Paying the Entrance Fee
Copyright © 2004 Jeremy Myers
George Orwell, writing during the Second World War, tells of a rather cruel trick he once played on a wasp. The wasp was sucking jam on his plate and he cut him in half. The wasp paid no attention to what had happened to him, but just went on with his meal, while a tiny, stream of jam trickled out of his severed esophagus. Only when he tried to fly did he realize the terrible thing that happened to him. This is an amazing picture of our consumer-oriented, materialistic driven people of this world. They gorge themselves on the glitter and gold and glory of life, but remain completely oblivious to their plight.
Sometimes, in order to get the attention of a person like this that they too need a Savior in Jesus Christ, we need to throw the law at them. For this is the main purpose of the law. There are many today who believe that the purpose of the law is to give eternal life to everyone who keeps it. And while this is theoretically true, we saw in Romans a few weeks back that absolutely nobody (except Jesus Christ) can ever keep the entire law (Rom. 3:19-23).
People who think they are going to heaven because they are fairly good people, or for those who think they have eternal life because they keep the law, simply need to be shown how deep and far-reaching the law of God goes. When we dig far enough into the law, not just in outward actions, but also inward motives, everyone discovers that they are sinners (cf. Rom. 10:4; 2 Cor. 3:7-11; Gal. 3:19-4:7; 1 Tim. 1:9-11; Heb. 7:11-18). This is what we see Jesus do with a young man who thought he had it all together. This event in the life of Christ is found in three places (Matt. 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-30; Luke 18:18-30). I am going to focus primarily on Luke 18:18-30. This passage has challenged and puzzled Bible teachers for many years. You see, hundreds of times the Bible says that the way to receiving eternal life is by believing in Jesus for it. The way to heaven is by faith in Christ, not by works, so that no one can boast.
But a man comes to Jesus in Luke 18 and asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life, and Jesus throws the law at him. Jesus tells him to give away all his possessions and then come follow Jesus. This certainly isn't faith alone in Christ alone, and Jesus of all people knew the Gospel! So do we need to reassess the hundreds of passages that say that eternal life is given to all who simply believe in Jesus for it? Or is Jesus doing something else than share the Gospel? It is my firm conviction that the latter is the best option. But not all would agree.
One author writes:
If we could condense the truth of this entire passage into a single statement, it would be…'So therefore, no one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.'
Our Lord gave this young man a test. He had to choose between his possessions and Jesus Christ. He failed the test.
It is this same thinking that has led many people over the centuries to give up all their possessions and take a vow of poverty in the hopes that through such actions, they may receive eternal life. So here is the question: Will such an act of giving up all possessions truly earn eternal life for anybody? Does anyone get into heaven because they gave up all their possessions? No, of course not, because there are other sins they certainly have committed which will keep them out. There are other laws of the commandment they might have broken. But what if by some amazing discipline and self-control, a person was able to fully keep all 600 commandments in the Old Testament - or we could even just narrow it down to just the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, would that person go to heaven?
No, because as Jesus points out in Matthew 5, it's not so much the outward keeping of the law that matters to God, but also the inward attitude and thoughts of the heart. The law says, "Do not commit adultery" but most of us men who have not physically committed adultery, have allowed our eyes to wander a time or two. Jesus says that means guilty. The law says, "Do not murder" but most of us who have never physically murdered have thought murderous thoughts about somebody. Jesus says that means we're guilty. You see, the standard of the law is set so high that absolutely nobody can keep it. Only Jesus was able to keep the entire law.
And Jesus knew this. And he also knew that when confronted with somebody who thinks they are keeping the law, the best thing to do is throw the law at them. It is as Paul said in Galatians 3:19-24 and 1 Timothy 1:5-11 that the purpose of the law is to show us and teach us that we are sinners. The law was our tutor, to bring us to Christ so that we might be justified by faith. This is what Jesus is doing by throwing the law at the rich young ruler.
He is not telling the rich young ruler how to receive eternal life, but is instead plowing the field, breaking up the ground. This is pre-evangelism. It is always a good idea when witnessing to see if people understand that they are sinners and that sin has eternal consequences. If they do not understand this, then they may have trouble understanding that they need what Jesus is offering them through faith. With all of this in mind, let's turn to the text. Beginning in Luke 18:18.
18Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"
In the parallel accounts, this ruler is referred to as a rich young ruler. Some speculate that this was Paul (or Saul), but there is absolutely no way to know. Whoever he was, he was young, he was rich, life was going great for him. You should know that in Jewish society, the rich were considered to be blessed by God. I guess this is true in almost any society. Even in church, we sometimes think that the people with the most money must have God on their side somehow. We sometimes get to thinking that the rich people are the spiritual people, and if we just somehow get rid of a certain sin in our life, God might pour out money and riches upon us too.
