Text of sermon preached on February 7, 2014 in Morrisville, NC.
Text Link: Matthew 19:13-30
How do you define yourself? Many people are defined by their jobs, their family name, where they live, their ethnicity, their religion, their children, their hobbies, their addictions, their desires, and other kinds of things. Their identities are wrapped up in those things.
When I worked in Florida I made it known that I would be leaving in a year’s time and why. There was no secret about my intention to give up my engineering career, go to seminary, and then go to India. I often talked with people I traveled with on business trips, as I had opportunity to get personal. One of the program managers and I were on travel for a meeting. We ended up eating at a nice restaurant that night to reflect on the meeting. I already knew that this manager said he was a Christian. But he asked me that night to explain how I, as someone who graduated from MIT, and with the career success that I had achieved, could walk away from it all to be a missionary. It seemed to him I provided more value to the company, and the world, for that matter, as an engineer in the position I had than I could as a full-time missionary. I was at the top of my career at that point and he knew even more was possible. Yet, my jaw nearly dropped. I replied, “You are a Christian aren’t you?” He said, “Yes.” “Then how can you ask me that?” To him, I was an engineer who believed in Jesus. He was comfortable with the view. For me, I was a follower of Jesus who saw the need to reach the unreached who worked as an engineer. Not everyone is called to be a missionary. Not everyone is called to leave jobs where they can still make a great impact for Jesus in the workplace. Yet, I was shocked he didn’t understand. From that, I realized I needed to share the gospel with him. He, even as a Baptist, saw Christianity as a religion, not as a relationship with God. After sharing with him, he still didn’t understand.
Matthew 19:16-30, tells us about a man whose identity was defined by his wealth and status such that it would keep him from coming to know Jesus personally. Before we learn more about him, we first need to read the three verses that precede this story. Verses 13-15 tell about people bringing very small children to Jesus to have Him bless them. These children were infants and toddlers. For whatever reason, this disturbed the disciples. But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” Children this age are very reliant on the care of their parents and those older than them. They must have full trust in their parents because they cannot get by in the world by their own abilities. In saying that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those such as them, He is saying – those who belong in the kingdom of heaven must have full trust in Him as a child must have for his or her parents. That full trust characterizes one who inherits eternal life! He is also saying, that those to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs, get there by coming to Him!
Now Matthew contrasted that trusting attitude of little children with the attitude of a young wealthy ruler. Luke tells us the man is a ruler (Lk 18:18). Matthew tells us he is young in verse 20 and that he was wealthy in verse 22. The man comes up to Jesus to ask Him what “good deed” he must do to have eternal life. Mark and Luke say he wanted to know what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Either way, he was looking for a future possession that he could acquire through his works. Eternal life for the Jew was the future kingdom ushered in by the Messiah where God would rule forever. Not everybody then believed in life after death or a resurrection, such as the Sadducees. Yet, many did such as the Pharisees. Evidently, this man did believe in the future kingdom to come and wanted to know how to obtain it for himself. Jesus asks him why he asks Him about what is good, since there is only One who is good. The man, being Jewish knew He was talking about God, because God is One (Dt 6:4). Yet, he was expecting Jesus to answer the question since He had already demonstrated Himself to be one who teaches with authority unlike anything seen before (Mt 7:29). Jesus was making an implication to him not only about who He was – God, but He was declaring that no one is good but God! It may not have sunk in to the man’s thinking just yet, but, there was nothing the man could do to be good, which is required to be in the presence of a Holy God! Not only to be good, but perfectly good, which we will see a little later. Jesus goes on to say then, that if he wants to “enter life”, that he needs to keep the commandments. Notice that while the man asked about what he needed to do to have or inherit eternal life, Jesus mentions what he needs to do to enter life. We should not read over these distinctions. The Holy Spirit inspired them, they must be important. The man can’t buy eternal life with works or inherit it without first entering into it. This is a key point Jesus is making that will make more sense later in the story. For those familiar with evangelism, the first thing a person needs to see before they will turn to Jesus as their Lord is that they are not good enough for heaven by their own works. This is shown by asking them about how well they follow the Ten Commandments. Jesus is using “The Way of the Master” for His evangelism method.
