Mark 10:17-22 “As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. ‘Good teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good – except God alone. You know the commandments: “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honour your father and mother.”‘ ‘Teacher,’ he declared, ‘all these I have kept since I was a boy.’ Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me.’ At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”
Here is a man that seems to have everything. Matthew tells us that he was young, “in the very May-morn of his youth, ripe for exploits and mighty enterprises” as Shakespeare says. How envious media people are of the young, and thus so is our entire civilisation, but what a dangerous and lengthy period it is – those long summers and dark winters – probably the most perilous of all times, great choices having to be made at a time of vulnerability and depressions. There is an author called Kate Figes writing in the Times this very week who describes her own youth, “We had fun and felt carefree, and yet we weren’t. The great paradox of adolescence is that between the great highs of singing through the street and feeling more independent are the great lows: deep loneliness, boredom and that terrifying new awareness of how small and alone we are in the world. As the mind and body mature, the full reality of human frailty becomes apparent and it’s scary.” How youth needs Jesus Christ.
Here in Mark’s gospel we are shown the Son of God, and in this passage a young man comes to him, but the evangelist informs us that he was a rich young man; Mark tells us “he had great wealth” (v.22). Again we know that this is the ambition of almost every young person. You ask them what they want out of life. “I’d like to have money, and fame, and see the world,” they say. This man had all that; he had no money worries at all; he could buy anything he fancied. He was the envy of all his generation in Israel. But more than that, this young wealthy man had power. People looked up to him and did what he said. What natural man could ask for anything more? Luke calls him a ‘ruler.’ He might have been the leader of the local synagogue, or a member of the Jewish Supreme Court, the Sanhedrin. Wherever he was he displayed a certain authority and the bearing of leadership.
Again, this man also had health, for he came running along up to Jesus. He wasn’t one of the thousands who sought out the Saviour to be healed. He had ‘the body beautiful,’ a raw vitality and energy, physical dexterity and strength. He could sleep at night, enjoyed a good appetite; there was nothing he was unable to do because of some physical weaknesses.
More than that, this man had a very attractive personality. He was a good man, not indulging himself in the lusts of the flesh. He had sought to keep all the commandments of God throughout his life, and although we know there must have been a certain superficiality in his self-confidence it is plain that no man could point a finger at him and say that he was a hypocrite, an immoral and irreligious man. This man could claim, as Saul of Tarsus would later on, that as far as the law was concerned he was blameless. Neither of these men had fallen into any kind of debauchery, any loose or riotous living; they’d always been good boys. This rich young ruler hadn’t sowed his wild oats when he had been a teenager. He’d retained his own integrity and basic decency. He was a clean-cut youth.
More than that, this good man had a piety that instinctively draws out the admiration of those of us who are Christians. When he reached Jesus he fell on his knees publicly before him in a posture of the deepest respect and admiration. He was more than courteous before our Lord, he was almost worshipping him. Though he was a man of high morality yet he recognised there was an evident gap between himself and the Saviour. He falls before the Son of God and addresses him like this, “Good teacher!” He comes as a disciple; he knows he needs to be taught by this man Jesus of Nazareth.
Yet there is more that we appreciate in this man, that he seized the opportunity of a personal interview with Jesus of Nazareth to address him with one of the greatest questions. He didn’t ask our Lord, “How can I feel better about myself? Can you give me any tips about finding a wife? How do you think I should invest my money?” and so on. He wasn’t interested in betterment, and in remodelling his life, but rather in what is surely, at the last, the only important question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v.17). How concerned he seems to be to get the right answer. He hurries along searching for Jesus, eventually running the final stretch when he catches a glimpse of our Lord. He doesn’t come in a moment of privacy but in this prominent place where they would be surrounded by many onlookers. He can’t come quietly by night like Nicodemus for a private consultation, he comes at the double with a pressing need constraining him to get the answer to his great question.