That may not be what you think - especially if you know some rich Christians - but this was the way Jewish society viewed the rich. And so this man, because he was rich at such a young age, was viewed by many to have it all together. They would consider him to have been very obedient to the law for God to have blessed him so abundantly. And probably, this was what the young man was thinking too. Young men often struggle with spiritual pride. I know I do. It's quite common in older men also, but I think that it is more common in younger men. We think we've got it all figured out. We think we know the Scriptures pretty well. We think we're doing pretty good in our Christian life. As we get older, we discover that we didn't know quite as much as we thought we did. We don't really have it all figured out. We're not quite so spiritual as we used to think.
So this young man was rich, and he maybe thought he was rich because he was so obedient to God's law. And he hears that there is a teacher in town, and one of the things that rich, Godly young rulers did was go and converse with the local Bible teachers. So he decides to talk about his favorite subject - how righteous and holy he is for God to have so greatly blessed him. He begins with a question. Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"
Notice that the young ruler refers to Jesus as a Good Teacher. He is kind of trying to grease the wheels here a bit in complimenting Jesus on his own goodness. It's like he's saying, "You're good. I'm good. We're both headed for heaven because we're good." That this was what the young man was implying is revealed in Jesus' reply. He doesn't answer the question right away, instead in verse 19 he talks about being good.
19So Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.
Jesus is trying to knock this man down a peg or two or the morality level by pointing out that only God is good. By king of pointing to himself, Jesus is politely telling the young man that unless he is God, he is not good. Now, we all know that since Jesus was God, He was good. But the young ruler didn't know this. And so this young man is left with a choice about Jesus: Either Jesus is God, or he is a sinner. And this young man is left with an almost identical choice about himself: Either I am God, or I am a sinner. When somebody says "I am good" they might as well be saying, "I am God." Basically, Jesus questions the man's goodness by raising the question of His own goodness.
I have found this to be a very helpful witnessing tool. A non-confrontational way to point out that they are a sinner is by revealing that you are a sinner. Jesus didn't say He was a sinner to this man, but we can in our witnessing. When you point the finger at others, they tend to get defensive. But when you point the finger at yourself, they tend to agree with you that they have done very similar things. When you point the finger at yourself, you don't come across as a "holier-than-thou" "repent-you-sinner!" Christian. Instead, you show that you were black with sin just like everybody else, and you found a cure in Jesus which you are sharing with them. It's very effective.
Now Jesus can't do this, but he does raise the question. And then in verse 20, he brings in the law. Here is where Jesus really answers the rich young ruler.
20You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’"
This is how to use the law lawfully. It was intended to be a mirror for people's hearts. It was intended to reveal the blackness of their hearts. And Jesus basically quotes the last five of the Ten Commandments. These five commandments have to deal with our relationship to other people. These commandments are summarized by the statement, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus wants to know what the man think of his own sinfulness. Jesus wants to know if this man thinks he is a sinner. And I firmly believe that if this rich young man had responded by saying, "Well, I've failed here, and I remember when I broke that commandment," Jesus would have responded in a completely different way. Jesus would have told the man that if he wanted deliverance from the penalty of sin, all he had to do was believe in Jesus for it.
But the young man did not admit his sin. Instead, he made the preposterous claim that he had kept all the law, even from his youth!
21And he said, "All these things I have kept from my youth."
Now Jesus knows right where this man is coming from. This young man thinks he is righteous and holy because of his good works. This young man thinks he has never sinned. So Jesus takes another stab at it. He goes deeper with the law. He challenges further.
22So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me."
Jesus basically says, "So, you claim you do not covet? You claim you really do love your neighbor as yourself? Let's see if you really do. Sell all your possessions and give them to the poor." Jesus challenges him on his sins of omission. There are sins of commission and omission. There are bad works we commit and good works we omit. James 4:17 says that anyone who knows the good he ought to do, and doesn't do it, sins. I really doubt that this young man had never stolen, and had always honored his parents and so on. But the Ten Commandments are a list of things not to do. Jesus applies them in the opposite direction and reminds this young man that the Ten Commandments also imply things that we are to do. It is not enough to just not commit adultery. That would be committing a sin. The flip side is to love and honor your spouse completely. To give all your thoughts and energy toward her completely. To serve and submit to him in everything. If you fail to do these things, you are omitting good things which you ought to do, and are therefore sinning.
And you could go right down the list with all the commandments. Jesus takes the one that will challenge the man the most - his money. He says, "So, you don't covet and you don't steal, and basically, you love your neighbor as yourself? Fine, maybe you haven't committed those sins, but the simple fact that you are so rich shows that you have omitted many good things which you should have done. Go do those things."
