed into eternal riches (Lk. 12:33). Ridding himself of his possessions would also free him of his worship of mammon (6:24) and the deceitfulness (13:22) and snare (1 Tim. 6:9) of riches. Then
(3) he would follow Jesus.
Jesus’ words were imperatival and called for a decisive exercise of the will: “Go!” “Sell!” “Give!” “Come!” “Follow Me!” Jesus did not choose for the man. He presented the requirements and encouraged the young man to make the right choices. “Sell” and “give” are decisive and denote urgency (Greek ingressive aorist). “Go” and “follow” denote positive commands that expect continuing action (Greek present). To “follow” Jesus is not a single event as when a person receives Him as Savior but an ongoing action beginning at conversion and continuing through life in a disciple-Lord relationship.
William Barclay: Here is the key to the whole passage. The young man claimed to have kept the law. In the legal sense, that might be true; but in the spiritual sense it was not true, because his attitude to other people was wrong. In the last analysis, his attitude was utterly selfish. That is why Jesus confronted him with the challenge to sell all and to give to the poor. This man was so shackled to his possessions that nothing less than surgical removal of them would suffice. If people look on their possessions as given to them for nothing but their own comfort and convenience, those possessions are a chain which must be broken; if they look on their possessions as a means to helping others; those possessions are a crown.
The great truth of this story lies in the way it sheds light on the meaning of eternal life. Eternal life is life such as God himself lives. The word for eternal is aiönios, which does not mean lasting forever; it means such as befits God, or such as belongs to God, or such as is characteristic of God. The great characteristic of God is that he so loved and he gave. Therefore the essence of eternal life is not a carefully calculated keeping of the commandments and the rules and the regulations; eternal life is based on an attitude of loving and sacrificial generosity to other people. If we would find eternal life, if we would find happiness, joy, satisfaction, peace of mind and serenity of heart, it will not be by piling up a credit balance with God through keeping commandments and observing rules and regulations; it will be through reproducing God’s attitude of love and care to our neighbours. To follow Christ and in grace and generosity to serve the men and women for whom Christ died are one and the same thing.
In the end, the young man turned away in great distress. He refused the challenge, because he had great possessions. His tragedy was that he loved things more than he loved people; and he loved himself more than he loved others. Those who put things before people and self before others must turn their backs on Jesus Christ.
Richard Gardner: The demand is a symbolic test of loyalty, a test that confronts every would-be disciple in one form or another: Will we serve God and seek first his kingdom, or will we serve wealth and status in pursuit of our ambitions (cf. 6:19-34)? When the rich young man goes away sorrowful (v. 22), he mirrors the tragic plight of all who choose the second option.
Leon Morris: It would seem that the young man was somewhat disappointed. He had come to Jesus looking for a brilliant new insight into the ways of God, a challenge that would stir the blood, some great deed to be done, after which his claim on eternal life would be certain. Instead all that had happened was that he had been referred to the commandments, old stuff that he had been keeping for years (“from my youth” is added in the other two accounts). . .
This does not mean that getting into heaven is a matter of rewards for meritorious acts. It means rather that the young man of this story was quite unaware of his failure to keep the commandment to have no other God but the one true God. He had made a god of his wealth, and when faced with the challenge he could not forsake that god. If his attitude to the true God had been such that he could have dispensed with his riches, then he would have had treasure in heaven, whether he gave them all away or not. But the challenge to get rid of them all showed that he did not have the right attitude to God. God demands undivided loyalty from those who would be his. “Come, follow me,” Jesus went on. This is the challenge he had previously made to the fishermen as they were at their nets (4:19) and to Matthew as he sat at his place of work (9:9). They did not have the riches of this young man, it would seem, but they left what they had and followed Jesus. They were prepared to sacrifice everything; that is the path of the service of God.
D. A. Carson: Many have taken these verses to indicate a two-tier ethic. Some disciples find eternal life, and others go further and become perfect by adopting a more compassionate stance (e.g., Harrington; NIDNTT, 2:63). But G. Barth (“Matthew’s Understanding of the Law,” 95ff.) convincingly disproves this exegesis. In particular the young man’s question in v.20, “What do I still lack?” clearly refers to gaining eternal life (v.17), and Jesus’ answer in v.21 must be understood as answering the question. A two-tier Christianity is implicitly contradicted by 23:8–12, and the same word (“perfect”) is applied to all of Jesus’ disciples in 5:48. Matthew shows no strong tendency toward asceticism. Therefore, the basic thrust of v.21 is not “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” but “Come, follow me.”
