In our last lesson we examined Jesus’ parable concerning a Pharisee and a tax collector. The surprise of the story was that the tax collector was justified and belonged to the kingdom of God while the Pharisee, the religious, moral person was not justified. The reason was the tax collector revealed humility and recognition of his sin and need for grace while the Pharisee proudly relied on his own righteousness, which led to his contempt of others. The author of this gospel is not done with this theme. In 18:15-30 Luke records two events to help us see who is justified and in the kingdom of God and who is not. We are going to notice three groups coming to Jesus, wanting something from him.
Children of God (18:15-17)
The first scene begins with parents bringing their infants to Jesus to be touched by him. We have to assume that the parents are looking for a blessing to be placed on them. But the disciples see this and begin to rebuke the parents. One can imagine the scene. The teacher is too busy to be bothered by parents bringing their infants! We have more important work to be doing! But rather than being too busy for the children Jesus tells his disciples to let the babies come to him. Jesus is going to use this as an opportunity to teach his disciples. Jesus says to such like these infants belongs the kingdom of God. Then listen to what Jesus says: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Luke 18:17 ESV)
Now there have been many ideas advanced concerning what Jesus means by this. People speak of the innocence of a child or the humility of a child, but this does not seem to be the point in Luke’s gospel. Notice that Luke records this event as infants being brought to Jesus, not children. There is really only one characteristic that an infant has that has any relevance to the context of the story. Infants are totally helpless and are completely dependent on others. All that an infant can do is cry out for help. An infant cannot do anything else. Consider how this fits with the previous parable. What was the problem with the Pharisee? His problem is that he does not see his need. He is relying on himself and his own righteousness rather than relying on the grace of God because he is a sinner. The heart of the disciple is one that is completely dependent on God for forgiveness and salvation. We are infants before God, utterly helpless and completely dependent upon the Lord for salvation. Consider what we are always called in scriptures. We are never called, “adults of God.” We are always called “children of God.” Children are dependent and our complete dependence is to be on God alone.
Inherit Eternal Life (18:18-23)
A ruler asks Jesus a very important question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ response is fairly startling for a couple of reasons. Notice first that Jesus does not immediately answer the question, but asks why this ruler is calling him “good.” Jesus makes the point that only God is good. Jesus maybe making the point that if you call me good then you need to accept me as God because only God is good. But consider the theme of Luke in this section. No one is good but God. You cannot depend on your own righteousness because you are not good. You have no righteous acts to depend upon. Jesus knows the heart and the attitude of this ruler and so Jesus tries to get him to think about his own life. No one is good. You cannot go around calling people good because in the absolute sense only God is good and everyone else is sinful.
But Jesus goes on to answer the question. “You know the commandments.” You want to inherit eternal life, then you know what the commandments are. Jesus then lists a few of the commandments to summarize the Law of Moses. Listen to the ruler’s response: “All these I have kept from my youth.” The problem immediately becomes evident. He is also relying on his own righteousness. What do I need to do to inherit eternal life because I have done all the commandments since my youth? When Jesus tells us to do the commandments, our response cannot be, “Yeah, I have that down. I have been doing them from my youth.” The requirement of the law is to cause us to recognize our problem. No one was supposed to look at the law of God and think that they are doing all that God has required of them. The law shows us our sins, not our perfection.
Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Galatians 3:11 ESV)
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20 ESV)
When confronted with the teaching that to inherit eternal life requires keeping the commands of God, the only response we can have is that of the tax collector, “Be merciful to me, a sinner!” To answer that we have been keeping the law since our youth is the epitome of arrogance and delusion. We have not kept the law. We must not think that this ruler is truthful in what he is saying. He is deluded by his self-righteousness. He should have known the scripture that taught:
The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:2–3 ESV)
This is the passage that Paul quotes in Romans 3:10 declaring none to be righteous so that we would understand that no one can be justified by the law. Listen to what Paul says about the law.
I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. (Romans 7:9–11 ESV)
This ruler does not get it. He does not see his need for a savior. He sees his own self-righteousness and his relying upon his own works. Our problem is that we define obedience and our righteousness by some of the laws of God, not all of God’s laws. We do not include the laws where we fail. We pick out the laws of God that we are good at and think that we have some kind of righteousness to stand on. We haven’t committed adultery, or haven’t murdered, or haven’t stolen, so we think we are good, righteous people. But we ignore commands like do not lust in your heart, malice, bitterness, outbursts of wrath, or loving our neighbor as ourselves. We saw this problem all the way back in chapter 10. A lawyer was trying to test Jesus and asked the question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ response was the same — what does the law say? The lawyer rightly quoted, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “Do this, and you will live.” So then the lawyer has to justify himself. Jesus is trying to get us to see that we have not lived up to the laws of God.
