Christ’s comment was not intended to make much of the children, but to teach that helpless dependence – like that of a child – is required for citizenship in God's kingdom. The phrase “kingdom of God” is another term for eternal life. Throughout this text the “kingdom of God” phrase is used by Jesus five times (verses 14, 15, 23, 24, 25). The young man used it in Mark 10:17. The fact that they mean the same thing is vividly clear when you consider his question: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” and then consider Jesus’ remark when the man sorrowfully trundles off: “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
We’re talking about the same thing, and for anyone to enter into the kingdom of God, for anyone to gain eternal life, you must come helplessly dependent on Jesus Christ. Eternal life will be graciously granted to those who submit themselves to Christ, who humbly come to Jesus in helpless dependence on Him. The kingdom of God is populated by those who have come to Christ as helpless children, forsaking all others and all things to follow Him.
How to obtain eternal life is the underlying framework of this entire section and the necessary helpless dependence of a little child is juxtaposed with the man who in verse 17 runs up to Jesus and asks, “Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” I’ll write more about that question in a moment, but before I do let’s get a portrait of the questioner in our head. What do we know about this man? We know that…
- He was eager. Mark says he “came…running.”
- He was humble. Mark says he “kneeled to him.” Not only that, but remember his question. To ask how to obtain eternal life is to admit that you don’t already have it. He publicly admitted as much.
- He was respectful. He addressed Jesus as “Good master.” There is nothing of the Pharisaical spirit about this guy.
- He was sincere. His question was genuine, not one engineered to entrap Jesus as witnessed earlier in chapter ten.
- He was rich. Evident not only by Christ’s comment in Mark 10:23, but by Mark’s admission that “he had great possessions” v. 22. Luke flatly states, “He was very rich” (Luke 18:23).
- He was a ruler. That’s what Luke says (Luke 18:18). This may be a reference to leadership of a local synagogue, or that he was simply a respected teacher and leader in the religious community. This is all very impressive, but it is even more so when you consider that…
- He was young. Matthew described him twice as young (Matthew 19:20, 22)
Now let’s consider the question that this eager, humble, respectful, sincere, rich, young ruler asked. “Good master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” There is certainly nothing wrong with that question. Do not take issue with it because he asked: “What shall I do?” The truth is that you must do something to be saved. You must repent and believe. Repentance and faith are necessary for one to gain eternal life. As Jesus said from the beginning of His ministry (Mark 1:14-15). This is not “works” salvation; it’s true, Biblical salvation and it’s all of grace.
Don’t take issue with the question. It was, and is, the right question for someone to ask. But not only did this man ask the right question, he asked the right Person. Too many people chase the right things down the wrong paths. There are so many counterfeit religions and so many devout followers of the same. This is because each one of us is hard-wired with an innate longing for that which is beyond us; that which transcends us. That is part of what makes us human, made in the image of God. Everyone tries to satisfy that longing which is intrinsic to all humanity, and a vast variety of methods are employed: religious, moral, professional, carnal, criminal, etc. In spite of his status, wealth, and youth this man was unfulfilled. His was an anxious, restless, heart. He knew that something was missing, and he understood that something was eternal life.
Because of the scriptures, the Jews had a solid understanding regarding the concept of eternal life. “Life” is the ability to respond to your environment. If you don't like my definition then take a look at a cadaver. See how well it responds to its environment. Life is the ability to respond to the physical environment. Eternal life, therefore, is the ability to respond to the divine environment. It is the ability to respond to God. This is why Paul mentions “heavenly places” four times in the first three chapters of Ephesians. When someone is saved he is seated in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, Paul says. Our citizenship takes on a divine character and we all of a sudden come alive to God and that's unending.
Eternal life, however, is not just a quantity of existence; most importantly it is a quality of existence. It is the idea of being sensitive and responsive to God. Before being saved I was dead in my trespasses and sins, utterly unresponsive to the divine environment. When I became a Christian – when I gained eternal life – I became capable of responding to the divine environment, and I will always be capable of responding to the divine environment.
Please understand that eternal life is not just living forever, because all of us will spend somewhere forever. Eternal life is a quality of existence which allows us to be alive to God; to possess the very Spirit of God. It’s a new birth. As Jesus told Nicodemus, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see into the kingdom of God.” Eternal life is unaffected by physical death. Indeed, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord! (2 Corinthians 5:8)
Now the rich young ruler knew that he didn't have eternal life, and he knew that he wanted eternal life. He appears to be the easiest evangelistic encounter in the Gospels! How would you respond to one who is so genuinely interested and enthusiastic? You might be tempted to tell this man, “Just believe” or “Say this prayer from your heart” or something along those lines. That isn’t how Jesus responded. We need to learn from the greatest evangelist in the world how to share with others the way to obtain eternal life. Jesus led this earnest young man along a series of soul piercing lessons which were (and are) vital for anyone who would enter into the kingdom of God.
