For many, the hope of eternal life lies in how well they have lived. The Gospel of Mark’s account of the rich young ruler presents us with a man who strictly observed the law, yet was still not sure of his salvation. Alistair Begg explains how this man’s exchange with Jesus challenges our view of the law, showing us that we do not have the capacity to live good lives. Our hope for eternal life, we must realize, rests not in a life well lived, but in Jesus Christ alone.
Well, let’s read the text from which our question is taken, and that is in the Gospel of Mark, and we’ll read from the seventeenth verse. Mark chapter 10, and page 716 in those pew Bibles:
“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, honor 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.
“Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’”
Well, this young man who is central to the story here, alongside Jesus, would be on most fathers’ lists of possible son-in-law material. If you have ever thought who you may like for your daughters as a son-in-law and you have considered things honestly, then you may agree with me that the kind of characteristics that are represented in this man, although not in any particular order, are attractive characteristics.
First of all, he’s prosperous. Now, we know that doesn’t matter in its entirety, but it sure helps. And the ability for someone to provide is an important thing.
He was, at the same time, principled. He was a young man who was able to say that he had been living by the rules. He wasn’t trying to fiddle things or dodge issues; he was a man of integrity. That too is an attractive characteristic.
He was, at the same time, personable. We pick that up from the fact that there was something about even his approach and the way in which he interacted with Jesus that caused Jesus to love him, as Mark records it for us here. It says that at one point in the dialogue Jesus looked at him and he just loved him. Now, I know that says something about Jesus, but it also says something about the nature of this young man—personable.
And also spiritual. He mayn’t have described himself in that way—might have described himself as religious. But certainly he was a young man who was interested in eternal life.
Prosperous, principled, personable, and spiritual: not only on the list of potential son-in-laws but also on the list of attractive prospects for most church committees. Any church organization that was looking for a few good men to add to their ranks, to help serve in some capacity, would’ve said immediately, on the strength of this man’s disclosure, “Now that’s the kind of fellow that we could do with on one of our committees!” And indeed, the disciples in the encounter that ensued, who were probably saying to themselves as he arrived, and certainly in the way he addressed Jesus, “This is the kind of fella that would make a super addition to the disciple band.”
It’s therefore quite striking that when you get to the end of the dialogue, you discover that the man’s face has fallen and he’s gone away sad. Now, when you read the New Testament, you discover that there are a number of people who arrived sad in meeting Jesus and went away happy. But this is the only individual that I’ve been able to find in the whole New Testament who met Jesus and went away sad.
Verse 17, which is our starting verse, seems to suggest that his concern was so great, that his interest was so sincere, that he’s virtually falling over himself as he seeks to address his question to Jesus.
Not all the events in the life and ministry of Jesus are recorded in all of the Gospels. There are some you find in John that aren’t in the Synoptics—“the Synoptics” being the technical name for the other three, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And there are a number of stories that are covered in all three, and this is actually one of them. So when you put together the parallel passages, that’s how you end up with “the rich young ruler.” He’s described in this text as the “rich” young man. Where do we get the “ruler” from? Well, you just need to read Matthew 19, you can read Luke chapter 18, and you will be able to put the pieces together and discover why it is that these are the designations of him.
He was a young man of ability. You don’t rise to leadership, nor do you amass wealth—unless you’re involved in corruption—unless you are zealous, hardworking, marked by exertion and by activity. And it would be no surprise, if we’d been able to walk through a couple of days with this young man, to find that he was just the kind of individual who was on it. He would be the kind of person who returned his telephone calls. He would be the sort of chap who said, “If I’ll phone you at six,” he phoned you at six. If he said he had a book to pass on to you, he got the book to you. He was just that kind of individual. And if somebody presented a challenge, he was ready for it. He’d made that part of his life. Therefore, it is no surprise at all that when he comes to Jesus with this spiritual question, he wants to know what he had to do: “What do I have to do?”
Activists always want to know what they have to do: “Tell me what to do.” In this instance, “What do I have to do to receive eternal life?” That’s actually a very good question. And you may have been thinking along those lines even this week. You may not have been. You may even just to start thinking along those lines right now; I encourage you to do so.
Now, the reply of Jesus stops this fellow in his tracks. And the more I’ve read this passage, I think that’s largely what Jesus was seeking to do. It’s almost as though the man arrives on a great emotional surge. He’s excited; this is his latest project. He wants to find out how to get eternal life. He’s heard various things about Jesus of Nazareth, and so he arrives, as it were, in a bit of a stew, steamed up, emotionally intrigued, desperately keen to find out.