We can all to some extent identify with this man and his question, but what I want to consider is the way the Lord Jesus handled this man, because that is the most fascinating part of this interview. I want to ask how we would have answered this man. Wouldn’t there be a quiver of subdued excitement and anticipation among the deacons as they see the expensive car pulling into the church car park and a well dressed young man walking purposively to the entrance? What a boost for a congregation for such a man to become one of its members. Wouldn’t many of the deacons be thinking to themselves, “Let’s make sure we give him a sincerely warm welcome this morning. We wouldn’t want to do anything that would put this man off our church.” What would we had said to him as he approaches us with his questions? How would we have helped him? Let us keep this thought constantly in our minds and contrast our imagined approach with Jesus’ actual response, which is of course the model way, though not the exclusive approach to all the people the Saviour spoke to. We must remember that in our Lord we meet archetypal Christian counselling.
1. THE LORD CHRIST STOPS THE MAN SHORT.
“‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good except God alone.'” (v.18). Here is a young man who believes himself to have achieved goodness, and he is paying tribute to another man not much older than himself. “You are also good,” the youth is saying. “Why do you call me good?” replies Jesus. Is the Lord showing his scorn of flattery? Only rarely would a rabbi be addressed as ‘good’. They had many titles but, for fear of blasphemy against the God who alone is infinitely good, even they didn’t welcome being called ‘good.’ They too knew their own hearts. Why was this young man breaking the code of etiquette? Why was he calling Jesus ‘good’? The sentence structure in the original suggests Jesus’ emphasis in replying was this, “Me? Why do you call me good?”
Then the Saviour goes on to remind him, “No one is good – except God alone,” that is, except the one true God. You go into God and he is good. You go in, and in and he is good. You go in, and in, and in and he is good. You go in, and in, and in, and in and he is good. You go in, and in, and in, and in, and in and God alone is good in every single aspect of his being. Shine the light of his own omniscience through every part of him and there’s not a speck of anything discovered that isn’t 100 % good, not one single bad molecule in Father, or Son or the Holy Spirit. He is the triune God of absolute goodness.
What does Christ do? He immediately stops the man short as he passes his own judgment on Jesus, and he confronts the youth with the living God who is his Jesus’ own Father. Our Lord is saying something like this, “Please pause before you go any further, and consider what goodness is. Isn’t God alone the completely good one?” Let none of us today talk lightly of God, his name and his attributes; let’s not get over-familiar. The ground on which you are standing is holy.
How important is this attitude? It is utterly essential, especially in the way the church addresses the world regarding the God she adores. Let me give you an illustration of how this is being abused today. One recent Sunday a woman called Mary Wakefield went to a church in London which congregation is the flagship of popular evangelicalism in England . . . but let her tell her own story: “To cheer myself up, I went to a Sunday service at the evangelical Anglican church, Holy Trinity Brompton. Some of my best friends are happy-clappies, so about once a year I try, but fail, to sit through an HTB service. This year I lasted 15 minutes. For the first 10 minutes I successfully opened my heart to the power-point projectors, acoustic guitars and expressions of ecstasy. I even held out my hands and swayed, all the while terrified that I would have a religious experience and have to go to HTB for the rest of my life. Then the priest approached the microphone. ‘I think you’ll agree with me,’ he said, ‘that God is a great guy and deserves a round of applause. C’mon everybody, let’s give God a big clap.’ Saved again” (Mary Wakefield, ‘The Spectator,’ 3 July 2004, p.8).
No doubt there is a measure of cynicism in those words, and if that same lady came to hear me there would be plenty she could find at which to poke fun in our ‘plodding boring services’ with the ‘enormously long’ sermon. But unlike HTB we are a small church in a small town with no claims that the Holy Spirit has been mightily outpoured upon us. We long that we might know rent heavens. HTB’s promotion of a relaxed and seeker-friendly approach to Sunday services has become the model for hundreds of churches all over the world, but how many people like Ms. Wakefield find the irreverence and banality of such an approach to worship utterly alienating? “There is no way that I am going to identify with a congregation of people with such an attitude to the Holy and Omnipotent One,” she was saying, “so I quit that church after fifteen minutes.” Understand that people in the world instinctively know that a reverence and a godly fear are essential for coming to the mighty Creator; he’s not a God who’s going to be patronised by a little round of applause from pip-squeaks! The Holy One of Israel would find the whole concept revolting. So even the world itself is not drawn to God by blasphemous words about him being “a great guy,” rather they are repulsed.
