The Lord's Day Morning
April 10, 2011
“The Poor Man (Who Thought He Was Rich)”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 18 as we continue to make our way through the gospel of Luke together. And as you’re turning there, I want you to see a couple of things that will help you understand the context of this passage. First, there is a question that is asked at the outset of this passage by a man who is called a ruler. That ruler does not refer to a civil ruler. This is not a civil judge or a governor of some sorts; this is a religious ruler. It means he's either a member of the Sanhedrin or perhaps he is the leader of a local synagogue, but he is someone that his contemporaries, and perhaps even the fathers in the faith that he is around, have a great deal of confidence in. They view him as an upright, moral person, as a person who is spiritually minded, a worshiper of God, someone who is an example to others of piety. And that is the person who approaches Jesus and asks a question.
The second thing I want you to notice is the question that he asks. In Luke 18 verse 18, the question that is asked is, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Now that is not the first time that question has been asked in the gospel of Luke. If you have your Bibles, turn back with me to Luke chapter 10 because in Luke 10 verse 25, we are told that a certain lawyer — and that doesn't refer there to someone who is a practicing attorney, but someone who is an expert in the Law of Moses. It's very important for the instruction of the people of God to have those who are experts in what Moses taught about certain things. And this is a person who is an expert in the Law. And he comes to Jesus, and you’ll notice in Luke 10:25, he asks, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” So the question has been asked before in Luke and it's actually a very good question. But notice, and here's what I want you to see, that Jesus answers the lawyer in Luke 10 in a very similar way to the way He answers the ruler in Luke 18. He begins to tick off the commandments and ask if the lawyer has kept the commandments. The lawyer says he has kept the commandments and then Jesus tells him a story to illustrate a potential area of blindness, a blind-spot in the lawyer's understanding of himself. He tells the story in Luke 10 of what? The Good Samaritan. If you flip back to Luke 18, in the wake of the lawyer's answer to Jesus listing of the commandments, Jesus has to explain something additionally to him about the keeping of the commandments to raise to his awareness a blind-spot.
The third and last thing that I'd like you to see before we read the passage, back in Luke 18, is to look back at the two stories we've just seen immediately prior to this story so that you’ll understand that the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is not a question that just comes out of the blue in a vacuum. It is a part of a series of things that have happened in Luke 18. First, look at the story of the Pharisee and the publican or the Pharisee and the tax collector back up in verse 9. Remember, they go into the temple, both of them pray, and Luke tells us that after the tax collector prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” that “that man,” verse 14, “went down to his house justified” — that is declared right with God — and Luke has already used that word. And it means, in Luke, a declaration of something about someone. One time it's used for God in Luke and here it's used for this sinner. So the question of justification is also linked, if you look down a few verses, to the story that we looked at in verses 15 to 17. Jesus is speaking of the question of who may receive or enter into the kingdom of God. You see this in verses 16 and 17. And there, we're told that only those who are like a child may enter into or receive the kingdom of God, or come into Jesus’ kingdom.
So the question of justification is linked to the question of who may be in Jesus’ kingdom, which is linked to this question in verse 18, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Those three statements are tied together. They elaborate one another; they tell you something about the meaning, the significance of that question. The question is about, “How does a person stand accepted before God?” “How can I be declared right with God?” is the way the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector puts it. “Who is able to enter into the kingdom?” Those who are like a child, is the way it is described in the story of Jesus’ encounter with the little children and infants. And here, in terms of “What shall I do to inherit eternal life? Who can receive the privilege of dwelling with God in the age to come and receiving His blessings and being one of those who receives the inheritance that He has promised to Abraham?” They’re stated different ways but they’re getting at the same reality — how a person stands accepted with God. If you’ll bear those in mind, it will help you as we read this passage together.
But the most important thing we need is God the Holy Spirit to open our eyes. So let's pray and ask His help and blessing and then we’ll read the passage.
