Sunday, March 31, 2013

Application From The Rich Young Ruler

In my last blog post I provided an explanation of the encounter between the rich young ruler and Jesus in Matthew 19:16-30. In this post I am providing some applications that emerge from that passage.

  • There is a strong emphasis in much of the New Testament upon the impact of true saving faith. The picture given is of entering the kingdom or belonging to the kingdom of heaven—i.e. living under the reign of God. This can only take place, as this passage reveals, by turning from our sins to Jesus, namely trusting in him to save us, trusting in him as our Lord, the only one who can and should direct us. This is glorious good news, namely that we can be saved, we can be part of God’s saving reign. There seems to be much wisdom to be found in calling people not merely to saving faith and forgiven sins, but calling them to a more full-orbed kingdom-shaped salvation and life. Such has a great power in helping us see whether or not we truly have trusted in and followed Jesus Christ. Mt. 19:16-30
  • Following Jesus is also a very good way of talking about salvation. The kingdom terminology challenges us with whether or not we truly have exercised a saving faith in Jesus Christ and have seen a humble, repentant submission as a result. Following Jesus challenges with whether or not we have an ongoing trust in Jesus Christ that changes the direction of our life. Mt. 19:16-30
  • Following Jesus includes repentance, faith, love, devotion, and a desire to honor him. Mt. 19:16-30 (esp. 21, 29)
  • A good approach to gospel work is to challenge a person with whether or not they have changed direction (they are now following Jesus) and/or whether or not they have submitted to him as Lord (are part of the kingdom)—and these as a result of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Mt. 19:16-30
  • “Eternal life” in some places has primarily a future-orientation. In other words, it deals with being able to experience the fully empowered and animated enjoyment of God, along with the reward of carrying out his glorious purposes in the fully redeemed earth, that is, the consummated kingdom of God. Mt. 19:16-30 (esp. 16)
  • Such eternal life overlaps with having treasure in heaven, entering the kingdom of heaven (which is the same as entering the kingdom of God), and being saved. Mt. 19:16-30
  • Only God is good and only God is the source of that which is truly good. That Jesus also is good has strong ramifications or who he is! Mt. 19:16-17
  • If we love and desire to honor God, we will love Jesus the Messiah. If we love Jesus the Messiah, we will love others and will seek to help meet the various needs of these others we love. Mt. 19:16-30
  • Wealth can be a stumbling block to true saving faith. Mt. 19:24
  • Though no one can come to God for salvation in their own power, nevertheless, such a work is possible for God and in fact God does it!  Clearly, salvation is a work of God and not of man.  Mt. 19:24-26
  • Reward is promised to those who by grace through faith follow Jesus—placing him first over all. Though the reward is primarily future, nevertheless, there is reward in this life as the Church family and resources replace lost family, houses, and lands. Compre Mt. 19:29 and Mk. 10:30.
  • We see the strong and close connection between living for the glory of Jesus Christ, living for the glory of the gospel, and living for the kingdom of God. Compare Mt. 19:28; Mk. 10:29; and Lk. 18:29.
  • There should be so much presence of humility and dependence upon Jesus Christ among Christ-followers so that they do not get jealous at the success or reward of others. Mt. 19:30

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Rich Young Ruler

There is much to be learned in the interaction between Jesus and the rich young ruler found in Matthew 19:16-30, yet it is often misunderstood. Because of this, I want to explain this passage. Then, in my following post, I will list some points of application.

This true story is found in a section of the Gospel in which Jesus is moving toward the cross (19:1). As he does this he foretells his death a third time (20:17-19), heals the blind (a sign he is Messiah and the kingdom has come), and also addresses how one enters the kingdom (19:13-15; 20:1-16, 20-28). On the latter he affirms that the kingdom is entered by those who respond by faith and repentance to the good news of the kingdom. The interaction with this young man must be understood in that light. When Jesus tells him, “Sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me,” he is calling him to a life of trusting in Jesus that results in becoming like him. He is not in any way calling him to earn his salvation by his own efforts.