Now the Jews had lots of commandments and the man probably knew it was impossible for him to keep ALL of them. So he asks, which ones, as if there were some more important than others. Although we should note that James and Jesus both said that if a person breaks just one point of the law, they have broken the whole law (James 2:8-11; Mt 5:19-20). So Jesus goes to list the last of the commandments that have to do with loving one’s neighbor. He doesn’t mention those relating to God. He doesn’t need to. Most people think they are good relative to how they treat other people. Yet, Jesus is going to reveal to the man that he doesn’t even measure up to what is good in those terms, let alone relative to the first commandment which states to have no other gods before God. Jesus lists the commandments but stops short of the command to not covet. Instead he summarized the ones He listed by saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus is trying to point the man to that very point. If he is truly “good,” he should love his neighbors. Jesus will show him that he doesn’t love his neighbor as himself. At least with the commandments Jesus listed, the man says I’ve kept those. But he knew deep down that he was missing something. As all people at some time in their lives come to that point that something is not right with their lives – there is something missing. Now, to get to the future kingdom, to have eternal life, the man must be perfect. So Jesus then says, “If you would be perfect, go sell what you possess and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me.” The man is to first sell and give, and then follow Jesus. Jesus didn’t say the man couldn’t still follow Him if he didn’t sell his possession first. Rather, he said, to be “perfect”, do this. Of course, if the man did sell and give to the poor, but didn’t then follow Jesus, he would still not have been perfect. It is Jesus who makes him perfect. It is Jesus’ righteousness that makes the man more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees so that he can enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 5:20). So, to be truly perfect, he just needed to follow Jesus. But of course that is difficult if the man had another god – his possessions.
So, the man left sorrowful because he could not give up his possessions. It isn’t just that he liked his stuff. To the point, the man’s identity was wrapped up in his wealth and status. Who would he be if he gave all that up? Yes, he would also be giving up comfort and a lifestyle of luxury, but more than anything, he would become a nobody! Any compassion for the poor was not going to bring him to that point of being the same as them! Yet, if he were to follow Jesus, his identity would then need to be first and foremost in Jesus, not his wealth or status. Who he would be would be defined by Christ’s righteousness, not his own works and wealth. We should be careful here in that Jesus is not asking everyone to sell everything. But, he could be. Most people do have their level of lifestyle as an idol. They rely upon their jobs and income to save them from ruin. They rely upon their houses and other comforts to say they have made it in this world. They live off their family name. Many who do that would not be able to give it up if Jesus asked them to. If the man did not have his wealth as an idol that he relied upon to make him who he was, then he would have had no problem doing exactly what Jesus was asking him to do, and Jesus probably would not have asked him to do it. In that case, the man would have given freely as needed. But as long as the wealth that created the self-image he had was his idol, there would always be something between him and following Jesus with the 100% trust the children in the earlier verses demonstrate. How do you rely upon Jesus when you can buy whatever you want? Many in America think they are not wealthy, but they are wealthier than most of the world and they do not have to rely upon God except when they have a crisis, such as losing their job. Maybe losing the job was allowed in order to bring humility so that the person learns to trust in Jesus first and foremost. So, Jesus is saying in verses 16-22 that, We need to put our complete trust and our identity, who we are, in Him!
Starting at verse 23 we see Jesus really startles His disciples. In Jewish understanding, those with wealth had been blessed by God. Indeed, those who follow God may be blessed with wealth to use for His kingdom and glory, as long as they don’t use it for their own glory and excesses. Also, as a quick side point, it is commonly thought by many Christians that the Jews were required to follow the law to get saved. Yet, Paul makes it very clear throughout his writings that the law was never meant to save anybody. If no one can follow it perfectly, then how can anyone be saved by it. Rather, the law is intended to reveal sin so that it can be dealt with by repentance, but even more so, by Jesus’ death on the cross. As is evident from David’s psalms, he expected God’s pardon and forgiveness of his sins. But that was only because He had faith in God and His Word. He may not have understood fully about Jesus, but the psalms, as inspired by the Holy Spirit, clearly reveal the work of Jesus, and his faith in God was what saved him. Abraham’s faith is what was credited with righteousness – that is Jesus’ righteousness, not Abraham’s, even though Abraham did not fully know about Jesus, yet. He trusted God, and that was all that mattered. So, in the Exodus, God rescued, or we could say He saved, the Israelites from bondage in Egypt in response to their pleas, but not because of anything they did. As a matter of fact, it was because of His promise to Abraham and only because of that. After God had rescued them through Moses, but before they entering the promise land, He wanted them to know who He was. He dwelt with them in their midst as a fire by night and a cloud by day. But more importantly, He gave them the law, which really means “teachings” in the Hebrew. The law does contain some civil laws for the new nation to be ruled by, but overall, the law was given in order that they may come to know God. The law reveals the character of God. If they followed it, He would be with them in the promised land. If they didn’t, they would be kicked out of the land. And that happened! They went into exile. But, God delivered them from it and again returned them back to the land. He never left them. But after that and realizing they didn’t keep the law very well, they came to expect that a Messiah would come who would fully deliver them from the oppression of other nations. They thought they needed to keep the law perfectly in order for the Messiah to come. However, God never said through His prophets that perfect obedience to the law was required before the Messiah would come. That is what they inferred from the idea that the Messianic kingdom would be a time of perfect righteousness. So, they got so occupied with following the law, that most of them missed knowing the God who the law was supposed to point them to. So, my point is that God saved, and then expected them to follow the law. Today, we do not have to follow the law to get saved either! Rather, we trust in Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection to be saved then follow Him as Lord. By following Him as Lord, we acknowledge we trust Him and His saving work, not just at the cross, but in the continuing work of making us more like Jesus. Yet, if we are not following Him as Lord, we are acknowledging we don’t trust Him. We want to do it our own way. And in that case, we are NOT saved! The rich young ruler wanted to be saved by his way, not by Jesus’.