So the Lord Jesus immediately responded to this man who calls him a good teacher with words we can interpret something like this, “If you mean good in the ordinary sense – ‘good morning,’ ‘good dog,’ ‘have a good day,’ – then that’s too ordinary to apply to the God the Son. It is almost like saying, ‘You’re a nice chap,’ but use the word ‘good’ in its real sense of absolute integrity, perfect righteousness and utter graciousness and then, if you think for a moment, you’ll see that those attributes are God’s alone. There is only one totally good being; God is light and in him is no darkness at all. No man is good, no not one; none of you reading this today is good; God alone is good.” That is how confrontational Jesus can be if that approach is needed.
When our Lord spoke to Nicodemus, though this leader of the Jews was a very moral and religious man, Jesus told him immediately that he had to be born again. When he spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, although he was so respectful to women he told her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you have now is not your husband” (Jn. 4: 17&18). Jesus told her that she worshipped what she didn’t know, and that salvation was not from the Samaritans whose inspired Scriptures were just the first five books of Moses. Redemption didn’t come from Samaritan religion. The Messiah was not sent to Samaria; salvation came from the Jews. All roads do not lead to God. When Jesus addressed those Jews of Jerusalem who rejected him he told them, “You are of your father the devil.” What we meet in Jesus Christ is a deep seriousness when it comes to the relationship of God with man. Of the sins that Christ hates (and he hates them all) he despises the honeyed words and rose-water of religious sycophancy, because such a posture is a wall which a man builds between his heart and the God who knows the heart. Let all blarneymen keep silent in Jesus’ presence. You can hide nothing from God.
2. THE LORD BEGINS TO PROBE THE MAN.
Now there is no doubt that deep down in the Lord’s heart there was an immediate gladness on a human level that this man had come to him. We are told very plainly that “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (v.21). The man himself was so impressive, glowing with health, unblemished by any dissolute past, kneeling there at his feet, bringing with sincerity this mighty question to him in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. We look at the scene and we cry, “Oh that many, both young and old, might run to Jesus to find the meaning of life and eternity.” Yet how significant it is to see that the Lord Jesus didn’t lift him to his feet and assure him that all was well. He didn’t sweetly smile, pat him on the head and say, “Great to meet you. All is well in the best of all possible worlds. God is love, my son,” sending him on his way with his blessing. The Lord begins to probe him and direct him forward; the man has to deal with Almighty God, as all men have to, on the terms that Christ Jesus lays down. “No man comes to the Father but by me,” says the Son of God. Do you see the several points at which he does this?
The Lord probes him about his knowledge: “You know the commandments,” says Jesus (v.19). There is no punctuation in the Greek New Testament, and so this statement could well be a question: “Do you know the commandments?” Jesus is saying, “You know the commandments, but do you really know them? You come here inquiring what you have to do to inherit eternal life, and you address me as good, when God alone is good. You don’t know all you think you know.” Our Lord is suggesting a certain superficiality about this man, and maybe a certain insincerity also in his manner. Has this man gone to Jesus to have his righteousness confirmed? Often people choose a pulpit to sit under where they will have their prejudices rearranged and verified. Other people, who never go to church, claim that they are not Christians because the Bible isn’t clear, that men can make it mean whatever they want it to mean, that how to inherit eternal life is not made lucid in the New Testament. They have given up the search for eternal life because it’s a fruitless quest; “everyone’s opinion is equally valid,” they say. That is not the case. Everyone knows God from the glories of his creation bombarding us every second, and everyone knows right and wrong from the conscience God has given to all of us which constantly addresses us. So man is without excuse.
There is no point before God claiming we don’t know what to do to inherit eternal life because in the vast majority of instances in Wales everyone knows. We know whom we should believe in. We know God’s requirements only too well. The things of the law are written in our hearts. We know God’s requirements. We know that our lives and souls need to be saved. We have no right before God to pretend that there is some complication, that the way back to God is shrouded in mystery, and that our estrangement from God is totally justifiable because . . . “we don’t know . . .” – those complaining whining words. Jesus is saying. “Don’t you know the commandments?” Can we genuinely pretend before God that we are in ignorance about this great question of what we have to do to get eternal life? Can we really pretend that a genuine reason for our unbelief, and the real cause of our absence from Christ is that “We don’t know . . .”? Isn’t it the case that we do know thoroughly and comprehensively our own lostness, that our consciences convict and condemn our lives? We know that there is but one God and one Mediator with him, the man Christ Jesus. There is no other way to God, and we know it, and we have no right to plead that it is ignorance that has kept us away. We have no right to persist a moment longer in the inquiry, “What must I do?” We have no right to pretend that if only we had more light, and the answer to one question, or just a little bit more information that then we’d be vital growing children of God. Jesus is saying to us, “Don’t you know already the will of God? You’ve come here claiming that you are seekers, but you understand the truth, many of you long years ago, and you are guilty of mystifying it, compounding it, and darkening it in this way, because you know . . .” So our Lord stops the man short and probes him.
