When a wealthy young man asked Jesus what he needed to do to enter God’s kingdom, Christ gave a surprising response. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Luke with a sermon on the depth of our sin and our need for God’s grace.
This morning we will continue our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. I will be reading this morning Luke 18:18–30, Luke’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler. I would ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”
And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”
So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.
And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For 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.”
And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?”
But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”
Then Peter said, “See, we have left all and followed You.”
So He said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or parents or brothers or wife or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who shall not receive many times more in this present time, and in the age to come eternal life.”
What you have just heard comes to us from the lips of Jesus, the supreme authority over all things, for He reigns as the King of kings and Lord of lords. He has thus spoken for our instruction and sanctification. Please receive His words as such and be seated. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, we are helpless and hopeless to understand the depths and riches of Your Word unless You stoop to our weakness by sending the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit, to illumine the text we have just heard for our edification. So, we plead with You for Your help in this hour. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
The Unsatisfied Young Ruler
Jesus was used to thundering multitudes thronging about Him, pushing, shoving, trying to get close to Him. People screamed out of their agony and afflictions. The leper cried, “Lord, help us,” and the blind and deaf cried out to Him in their need.
If we look at this story—not only in Luke’s version of it, but also the accounts by Matthew and Mark—we see that the man known as the rich young ruler did not come to Jesus in a casual manner. Rather, he raced to Him, running as fast as he could, with an intensity about him. He did not come asking to be healed of a certain malady. He was not sick as much as he was curious.
The young ruler came with a question, which Luke tells us: “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” What would prompt a man like this to rush to Jesus with this question? The Bible tells us that he was exceedingly rich, that he was young, and that he was a ruler with a significant amount of authority and power.
From an earthly perspective, the rich young ruler had what everybody else wants and seeks to attain. He had all the wealth he would ever need. He had his youth, which had not departed from him, and he had what Friedrich Nietzsche called the highest aspiration of any human being: power and authority. But the young ruler was not satisfied.
The Young Ruler’s Burning Question
Do you know people who are wealthy, young, in a place of fame or authority, and not satisfied? In one sense, the young man was wise beyond his years, because he realized that no matter what he did or how hard he tried, he would never be able to keep his youth. No one does; no one can. The young ruler also knew that his riches were subject to the fluctuations of the worldly markets and vulnerable to the thief who would steal from him. Whatever wealth he had was not enough; it never is. The position of authority he enjoyed could also slip out of his hands or be taken away from him overnight. The young ruler at least had this going for him: he knew that he did not control his future absolutely. He knew he did not have security that would last forever.
We do not know how much the rich young ruler knew about Jesus. We do not know whether he had heard Jesus preach or seen Him perform miracles, but I suspect from the context of this account that he must have heard Jesus preach, probably on multiple occasions, because the most popular subject our Lord spoke of in His teaching was the kingdom of God.
The man’s burning question was this: “How do I get in the kingdom of God? What do I have to do to gain the greatest inheritance a human being could possibly have, the possession of the kingdom of God?” The young ruler would not be denied. He ran, pushed, got to Jesus, and fell on his knees before Jesus, pleading with Him to answer his question: “What do I have to do to inherit the kingdom of God? Good Teacher, tell me how I can do this.”
No One Is Good but One
Jesus offered a strange response to the young ruler’s question. He did not say, “First, you have to do this, and second, you have to do that.” Jesus did not give him a list to follow in order to secure the inheritance he sought. Rather, Jesus stopped him in his tracks for the way He was addressed. He said, “Why are you calling me good? Don’t you know the rudimentary principles, the elementary precepts of good theology? I know Paul hasn’t written Romans yet, but you ought to be able to anticipate that there are none righteous, no not one. Don’t you know that there are none good except God? So why do you call Me good?”
Some critics look at Jesus’ response and say, “Jesus is denying that He’s God because He says that only God is good, and since He rejects this appellation from the seeker that He is good, He must therefore be denying His deity.” By no means. Jesus knew very well that the man did not know who He was. Jesus knew that the rich young ruler did not know that He was asking this question of God incarnate.
From the young man’s perspective, Jesus was merely a sagacious human being, but a good one. Jesus said: “No, don’t call me good. You don’t have the first idea of what goodness is.” He challenged the man for his loose understanding of goodness: “No one is good but One, that is, God.”
Let me pause. The rich young ruler did not understand Jesus’ statement, and my guess is that most people today do not understand it either. We are used to flattering ourselves as being good people, or at least we are not as bad as the next person. We are like the Pharisee in the temple saying, “I thank you, Lord, that I’m not like that wretched tax collector over there.” We, disobeying the teaching of the Apostle Paul, judge ourselves by and among ourselves, and therefore we are not wise. We say, “Goodness is a relative term, and, relative to the standards of this world, we’re pretty good.” God, however, does not judge us by the standards of this world. God judges us by His own standard of holiness. The mandate He gives to His creatures is this: “Be holy as I am holy.”
God does not lower the bar of judgment to accommodate us. He does not grade us on a curve. He grades our goodness according to the eternal standard of His own nature. When we are judged according to that standard, we miss it. We fall far short of the glory of God.
Jesus’ Pop Quiz on Goodness
The rich young ruler was smug when he said, “Jesus, Good Teacher.” Jesus responded, “No one is good but God, so why are you calling Me good?” Then Jesus began to give him a pop quiz to test his understanding of what goodness is and how it is considered.