R. T. France: The young man’s request for some “good thing” to do has brought him face to face with goodness at a level which will prove too high for him. The “goodness” of keeping commandments is, as v. 17 has reminded us, always relative; Jesus now replaces it with a demand which is absolute, the demand of the kingdom of heaven.
The practical outworking of the man’s search for perfection thus takes an unexpected direction. Rather than some spiritual exercise or mystical pilgrimage Jesus first prescribes a very practical action. But this is no token gesture, but the total disinvestment and irrevocable disposal of everything that has provided the basis for his “good” life so far. He has no doubt, like all pious Jews, made regular and generous contributions to the relief of the poor and disadvantaged within his community (that is at least part of what he would understand by “loving your neighbor as yourself”), but Jewish charity operated within prudential limits, whereas Jesus puts no limit to his demand. To follow it will place this self-sufficient young man in the same position as the birds and the flowers in 6:25–32, depending directly on the provision of a heavenly Father for the essentials of life.
But even this radical action of dispossession is not simply another “good thing” to do; it is the prelude to something even more far-reaching. The imperatives “sell” and “give” are followed by “come” and “follow;” the essence of Jesus’ demand is not disinvestment but discipleship. So the giving up of possessions is not presented as a sacrifice desirable for its own sake, but rather as the means to something far better—treasure in heaven. . . The release from material preoccupation is not in itself the secret of eternal life; it is the introduction to a new way of life as a disciple of Jesus: “follow me.” It is in this, rather than in the act of renunciation and generosity alone, that the eternal life which the man is looking for will be found. This is the treasure in heaven.
C. (:22) Decision to Cling to Possessions Rather than Abandon All and Follow Christ
- Best Gospel Message from the Best Messenger Doesn’t Guarantee the Best Results
“But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieved;”
S. Lewis Johnson: Someone has said that the rich young ruler came to the right person, asked the right question, got the right answer, but made the wrong decision. That is true. It is sometimes said by young men, even in theological seminaries, that when love is felt the message is heard. We often hear people make a stupid comment that if we really love people they will respond to the ministry of the word of God. That is not true. No one ever loved more than Jesus Christ, and yet this man did not come. No one ever loved more than the Apostle Paul who was human, and yet men did not always respond to the apostle’s messages. As a matter of fact they did not generally respond. The Lord Jesus loved perfectly and only a small remnant of men responded. When love is felt the message may be heard or the message may not be heard.
Michael Wilkins: The young man knows that Jesus has correctly pinpointed what is lacking in his life. His “great wealth” (lit., “many possessions”), which include money, but also his houses, land, animals, and so on, has captivated his heart, and he cannot exchange this god of his life for Jesus (cf. 6:21–24). So he goes away with great distress (cf. 26:22, 37), because he knows deep in his heart that he has made a decision that will have eternal consequences.
- Earthly Possessions Can Prove More Enticing than Kingdom Treasures
“for he was one who owned much property.”
Jeffrey Crabtree: Matthew’s syntax, literally “was having,” may suggest that this young man had possessed this wealth for some time. He was accustomed to wealth. Hagner (33B:558) thinks the words suggest that he was preoccupied with his wealth. Apparently, wealth was so important to him that he would not do as the Lord required and he walked away. In exchange for his soul (16:26), he chose wealth. He chose his present possession over the one pearl of great value (13:46) and over the treasure in the field (13:44). He did not get past the first requirement of discipleship (16:24). The young man whom Jesus loved walked away from the one who was on His way to the cross to save his soul.
This is the only person according to the Gospel records that Jesus told to sell everything. The Twelve “left all” to follow Him (v. 27), but even they had not given away their properties (Mt. 8:14). This means that complete obedience to Jesus is required of all, but the individual orders are not always the same. All who would follow Jesus are required to repent and trust Jesus as Savior and Lord. How that is lived out will be different for each person and can mean selling all, leaving family (Mt. 8:22), leaving occupations (Mt. 4:18-22; 9:9), staying home and witnessing (Mk. 5:18-20), or whatever He directs (Mt. 16:24-25; Jn. 21:22).