Knowledge of God
The first lesson is a right understanding of God. I didn’t say a complete understanding; which is not even possible, but a right understanding of God. Recall how this fellow addressed Jesus? He called Him “Good master,” and Jesus answered, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Our Lord wasn’t being rude, but He was making a point. The Greek word translated "good" is agathos. It means “of good constitution or nature.” It’s not just outwardly good but inwardly, morally, naturally, and essentially good. Now, there is only one being who is good like that, and that person is God. By asking the young man, “Why are you calling me good?” Jesus was not suggesting He wasn’t God, instead He was directing this guy to think, “Do I believe this Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the Most High?” The man was right in calling Jesus good, but Jesus was calling him on this: “Do you realize that I am God?”
No one will inherit eternal life without understanding that Jesus is the God-Man; not half-god and half-man, but God incarnate; in the flesh (John 1:1-4; John 1:18). The essence of eternal life is to know the Father through the Son. As Christ said in His High Priestly prayer, “This is eternal life, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3)
Jesus is good, because Jesus is God. This must be understood for one to enter into the kingdom of God.
Knowledge of Yourself
To gain eternal life, not only must you understand who Jesus is, but you must understand who you are. That is the point behind the seemingly contradictory statement of Jesus in Mark 10:19: “Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother.”
I said that Christ’s statement was seemingly contradictory because the truth of the matter is that you may be counted righteous by perfectly keeping the Law. The problem is – and it’s a significant problem – that no one of us is able to perfectly keep the Law. Just read Psalm 14:3, Romans 3:10, Romans 3:23, and Romans 5:12.
If all of this is true (and it is) then why does Jesus answer the question “What must I do to inherit eternal life” with “keep the commandments”?! He said that so the young man would realize that he could not, had not, and would never be able to keep the commandments! All evangelism must take the imperfect sinner and place him up against the perfect Law of God so that he can see his sinfulness. Our evangelism cannot be driven by simply and only telling people that Jesus is the answer to all their needs, anxieties, inhibitions, and hang-ups. We must not be guilty of saying, “If you lack peace, hope, joy, or happiness then just try Jesus!”
Eternal life come to those who recognize their sinfulness, Christ’s sinlessness, and who through repentance and faith turn from their wickedness to be clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Salvation is for people who want to turn away from the things of this life and turn to God for eternal life.
Jesus nailed this young man with the Law so that he could understand himself; understand that he lived in violation and rebellion against a holy God. This man felt a personal need, but he had no sense of remorse over his sin. There was zero indication that he understood his sinfulness was an offense to God. He did not recognize that he was a sinner whose sin separated him from God and made him worthy of eternal punishment. So, our Lord takes the focus off of his felt need and puts it on God. He tries to show this young man that the real problem in his life is not what he doesn't have in his heart but what he does have already there, which needed to be made new. You cannot proclaim the grace of God without first proclaiming the Law of God, because no one understands what grace means unless he understands what law requires. No one understands mercy unless they understand guilt. You cannot preach a gospel of grace unless you've preached a message of law.
The question isn’t “Why did Jesus tell him that?” The question is, “Will the man now understand himself, his sinfulness?”
“Master,” he said in response, dropping the “good” this time, “all these have I observed from my youth up.” Sadly, this guy was not honest with himself about himself. Like Paul before his conversion, he believed his legalistic righteousness to be righteous enough (Romans 7:9; Philippians 3:9).
Knowledge of the Cost
The Lord is teaching this man, and us, vital lessons concerning who may enter into the kingdom of God. If you would enter the kingdom, inherit eternal life, you must have knowledge of God. Specifically that God is intrinsically and only good; perfect and sinless altogether, and that Jesus is God. Second, you must know yourself. Particularly that you are none of those things which God is. You must understand that you are a sinner who cannot perfectly keep the Law and meet God’s holy standard. Understanding this drives you to the fact that you need a Savior. Jesus is that Savior.
Admittedly, these lessons may, at first, seem a little unorthodox. Jesus’ statements: “Why do you call me good?” and “Keep the commandments” throw us off guard. The next statement of Jesus doesn’t disappoint either, but before we look at the Lord’s next comment, take a moment to picture Mark’s commentary. We read in Mark 10:21, “Then Jesus beholding him loved him.”