Lord, this is Your Word and we know that our own blindness can keep us from seeing things that are as plain as the noses on our faces. By the grace of Your Holy Spirit, Lord, don't let that happen as we read this passage today. Open our eyes, not only that we would see wonderful things in Your Word, but that we would see ourselves and our sin, and most important of all that we would see our Savior. We ask this is Jesus' name. Amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it:
“And a ruler asked Him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’’ And he said, ‘All these I have kept from my youth.’ When Jesus heard this, He said to him, ‘One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’ But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. Jesus, looking at him with sadness, said, ‘How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For 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.’ Those who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But He said, ‘What is impossible with men is possible with God.’ And Peter said, ‘See, we have left our homes and followed You.’ And He said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.’”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
What do you think could keep you from God? What do you think could keep you from eternal life? What love, what preoccupation could possibly cause you to forfeit that most precious of possessions? Jesus is talking about that issue here today. He is talking about idolatry because idolatry can keep you from eternal life. Treasuring something more than God in this world, more than Christ in this world, more than the Gospel, more than grace — loving something more than God can lead your soul to shipwreck. And Jesus, in His wisdom and in His kindness, confronts a young man, a man who was reckoned to be morally upright and very godly, unusually pious by his contemporaries, was adjudged by Jesus in this passage to be idolatrous. His idolatry was wealth, money, property. Ahh, we're safe. This passage doesn't have anything to say to us, does it? You know, there are probably not many people in this room, if any at all, who don't have more than this rich young man had, even though he's reckoned extremely rich here. No, this word isn't just a rebuke to hypocritical Jews in the first century. It's a word for us and it's a Gospel word and it's a word that diagnoses our hearts and tells us very important things that we need to know about fellowshipping with God forever. And so I want to draw your attention to a few things that Jesus says in this passage.
And the first that I want you to see is that Jesus is, in this passage, zeroing in on this man's own self-evaluation. This man considers himself to be a good person, a godly person, a pious man. And Jesus wants this man to be aware of his own self-evaluation and what is says about his relationship to God. And notice how this happened from the very beginning. In verse 18, this young ruler says to Jesus, “Good Teacher, I have an important question that I want to ask You.” Now his address to Jesus, his salutation to Jesus as “Good Teacher” is a kind, respectful thing for him to do. It's his way of saying, “Jesus, I respect You. I think You’re the kind of person who deserves to be asked a serious question like this. You’re the kind of person I trust to ask a serious question like this, and more than that, You’re the kind of person who I really care what Your answer is to this question.” Apparently, the spirit of this man asking this question is different from the spirit of the lawyer who asked this question in Luke 10. We’re told in Luke 10:29, you remember, that the lawyer went on to ask another question in order to test Jesus. Clearly, he saw himself as superior to Jesus and therefore his question was something of a test, whereas this man seems to be genuinely respectful towards Jesus. He calls Him, “Good Teacher.”
But notice what Jesus immediately says to him. “Why do you call Me, good? No one is good except God.” Now why would Jesus respond to a respectful greeting with such a blunt, confrontational kind of response? Why would He say that back to the young man? Well it's going to be very clear because after He says “no one is good except God,” the next thing that Jesus does is He says, “You know the commandments. Have you kept them?” And He picks off several of the commandments. And the man's immediate response is, “Oh, yes. I've kept all the commandments.” Now play the conversation back. He's come to Jesus and he's said, “Good Teacher, I want to ask You a question. How do I inherit eternal life?” And Jesus has then said, “There is no one good. Have you kept the commandments?” And in response to the inquiry as to his keeping of the commandments, his response has been, “I'm good.” Did you follow it? “Good Teacher, no one is good except God.” “Have you kept the commandments?” “Yes, I have. I'm good!” What has Jesus just drawn up out of the man? He's shown us and him his evaluation of himself. He's a good person; he's a commandment keeper; he's the kind of person who's worthy to inherit eternal life. This is a man who is confident in his own moral character to cause him to stand before God in the last day and to inherit the promises given to Abraham in the age to come.
Immediately — and this is the second thing I want you to see — immediately Jesus begins to explode that self-evaluation and He does it with a simple test. It's a hard test. It's a very hard test. It's a hard test especially for this man but it's a hard test for many. In fact, that's why Paul spent so much of his time in 1 Timothy 6, the passage that you heard Derek read today, speaking about how dangerous wealth can be. It can be something that we love, inordinate. It can be something that we find our satisfaction in. It can be something that tempts us to trust in ourselves and in something other than God and to love something else more than or other than God. Paul goes on and on in 1 Timothy 6 about these warnings, but Jesus now begins to explode this man's self-evaluation and He does it with a simple test. Notice what He says — verse 22. “One thing you still lack. Sell everything that you have and give it to the poor. Then, you will have treasure in heaven and come, follow Me.”