3. THE LORD EXPOSES THIS MAN’S COMPLACENCY.
Here is a sinner who stands before God in Christ who tells Jesus that he has kept all of God’s commandments since he was a boy (v.20). Think of it – this man actually believes that he has had no other god save the Lord, that he has made an idol of nothing whatsoever, that he has never taken the name of the Lord in vain, that he has worked for six days each week but kept one day in seven which he constantly gives exclusively to the Lord, that he has honoured his father and his mother, that he has not killed another with his actions or even with his tongue, that he has not been guilty of any sexual sin, that he has never stolen anything, that he has always told the truth, and that he has been satisfied with everything God has given to him, never coveting anything that was his neighbour’s. In other words, here is a man who believed that he actually loved God with all his heart and that he loved his neighbour as himself. This man considered himself to be a blameless man. There seems no twinge of remorse for his conduct, and not one iota of awareness of moral failure or any sins of omission. He’s kept all the commandments. Could that possibly have been the case? Do we have here in the rich young ruler a man as holy as God himself? Has there been another man to have walked this earth as undefiled as the Son?
So Christ says to him again so bluntly, “One thing you lack . . . Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (v.21). The Lord is saying this, that if he loves his neighbour as himself that then his neighbour will be as important to him as his own self. Your poor neighbour will have as much claim upon your wealth as you yourself, if you love him as you love yourself. The Lord is beginning to expose this man’s complacency about his own self-conscious righteousness.
Quite apart from this particular command our Lord stands today before every human being who is inquiring about salvation, and he is searching each heart. All human self-delusion must be stripped away. How is it between you and the Holy One? It is a disturbing thing to draw near to the living mighty Creator where we discover we’ve been deceiving ourselves. If we have . . . then let us find that out today and not on the day of judgment when many will say, “Lord, Lord, we did many mighty things in your name,” because the Lord, we know, will reply, “Depart from me I never knew you.” Think of that today! Christ is saying to this man, “If you think you’re blameless then there is no possibility of your finding eternal life. If you can stand before the glory of the divine Son of God and tell him that you have loved God with all your being and have been loving your neighbour as yourself since you were a boy then you don’t have the slightest idea of who God is nor what you yourself are like.” How many of us are so complacent? Are we pretending before God that all is well between us?
The Lord tests him to the very foundations of his being, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor,” he commands this man. Is it, after all, such a tremendous mystery today why we are not all Christians? Has there been any urgency and passion in our coming to God in Christ? Have we declared that whatever the cost may be we are prepared to pay it? Whatever the price – we will pay it? Whatever the sacrifice – we will make it? Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small – have we sung that? How anxious are we to be reconciled to God? How earnest are we about walking with God?
This rich young ruler comes running up to Jesus, and he kneels before him, and he looks like a man who is desperate for salvation, and yet he is desperate only up to a point. There are some things of which he’ll never let go even to have eternal life. We are to ask ourselves at how many points is that true of us? “See ye first the kingdom of God,” says Jesus. Of how many of us is God’s reign of grace over us the great priority? It was not this man’s priority. He was not prepared to put eternal life in the supreme place in his life. There were some things of which he wouldn’t let go, even for the kingdom of God, and that is true of some of you. The same choice faces each one, and for us which pressing commitment can it be? Is there another ‘urgent duty,’ and something more attractive? Are there other things and other people more precious to us than Jesus Christ? Here is a man who looked so promising, but after all is he that anxious to possess eternal life? Is the kingdom of God a priority to him? The Lord is searching him and probing him, so that at last he stands exposed in his insincerity as a man who pretends that his problem is that he doesn’t know, whereas he does know. Here is a man who is absolutely confident with himself so that he can go publicly to the Son of God, and acknowledge him with a word of praise, and ask him questions, while all along he is treasuring the things of the earth far above Jesus Christ. He is a man who won’t yield to what he already knows, and cast himself on the Saviour. He won’t say,
“Just as I am, poor, wretched blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need, in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come” (Charlotte Elliott, 1789-1871).
