Whenever you study the Bible, if you study it thoughtfully, you will find things that are wonderfully reasonable and balanced. On the other hand, we sometimes find material that is startling and even jarring such as in Matthew 19.
The one thing that is the same in the latter half of the chapter is that people are coming to Jesus: first the parents with their children and second the rich young man. Jesus welcomed children, and it is proof of His gracious nature and visible goodness that children seem to have been drawn to Him.
Jesus also used the incident to teach about the nature of those who are the citizens of His kingdom, almost exactly as He had done in the teaching recorded at the start of Matthew 18. When the disciples were arguing about who should be greatest in the kingdom, Jesus put a little child in front of them, saying, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus is teaching the same thing here when He refers to the children who were brought to Him: “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
Here Jesus is teaching that those who would be saved from sin must become like children in their humility and simple trust in Christ. Arguing about being greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the surest way not to enter it.
Which brings us to the rich young man (Mt.19.16-22). Matthew, Mark, and Luke each tell us about him. All three say he was rich. Matthew adds that he was young. Luke says he was a ruler, presumably in one of the local synagogues. He is the first (maybe the only) example of a person who comes to Jesus and is not saved.
What is striking is that Jesus does not seem to try to win him over in spite of the fact that he was apparently very earnest. Walter Chantry notes, “how radically different Jesus’ approach was from what most evangelicals would do in like situations. The man was earnest. He wanted to be saved. He even asked a good question: ‘Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?’ In that kind of encounter most of today’s evangelicals would give the inquirer a three- or four-step presentation of the Gospel, ask him to make a personal commitment to Jesus Christ, and send him away with the assurance of salvation. Jesus did nothing of the sort.”
Jesus challenged the young man in regard to his notions about God: “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only One who is good.” He reminded him of God’s written law: “ ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother’ ” and “‘love your neighbor as yourself’.” At the end He called for repentance and faith in Himself: “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” That was the end of the interview. The young man was rich, and because he was unwilling to pay the cost of his possessions, he went away sorrowfully. Is that any way to win people to Christ?
Jesus thought so. Chantry points out that Jesus “demanded this turning from everything to Himself as a condition of discipleship for everyone,” concluding that because it fails to articulate this cost, much of today’s Church “is not preaching Jesus’ Gospel!”
What had Jesus done? He had confronted the man with the holiness of God and with the law’s demands. In listing the commandments, Jesus referred to the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and fifth commandments of Exodus 20, in that order, skipping over the tenth and coming directly to Leviticus 19.18 (“love your neighbor as yourself”) as a summary. It was a probing response, and when the young man replied in sincere self-righteousness, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus returned to the last of the Ten Commandments, the one he had skipped, knowing it was the man’s specific problem, and told him to sell his possessions. He was guilty of coveting his possessions, and because he was unwilling to sell them and give to the poor, he obviously did not love his neighbor as himself.
Does this mean that anyone who wants to follow Jesus must become poor? Not necessarily, for there are rich believers in the Bible. But it does mean two things. First, we have to recognize our sinfulness and know that we are condemned by God’s law rather than justified by it. Second, we have to repudiate anything that would keep us from following Jesus. For some that is money. For others it may be something else.
John Broadus writes correctly: “The test of this is different for different people. Some find it harder to renounce hopes of worldly honor and fame for Christ’s sake, than to renounce wealth; and for others the hard trial is to abandon certain gratifications of the various appetites or of taste. Abraham left his native country at God’s command but became rich and famous. Moses gave up the distinction and refined pleasures of court life and tried patiently to rule a debased and intractable people. Elisha left his property at the call of God through Elijah. Paul abandoned his ambitious hope of being a great rabbi. All should be willing even to die for Christ, though not many are actually required to do so.”
The specifics may be different, but the demand is the same for all people. To be saved we must deny ourselves, take up our crosses daily, and follow Jesus (Mt.16.24).
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org