And he addresses Jesus in this way: “Good teacher,” he asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He might’ve expected that Jesus said, “Well, thank you so much for coming. I’m glad I’d the opportunity to talk with you, and thank you for greeting me in such a nice fashion. It’s always nice to be described in these terms.” No, he says: “‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good—except God alone.’” You’ve gotta admit that that is a fairly striking kind of response. I mean, it stands out even in the text, doesn’t it? I think most of us would say, “Oh-oh, what’s all this about? What happened here?”
Now, “good teacher” was actually not used as a customary greeting. Plummer tells us—and you don’t need to know who Plummer is, but he’s a reliable source—that there isn’t a single example in the Talmud of a rabbi being addressed in this way. So it’s not as if the man says, “You know, how should I refer to you?” People ask me that all the time: “Are you Reverend, or are you Pastor, or what should I call you?” And I always say the same thing: “Call me Alistair; that’s what my mother called me.” But if his question was “What am I supposed to call him when I go up to him?” nobody would’ve said, “Call him ‘good teacher,’” because “good teacher” was not what you said when you came up here. And the reason was straightforward: because to use “good” in this way was to ascribe to a man an attribute that in its intrinsic nature was possessed only by God.
So what the young man is actually doing is employing a piece of thoughtless, unnecessary flattery. But again, you know, that’s kind of a style, isn’t it? How do you become a ruler, and how do you put together a portfolio like that? You’ve got to know how to approach people, and he figures, you know, “Hey, I know how to approach people. Good teacher! What must I do to eternal life?” Jesus says, “Why’re you calling me good? There’s nobody good around here, except God himself.”
Now, of course, Jesus is not, by making that statement, denying his divinity. What he’s doing is, he’s making clear to the young man that he may only be referred to legitimately as good if he is actually none other than the Son of God. And given that he knows that the young man doesn’t have an inkling of his real nature—given that he knows that the young man regards Jesus as merely human—he’s pointing out to the man that there is no validity, no utilitarian value, in employing that kind of superficial, flattering form of address. And actually, in that, he’s stopping the man in his tracks by saying, “Well, maybe we should think about the nature of goodness. And since God is all good, maybe you just want to think about the thought of possessing eternal life in the company of an all-good God, and maybe, as you go about your self-evaluation, you might include that kind of thing in your reckoning.”
But at the heart of this encounter, as in the heart of all encounters with Jesus, the matter of his identity is at the very core. And that’s why at the bottom of your card tonight you’ll find there that wonderful quote from Mere Christianity. I won’t take the time to read it. I hope that you can see it; if you can’t, then get glasses at the drugstore, and do your best before you fall asleep. But it is a classic statement concerning the great notion that Jesus was simply a good man. If you go out in the street, you’ll find that people want to say of Jesus, “Well, he was just a good man, nothing more than a good man.” And that quote, which you can read at your leisure, addresses that with chilling accuracy.
Well, the young man is looking for a way to tackle, if you like, this important question, this spiritual question, just as he tackled other aspects of his life. So Jesus says, “Well then, if you want to know what to do, then keep the commandments.” In one of the Gospels—I think it may be Matthew—the man comes back and says, “Which ones do you have in mind?” And Jesus runs through a little list—he doesn’t use them all, but he runs through a list—including these: “You know the commandments; for example, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, and so on. Keep the commandments. Because the Bible actually teaches that whoever does these things perfectly will live.” That’s why Jesus says this. “You want to do something to get eternal life? Then keep the commandments. And do it perfectly, without one step to the wrong, and you will get eternal life.”
’Course, the only problem with that is a big problem. No one has, no one can, no one will, keep the commandments perfectly. The only person who has is Jesus himself. But that doesn’t seem to faze this young man. He is able to reply—verse 20—“Well, Teacher…” He’s a fast learn; you will notice that. He’s dropped the adjective immediately in the conversation. He started with “Good teacher.” “Why’d you call me good? There’s no one good, save God alone.” He comes back, says, “Well, Teacher…” I admire him for that; he’s already taken care of the problem. “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy. None of these commandments have been a problem for me,” he says. “Even from my youth, I’ve been good at all this.”