He stands condemned as a self-deceived man, and a complacent man, who thinks he can look God straight in the face without a blush. He protests that he has done the will of God from his boyhood, and so when he complements Jesus in public it is as the wise judge of men, one who strokes his beard and puffs on his pipe and nods shrewdly. But such a man is a lost man, for he is a self-deluded man, someone who, for all his pretence to religious knowledge, is committed to this world and its goods. He would rather have them than eternal life on the only terms any man may have it, God’s own terms, that we acknowledge our sin and our need of the Saviour Jesus.
By the world’s standards this man isn’t a poor man. By the standards of most of the professing church he’s not a man to be pitied. It is so difficult for any speaker to make this man look absurd because according to the mind of most religious people alive today he isn’t absurd. He is a man to envy; a model for all religious men who, like him, think of themselves as ‘seeking after God’ and wanting the best answers to their questions. Yet from the standpoint of the being of God, and the redemptive love of Christ, this man is a lost man. Continuing on as he does this man is on that broad road that leads to destruction. He is going there because he pretends not to know the truth, while in fact he is refusing to act in the light of the knowledge God has given to him. He is standing in marvellous invincible complacency before the second person of the Trinity and he complements the Son on being good, while he himself, he tells God, is someone without blame. He is an utterly pathetic figure confronting all the wealth of heaven and saying no to it because he prefers his own riches. So our Lord is searching and probing and exposing the complacency of this man.
4. THE LORD CALLS UPON THIS MAN TO MAKE CERTAIN DECISIONS.
In all our convictions we believe in the sovereignty of God. It is a foundational doctrine of great moving consolation for all the church of God, and for its pastoral implications we would persuade the whole world to believe that the Lord is King. It is profoundly and irrevocably true that our God reigns. He sits on the throne of the universe and does whatsoever he pleases. We also have this biblical emphasis upon the completed and objective work of Christ, that he has made peace with God for all his people by becoming the Lamb of God and laying down his life for them. Redemption is all done by him. So God is sovereign, and the work of Christ is finished, and yet here is a man being asked by Jesus to make a decision, despite God’s sovereignty and the marvellous cry of Golgotha that the work is finished. There is still a doing to be done. There are still decisions to be made. There are still steps to be taken. A change of direction is required.
“What must I do?” (v.17) asks the man, and Jesus does not say, “It’s not up to you to do anything.” He doesn’t tell him that he has nothing to do. He doesn’t say that it’s all a matter of divine election. He doesn’t say, “It’s all a matter of what God has done.” The Lord Christ tells him, “Yes, there are decisions to be made. Yes, there are doings to be effected. Yes, there are steps to be taken.” There are in fact the great two actions that God requires of every single person who would receive eternal life.
i] We must turn from our idols, even the sin that so easily besets us.
The Bible calls this action ‘repentance,’ and it was the first message that the Lord Jesus brought to his own people. Here was this young ruler, and eternal life was something he knew he did not have, but he did have great riches. He loved his riches very much. Here was a man whose god was Mammon, that is, material things. Before them he bowed. When he was thinking about nothing special his mind drifted off to the things he owned. God says to this man that he should get rid of all that stuff. He doesn’t tell him to make a bonfire of it and destroy the lot. It was not illicitly earned, nor corrupting in and of itself. Others could profit from his home and his furnishings, his land, flocks and herds. Christ actually said to him, “Sell it all! Then give away the proceeds to others.” To those who are dying of hunger, men and women with nowhere to sleep at night, set them up with a new start. Lift them out of their penury.