And notice at the end there, that Jesus throws in one more requirement. He tells the man that after he has given away everything he owns, to come and follow Jesus. Jesus has put the ball in the rich young ruler's court to see what he will do with it. If the rich young ruler comes back in a few weeks and says, "I've sold everything and given the money away and now I've come to follow you so that I can have eternal life" Jesus would have thrown another requirement of the law at him even more difficult to fulfill. Maybe something like, "Ok, now go find the poorest person on the street, and offer to be their servant for life." You see, Jesus was going to do anything he could to get this young man to admit that he was a sinner and needed a Savior. Eventually, Jesus was going to get through to him that it was impossible to completely obey the law.
Well, the rich young ruler doesn't like what Jesus told him.
23But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.
Parallel texts tell us that he went away sorrowful. This ends the encounter, and we are never told what the man decided to do, or if he learned what Jesus was trying to teach him. But I think that is partly because the lesson is for us. It is for you and for me. Whenever somebody is challenged with a lesson in Scripture, it is also a lesson for us. But this is especially true when we aren't told how the person responded or if the person learned the lesson. We are to then ask ourselves, "What would I have done? What would I have said? Have I learned this lesson?"
And what is the lesson? I found it interesting this week that most of my resources on this passage focused on the money. For most of my commentaries, it was all about how we can't be saved if we're serving money, and how we need to give our money away, and tithe to the church, and take care of the needy, and how greed and materialism is such a problem in America today. The passage is about this somewhat. All of us should consider how we are using the finances and possessions God has given us. All of us should take a long and careful look at our checkbook to see where our money is going.
But at best, this is a side application to the main thrust of the passage. The lesson is that we are all sinners. None of us can obey the law. I don't care how perfect you appear to be, or how much you truly have obeyed the law. I don't care how much it seems God has blessed you for your obedience. There is none righteous, no, not one. I'm a sinner, you’re a sinner, and the only remedy for that sin is found in Jesus Christ. He offers deliverance from the penalty of sin to all who believe in Him for it. In fact, this is almost exactly what Jesus says in verses 24-27.
24And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!
Again, here is this emphasis on the money, and so a lot of people have tried to argue that Jesus is saying that it is just very difficult for rich people to go to heaven, and that if they become poor, it is easier. Some historians have pointed out that in history, it normally seems to be the poor and neglected the respond the quickest to the Gospel. And that is true, but that is not what Jesus is talking about here. If Jesus is saying that it is very hard to get into the kingdom, and not even the rich can do it, then he is contradicting what he said back in Luke 18:17 where he says that receiving the kingdom is so simple and easy that even a little child can receive it.
So what is Jesus talking about here? He tells us very clearly what he talking about in verse 25.
25For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
Again, there have been some who try to point out that in some cities there was a little gate called a needle gate which merchants could go through if they arrived late at night after the city gates were closed. It is often taught that the camel, to get through this needle gate, would have to get down on his knees and barely squeeze through the gate. So with this understanding, a rich man could get into heaven, but it's just really difficult. But guess what? I don't know who invented that explanation, but historians and archeologists and Bible dictionaries and Bible encyclopedias say that such a gate never existed in any city they have ever come across. There is no supporting evidence for such a gate.
When Jesus talks about the eye of a needle here, he is talking about the eye of a needle. Just as the mustard seed was the smallest known seed at that time, the eye of the needle was the smallest known opening. He is using a picture that would make his audience laugh. It's preposterous to even think about trying to thread a camel through the eye of a needle. In fact, camel hair is so course, you probably couldn't get even one hair of a camel through the eye of a needle, much less the whole camel! And so when we understand that Jesus is talking about something impossible, the response of the audience in verse 26 makes sense.
26And those who heard it said, "Who then can be saved?"
Remember, they thought that the rich had some special blessing from God. They thought the rich had an "in" with God. They that that if anybody was going to heaven, the rich certainly were, because apparently, God was already on their side. But Jesus challenges that whole notion and says that a camel has more chance of getting through the eye of a needle than a rich man has of getting into heaven. And so the audience says, "Well, if the rich can get be saved, who can?" (By the way, here's a use of the word saved which does mean to enter the Kingdom of God, to receive eternal life.)
Jesus responds in verse 27.
27But He said, "The things which are impossible with men are possible with God."
He says what we have been seeing throughout the Scripture. It is impossible to work your way to heaven, to earn eternal life. There is absolutely no way a human being can do enough good works to earn a spot in heaven. Which is why we need God to do the impossible for us. When we stop trusting in ourselves and trust instead Jesus Christ for eternal life, God justifies us and delivers us from the penalty of sin. He transfers us from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. It is absolutely impossible for any human to do this, but God does it every day when people believe in Jesus for eternal life. Good works play no part in the exchange. This is what Jesus teaches in verse 27.