Now, what is he saying? He’s saying what people like to say. He’s saying the kind of thing that people often say when you ask them, “If there is a heaven, do you think you’ll go to it?” “Yes,” they reply. And you then ask them, “On what basis do you believe you will go to heaven?” And in the top five answers to that question is essentially the answer that this young man provides: “I’m a good person. I’m essentially a good person. And I live by the rules.”
It is interesting, too—at least I found it to be of interest, and I’d never noticed this before, and I’ve read this passage a lot—that despite the meticulous nature of his observance of the commandments, that has not provided him with rest for his soul. If it had, there would’ve been no reason for him to run up to Jesus and say, “What am I supposed to do to get eternal life?” And I haven’t been many places, but I have been some places, and I have had conversations with a few folk, and I think that almost without exception the individuals that I have met whose quest for heaven and eternal life is directly related to goodness have, by their own testimony, been prepared to acknowledge that their ability to keep the rules and live by the commands has not, does not, provide them with a sense of security, a sense of forgiveness, a sense of assurance that when they die they will actually experience eternal life. Yet despite that, many continue still to hold to it. The path of religious observance is a stony path, and it does not yield the peaceable fruit of eternal life.
Now, this is where the loveliness of Jesus comes out, isn’t it, in verse 21? Jesus has stopped him in his tracks by this strange question, exhorted him in relationship to the commandments. The young man has said, “Well, I have actually been taking care of that ever since I was young.” And then Mark tells us that “Jesus looked at him and loved him.”
Now, I wonder, did Mark watch the scene? Did he interpret Jesus’ eyes? Or did he say to him afterwards, “Jesus, when the fellow came back and said that he’d kept all those commandments ever since he was a boy, what was going on in your mind?” And Jesus maybe said, “Mark, I’ve gotta tell you, I just loved him for his devotion. I loved him for his sincerity. I loved him for his flat-out honesty. I loved the fact that he wasn’t actually trying to disguise anything; he was being as straightforward as he possibly could be.”
But he knows that the young man has an inadequate understanding of what true fulfillment of the law means. “I’ve kept all these since I was a boy.” Jesus could’ve got into it with him; he could’ve said, “Well, I wonder if you understand the nature of adultery—that it goes beyond the physical act to mental activity? I wonder, do you realize that to say in your heart that you wish someone was dead is akin to having murdered them?”
He doesn’t do that. Instead, what he does is he moves to a different part of the law. He actually moves right up to the top of the table. And he says, “Well then, let me just put something to you.” He says, “Why don’t we do it this way? There’s one thing that you lack: what I want you to do is go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor—you will have treasure in heaven—and then you just come and follow me.”
Now, what he was doing there was pointing out that this young man—despite his affirmation in relationship to the commandments mentioned—that this young man had actually broken the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” “[You shall] love the Lord your God with all your heart and … all your soul [and all your mind] and … all your strength.” And clearly this young man did not love God in that way. And Jesus, in his wisdom, puts his finger on the issue in his life; he says, “Let’s just think about your resources, shall we? Let’s think about your finances. Let’s think about all the things that you hold dear. Why don’t you go and smash that idol? Why don’t you invest in a whole different financial portfolio—one that yields treasure in heaven? And then when you have made that great switch, then you come back and follow me.”
And then the story ends, doesn’t it? “At this,” Mark tells us, “the [young] man’s face fell. [And] he went away sad, because he had great wealth. [And] Jesus looked around and [he] said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’” “How hard it is!” It doesn’t say, “How impossible it is!” It’s just hard. Why? Because in our affluence, we’re tempted always to rely on earthly things ; that if we have managed to secure a certain level of lifestyle—if we have been able, if you like, by dint of hard work and the pursuit of the American Dream, to amass enough of this world’s provisions to gain access to the kind of clubs we would like to join, to be able to take at least some of the vacations that we would like to enjoy, and so on—then it is no surprise that when it comes to the issue of the idea of a kingdom with Jesus as a King or the issue of a life that begins now and goes into eternity, the perspective of that kind of individual is to say what this young man said: “What do I have to do here? What does this cost? Let me know what I need to do. Let me know where I write the check. I’ll take care of this.” And of course, it isn’t possible. And therefore, there is a tremendous sadness that attaches to the affluent when they find that the only way of entry is to cast themself on God’s mercy; when the only way is to accept God’s offer of salvation as a free gift; when the only way is to bow down before the provision that Jesus makes and to hold out empty hands and thank him for it.
