We are in a large section of Jesus’ teaching in which he is proclaiming hard sayings to teach people who belongs to his kingdom. He has said hard things about marriage such that his disciples drew the conclusion that it may be better not to marry. Jesus has said hard things about forgiveness. If we do not forgive others from our hearts then God will not forgive us. Jesus has told us to humble ourselves and watch out for stumbling blocks and from being a stumbling block to others. Now Jesus is going to give another hard saying to explain his offer for eternal life with him.
The Right Attitude (19:13-15)
The first scene that Matthew records for this teaching is parents bringing little children to Jesus so that he would lay his hands on him and pray over them. But the disciples rebuked them. Now it is not hard to think of reasons why the disciples would rebuke parents bringing their little children to Jesus. It is an issue that we looked at back in Matthew 18:2-4. Children were considered insignificant. Children were marginalized and dismissed. So imagine how the disciples could be thinking. Jesus has more important things to do than deal with these little kids. Jesus should not be wasting time with little children. He needs to solve the world’s problems. He needs to be teaching. He needs to be doing miracles. He needs to be helping people.
But I want you to see verse 14. What do important people do today? What do even religious leaders do today? They are inaccessible. They are too important. They are too busy. But not Jesus. Jesus tells the disciples to leave these little children alone and allow them to keep coming to him. The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. Jesus receives the lowly. Jesus gives eternal life to the insignificant and marginalized. Jesus does not receive the self-promoter. Jesus does not give eternal life to those who think highly of themselves. Jesus shows he is not too important for the lowly. Jesus receives these children and lays his hands on them. Jesus shows the necessary attitude to receive Jesus’ offer of eternal life.
The Wrong Attitude (19:16-22)
Now the contrast is presented. A man comes up to Jesus in verse 16 and asks, “What good thing must I do to have eternal life?” This question truly represents a way that we so often think. There must be something I have to do to have eternal life. What good thing do I need to do? We want a list. We want to know the minimum requirements. What good thing do I have to do to make sure I am in? Sometimes we will even try to make a list for people.
Jesus gives an answer in verse 17 to show the problem. “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” There is a problem when you start talking about doing something good that we often do not think about. There is a problem when we say that someone is good or does good acts. There is a problem when we say that someone is a good person. There is a problem when we say someone lived a good life and did good. What is the standard for your definition of “good?” This is what Jesus is putting his finger on with this man. You want to know about a good deed that gets you eternal life. But here’s the problem: what is good? Who says what is good? Who sets the standard? Who says what is a good thing to do? Now Jesus is going to show another problem with this thinking but he will reveal that later in his discussion with his disciples.
So Jesus moves forward working with this man, getting him to think about the way he looks at God and the way he looks at the offer of eternal life. Jesus continues, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (19:17). If you want to look at entering life by looking at yourself, then the solution is simple: keep the commandments. If you want to do good to enter eternal life, all you need to do is keep God’s commands. If you want to look to yourself, then you must keep the commandments. The man does not flinch at this idea. He asks in verse 18, “Which ones?” The Law of Moses contains more than 600 laws. What are the ones I have to keep? Jesus begins listing some of the ten commandments. Jesus does not have to say them all. The young man does not say, “That is great that I only have to keep six commands.” As Jesus starts listing the commandments, it would be clear that Jesus means to keep the Torah.
Now the man says something interesting in verse 20. He says that he has kept all these. So what does he still lack? Again, we can think just like this man. When told to keep the commandments (to keep Torah), he thinks he has done it. What is the problem? The problem is that we create a list of the good things that we do so that we know that we are going to have eternal life. We make a list, lower the standard, and then say that we have achieved it. It would be like God coming to us today and telling us that to enter eternal life, we need to keep his commands. So then we respond with, “I go to church. I have been baptized. I have not murdered. I do not steal. I am nice to people. So what else do I lack?” When we are told to do what God says, we think about all the things that we are already doing. We do not think about what we are not doing. We do not think about how we have lowered the standard so that we look like we are doing well.
Let me illustrate this. Look again at verse 19. One of the things Jesus said was to love your neighbor as yourself. Now you can hear that two ways. You can say, “Oh, yes, I do love my neighbor as myself. I am nice. I am friendly. I do not fight with them.” Or you can think about how loving your neighbor as yourself is far deeper than the shallow standard we create in our mind. This is why Jesus had to tell a parable about a good Samaritan to get us think about what it means to be a neighbor to others. This is what Jesus is doing in the Sermon on the Mount. You are making standards about what is good so that you think you are doing what God says. You don’t murder but God says not to be angry with your brother (Matthew 5:21-22).