And now that the apostles have once again been reminded that eternal life is a free gift of God to all who believe in Jesus for it, there is the still the question of works and self-sacrifice to be answered. The apostles are relieved to hear, as all of us are too, that neither the amount of money you have nor the amount of works get you into heaven. Entrance into heaven is a free gift of God to all who believe in Jesus. But there is still the question of works in the minds of the apostles, and in our own minds also. They are thinking, "But isn't there any benefit to serving God, and giving away our money? We know it can't earn eternal life for us, but what does it do for us?"
That's what we are thinking, and whenever you are in the Gospels and have a question about something Jesus is teaching, you can almost always be sure that Peter will ask it. And he does not disappoint us. Look at verse 28.
28Then Peter said, "See, we have left all and followed You."
Peter's ears perked up when Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, and then come follow Jesus. This is very close to what Peter and the other apostles had in fact done. And so Peter is a little curious. He says, "Hey, we've done what you told that rich young ruler to do. We have left everything. We have followed you. What does that mean for us?"
And Jesus, knowing that all of his apostles except Judas truly has believed in him for eternal life tells them what their sacrifice and service will result in. He doesn't rebuke Peter for asking a selfish question, for it is not a selfish question. There is nothing wrong with seeking the things of God.
29So He said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or parents or brothers or wife or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, 30who shall not receive many times more in this present time, and in the age to come eternal life."
You see, good works and sacrificial service are very beneficial, but only AFTER one has believed in Jesus for eternal life. They earn reward and privilege and greater responsibility in this life and in the next. It most often will not be financial reward, but spiritual rewards of one sort or another. And this verse should not and must not be used to justify neglecting your family for ministry. We know when we get married and have children, our first sphere of ministry is in the home. Men, your primary ministry is to your wife and children. If you fulfill that ministry and have time left over, you can serve some at the church. Women, same thing for you and your ministry with your husband and your children.
What Jesus means by talking about leaving parents, brothers, wife and children is to make sure that they are not holding you back from God's will for your life. Ministering to them is God's will for your life, but if there ever comes a point where they try to keep you back from doing the rest of God's will for you life, this is when you must choose to serve God or serve others. If you choose to serve God, and leave your family for the sake of the kingdom, Jesus says that your reward will be great, both in this age, and in the age to come.
Here Jesus teaches his disciples about reward. He doesn't rebuke Peter for wondering what he is going to get in heaven. Instead he encourages Peter to keep on serving in the Kingdom of God, because the better you serve, the more reward in heaven you get. It is not selfish to seek the things of God. We all want more of God in our lives. That is not selfish. We all want to know the Bible better. That is not selfish. We all want God to answer our prayers. That is not selfish. We all want God to be at work more in our lives and to see his hand at work in our presence. That is not selfish. Neither is it selfish to want riches in heaven, and to hear Jesus say, "Well done, good and faithful servant."
The rich young ruler, though he came asking about eternal life, revealed that he was only seeking to hold on to his worldly wealth. Peter and the other apostles, after having believed in Jesus for eternal life, gave up their wealth and worldly relationships. As a result, they earned for themselves great reward in heaven.
How great? The Bible tells us that in the Millennial kingdom, the twelve apostles will sit on twelve thrones ruling over the twelve tribes of Israel (Mt. 19:28). Israel will be the greatest nation in the world and will rule over the entire world also, and so the apostles will be some of the twelve most powerful men on the earth during that time. And we are fairly certain that it was Paul who will take the place of Judas.
Now, Luke 19:11-27 tells us that the rest of the world will be divided up and given to faithful servants of God to rule over. That means that you and I, if we are faithful servants, may also be given cities or maybe even countries which Jesus Christ will want us to rule. Not all will rule, some will simply be subjects in the kingdom, and they will be ruled over, rather than be rulers.
Some Christians will be given positions of reward and responsibility for a life lived in faithful service to Jesus Christ. Other Christians will enter the kingdom because they have believed in Jesus for eternal life, but they won't have much gold, jewels, precious stones or crowns that will be given to them. We will be talking about eternal rewards a lot more in the weeks to come. Let me just close with this. The lesson from the rich young ruler is that all of us are sinners. If a person is self-righteous like the rich young ruler, the law can be used to shows them that they have indeed offended a holy God.
And once they have seen this, it is much easier to show them that they only way they can be reconciled to God is by the blood of Jesus, through our faith in Him. But once we have done that, we must make sure we do not stop there, for there are great rewards and blessings in store for those who make service to Christ a top priority. And we've seen the two extremes today. One man, the rich young ruler, who didn't want to give up his riches. And one man, Peter, who gave up all to follow Christ.
Which category do you fall in? Are you seeking the things of this world, where moths and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, or are you seeking after the riches of the world to come? The first may give you momentary pleasure while on this earth, but the second will give you everlasting joy in the kingdom which is to come.