Now is Jesus saying, “Yes, you've kept the commandments but if you want to inherit eternal life, what you have to do in this life is keep all the commandments and then give away everything that you have to the poor and become My disciple”? Is Jesus saying that the way to inherit eternal life is keeping all of the commandments and then in addition to that, giving away everything that you have? If He is, there have not been many, if any, Christians in the last two thousand years. That's not what Jesus is saying. What is Jesus doing here? Jesus does not accept this man's assertion that he has kept the commandments. What He does is, He asks him to do something. He asks him to do something very hard. He asks him to do something that God has asked Christians to do from time to time over the last two thousand years. But He asks him to do it not because doing that thing is the way that you inherit eternal life; He asks him to do it because the thing that He is going to ask him to do reveals something about his heart. You see, this young man has just said, “I'm good. I'm a commandment keeper. I've kept the commandments.” And then Jesus says, “Okay, let's try out the first couple of three commandments then: You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not worship them or serve them. You shall not make an idol.” And He says, “You worship God? You love Him more than anything? Okay, give away everything that you have and worship God. Give away all your money, all your property; give it to the poor and worship God.”
What is Jesus’ point? He is showing this young man that he is not a commandment keeper. He is showing this young man that in his heart he is an idolater. He worships his money. He worships his property. He worships his stuff. And he cannot inherit eternal life when he's worshiping something else other than God. And so He has just exploded His self-evaluation with a simple test.
Now when He does this, this absolutely baffles His disciples who cry out, “Oh Jesus, if this man can't be saved, who can be saved?” And it's very interesting. Jesus’ response is, “Oh it's simple. It's simple. Anybody can be saved.” But Jesus’ response is, “It's impossible. It's impossible for us to do enough to inherit eternal life. It's impossible for us to be good enough to inherit eternal life.” Jesus says, “Only God can make that possible.” You know how this conversation should have gone? It should have gone:
“Good Teacher, I have a very important question I want to ask You. It's a question I think about all the time. It's question I'm burdened to have answered. How may I inherit eternal life? What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call Me good? Only God is good.”
“You’re right, Teacher. You’re right. Only God is good.”
“Well, have you kept the commandments? You know, don't murder, don't steal, don't commit adultery, don't bear false witness, honor your father and mother.”
“Oh Teacher, no, I haven't kept those commandments. I've tried. There have been many people around me who say that I'm an upstanding man and I've tried to be a godly man but I know that I've broken every one of those commandments. If that's the way that I'm to be saved, if that's the way that I'm to inherit eternal life, I'm lost! Help me, please! What can I do?”
That's how that conversation should have gone, but this man, he worships money. He looked like the most godly guy around, but in his heart, he worships money. Do you notice how Jesus diagnoses his heart just like He diagnosed the lawyer's heart in Luke 10? Interestingly there, the last commandment that Jesus lists is, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Immediately, the lawyer in Luke 10 says, “Yeah, but who is your neighbor?” What has Jesus done? He has diagnosed that man with a shriveled heart. That man is trying to figure out who he doesn't have to treat like his neighbor. He's diagnosed a shriveled heart. He's done the same thing here. This man, on the outside, looks godly and pious and upstanding and moral — the real deal. The kind of guy that you would want to be an elder. The kind of guy that you would want to be leading in your synagogue or in your church. But Jesus said, “You’re an idolater.” But the man doesn't respond by saying, “Okay, I see it. I see it. You’re right.” He's saddened because he loves his money. And what has Paul just said to us in 1 Timothy 6? “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” And in this case, it's the root of something that's going to plunge a man's soul into destruction.
And the response is remarkable because Jesus says, in verse 24 in Luke 18 — and this is a unique statement. Jesus looks right back and him and we're told that “with sadness” He says to him, “How difficult it is for those with wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” Why? Because when you have a lot it is easy to trust what you have more than you trust God and to love what you have more than what God can give you. It tricks you into the incorrect evaluation of things. And Jesus says how difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter into the kingdom of God. It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. And He's not talking about a small gate in the city of Jerusalem; He's talking about the eye of a needle. He saying it's impossible, it's impossible apart from God's grace. Why? Because that person is holding onto an idol and that person wants the kingdom of God, but as Jesus has already said — Matthew, remember? Sermon the Mount — “You cannot serve God and mammon.” You can't do it. It's not possible. You can't do it. This young man is worshiping stuff; he's worshiping money; he's worshiping property. He can't inherit eternal life that way. How can you? It's impossible with man. It's impossible. It's only possible by God.
You see, this passage is all about the Gospel. It's impossible for anyone to be good enough, to do enough, to inherit eternal life. It's impossible for us to free ourselves from our idolatry. Only God can make that possible. Only He can set our hearts free. Only He can show us our idolatry. Only He can wake us up to them. Only He can change us so that our desires are for Him rather than for our idol. And He saves us not through what we do, not through our being good enough, but through the gift of His Son, Jesus, the Messiah. If you trust Him, if you receive Him, His promise, eternal life, you will also receive as God's gift.
