Editor’s Note: Below is a cleaned-up version of my notes notes from the “phone-based” Sunday School lesson prepared for July 5, 2020. I found that the originally-suggested material had been covered by another teacher in the previous two-week mini-series, so this lesson was “teacher’s choice”.
Our lesson today comes from Matthew 19, if you’d like to turn there in your Bible. (In fact, I encourage you to do so. If you start to tune me out because you’re reading more of the Bible, that’s not a bad way to spend our time together.)
To put this in context, Matthew recorded (in verses 13-14), that Jesus had countermanded his disciples’ rebuke of those who were bringing children to Him. These children represented the kinds of souls who could be in “the kingdom of heaven”.
Let’s get started…
Maybe the contrast with the little children (in addition to the timing) is why Matthew wrote “Just then…” to start this section.
Like parents bringing little children to church, the children in the preceding section were probably still dependent upon others. This man, though, seems to have been more confident of himself. A commentary that I read suggests that his question shows that he thinks that he has the ability to do whatever is necessary to “get eternal life”.
The first part of Jesus’ reply might seem to be a side note, like a rabbi correcting a student who has misunderstood something. However, the very fact that only God is truly righteous in His own nature, and that God defines right and wrong, leads well into the rest of this passage.
We might think of certain people as “good people”. There are sinners who are “good citizens”, who do “good things”, and who make “good decisions”. Hopefully, that group includes us, but having “good behavior” isn’t limited to the church. There are plenty of people who make correct choices sometimes, and may even act selflessly. On the other hand, as we make mistakes, sometimes we in the church wouldn’t even qualify as “good people” by cultural standards. Even when we are forgiven, we are redeemed sinners, even though we still strive to follow Jesus.
So, we may have been rescued, and we may try to be righteous, but we can’t call ourselves “good” in the same sense that God is good. (His goodness is innate. Our goodness is imputed.) In the same way, we start to see some evidence that this man’s question was based on some incorrect philosophy in the first place. He couldn’t become good (like God) by just doing some good deed. (For that matter, Eve couldn’t become like God just by eating a particular fruit, either.)
Only God is truly righteous, and only God is sovereign (meaning that He gets to make the rules). When Jesus instructed the man to keep these commandments, the man knew that these came from God. Good isn’t something that people do in order to get to God. “Good” starts with a good God and He shows goodness to us, which includes His good instructions.
I think that the man’s reply is kind of funny: “Which ones?” Aren’t all of God’s laws important to follow?
To be fair, there were different groups of commands that the first century Israelites had at their disposal. For one thing, they had the commands of God (recorded by Moses) in the Bible, both the Ten Commandments and other rules that were set out by God for the Hebrew people. Then, there were the “extra” rules that had been established by various rabbis over the years, and enforced by the Pharisees. And, maybe this man – like we have today – had received other rules from family, friends, and neighbors. So, the question, “Which ones?” was perhaps an honest one.
The commentary I used also suggested that the man might have been looking for some other kind of commandment. Maybe he understood these instructions from the Law of Moses to be limited, and that they could only do so much for those who tried to follow them. Maybe – just maybe – he was starting to realize that they were not enough to earn him eternal life.
Today, do we sometimes like to pick and choose which commandments of God we follow? Is it easy to not murder, even if we still struggle to tell the truth all of the time? Do we like verses about giving clothes to those who need them, but are uncomfortable visiting fellow Christians in prison? Maybe loving our neighbor is easy, but loving our enemies is hard. Something to think about.
Jesus calls out several commandments from the Old Testament. I notice that these all seem to be about how we behave towards others. (Hold that thought for a couple of verses). Jesus could have identified the commandment about not having any other gods before God, or loving the Lord our God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Of course, Jesus had a plan in selecting these, so let’s read on.
Verse 20 may sound arrogant, but in a culture that focused on doing the right things in the right way, it is possible that this man felt that he had truly followed these commands. Or, perhaps he had at least offered sacrifices to atone for those that he knew he had broken, so he felt that he was “caught up” on any outstanding sin-debts. (The latter is just a guess.)
Still, the young man persists. He seems to understand that following the rules isn’t quite enough.