In His discussion with the disciples about what had just happened, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” It is impossible for a camel to go through an eye of a needle! The actual common phrase of that day was for an elephant to go through the eye of a needle. But there was probably a camel nearby when Jesus made the statement to help emphasize how big a camel is compared to an eye of a needle. The eye of a needle was understood in rabbinic teaching to be the smallest opening. Remember, they didn’t have the technology we have today, so to make a hole that small was probably a bit of a feat. Some say the eye of the needle Jesus was referring to was a small gate in the wall of Jerusalem. The gate was of the size that if a camel dropped all its baggage and got on its knees, it could crawl through – but with difficulty. However, we must recognize that the disciples interpreted what Jesus was saying was indeed impossible, not just difficult. Even Jesus said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” So He meant “impossible!” Secondly, archeology has not found any evidence of such a gate. It is believed it was made up centuries later to soften Jesus’ words. Some preacher may have not wanted to offend the rich people in his congregation and thus hypothesized such a thing. Tour guides will tell you this story about the gate, but in truth, it is folklore. Thirdly, Luke uses different Greek words for the eye of a needle than Matthew and Mark use. Matthew and Mark use the common phrase. Luke uses a technical term, probably because of his being a doctor. Details like that give more credibility to the gospels being written by the authors our Bibles say wrote them. Praise God! So anyway, the point is that it is impossible for a rich man, or any idolater, to enter the kingdom of God.
Now there is something subtle in what Jesus said that does not show up in Mark or Luke. In those gospels, the kingdom of God was the only phrase used for the “kingdom”. Yet, in Matthew, the “kingdom of heaven” is stated 32 times, and the “kingdom of God” is stated 5 times. Some say that Matthew, being that he is writing to Jews, does not use the name of “God”. Yet, he does – five times! So, if he mentions it, it must be significant. Again, we should not read past these things. Now many will say the two are the same thing. I beg to differ. Here’s why. Jesus said it is “difficult” for a rich man to enter the “kingdom of heaven”. Yet he also said it was “impossible” for such to enter the “kingdom of God”. Doesn’t that indicate there is a difference? Israel was meant to be a kingdom of God. Also, all of the universe under God’s rule is the kingdom of God. But at this point, the kingdom of God, as it is talked about here, is the future full rule of God over his kingdom on earth. It is when all things are made new and God reigns from the New Jerusalem (see Revelation 21 and 22), rather than from heaven where He is hidden from our sight. On the other hand, the kingdom of heaven is what Jesus ushered in. When we look at the parable of the wheat and tares (Mt 13:24-30, 36-43; notice vv41-43 in particular where there is the Son of Man’s kingdom with both good and evil mixed in, and then the Father’s kingdom where only the righteous will shine; also see mustard seed and leaven parables in vv 31-33), we see that believers and non-believers will be mixed until the end of the age. There is a transition at the end of the age from the kingdom of heaven, where God rules from heaven, to the kingdom of God where God rules on earth. The kingdom of heaven is on earth now growing and developing into the future kingdom of God. It is difficult, but not impossible for a rich man, or anyone looking to an idol, to enter the kingdom of heaven, although it is difficult for them to surrender in the first place. Their preference is to do things their own way and for their own glory! But as those who come into the kingdom of heaven do, Jesus transforms them causing them to look more and more like Him. Let’s be frank! All people have idols and to not want to fully submit to God. This is not just a story against rich people. All people have identities before they know Jesus that they may not want to give up. There are even those in misery who hold on to it because it IS their identity. They define themselves by their problems and miseries. So as it is, no rich person, or idolater of any kind, which means NO ONE, can enter into the kingdom of God, without coming through Jesus. The hope is that they who do are transformed to being fully committed to Jesus while in the kingdom of heaven so that they end up being wheat and not tares, which will be burned up at the end. To be a true resident of the kingdom of heaven, and not an alien, would be to be a wheat, to be like a child in trust. Such is who the kingdom belongs to, even though there are others who do not belong there who are in it. This represents the church where believers and unbelievers are mixed. Some idolaters will not even enter church. But some will. Yet, they must be transformed or they will never make to the kingdom of God in the end. Jesus did say that the kingdom of God was in their midst (Mt 12:28), and that may seem at odds to what I’ve been saying. However, what He was referring to was His own presence as God on earth at that time, and to the power of God at work. In a sense, the kingdom of God is within the kingdom of heaven and maturing until the end. Today, God and Jesus rule from heaven.