We cannot pick out the laws that we are good at and think that we have fulfilled and obeyed the law of God. Jesus has to make us see our sin so that we will see our need for a Savior. We cannot see ourselves as obedient to God’s law but violators of God’s law. Seeing our sins and our lack of righteousness causes us to depend completely on God and to give him all that we have.
So Jesus tells the ruler that there is something that he lacks. He needs to sell all he has, give to the poor, and then you will have treasure in heaven. Then follow Jesus. But when the ruler heard this, he was very sad because he was extremely rich. Jesus hits a place in the law where the ruler was deficient. Jesus exposes the sin in his life. The ruler thinks he has kept the law from his youth. But the ruler had not. The ruler had violated the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Jesus identified this ruler’s god and identified that he had not kept the law at all.
It amazes me how many writers seem to discount this command as not relevant for us. And we may read the words of Jesus and be glad that this was a command given to this ruler and not to us. But the same command is to us if we are so concerned about the idea of giving up our possessions and wealth to follow Jesus because our heart is not right. If we need to justify ourselves because we do not want to give up everything to follow Jesus then we also have another god and not the Lord as our God. Is there something Jesus could say for us to give up that we would not give up to follow Jesus? Is there something that Jesus could ask that would be too much for us to sacrifice? The ruler did not think it was worth the sacrifice. He does not love the Lord God with all his heart, soul, and strength because he was unwilling to give up anything and everything for the Lord.
We learn a very important principle for our lives. To receive eternal treasure we must give up what we treasure. Jesus does not accept our idolatrous hearts. We cannot come before him thinking we are righteous and good, all the while unwilling to give up whatever it is in our lives that is holding us back from true trust and full dependence on him. The infant has nothing and is fully dependent on the parents. This is the heart that God requires to inherit eternal life. We may think that we have kept the laws of God but what are withholding from God. What is in our heart that is too great to sacrifice for him? That object, that desire, and that pursuit is our idol.
The Worthy Sacrifice (18:24-30)
Now Jesus gives us the warning we need to hear. “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” We really need to hear these words. Our wealth, which gives us our comforts, fulfills our desires, and provides our conveniences, interferes with entering the kingdom of God. In verse 25 Jesus illustrates the difficulty by describing it as a camel going through an eye of the needle. The camel was one of the largest animals in Palestine and the eye of the needle is the smallest of holes. It is difficult for the wealthy to enter the kingdom because our hearts become captured by this world. We have to see that our wealth is a barrier to our entrance into God’s kingdom. Wealth will be the thing that keeps us from being justified on the day of judgment. Jesus warned of this in the parable of the soils. The seed is choked out by the hearts with thorny soul, which was a picture of the word of God being choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and the fruit does not mature (Luke 8:14). We do not grow and become the servants of God as our Lord desires because our hearts are captured by the cares and love of this world. How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom! Jesus is calling for our diligence. Jesus is calling for our careful watching. Jesus is calling for extra effort for us to be his disciple.
The disciples understand the weight of what Jesus is saying. Notice their response: “Then who can be saved?” If a wealthy ruler who has been good and morally cannot enter the kingdom of God, then who can? If someone who tries to keep the law and is blessed with riches cannot get in, who can? The wealthy were supposed by the people to have the blessings of God. Listen to Jesus’ words: “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” Without the grace of God salvation is impossible. We cannot save ourselves. No one who relies on their own righteousness can be saved. God is seeking people who recognize their sinfulness and helplessness, will give up everything to receive salvation from their sins and will go forward living for him.
Look at verse 28 and hear what Peter says. “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” Peter understands what the ruler was lacking. Peter notes that they have been willing to make the sacrifice. We have left our homes to follow you. The leaving of the home does not mean that they simply left their house. The wording is that they left “their own.” They have left their possessions, their families, their occupations, and more to follow Jesus. They have made the sacrifice the ruler was unwilling to make. Jesus’ answer confirms this is the picture. There is no one who has left home, possessions, or family for the sake of the kingdom who will not be rewarded many times more now and in the life to come. There are blessings now and blessings to come. The point is that we must know that God recognizes the sacrifices we make for him. Our sacrifice of this life will be rewarded with eternal life. God vindicates those who completely trust in him. We must leave it all behind. Sacrifice the normal, worldly life now to receive eternal life and salvation from our sins. But this will only happen when we see ourselves as sinners, not as righteous.
If there is something we would not give up to follow Jesus, then we are in the same position as this ruler who refused to give up his wealth. The things that we allow to interfere with our prayer life, worship time, Bible study time, and service to God are some indicators as to what we deem more important than the Lord. When we see our sinfulness, our lack of righteousness, and need for a savior, then we will express our helplessness to God, respond to him in faith, and forfeit all there is for the great treasure of following Jesus.