Additionally, as this interaction unfolds we discover that several key clauses are virtually synonymous: “have eternal life” (16)= “you will have treasure in heaven” (21)= “enter the kingdom of heaven” (23)= “enter the kingdom of God” (24)= “can be saved” (25)= “will inherit eternal life”(29). One implication that arises from this is that being saved from one’s sins is necessary to be part of the kingdom. Since “who then can be saved?” (25) is found on the lips of the disciples, it shows that they understood that the discussion about having eternal life or entering the kingdom of God dealt with who can be saved. As the passage unfolds we find, then, how a person can be saved, that is, how they can be part of God’s kingdom.

As we discover in verse 16, what the young man wants to know from Jesus is what good work must he carry out in order to have eternal life?  Though most likely what the rich young ruler is asking is how he might inherit the future life of God’s new age, his new redeemed world (see also 21, 29), this does not mean that such “eternal life” has no bearing upon the present. The very fact that Jesus calls him to transformed behavior that can only arise by humble faith and repentance as the result of God’s sovereign grace shows there is a present reality. Also, the focus on kingdom life in this passage (23, 24) also suggests that the person who inherits eternal life has life presently. Life begets life, which begets more life!

When Jesus is asked, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life and then responds in verse 17, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good,” the point is that only God is good and so when we grasp this, we will realize apart from him we cannot be good, nor can we find out what truly is good. This has ramifications for who Jesus is. If he truly is good, then it has something to say about his coming from the Father and being the source of goodness. For us to be good, we are absolutely dependent upon Jesus for this!

Next, Jesus says to him, “If you desire to enter unto eternal life, keep the commandments.” (17b) Again, this must be understood in light of the context, which establishes salvation is by God’s grace for the one who responds in faith and repentance.

When the man asks Jesus which commandments? (18a) Jesus responds by saying he needs to keep #’s 5-9 of the Ten and then adds one from outside of the Ten that elsewhere he says is the summation of these commandments, namely, “You shall love your neighbor” (18b-19). In the mind of Jesus if one is to love his neighbor, he must first love God and if one loves God, then he will love his neighbor (see Mt. 22:37-40; 1 John 4:8, 19-21). So, to tell the young man to love his neighbor in this specific a manner is also moving the young man to ask whether or not he loves God.

In Matthew alone the question of v. 20 is placed on the lips of the young man, “What do I still lack?” after he affirmed, “All these I have kept.” What is the one thing he lacks?  Jesus tells him in v. 21:  “If you desire to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.” If we read these exhortations in light of the entire book of Matthew, several conclusions emerge. First, having treasure in heaven is a result of serving and trusting in God (6:19-34).

Second, being perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect (synonymous with being holy, cf. 5:48) is something that in the context of the Sermon on the Mount cannot be achieved by one’s own efforts (cf. 5:3). It only comes about by trusting in the Father (7:7-11). So, how is the young man to carry out this great command?  It can only be done by faith.

Third, the reader must not miss that selling what this young man has, giving it to the poor, and coming to follow Jesus is all part of one command, a command by the way that is put on the par with the Ten Commandments and with the summary commandment of neighbor loving. Jesus is depicting himself as having the same authority God the Father has so that he can command this man about eternal life and he thus shows he is the good one, he is God!  The one thing that this young man lacks, then, is not merely selling what he has and giving to the poor, it is whether or not he will trust in Jesus and submit to him, which is depicted here by Matthew as the way to enter eternal life by trusting in God. This is none other than Jesus teaching that to trust in God the Father is to trust in him. It is true that helping the poor is an outgrowth of true salvation in Matthew (cf. 25:31-46), but the accent here is on trusting in and following the authority of Jesus—which should result in doing what he says (which would include helping the poor). As such, if the Lord wants him to sell all he has and give to the poor, he must. The fact that the young man did not do what Jesus tells him to do reveals that he is not truly trusting in God, he is not loving God truly, regardless of how lawful a life he has supposedly practiced.

It should not be missed that the reason given as to why the rich young ruler did not follow Jesus is that “he had great possessions” (22). The sense is that these possessions stood in the way of his trusting and following Jesus. This is why Jesus goes on to give the explanation he did in verses 23-24 that it is so hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. The reason is that there is a feeling of self-sufficiency in those riches, thinking that one does not need God, and so there can also end up being a love for such things that supersedes love for God.

The disciples are astonished at Jesus’ statement and so ask, “Who then can be saved?” (25) Behind this question may very well have been the thinking that riches are a sign of God’s blessing. And so, if such persons cannot be saved, then who can? Additionally, there may have also been the sense that everyone has some reliance on the physical and so a similar obstacle can be in all hearts. Either way, the disciples realized this meant that no one can come in his own power to God in faith for salvation.