At v27 Peter notes they he and the other have given up everything to follow Jesus. He then asks Jesus what they will get because of it. That was not really the right attitude that he should have had. He should have just acknowledged they followed Jesus because of His words of eternal life rather than focus on what he was to gain personally. Nevertheless, Jesus did not rebuke him and responded by telling them that would rule with Him when He returns for His millennial kingdom, the thousand year reign. Then Jesus says in general terms that all of those who give up much, will have more in the end. The reason is that the family they might lose because they came to Christ will be replaced with a bigger family that stretches all around the world. Christians today have more in common with other Christians in other lands than do with others in their own family when their identity is in Christ first and foremost. Also, any earthly riches that may be given up will be replaced by far greater and eternal riches in the future kingdom (the inherited eternal life). So, in summary, Jesus is saying in verses 23 and on, that those who follow Him receive much more than they will have lost in this life. The first step to eternal life is to repent of living for one’s own identity and name, and start living as Christ and for His name’s sake! This is difficult for one who has a powerful earthly identity or that does not fully trust God. But if we don’t at least enter into the kingdom now, we will not see the kingdom to come.
It was difficult at first for me to come to Jesus. I was hesitant. But when I did, I did so because I finally understood how much Jesus loved me personally, to not only save me at the cross, but to work in my life in a way that I could come to recognize His love for me. I could not ignore that no matter how well it seemed my life was going at the time. In gratitude I told the Lord, I would do anything, anything for Him in return. I then had a quick glimpse of a land that obviously was not the comforts of the United States! I then pleaded with the Lord that I would do anything, but not be a missionary! I cried out, “Please don’t make me be a missionary! Anything but that!” Yet, that was in 2000. In 2007, God called Katie and myself to be missionaries. He changed plans on us, but we were obedient and willing to sell everything, leave a good job, and go someplace that is a difficult place to live by American standards, and a difficult place to share the gospel. It was tough to leave it behind. But, it was God who moved us in our hearts from one position to the next. Now, we are still in the U.S. But through the process, God saw our willingness and He put in us a passion to reach India, whether there or here. And even more so, to reach all the people that we can while we are here in this present life. We are sure we will be with Jesus in the Millennial Kingdom, and with Him in the final kingdom that is entirely under God’s rule. We are not sure of that because of anything we did, but because of what He did to die in our place, because He rose from the dead, and because He called us to Himself, and because He is transforming us day by day – and again, not by our work, but by His!
In Romans 10:9, Paul says, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you WILL be saved.” Confessing means to agree with, not to simply say words. When one gives a confession, they are supposed to be honest and mean what they are saying. It is not empty words. To agree that Jesus is Lord, means He is your master. Not a slave driver, but a loving master who wants the best for you – and that is Himself!
Give up what keeps you from entering the future kingdom, that which keeps you from knowing Jesus as Lord, and be motivated by love for God and for your neighbor. Going to church, giving money, and so forth is not a replacement for knowing Jesus. He cannot change you if you are not abiding in Him, and He in you! And if you don’t come to Him with empty pride, you can’t know Him, and you can’t inherit eternal life. Emptying our pride sounds like something “we” have to do. But it turns out we can’t empty our own pride. But, by simply calling on the name of Jesus, and committing to follow Him, no matter the cost, He will help you empty your pride. But what you gain in its place is the sweetest treasure of all of creation! Jesus said in Mt 16:24-27, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it. What will it benefit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will a man give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will reward each according to what he has done.” The rich young ruler was not willing to give his wealth, his status, and his identity in this world in exchange for his life. Will you put your life in Christ?
Tradition says that the rich young ruler was John Mark – the author of the gospel of Mark. We don’t know if that was true. But wouldn’t it be wonderful to know that he ended up following Jesus and ended up after fleeing persecution in Rome, starting the church in Alexandria. Of course he had to mature a bit, causing some frustration with Paul, but he did – and it was Christ who helped him do it. There is hope for all people, if they will just take that first step and surrender, admitting how difficult it is to Jesus, but just surrender.
Pray now to either turn your life over to Jesus now, or to ask Him to search your heart out to find what idols you may have that you haven’t even realized you have that keep you from knowing Him to the fullest. Give thanks for His love and for His forgiveness that was only possible because of His shed blood.