Jesus looked to the Decalogue, to the Ten Commandments, and said: “You know the commandments. Do not commit adultery. Do not murder. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness. Honor your father and your mother.” Do not ask me why Jesus changed up the order of the Ten Commandments from the way they appear as given by Moses and repeated in the New Testament. Do not ask me why He started where He started, without starting at the beginning of the Ten Commandments.
Jesus said to the young ruler: “You know the commandments. You went to synagogue. You did your bar mitzvah. You know you’re not supposed to kill or commit adultery, and you’re supposed to honor your father and your mother.” The man was not impressed: “Is that all I must do to enter the kingdom of God? Keep the Ten Commandments? I’ve been keeping those things since I was a boy. I keep them every day.”
Luke gives us a shortened account of the conversation, I am sure, but if I can speculate a little bit, I can imagine Jesus saying to the young man: “I guess you weren’t there when I gave the Sermon on the Mount and I explained the depths of the implications of each commandment. If you were there listening and being honest, you would know that you haven’t kept one of those commandments since you got out of bed this morning. Don’t you realize that if you have one thought of lust you violate the law against adultery, and if you’ve hated or been angry with somebody without just cause, you’ve violated the law against murder?” However, He did not do that.
Jesus selected a few of the commandments and mentioned them to the young man. The young man said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” Fast forward fifty or sixty years. The man dies and stands before God. God says, “How’d you do?” The man says: “You should have seen me, Lord. I kept every one of those commandments from the time I was a young boy.” Can you imagine anybody saying that to God? No, on the judgment day everybody is silent. Nobody will claim that they worked perfection in their lives.
Commandment Number One
Jesus listened to the humble statement from the young man and spoke to him, as if to say: “That’s great. It’s a fantastic accomplishment. You’ve kept all these commandments since you were a little boy. There’s just one little thing that you lack. You’ve just missed the mark slightly in your otherwise excellent performance. You’ve almost attained the goal, but there’s just one thing you lack: sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me. It is just a little thing. Give everything away, all your riches. Empty your pockets. Throw away your wallet. Give everything that you own to somebody else.”
Why did Jesus tell the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions? Jesus did not set down a rule that everybody must embrace poverty to be His follower. God did not require that Abraham divest himself of his possessions. Joseph of Arimathea was welcome in the kingdom of God without giving away his wealth. Why did Jesus give this commandment to this man?
If I can speculate a little, I think it is this: the man had just said, “All these things I have done from my youth,” so Jesus started the checklist. He began with commandment number one: thou shall have no other gods before Me. Jesus said, “I think I’ll put this young man to the test about his other God that is before Me: his riches.” He said: “You obey the commandments? Let’s see. Let’s try number one. Give it away.”
In response, the man said: “I’ll do anything to inherit the kingdom of God, Jesus. I’ll give all my money to the poor.” No, that is not what happened. When the young man heard Jesus’ words, Luke says, “He became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.”
The Kingdom Is Worth Everything
I used to a teach a course in communication at seminary and talk to young men who aspired to write books or speak publicly. I said: “When you write something or speak, do a word search on your manuscript, and every time you come to the word ‘very,’ circle it, because it’s a crutch. It betrays a poverty of vocabulary. If you want to say someone is very angry, why not instead say he’s irate or apoplectic? Why prop up the word with the cheap little word, ‘very’?” Sometimes, however, you must. In this text, even the Holy Ghost uses “very” when He sees a link between the man’s sorrow and the man’s riches. He said he was very sorrowful because he was very wealthy. It was a link between his sadness and his richness.
It is pathetic to see what happens next. The rich young ruler ran to Jesus with joyous anticipation, but walked away from Jesus totally disappointed. What would you do if Jesus said the same thing to you this morning? Would you say, “Yes, Lord,” or would you head for the door, weeping?
The rich young ruler kept his money and lost the kingdom. It was the worst transaction he ever made. His value system was absurd. We should be able to give everything we have and do anything we can if it means inheriting the kingdom of God. Jesus said, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?”
Like a Camel in the Eye of a Needle
The young man walked away and left his soul with Jesus. When Jesus saw it, He became sorrowful. In fact, very sorrowful, the Bible says. He remarked by saying: “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For 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.” What a strange comparison, and what an interesting metaphor.
Some have looked at Jesus’ metaphor and said: “In the ancient world, there was a very narrow gate among the gates around Jerusalem. It was so small that it was called “the eye of the needle.” Sometimes merchants would come with their camels and try to get the camel through the narrow gate into the city, but they’d have to take all the merchandise off the camel, get the camel to kneel into the dirt, and then slide his knees forward to get through the gate.” There is probably no truth to that at all.
I think Jesus was taking the largest animal of which the people knew in the area and one of the smallest apertures He could think of: the tiny opening of the eye of a needle. He was saying that it is harder for a rich man to get into the kingdom of God than it is to get that camel stuffed through that needle. It is impossible. The more riches you have, the lower the possibility that you will ever be saved.
Those who heard what Jesus said were astonished. They said: “If that’s the case, who then can be saved? It would seem like nobody could be saved, for even with the meager possessions I have, I hold them tightly to my chest and long to make them increase.” Jesus answered: “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”
It is not just riches, but good works and good intentions. None of yours are good enough to get through the eye of a needle. It is impossible to work your way into heaven, but what is impossible with us is possible with God. That is one of the greatest definitions of grace that Jesus gave us. God’s grace does for us what we cannot possibly do for ourselves. God’s grace overcomes our sin and gets us safely home.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.