Well, that’s a dreadfully humbling thing to do, isn’t it? See, it’s much easier if somebody says, “Well, you know, if you are wanting entry to the kingdom of heaven, let me tell you what you need to do. I hope you’ve already given to the tsunami; that’s important. And if you could chip in a little more for New Orleans. And now we’re actually doing some stuff for Pakistan; if you could do some stuff for Pakistan, I’m pretty sure that, with the amalgamated impact of all of that, then I’ll be able to secure your entry into heaven.” Well, that would be okay, wouldn’t it? Because most of us can at least get part the way there with reaching into our wallets or taking out a pen and signing our names. And plus, it makes us feel good.
“So when did you join?”
“Oh, I’ve been a member for some time.”
“Well, I joined when the entry was only twenty-five thousand.”
“Oh, really? You know, it’s a hundred thousand now to get in.”
“It is? Remarkable! See, it’s important that you join just at the right time.”
“When did you get into the kingdom of heaven?”
“Oh, I got in some time ago.”
“And how did you come in?”
“I came in on my knees. I came in naked. I came in when I realized that there was stuff in my life that was as big a stumbling block to me as finance was to this young man.”
Now, let me draw this to a close and simply apply it in this way. The ultimate impediment in all of our lives, the Bible says, is that we are at odds with God—we are alienated from God—and that we’re unable to put ourselves in the right with God; that God, in recognition of that, has come in the person of Jesus and has died on the cross, not as a display of his affection, but the Son has died in order to bear the settled indignation of the Father against the rebellious hearts of men and women; and that he has died in the place of sinners. And when we read the law of God, we discover that we haven’t loved him with all of our heart, we discover that we haven’t always told the truth, we discover that we have coveted things of our neighbors, we have been guilty of impure thought, and so on. And we realize then that as a lawbreaker, I neither have the time nor the capacity to do enough, even if I could, to counteract all the mess that I have already contributed to this point in my life.
There may be some teenagers here tonight, and that’s exactly how you feel. You feel as though you started your life, your teenage years, with a white notebook, and that white notebook is filled already with garbage—your mistakes, your disappointments, your regrets, and so on. And sometimes of a night you look at that book, as it were, you imagine that book, and you say to yourself, “I have made such a royal hash of everything to this point, I might as well just keep this going, because there is no way back and there is no way forward.” Well, I tell you, there isn’t down the road of religious observance, but there is down the pathway to Jesus. He still looks at young guys and girls and loves them, loves their willingness to be honest about where they are.
You may be impeded tonight not because of your money, but you may be impeded tonight because of your mind. And the reason that you have never become a Christian is because you think you’re too clever to become a Christian. And if Jesus were to come and have a personal conversation with you, and it went down the same lines—“So I’m very interested in eternal life; I’d like to talk about how it might be handled”—and Jesus put his finger on your mind, and he says, “You know, why don’t you just go and read a few children’s books for a little while? Why don’t you recognize that unless you become as a little child, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven?” Your impediment may be moral, it may be physical, it may be relational. In other words, “I’m not going to become a Christian, because he’s put his finger on that area of my life.”
I remember so clearly having a conversation with a man I regard as a friend—a very, very prosperous fellow now in the city of Cleveland. And he came for a while regularly to church; it was when we were back in the high school. And on one occasion we went out for lunch, soon after he’d been listening to a series of sermons. And we sat opposite one another in a club in the center of Cleveland; I think it was the Athletic Club. And he said to me, “If I were to do what the Bible says I must do, then it would demand such a drastic change in my lifestyle, for which I am unprepared. And therefore, I will not trust in Christ. I will not follow him.”
Now, his honesty was admirable, but I still pray for him. I send him things. I called him on the phone last week. And my prayer is that somewhere along the journey he might run up to Jesus and fall on his knees, and that he may not live with the resulting sadness of this young man—a sadness which was tied to his false confidence, because he had an idea of entry into a kingdom by means of exertion, and Jesus said the way of entry was the way of childlike trust. And the great sadness of this story is that this young man walks away from Christ not because he’s a bad man but because he’s a good man. And it is his very goodness which keeps him from the kingdom—the same sense of self-righteousness which keeps some of us from entering the kingdom tonight as well.
 See Matthew 19:16–22.
 See Luke 18:18–25.
 Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to St. Luke (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920), 422.
 See C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; repr., New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 52.
 Matthew 19:16–19 (paraphrased). See also Luke 18:18–20.
 See Matthew 5:27–28.
 See Matthew 5:21–22.
 Exodus 20:3 (NIV 1984).
 Deuteronomy 6:5 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 18:3 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.