Jesus “was preaching the tenth commandment in an applicatory fashion. Christ was using God’s word, ‘Thou salt not covet,’ as a knife to lance the festering sore of greed in the man’s soul. The sin was invisible to the human eye. It did not show its colours on the surface of the ruler’s behaviour. But in all its filth and ugliness, covetousness ruled his soul. Like a dart, the law of God pierced the conscience of this youth for the first time. Had Jesus merely said, ‘Do not covet,’ the polite seeker would have said, ‘I do not desire anyone’s property or wealth. I am satisfied with my station in life.’ It would not do simply to quote Exodus 20 again. Jesus translated the tenth of God’s commands into a practical test by commanding him that he abandon his riches. The youth loved his riches more than he loved God and his Son, and he turned away. But when he went away, he had a clear consciousness that he was a covetousness sinner. He was deficient in love for God, upon which all of the law was hanging” (Walter J. Chantry, “Today’s Gospel,” Banner of Truth, 1970, p.44).
What is the thrust of Jesus’ counsels? It is surely that if this man or any person aches to know everlasting life then he has to change his whole lifestyle. This man’s self-identity was inextricably linked with his possessions. The foundation of his lifestyle was his wealth. That is not the case for every person. There are men who have built their lives on other foundations, but they too are equally shaky. They are all foundations of sand. Men and women build their lives on academic reputation, on artistic achievement, on business acumen, on political influence, on religious office. They have built their lives upon every kind of foundation imaginable. They have lived for every kind of idol; every life here has its own idol, its own preoccupation, and obsession.
There is nothing wrong with having an obsession. It is normal, and human, and commendable to have a great love to live for. Let’s all have it, some driving force that so captivates us that we spend and are spent in its pursuit. This is the longing that motivates us and imparts order, and consistency, and dynamism to our lives. Let us all have a magnificent obsession. God desires that. To every single man God says, “You must have an obsession.” Then God does not leave the choice of obsession open-ended. He doesn’t say, “Make your own idol and live all your days for it.” God says, “Let me, the one true and living God, become your obsession. You must find all your joy and satisfaction in me.”
So God is saying to this man, destroy the lesser gods. Break them up. Destroy that temple. Rase that idol to the ground. Undermine its foundations and blow them up. Leave no trace of them. Go down and down and remove every bit so that you can’t build on them ever again. I want them demolished. I want the great swinging iron ball suspended by the crane to crash against that idol, and crash against it, and keep crashing against it until your idol is unrecognisably broken into a thousand pieces, so that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put it back together again. Then you’ve not finished your demolition work; you root up its foundations too. God is calling for a genuine thoroughgoing repentance. Here is a young man asking today – and asking sincerely – how he can get eternal life, how he can reach the glory of God, and God is replying to him that it is always by repentance. “Rase your old way of life to the ground. Blow up the superstructure, and then destroy the foundations.” We’ve got to abandon them, demolishing them and forsaking them entirely and utterly.
Consider the patriarch Abraham who is the father of all of us who believe in God, how he had to leave Ur of the Chaldees at the command of God. He quit the place he knew and loved and set out on a long journey into the unknown believing just this, that the Lord who commanded would never abandon him. The apostles James and John had to leave their father and the fishing business. Matthew had to leave his profitable tax collecting work. The Thessalonians turned from their idols to serve the living and true God. There is no life without renunciation, and that turning away is not at the level of the superficial. We may not make a mere public rejection of our lifestyle but right in the depths of our personalities before the holy God we make abandonment of all self-centred and worldly thinking. We change our emotional life utterly and entirely. Whatever have been our priorities until this time we abandon them. Have we lived for money? For drugs? For sport? For music? For prestige? For comfort? For the business? For the family? Have I simply lived for anything that gives me pleasure? In other words, have I lived for myself? Have I spent my weekends in the lusts of the flesh and the mind? Then what is all of that ultimately but this, “I have been my own god, and I have said, ‘My soul, live for yourself. Take your ease. Eat, drink and be merry. Express yourself and satisfy yourself'”? That, surely, is the great abandonment of a life which was created and sustained by and for the glorious God; one precious life misspent on baubles.