So what Jesus has to do is expose our idols. Jesus has to expose our points of failure. This is what Jesus does in verse 21. “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your belongings and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Verse 22 tells us that when the young man heard these words, he went away grieving because he had many possessions. I want us to see what Jesus did. Jesus did not congratulate this man for keeping the commandments. Jesus did not praise him because he was doing a pretty good job with God’s law. Jesus came to expose hearts. If you think you are doing good, Jesus will find where you are not doing good. Jesus will expose your heart and tell you to cut off anything that is an idol. To put this another way, what Jesus does is find out what we value more than him. Some are going to value their possessions more than Jesus. So they are unwilling to sell what they have to follow him (19:21-22). Some are going to value marriage more than Jesus. So they are unwilling to follow Jesus’ marriage law (19:1-12). Some are going to value their superiority more than Jesus. So they are unwilling to forgive people who have wronged them (18:21-35). Some are going to value their comfort more than Jesus. So they are unwilling to find the sheep that are lost (18:10-14). Some are going to value their rights more than Jesus. So they are unwilling to forfeit their rights to not be a stumbling block to others for Jesus’ sake (17:24-28).
The Problem (19:23-24)
As the man leaves, unwilling to follow Jesus because he had many possessions, Jesus has something to say to his disciples. It is another hard saying. Jesus said that it is hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. In fact, 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 (19:23-24). Friends, the more you have, the harder it is to deny yourself to follow Jesus. There is no bending or loosening what Jesus said. Don’t do what we like to do to God’s commands. Don’t lower the standard to make it easier to jump over. Someone in history made up that the needle was a low doorway in a city and that camels had to crawl on their knees to enter. There is no historical evidence for this. What Jesus said is what Jesus meant. It is going to be very hard for us to accept Jesus’ offer of eternal life.
Understanding Jesus’ Offer (19:25-26)
Now the disciples understand what Jesus is teaching. The disciples in no way thought that Jesus was saying that accepting his offer of eternity was easy. Look at what they ask in verse 25. “Then who can be saved?” If having possessions makes it difficult to enter the kingdom of heaven, then who can be saved? If keeping our standard of God’s commands does not put us in the kingdom of heaven, then who can be saved? If Jesus is going to find our idols and expose our hearts, then who can be saved? This is a weighty question. Who can be saved?
The disciples are trying to get their minds around what Jesus has just done. This young man appears to be a good man. He has kept the commandments. He has lived by the law of God in his life. This young man also appears to be blessed by God. He has many possessions. But Jesus just turned him away by exposing his heart. Then who can be saved? Look at Jesus’ answer in verse 26.
“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Jesus has moved his disciples to understanding an important truth. If you are looking at yourself for salvation, then you have no hope. Salvation is impossible if we look to any of our good deeds. If we are going to try to rely upon ourselves for eternal life, God has no problem finding a glaring hole in our lives where we have fallen woefully short of God’s calling and glory. Look again at verse 20. If we come to the Lord with our list of things that we have done and then ask, “What do I still lack?”, we are not going to like the answer. But this is what Jesus wants us to land on. If salvation depends on us, then it is impossible for us to be saved. Let me illustrate this with the illustration Jesus used back at the end of Matthew 18. In that illustration, Jesus describes our sins as owing the master a debt of 60 million day’s wages. Then we come to the Lord and think we are paying this debt down. We think since we might pay 1000 day’s wages that we have done something worthy of praise. But we are supposed to see that the debt is unpayable. Who can be saved? With us, it is impossible.
So embrace the glorious words at the end of verse 26. “But with God all things are possible.” Only when we are brought low by the magnitude of our sins can salvation be possible. Only when we have the heart that refuses to raise our eyes but simply mutters, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” can we receive Jesus’ offer of eternal life (cf. Luke 18:13). But if we are like the Pharisee in that story that said that he was better than the other terrible people in world, then we cannot be saved (cf. Luke 18:12,14). As soon as we look to ourselves, salvation is lost. As soon as we look to Christ, salvation can be received.
This is how this section started. Look at back to Matthew 19:13-15. Why does the kingdom of heaven belong to those like little children? Because little children were counted as lowly and insignificant. When we lower ourselves and count ourselves as nothing, not looking to our works of righteousness but to work of Christ’s righteousness, only then can we be saved. It is only when we are thinking like this that we will value Jesus as far beyond anything in this life. But if we think we are not that bad or do not see the serious debt we have before God, then we will not value Jesus enough to give up everything that stands in our way of having more and more of him. I will end the lesson with the words of the apostle Paul who summed up what Jesus was teaching to his disciples.
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ… (Philippians 3:8–9 ESV)