Robert Gundry: In telling why the young man went away sorrowing, the explanation “for he had many acquisitions” illustrates Jesus’ having said that “where your treasure is, there will be your heart too” (6:21 [see also 6:24; 19:23–24]). “He had many acquisitions” contrasts both with the selling he’d told the young man to do and with Jesus’ having told the Twelve, “You shouldn’t acquire gold or silver or copper [coins] [and so on]” (10:9–10a). “Acquisitions” defines the young man’s possessions as things he’d gotten as a result of coveting in violation of the commandment left conspicuously unquoted. This youth’s going away from Jesus therefore presents a sad contrast with the little children who came to Jesus in 19:13–15. But just as that earlier passage threw open the church to youth, the present passage calls on youth to renounce affluence in order to become true disciples of Jesus.
David Turner: Jesus alone determines what is genuine Torah obedience. His demand for total commitment to the kingdom is in reality a gracious gospel offer that calls the man to rely not on wealth but on Jesus and the values of the kingdom (cf. 6:21, 24; 13:22). The young man walks away from Jesus in a very sad frame of mind. Jesus has identified the inadequacy that haunts him, but he is not yet willing to obey Jesus. . .
At this point Jesus gets to the heart of the problem by commanding the man to give his wealth to the poor and become a disciple. In effect, Jesus asks the man to reprise a role previously scripted in two parables (13:44–46). The man will lose everything, but he will gain Jesus and the kingdom, which he has lacked all along (16:24–26). His sorrowful departure demonstrates he has not loved his neighbor as himself (19:19) and thus he has not kept all the commandments after all. Jesus did not directly cite the tenth commandment, “You must not covet” (Exod. 20:17), but the man’s response clearly shows that he has broken it. Finally the man implicitly acknowledges what he lacks. His wealth has become an idol, and he is violating the first commandment (Exod. 20:2–3). His refusal to do a good thing—to divest himself of wealth and follow Jesus—shows that he does not acknowledge God’s goodness. He serves money, and so he cannot serve God (Matt. 6:24). “Jesus demands not alms but everything” (W. Davies and Allison 1997: 46; cf. Calvin 1972: 2.256–57). But materialism prevents him from seeking the kingdom first (6:33). His sorrow indicates not only that he is not ready to follow Jesus but also that now he knows what he lacks. Perhaps he eventually will follow Jesus’s instructions, since “with God everything is possible” (19:26).
II. (:23-26) SALVATION DEPENDS ON THE POWER OF GOD
A. (:23-24) Difficulty of the Rich Entering the Kingdom
- (:23) Statement of the Difficulty
“And Jesus said to His disciples,
‘Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.’”
R. T. France: The story of one man’s spiritual failure becomes the model for a general and emphatic pronouncement by Jesus (see on 5:18 for “I tell you truly”), which picks up and takes further the warning in the interpretation of the parable of the sower that “the worries of this world and the false lure of wealth [can] choke the message [so that] it cannot produce a crop.” (13:22) Whatever the specific pressures faced by the young man, his experience is now universalized as the danger which faces “the rich” in general.
Grant Osborne: The wealthy have so much power and control over this life that they perceive little need for the heavenly realm, as exemplified in the young man in the previous encounter. It is “hard” for such a person to turn to God.
- (:24) Illustration of the Difficulty
“And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,
than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Grant Osborne: Jesus’ analogy for the degree of difficulty has been long misunderstood. Many still say that it refers to the Needle’s Eye Gate in Jerusalem, a low opening that would be hard for a camel to get through. However, no such gate existed in Jesus’ time! Others have said “needle” simply refers to a low opening like the narrow door of 7:13–14 or they see it as a “rope” (κάμιλον as opposed to “camel” [κάμηλον] in the text). Such attempts to water down the imagery are unnecessary; this is rabbinic hyperbole (e.g., “straining the gnat but swallowing the camel” in 23:24), a stylistic device Jesus uses often. It depicts the largest animal in Palestine (a camel) going through the smallest hole (the eye of a needle) to illustrate how “difficult” it is for the wealthy to know God.
William Barclay: Riches have three main effects on people’s outlook:
1) Riches encourage a false independence.