The Lord was requiring of this young man that he deliberately abdicated his vaunted sovereignty over his own life, that he denied himself and became a Christian, a Christ-obsessed man and a Christ-centred man. We are being asked whether we are sincere about being Christians, whether it’s a big deal with us about gaining eternal life, and if it is then Christ reminds us that there is just one way, by selling up everything, destroying the idols we’ve served so far, and renouncing that old way of life. There is no way that anyone can get to God while bypassing repentance. Signing a card, or walking to the front, or moving fallaciously into some kind of assurance because we have completed a course at the end of which someone has told us, “You are now a Christian,” none of those formal religious ceremonies at the conclusion of evangelistic exercises is sufficient. Speaking in tongues is no substitute for it. Having a bishop’s hands placed on our heads will not do. Getting baptized is no way to have eternal life, nor going through the congregation’s procedure for joining its membership. There has to be a broken heart. There has to be the painful turning from what has been my god until this moment in a spirit of repentance, turning to the mighty living God whom hitherto we have despised. Every idol that has had any influence over us has to be broken up. Let’s pray, “Help me to tear it from the throne and worship only Thee.”
ii] We have to follow Jesus Christ, wherever he leads us.
The first command was one of repentance, and the second is the command to believe. Faith and repentance are inseparable. Turn your back on everything you’ve lived for, and then you have to follow Christ in what he believes, =
how he lives, the way he treats sinners and saints, men, women and children, his family, neighbours and enemies. Peter writes that Christ has left us an example that we should walk in his steps, and that is what following him means. “I will give you eternal life,” says Christ, “if you come and follow me. You become my servant. Submit your mind to my teachings for I am the great Prophet. Bow your will to my commandments, for I am your King. Plead the merit of my sacrifice for I am your great High Priest. Only on these terms do I offer any salvation or life.” Are you following Christ like that? That is the true Christian life, and every sermon is an exhortation to that end. There was a cox of a Great Britain Olympic crew and in a race he was summoning the eight to a supreme effort. To the rhythm of the stroke he cried out these words, “If not now – when? If not you – who?” That is what the commanding invitation of the gospel says, “Follow Jesus Christ. If not now – when? If not you – who?”
Jesus’ answer, you can see, is an answer to his question about doing. It is not as to how one can be justified in the sight of God, but what to do to get eternal life. To be saved one has to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Entrust yourself to him. Look to him and be joined to him by faith and be saved. All of a sinner’s hope for forgiveness and divine mercy is found in the great accomplishments of the Son of God alone, so believe upon him without delay. But when we are asked what are we to do to have eternal life then the answer is to follow Jesus Christ through thick and thin, always serving him, always doing his will. It is not enough to entrust yourself to him without that kind of faith which manifests itself in a change of life. The reality of the faith that saves is seen in the submission of the entire life to the Lordship of the Saviour. It is an admission that he is God the Son. It is a deliberate rising and following him. Jesus says that he can take us to God if we follow him and so we place ourselves among that flock which are following this good Shepherd whithersoever he goes. He is our teacher, our protector, our leader and we are following him along the narrow way that leads to life. It is the way of the most stringent morality and personal cross-bearing. It is not the easiest, but if today we want to have eternal life, then it is only by following Christ.
It is no use hiding from the thrust of Jesus’ words by saying, “Yes, but being converted is an experience people have.” We have got it wrong. The professing church has got it wrong at such a crucial issue. Think of it! Of course it is an experience, but at the end of the day I am the one who experiences what it is to pour contempt on all my pride, and destroy my idols, and rase the old temples to the ground. I experience mortifying the flesh; I pluck out the right eye and cut off the right arm when they offend me. I do it. By the constraint of grace, and by the power of the Spirit I do it, but the Spirit does not do it for me. The Lord Jesus bore the judgment instead of me, but the Spirit does not do the mortifying instead of me, he strengthens me to do it. He comes alongside me and empowers. I have to change my lifestyle and follow the Lord. It is not enough to rejoice that I am through the narrow gate; henceforth I must walk the narrow way, and follow my Lord. Follow, follow, I will follow Jesus, anywhere, everywhere, I will follow on.
The Lord asks, “Do you want eternal life? Do you really want it? Then I tell you that it has pleased God to bring many sons to glory, and he has appointed me as the Captain of their salvation. I will bring you to God if you follow me even through the valley of the shadow of death. I will not leave you.” Can we make the answer to this question how can we gain eternal life simpler or clearer? I’m sure we can. But can we make it easier? That is what I question. Simpler? Yes. Clearer? Yes. More eloquent and brilliant? Yes, but easier? No. Let us not pretend that we do not know how to get eternal life. Let us begin there. Then let us destroy all that has been lording it over us so far, and let us follow the Saviour.