I don’t know the Aramaic or Greek languages that Jesus was speaking in, nor the inflections that Jesus used. However, I expect that some potential disciples might have heard Jesus’ list and said, “Great! That’s enough. I’m good to go.” Maybe some people would like to stop listening (or reading) right here, and decide that not only are these six commandments enough to get into Heaven, but that they don’t have to follow the rest of God’s commandments, either.
Instead, though, this man knows – correctly – that there is more to eternal life than following a short list of rules, and he asks what else there is.
In the same way, the rest of the New Testament continues to drive home the fact that keeping rules isn’t enough. In fact, rule-keeping (or “the law”) is useless in restoring the relationship with God that we broke when we chose to sin. As followers of Jesus, we want to obey Him – showing love and gratitude – but our salvation has nothing to do with how well we follow the Ten Commandments, once we fell short of God’s ideal by sinning.
Remember, this young man said that he had kept commandments related to how to treat others. Next, Jesus challenges him with something that is directly related to others. If this man were to truly love his neighbor as himself, giving those in need all of his wealth would be a great way to show that.
After all, if he was in some elite class by virtue of his wealth, he wouldn’t only be loving the poor by giving it away, but he would become like them. (Doesn’t that sound like the sacrifice Jesus made?)
Based on my somewhat arbitrary division, are four parts to Jesus’ reply:
- A standard of perfection. After all, that’s what it takes to earn eternal life, right? That’s the “keeping the law perfectly” option that each of us fell short of. In addition, as I understand it, the idea of perfection can also include “completeness”. Jesus was giving the young man what he needed to complement his obedience to the law. Doing good things isn’t wrong, but it’s not enough.
- An instruction to get rid of entanglements. The author of Hebrews says this: Hebrews 12:1-2. Jesus was perhaps more dramatic in Matthew 18:8-9 (one chapter before this one). While the young man held onto his riches, that attachment held him back from the change that he needed to make. And, maybe it wasn’t just his devotion to his belongings, but also his social status, his power, and his ability to trust in his own ability to get through each day.
- A promise for the future. Since this young man was rich, there was an opportunity for him to “forward” his wealth on to Heaven. From that, I infer that he could receive the eternal life that he sought.
- A command to follow. We might say that all of these instructions, plus many others that Jesus taught, are rolled up in this one command: to follow Him. After all, sometimes that’s all Jesus had to say to those who he called to be His disciples.
We might think that selling our possessions and giving them away is impossible, but some people really do get rid of stuff and follow God’s leading into a new lifestyle. Now, God doesn’t ask everyone to sell everything, as near as I can tell. We should be generous and share what we do have, but it looks different for each of us.
However, if there is anything – whether material goods, relationships, or even wrong beliefs – that is keeping us from wholeheartedly following Jesus, then our heart can’t be fully His. Without giving Him our full heart, how can He fully transform us?
So, what distractions, entanglements, or other loves might be stealing part of your heart – your commitments in life – that should go to Jesus? What He gives us back in return is always better (in the long run), but we have to give what we have over to Him, first.
The Bible doesn’t tell us whether this rich young man eventually took Jesus up on His offer, but the pull of his wealth was too much at that time. As a commentary suggested, if this man was looking for one more thing to do (so that he could “check a box” and punch his ticket for heaven, but still live the way he wanted to in wealth and comfort), Jesus did not offer that as a valid option.
If it’s difficult for the rich to get into the kingdom of heaven, what does that mean for us as Americans? Teaching on this passage is convicting to me. If God called me to, would I be willing to give up the things that I rely on – my bank account, my house, my retirement plan, even my smartphone – in order to trust God more and break the hold that stuff might have on me?
Christian comedian Tim Hawkins has a song about verse 24. One of the lines says, “When you wanna get to Heaven but you love your stuff / it’s easier to drive your beetle through a needle.”
There are those who (in my opinion) soft-peddle this verse into something that might be achievable by human efforts (maybe a skinny camel getting through a narrow gate). I don’t disagree that maybe Jesus’ hearers thought about something like that when they heard His statement, but it becomes clear as we read the rest of the Bible that it is fundamentally impossible for sinners to get eternal life on their own by just following the Law of Moses. We just don’t have that capability.