2) Riches shackle people to this earth.
3) Riches tend to make people selfish.
B. (:25-26) Possibility of Salvation by the Power of God
- (:25) Difficulty Astonishes the Disciples
“And when the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said,
‘Then who can be saved?’”
Grant Osborne: Here the astonishment is caused by the general Jewish belief that riches actually signified favor with God, who blessed the piety of the family with earthly rewards. So for them the rich young man with his superficial piety was in reality one of God’s chosen. His wealth “provided the possibility of both deeds of charity (almsgiving) and leisure for the study of Torah and the pursuit of righteousness.” If it is impossible for such a one to enter the kingdom, who can?
Warren Wiersbe: We cannot follow the King and live for worldly wealth. We cannot serve God and money. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim. 6:6-10). Jesus Christ demands of all who will follow Him that they love Him supremely.
Donald Hagner: The fact that the young man was unwilling to respond to Jesus’ invitation to discipleship raises the question of the salvation of the wealthy. Granted the perspective of Jesus in the preceding pericopes, is it possible for the rich to be saved, and if so, how?
- (:26) Difficulty Overcome by the Power of God
“And looking upon them Jesus said to them,
‘With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’”
Daniel Doriani: The rich are prone to trust in their wealth and connections. Their savings become their security. The poor may find it easier to see that they must trust in the Lord and no one else. But what is impossible for us is possible with God. It may be harder for a rich man to humble himself like a child, but God can touch and change any heart.
R. T. France: The young man exercised his freedom to decline God’s invitation, and it seems that the God for whom everything is possible is not prepared to override that decision. The pericope taken as a whole thus offers a salutary warning: anyone can be saved by God’s grace, but this does not remove human responsibility. The possible only becomes actual when Jesus’ call to “follow me” is freely obeyed.
Stanley Saunders: Jesus’ statement that only God, not humans, can make this happen is not meant as reassurance to the rich that God will find a way to get them in despite their baggage. He means, rather, that salvation is dependent on God, not on the things humans accumulate—whether possessions, power, honor, or security—in order to justify themselves and, they suppose, complete and perfect their lives. The prophets persistently warn against the corrosive power of wealth and its uselessness in the face of divine judgment (e.g., Amos 6:4–8; Ezek. 7:19–20). While God promises to bless faithful Israel with wealth (Deut. 28:1–14), God does not bless those who build up wealth at the expense of others.
Charles Swindoll: Wealth encourages false independence and blind arrogance. This is illustrated well in Jesus’ message to the church in Laodicea recorded in the book of Revelation. In His words of rebuke to that lukewarm church, He said, “You say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17).
Again, Jesus turned the Jews’ socioeconomic world on its head. Rather than being a blessing, wealth is seen as a heady intoxicant. It leads people into thinking they don’t actually need God. Unlike children, who have no power, no defense, no resources, and no ability to accomplish what they want in life, the rich are blindly self-sufficient, independent, and proud. Truth be told, being rich has a way of luring our eyes away from the Lord and onto the things of this world. It creates a stubborn resistance against humble and helpless dependence.
Left to himself in his state of self-centered pride and self-justifying piety, the rich young ruler was hopelessly lost. In such a condition, the man’s salvation wasn’t merely difficult —it was impossible. Jesus’ image of squeezing a large camel through the tiny eye of a needle was meant to communicate the utter impossibility of stripping oneself of pride and working oneself to heaven. The disciples understood this well when they asked, “Then who can be saved?” (Matt. 19:25).
Jesus’ answer cleared up the matter and taught an essential lesson on the biblical doctrine of salvation (19:26). Self-effort of any kind does not result in salvation. That is, salvation is impossible by human effort. But when God does a work in a person’s heart by the power of the Holy Spirit, He brings that person to humble faith in Christ, repentance from self-reliance, and submission to His authority. With God, any heart can be changed. What’s impossible for people to accomplish is entirely possible for God. The rich young ruler’s problem wasn’t his riches per se, but the deceptive self-importance that accompanied his wealth. Just as the man may have earned extreme prosperity by human effort, he wanted to earn eternal life by doing good things. Impossible! Eternal life can’t be earned and can’t be bought. It can only be received by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (Eph. 2:8-9).