As Walter Chantry once wrote, “If Jesus were satisfied to save the rich man because he made an intellectual admission that he was the Saviour, the New Testament would be a different book. First the young man would have gone away happy. Had Jesus been willing to be the personal Saviour of one over whom he was not Lord, John could not have written, ‘He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him’ (I Jn. 2:4). Were he to offer the rich ruler heavenly treasures without the stipulation that he must follow him, James could never have instructed us that ‘Faith without works is dead’ (Walter J. Chantry, “Today’s Gospel,” Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1970, p. 61).
5. THE LORD LET HIM SADLY GO AWAY.
He came to Jesus running, but he left him grieving. “The man’s face fell,” we are told (v.22). It had been a young face. A religious face. A hopeful face. A happy face, but after Jesus had spoken to him there was a different visage. It was a crestfallen face. “He went away sad, because he had great wealth” (v.22). How did he go away? He went away with his youth, and his riches, and his authority, and his religion, and his morality. That is how he came, and that is how he left Jesus. He went away far richer than you or me. Our Lord didn’t charge him a counselling fee. No expenses were incurred for the interview, and yet he went away without eternal life. He went away as an unbeliever.
What shall we say? We shall find some consolation that he went away sad. That in itself is an amazing thing; a man one day came to Jesus and went away sad. I didn’t think the Lord did things like that. Why didn’t Jesus call him back? Why didn’t he find him a place in the church which would be a little less demanding, a little easier and less revolutionary? Our Lord didn’t know of any. There is no other formula to answer his question; no other way of bypassing repentance and faith, and if today you will not sell all you have, and refuse to follow Christ no preacher in the world has the right to speak peace to your soul, not even the incarnate God of love, especially not him.
I say to you that if you go away today with your possessions and with your old lifestyle, and if the idol you brought into this place goes out of the door with you then . . . at least . . . go away sad. That is the only promising thing about this young man, that he was at the end of this brief conversation disturbed. If you are going to go away from us then go away sad. Yes, by all means, but there is a better way. Do not go away. Don’t take your possessions with you out of he door. Don’t go on in the way that it’s been. Don’t go on in that old lifestyle, with the old man alive and well. Don’t take him home out of the door.
Alas, if you do take your old man away still alive then do it with your head bowed in sorrow, a broken heart and a lump in your throat. But better still, don’t go away. Do what Jesus says, sell all you have and follow him. Take up your cross and follow him. Don’t say to yourself that you are going to think about this and that you are going to seek him. Don’t vow that before the next meeting you are going to deal with this problem. Don’t make any such promises. Salvation is not about vowing, it is about doing. Here is the Lord Jesus Christ, and he is saying to this man, “Follow me,” and from this moment onwards let’s follow him. You can never begin to follow Christ too soon. You can believe that you are following him too soon, but you cannot start following the Saviour too soon.
Where do we begin? Is there a heart saying, “O for a closer walk with God?” Is that heart saying,
“The dearest idol I have known whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from the throne and worship only Thee”? (William Cowper)
Let us pray that prayer, but in our own words, confessing and destroying our own idols. Let us pray that prayer until we know that it has been answered. God has helped us to tear it off the throne and then let us follow Jesus.
If you won’t follow my Saviour you’re going to follow someone or something. We are all on a road, some way or other, and the unremarkable fact about a road is that it leads somewhere. Every road going to a specific destination, and that has to be true for the road you’re on. This week a man who had totally rejected my Saviour died. Marlon Brando, the most famous and idolised Hollywood actor of this generation, breathed his last, his earthly course ending with him as a recluse, grossly overweight, surviving on peach-flavoured iced tea and frankfurters, ten million dollars in debt, sued for a further 63 million dollars by a mother of some of his 11 acknowledged children. How was he at the end of his life? In his own words, “Kind of isolated and alone after years of being analysed and exploited by a psychoanalyst.” His self-appointed saviours rather helped to destroy him. What an end to that earthly existence which had begun with youth, health, riches and power. He was steadily deserted by all his idols during his 80 years – what a judgment on the pathetic gods he lived for. One by one they all forsook him and let him die, but then what? After death man faces the judgment of God. Brando was no exception, and neither will you be. So where is your road heading? To destruction without Jesus or to life with him? “Follow Jesus Christ! If not now – when? If not you – who?”
July 4 2004 GEOFF THOMAS