This is another indication of the man’s sincerity. He was no hypocrite, and Jesus loved him. Jesus was about to die for the sins of this man. Our Lord is not willing that any should perish. Whosoever will may come to Jesus and gain eternal life, but whosoever comes may not come on his own terms. All may come, but all who do will come on Christ’s terms.
Jesus taught this sincere young man one final lesson – knowledge of the cost – when He answered the question “What lack I yet” (Matthew 19:20) by saying: “One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.”
This fellow’s life was centered on himself rather than the kingdom. Jesus understood this, and that is why he told him to sell all that he had and give it to the poor. It is not because philanthropy is the key to the kingdom. Jesus Christ is the key, however, and this eager, humble, respectful, sincere, rich, young ruler loved his wealth more than the Messiah. He may not have looked like an idolater, but he was. The surgical comment from Jesus revealed a false god in his life. Money was his idol, and he was unwilling to forsake his false god for the one true God.
Which is why we went away sad. He didn't have to go away sad, but he did. He lacked the helpless, childlike faith necessary for entrance into the kingdom. He would not repent of his sin. He wouldn’t even admit them, and he was unwilling to forsake all things and all others for Christ. Eternal life is what he wanted, not the cross.
He failed every lesson. Not understanding that he was in the presence of the Most High. He showed no remorse over his sin; in fact he deluded himself, and others, into thinking that “all these I have kept from my youth.” He refused to turn from his sin and follow the Savior. He loved his little god too much to forsake it and follow the real God.
(Do you have to give everything away to be a Christian? No, no you don't. The Lord didn't say that to other folks. But you must be willing to do whatever the Lord asks you to do. That will be different for each person and situation, but the Lord put the finger on this man’s issue. What Jesus said in Luke 14:33 applies here.)
Do you know why this man went away sorrowful? For this reason, he understood the cost of eternal life, but he wasn’t willing to pay the price. He made the most crucial decision of his life based on the here and now rather than the hereafter. He must have forgotten the story of Moses as recounted in Hebrews 11:26.
He vividly proves that if we have everything but Christ then we have nothing. The real tragedy of the story is that he understood this lesson but trudged on home just the same.
Jesus had one more jaw-dropping statement to make, because He had one more lesson to teach. As the young man walked away sorrowful because of his great possessions, Jesus looked round about, and said to His disciples, “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! …Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
Once again the Twelve were standing slack jawed and staring bug-eyed at their Lord. Had they heard what He just said?!
Knowledge of God’s Grace
How easy it for a camel to be threaded through the eye of a needle? This is not a trick question. It’s impossible for a camel to go through a needle’s eye. I said, “Impossible.” This begs the obvious question then, and the Twelve asked it, “Who then can be saved?”
If it’s impossible for an eager, humble, respectful, sincere, rich, young ruler to be saved then is it possible for anyone to be saved?! Does this mean redemption is only available to the poor? Is salvation even possible?
The answer is “No.” This is where the fourth and final lesson is taught. Salvation is impossible – for man. Salvation is only possible by God’s grace. What man cannot do only God is able to do, and praise His holy name that He is willing to do it! To enter the kingdom, to inherit eternal life you must have knowledge of God and yourself. You must count the cost, and you must know that it is all and only by God’s grace. Eternal life not only has God as its goal, it has God as its source and beginning. Were it not for grace there would be no salvation. “With men [it is] impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible.”
Peter had watched and heard this entire encounter. We watched the man slip away. He was surely dumbstruck by Jesus’ comment. But only for a moment! More than any of the other Twelve Peter had the amazing ability to regain his speaking faculties at a quick pace. He blurted out, “Lo, we have left all, and have followed thee.”
Jesus’ response is a magnificent bit of encouragement. Following Jesus involves sacrifice, but Jesus promised that whatever is sacrificed for His sake and for the spread of the Gospel will be given back hundredfold; not only in this time, but in the age to come. This is a staggering promise, and not one that should be seen as a get rich quick scheme. Consider this: Jesus Christ is never a debtor. He always supplies our every need. Even when following Christ results in the loss of family, wealth, or health, He will abundantly supply the needs of His people.
The call goes out for all who will hear to forsake all that you have, take up the cross, and follow Christ. You do that and you will share in Christ’s triumph, receive far more than you have lost or will ever lose, and you’ll inherit eternal life! Far more is gained than is lost.