But here's another thing I want you to see in this passage. Jesus declares that He is worth any sacrifice. And this is an amazing thing because here you see how skillful of a surgeon of the soul Jesus was. Here's a man in the grip of idolatry, he loves his stuff and he can't let go of that, and not being able to let go of that is going to plunge his soul into destruction. And so Jesus, responding to a statement from Peter — and can't you see Peter in this setting? He cannot wait to say something. And so he blurts out, “Well, Lord, we left our homes and our jobs and followed You! We’re not like that rich young ruler! We left our homes, we left our jobs, we followed You!” And Peter — Jesus is so kind to Peter. He says, “Peter, I know that. I know that. I know you did that. But I want you to know this Peter. You have not given up the equal of what I am giving to you. You cannot give up the equal of what I am and what I will give you. You will not be able to out give up what I am going to give to you. You won't be able to do it.” He declares here, you see, that nothing can be given up for Him that is equal to what He gives to us.
Listen to His words. “There is no one who has left house or wife or brother or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not receive many times more in this time and in the age to come, eternal life.” Do you see what this surgeon of souls is doing? He's saying, “Here's this young man and he's holding onto stuff and that stuff is going to plunge him into destruction. Why is he holding onto that stuff? Because he thinks that giving up that will end up leaving him unfulfilled, unsatisfied. He thinks that giving that up will leave him with less than he will have when he's given eternal life.” And here's what Jesus says right into that situation. “It is impossible for you to give up more than I am going to give you. It's impossible. You can't do it. So that thing that you’re hanging onto that's going to plunge you into destruction…I can give you more!”
I've told you the story of my friend, Douglas McMillan, who is a great pastor and preacher and evangelist and professor in Scotland for many years at the end of the 1900's — 1980's, 1990's. Before Douglas became a Christian – even though he grew up in a Christian home he was not a Christian. He had fallen under the influence of communism in the days of his high school and he was an agnostic and he was living the good life — wine, women, and song. And a pastor confronted him with the Gospel and he wrestled with that pastor's presentation of the Gospel for a long time. And one day the pastor sat down with him and he said, “Douglas, I know what you’re struggling with. You’re afraid of what you’re going to have to give up in order to become a Christian.” And he was right. Douglas liked going to the bars. He liked being with women. He liked hanging out with his pagan buddies. He liked living the good life and he did not want to give that up. And his pastor said to him, “Douglas, in this hand I’ll give you everything that you think you’re going to have to give up to come to Jesus Christ. And in this hand I’ll give you Christ. Which is it going to be?” It was a brilliant pastoral thing to do. It was making him count the cost. But the struggle is, you see, we think that when we give up whatever is in that hand that Jesus is not going to be enough to fill up the other. And Jesus is saying to Peter, “You've got to be kidding!”
I don't know what it is that you’re struggling to give up today. It may be money; it may be money. Some of us are captured by money and we don't even know we're captured by it. It may be money today. But it may be a woman or a man or it may be a pill or a drug or alcohol or it may be any of a million other things because there are as many idols in this room as there are people sitting in it. But this I can promise you on the authority if the Lord Jesus Christ — there is nothing that you can give up for Him that He will not replace a hundred fold with something better, in this life and in the age to come. That's what Jesus is saying to Peter. So if you’re standing there with the rich young man and you think, “I just can't let it go because this is where happiness is, this is where satisfaction is, this is where joy is, this is where fulfillment is,” Jesus is saying, “You let it go and I’ll fill you up with so much that you’ll overflow, not just in the age to come, but starting right now.”
Douglas McMillan would give that testimony to you if he could today – that the Lord gave him more joy, more grace than he could have possibly imagined, and that's the testimony of every believer. That's what's before us today, my friends. Are we going to worship our idol and never be fulfilled and destroy our own souls, or are we going to receive the overflowing bounty of the Lord Jesus Christ that we reject our own attempts to earn the kingdom and we trust in Him who is the only one good enough to save us from our sin?
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for Your Word. What better way to prepare us to come to the table of grace, the table of mercy, the Father's table, the table of the Son's redemption. Help us to do so, not clinging to the idols that will fail us and leave us and disappoint us, but clinging to the only One who can really feed our souls. We ask our prayers in Jesus’ name.
The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you, the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.