Thanks be to God, though, that there is a solution (in just a couple more verses).
Going back to the story of Job’s friends, whose dialogue suggests that they believed suffering was a one-to-one relationship with personal sin, we find another false premise captured here.
The disciples seem to have believed that God directly blesses those who are righteous with money and belongings. Therefore (in this belief), those who are wealthy must be really close to God already. With this incorrect belief in mind, when Jesus said that it was difficult for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God, then the bar would seem impossibly high. Said another way, if wealth = God’s favor, and wealthy people will have trouble getting into heaven, you can imagine the disciples thinking, “How about the rest of us?”
Here’s a quote from G.K. Chesterton, but it’s pretty deep, so let’s go through it carefully:
“For when once people have begun to believe that prosperity is the reward of virtue their next calamity is obvious. If prosperity is regarded as the reward of virtue it will be regarded as the symptom of virtue. Men will leave off the heavy task of making good men successful. They will adopt the easier task of making out successful men good. This, which has happened throughout modern commerce and journalism, is the ultimate Nemesis of the wicked optimism of the comforters of Job.”
A belief in the relationship between righteousness and rewards isn’t just a mistaken idea. It can be harmful, especially when we start to believe that wealthy people are good, or that successful preachers and teachers (whether on TV, from the radio, or in print) must be right, without checking their words against what the Bible says.
Do you wonder how many rich people who were far from God drew others away from Him by proclaiming their opinions – even well-meaning ones – as divinely-supported truth?
I don’t think that this is necessarily as big of a problem today as it was in the first century, though, with the advent of the theory that wealthy people are inherently bad. Still, the prosperity gospel hasn’t gone away, and the outcome is dangerous.
Check out our state motto! [The class I was teaching lives in Ohio, USA, as do I.]
Still, don’t forget the first half of what Jesus said, here: It’s great to know that God can do all things, but until we realize that we couldn’t change our eternal destiny on our own, some people may be tempted to keep doing things on their own. They say, “I know that God can do big things, but I’ve got this one handled”. Jesus didn’t just say that nothing is impossible with God; He also said that we cannot save ourselves.
We don’t get to heaven by following the law, or even by selling our possessions and giving them to the poor (see 1 Corinthians 13:3). We can only get to Heaven with God’s help. He provided the way back through Jesus, forgiving all of our sins, and making a new way – one that we could actually follow – when we failed in keeping the law perfectly.
We cannot just keep a bunch of rules and become right with God as a result. And, just because we have accepted Jesus’ salvation and try to be righteous, we still can’t claim that we have earned Heaven (or even the right to walk with Jesus on this earth) any more than those who have not. So let us set aside legalism and any merit from our own actions as the foundation of our salvation. When we mess up, we don’t lose that salvation. Conversely, we cannot require other sinners to meet a certain standard of righteousness before we invite them to Jesus and welcome them into our fellowship to learn more about Him.
Once Jesus has become our Lord, we also don’t get to pick and choose which of God’s instructions we follow. We are called to live like Him, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and that means considering the entirety of Jesus’ instructions, not just the ones that are easy or convenient. These good deeds don’t save us, but they do glorify God and show our love for Him.
We might need to give up some things that are holding us back. What do you need to give up that is standing between you and fully committing to the Kingdom of Heaven? Hopefully, you have accepted Jesus as your Savior and Lord, but is he – as your Lord – asking you to trade something of this earth for something of His Kingdom?
Jesus calls us to far more than keeping rules. Yes, He taught what it looked like to love Him by keeping His commandments, but when we follow those commandments, we are better off, anyway. God’s instructions are given out of love, and define the best way for us – or anyone else – to live.
Jesus taught us that our heart must be right with Him, and that we should commit entirely to following Him. Only when we have disconnected all of the other things that retain control over parts of our heart, soul, mind, and strength can we give them over to Him. What we get back will be far better than what we gave away: Treasure in heaven, indeed.
- The College Press NIV Commentary – Matthew, by Larry Chouinard, pages 342-349. © 1997 College Press Publishing Co.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- From “Introduction to THE BOOK OF JOB”, G.K. Chesterton (as cited in http://www.gkc.org.uk/gkc/books/job.html)