When Jesus answers in v. 26 that with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible, he is defining salvation as God’s gracious work. This is one more indication in this text that Jesus is not telling the man that salvation is either earned or kept by law keeping. At the same time, one who has come into the kingdom, who has responded to God in faith by responding to Jesus in faith, will obey God.

Peter’s response includes the following, “Behold, we ourselves left all things and we followed you.” This affirmation is designed to show that the disciples have seen their need for Jesus, have come to him, have repented and trusted in him, and, as a result, have lived out the kingdom life wherein they have sought first the kingdom and God’s righteousness. In other words, they followed Jesus where the rich young ruler did not. They did that which is required to have eternal life, to have treasure in heaven, to enter the kingdom. Based on this, Peter asks, “What, therefore, shall be to us?” Did Peter doubt after this interchange whether they were part of the kingdom and so wanted to reaffirm this?  Did he think the twelve deserved more in the way of reward?  Most likely in light of the preceding context, he wants to reaffirm that they truly are recipients of the kingdom promises.

Jesus answers by saying that “you, the ones who followed me…will sit upon twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (28) The judging here is not the passing of legal sentence, which the Father has given only to the Son (John 5:22). It speaks of governing. Albert Barnes explains:
To judge, denotes rank, authority, power. The ancient judges of Israel were men of distinguished courage, patriotism, honour, and valour. Hence the word comes to denote, not so much an actual exercise of the power of passing judgment, as the honour attached to the office. And as earthly kings have those around them dignified with honours and office, counselors, and judges, so Christ says his apostles shall occupy the same relative station in the great day.[1]

So, Jesus promises the apostles they will have a prominent place next to him in the future kingdom (Mt. 20:20ff.) most likely because of the foundational role they have played in the New Testament Church (Eph. 2:20). Jesus says that the timing of this reward is “in the new world” (ESV). The word is palingenesia (lit. “birth again,” “new birth,” thus, re-creation). It is used only here and in Titus 3:5. In Greek literature it was used of the renewal of the world or of the restoration of a military leader (e.g. Cicero) to former rank after exile. Jews used it of the restoration of the nation after exile. The accompanying temporal clause, “when the Son of Man sits upon the throne of his glory,” locates this time in “the age to come” (Luke 18:30). It is when the earth will be renewed, renovated, re-created (cf. 2 Peter 3:10-13; Revelation 21-22). Jesus’ answer at this point certainly locates the reward in the future.

In addition to the apostles having a place of prominence and authority in the age to come, Jesus also promises in verses 29-30 that everyone (without exception) who has left behind family, houses, or land for the sake of my name (i.e. for the reputation of Jesus Christ—those who love him, trust in him, and want to make much of him), these will receive a hundredfold more in the way of reward over what they lost and also will receive eternal life. The deciding factor is whether or not one loves, trusts in, and follows Jesus, which will result in changed life. This change is, in context, by the sovereign grace of God. Yet, God rewards the very life he enables in us as a gift. 

Finally, in verse 30 Jesus concludes this teaching by focusing upon the grace of God when he says: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first”. It appears to me that this concludes this passage and introduces the one to follow.

The main thrust of 19:30, seen in light of the following explanatory parable in 20:1-16, is that true kingdom life calls forth a heart of humility. It is a humility that on the one hand acknowledges we do not earn eternal life, we do not save self by our own works. It is all of God’s grace. This is why some who are part of the kingdom, yet did not live as many years, can have equal or greater rewards. It is all God’s grace and dependent upon his providence. On the other hand, this humility does not become jealous at what God gives to a brother or sister. After all, it is his grace. When such jealously happens, it can lead to that very person experiencing a lesser reward than the one who came into the kingdom later. The way this relates to the rich young ruler is that he was focused upon his own merits and not upon the necessary grace of God through Jesus. What is more, he should have realized that to relinquish his so-called riches could lead to far greater riches. The way that this statement relates to the disciples is to remind them that there may come some after them who receive equal or greater reward and they are not to be jealous of this. Verse 30 shows that this passage and the following one are emphasizing God’s grace in salvation, but a grace that leads to good works.

[1] Barnes’ Notes On The New Testament, en loc.