The story of the rich young ruler is a well-known story in the Bible, and no wonder, it is found in the gospels of Matthew (chapter 19), Mark (chapter 10) and Luke (chapter 18). Each of the gospels tell this scene with a small difference, but we see a complete picture of the discourse between this young man and the Lord Jesus Christ.
In Matthew, we see that this person is just introduced as ‘one came and said to Him (Jesus)’ (Matt 19:16). It is not until later in verse 20 that we are introduced to him as a young man. But how did this person approach the Lord? He called Him ‘Good Teacher/Master’ (verse 16). He only recognised the Lord Jesus Christ as a Good Teacher, and the Lord immediately responded that only God is Good. The question this man asked was also not the right question, although we can at first glance argue that he was genuine in seeking eternal life. He approached the Lord Jesus on the grounds of doing good, and so the Lord answered him according to this same ground – keeping the law! I don’t want to divert and write about the law and that mankind is incapable of keeping it, this we find in the epistle to the Romans.
The Lord wanted to reach to the heart of this young man, and quoted some of the simple commandments. The man was enthusiastic and stated that he kept all these commandments from his youth! Really? Dear friend, can you seriously say that you have never, ever committed adultery? Never stolen anything? Never bore false witness (this does not have to be in a court setting)? Always honoured your parents (never spoke negatively about them behind their backs)? These may be of the simplest commandments, but if we look at someone and desire that person, then we have committed adultery already in our hearts. If we gave false evidence without seeing or hearing what took place, then we broke all the commandments. Dear friends, it takes only one commandment to break, then we have broken all. Imagine when you are driving and got caught speeding. Does a lifetime of good driving history or keeping other parts of the law cancel the fine? I don’t think so. If we break this area of law, we break the whole law. This is how serious it is if we rely on the law and good works to have eternal life – see Romans 3:20, one of a number of verses stating that there is no justification if we want to approach God on the grounds of law-keeping. The law that God gave the children of Israel was more than just the 10 commandments. If you read Exodus and Leviticus only, there are hundreds of other commands that Israel could never keep. Even Moses failed!
The young man asked what he has to do to inherit eternal life. There is no such thing as inheriting eternal life, it is obtaining eternal life upon believing in our hearts with faith that the only way to heaven is through the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, accept Him as Saviour and we have eternal life. What is eternal life? It is not just living forever. It is far more than that. It is having the divine life of God and enjoying the things of God and His Son, even while we are here on earth. Eternal life is not something to inherit as a result of good works. The question we must ask is, what MUST I do to be saved. The Philippian jailer asked the right question with the right attitude, and got the answer (Acts 16:30-32).
Let us look at the sequence so far. A man came to the Lord Jesus, running, and kneeled to Him (Mark 10:17). Then he asks Jesus the question about inheriting eternal life. The Lord responded to the man on the grounds that he approached the Lord, and Jesus Christ always does that – He responds according to the grounds on which we approach Him. The scene of the gentile woman in Matthew 15:22-28 presents an example, where she approaches Christ on the grounds that He is the Son of David, and she had no right whatsoever to use this title for Him. This title only belonged to the Jews, so He was silent. It was only when she cried out “Lord, help me,” and acknowledged that she has no right or privilege among His people, that the Lord responded with grace.
After the enthusiastic response of the young man, he then asked, “what lack I yet?” (Matthew 19:20). In fact, the Lord told him that he lacked one thing (Luke 18:22). He wanted to be perfect, so the Lord responded to him on the grounds of keeping the law and being perfect. He wanted to show the young man that no one is good, and no one is perfect. Let us look further. The Lord Jesus looked on him and loved him (Mark 10:21). The Lord loves everyone and does not discriminate, and wants to give all a chance to accept Him as their Saviour and not rely on their works.
We find another interesting feature about the man, that he was a ruler (Luke 18:18). He must have been successful to become a ruler at a young age, or he may have inherited this. He may have been a ruler of a nearby village or area, but we are not told what the extent of his rule was. If he inherited this, then he is accustomed to get things by inheritance, that may be why he asked the Lord about inheriting eternal life.
The next interesting fact is that this young man, who was a ruler, was rich, and had great riches and possessions. Now there is nothing wrong at all with being rich, but the trap is relying on one’s riches and possessions and totally depending on them rather than depending on the One who blesses and provides this, according to His grace. If God gave me riches and possessions, how do I use these? If I rely totally on them and lose sight of Him who gave this, then I have missed the point. I can use these riches for the glory of the Lord, to help the poor and needy financially, or materially.
What was the Lord’s response to this young rich ruler? If he wanted to be perfect, then he had to sell all his possessions, distribute to the poor and follow Jesus. However, the Lord promised him that he will have treasure in heaven, which is eternal, but the riches of the earth will pass away. Yet even further, the Lord told him in Mark 10:21 to take up the cross as an additional instruction, which is not found in the other gospels. This was way too hard for the rich man, and the result is that he went away sorrowful. Why? Because he had to give up his earthly possessions and he relied on these for his social status. The Lord then responded that it was hard for a rich man – one who relied on his own wealth and riches, to enter the kingdom of heaven (or of God). This is not about being saved, but about acknowledging the authority of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, here on earth. It was the disciples who misunderstood the saying of the Lord and asked who can be saved (Matthew 19:25 and Luke 18:26).
It is not hard at all for a rich man to be saved. Being saved is the work of God the Holy Spirit in the hearts of people, so the Lord responded that with men this idea is impossible, but all things are possible with God at work. The whole point of this story about the rich young ruler is that we cannot rely on our good works, we cannot inherit eternal life – this is given to us when we accept Christ as our personal Saviour, and it is a life that we enjoy even while we are here on earth. The other thing is that our money and possessions will all pass away, but our treasure in heaven will last for eternity. May we be encouraged and take heed of relying on keeping the law and depending on our riches in order to feel important in the world.