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The Rich Young Ruler, Part 1

Luke 18:18-21

Well, we are back in Luke’s gospel this morning, and we’re looking at Luke 18, verse 18. So if you’re not there already, I invite you to turn back to Luke 18:18, and this is Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler.

And as you turn to Luke 18:18, I’d like you to think about how you would answer this question. If someone came up to you and said, “What should I do to inherit eternal life?”, what would you say? If someone asks you, “How can I know that I’ll have eternal life?”, how would you answer that question? I mean, after you recover from the shock of someone coming up and saying that to you, doesn’t happen much, but if that did happen, how would you answer? Because that’s the question that the rich young ruler asked Jesus Christ on this occasion. And before we see how Jesus handled this evangelism encounter, how would you answer?

My guess is that for a number of you, you’d push “play” on some formulaic pattern of sharing the gospel that you’ve picked up in evangelism class, or read in a book on evangelism, or maybe learned from an older, more experienced Christian about sharing your faith. And as you would start that presentation of the gospel, you’d hope you remember that script that you were taught. You’d hope that it comes to mind. And you’d start with the holiness of God, as you should. You’d be teaching the perfections of God. You’d explain God’s right, by virtue of who he is and what he’s done as creator and lawgiver and judge, to receive exclusive worship and perfect obedience from all of his creatures.

You’d talk about God, and then you’d talk about man’s failure to do that very thing, to honor God as God and to give him thanks, to live obediently before God. Men need to know about salvation, right? And so it stands to reason, they need to know what they are being saved from. And your job is to tell them they’re being saved from God. They’re being saved from God and his wrath and God and his just condemnation due to their sinfulness.

As you talk about man and his sinfulness, you’d want to disabuse him of any notion that he can earn his salvation, that he can somehow pile up enough good deeds, stacking them one on top of another, to overshadow his sins before God, because no one can pile up enough good deeds to please God. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and no man can erase his sins. So you would help him to narrow down his options for the path to salvation to one option only, the narrow gate through faith in Jesus Christ.

And this would take the conversation, then, to your favorite subject in mind, to talk about the most unique person you have ever known, Jesus Christ. You’d talk about the most perfect work that he completed, that he finished. You’d teach about the grace of God to provide in him a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of all sinners who repent and believe, fulfilled in Christ’s all-sufficient, perfect substitutionary atonement.

Then you’d bring it home. You’d want to tell this sinner that if he’ll repent of his sins, and if he’ll believe in Jesus Christ, not trusting at all in himself, not trusting in his own righteousness, his own good works, but trusting only and ever in Jesus Christ, that he can have everlasting life. You would explain the nature of this saving faith that you’re calling him to, so he does not misunderstand because there are so many misunderstandings out there; that biblical faith understands, assents to the truth intellectually.

Biblical faith receives and embraces the truth emotionally. It changes the affections so that we desire what God desires, and we hate what God hates; and true biblical faith acts on the truth volitionally. All three of those elements, the mind, the emotions, the will, those are the elements of true biblical saving faith, and they characterize the life of one who truly believes. It becomes a life that is marked increasingly over the years, marked by obedience to the truth.

Then you would call this person to obey the gospel that you just explained, and you would inform him that after entering through that narrow gate through Jesus Christ, well, the way is hard that leads to life, not easy, and few there be who find it, but find it he must, and follow it he will only and always by the grace of God.

You’d inform him, then, of the consequences of his decision, whether to obey the gospel that you’ve just explained to him, or to disobey it. There are two and only two destinies: eternal heaven for all those who believe, and eternal hell for those who refuse to believe, who go their own way. And all of us will give an account to God of our obedience to the truth; and thus the gospel starts and ends with God.

It goes something like that, right? Something like that. That’s the basic pattern of gospel proclamation that we teach here at Grace Church, the pattern that we proclaim and commend to you. Some use the letters GMCRC. CRC. Notice I added a C. God, Man, Christ, Response, and I want you to notice the final C, which stands for “consequence.”  realize you have previously learned four letters. I’m going to stretch your brains and ask you to remember five, five letters. It’s a good way to remember a pattern for explaining the gospel. There are other faithful patterns as well which contain those basic elements. There are also many unfaithful patterns out there that confuse people with what can only be called a sub-Christian gospel. So watch out for those. Stay away from those. Don’t repeat those bad patterns that you’ve learned in your mind.

But we want to ask, when Jesus shared the gospel, how did he do it? Did he use a formulaic approach? Did he recite a pattern like we are commending to you? Or are we all wrong in how we’re presenting this? Well, we’ve got the perfect test case before us because on this occasion in Luke 18:18, a man asks him the most important question of all. He gets right down to brass tacks and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s the perfect test case to test our own evangelism against his, and as we read this account, see if you can identify our gospel pattern as Jesus answers this man.

The account runs from verses 18-30, but we’re going to read just from verses 18-25 for this morning. We start out in verse 18: “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.’” Okay, so step number one: start by picking apart the man’s language, even if it means you risk offending him or antagonizing him and putting him on the defensive right from the beginning.

Okay, I’m being facetious, obviously, because that’s not what Jesus is doing, here. He is ever and always gracious and wise and intentional in how he speaks to people. So I want to make it clear from the front I’m not accusing our Lord. I’m not even implying in any way that he’s being pedantic, here. But that is how it can seem to us at first glance, especially with the myriad and multitude of bad evangelism patterns that we have learned. ‘You never want to cross the sinner. You never want to make him offended; he might go away.” As we read the rest of account, we realize Jesus isn’t too worried about people walking away. Our evangelism has been so man-centered for so long that offending the sinner is a graver error to us than offending God and getting his gospel wrong.

So is that step one? Pick apart the man’s language? Let’s keep reading, verse 20. “‘You know the commandments,’” he says. “‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” Okay, so Step 2 in our evangelism pattern to inherit eternal life: Tell him he needs to obey the Ten Commandments. Is that what you’ve been taught? Obey the Ten commandments. Okay, got it. Let’s see if he’s done that. Verse 21: “And he said, ‘All these I have kept from my youth.’” Okay, good to go. Perfect. Leave that unchallenged and accept his profession, and move on to Step 3: radical philanthropy. Verse 22: “When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have, distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And then come follow me.’”

Make a mental note: After this conversation, you’re going to have to call others to radical philanthropy, and you need to see if you’ve done this for yourself. Don’t be surprised when the sinner fails to reach the high bar you set. Verse 23: “When he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. Jesus, seeing that he’d become sad, said, ‘How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. 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.’”

I’ve been speaking facetiously, obviously. The situation, here, is not as it appears at first glance, as we’ll see, but it does seem difficult for us to see that Jesus seems to have made this really difficult for this sincere seeker to believe the gospel. He’s made the bar extremely high for this man, made it hard for him to believe and hard for him to follow him. And I’m not just saying that as a 21st-century squishy evangelical. Even the people standing there, his own disciples, reacted to his approach, here, with this man with bewilderment. Verse 26: “‘Then who can be saved?’” Even Peter, his conscience is unsettled, here, and he asks, “Well, what about us? Are we okay?”

Our evangelism has been so man-centered for so long that offending the sinner is a graver error to us than offending God and getting his gospel wrong.”

Travis Allen

Listen, Jesus’ handling of the rich young ruler unsettles all of us, and it should, including the many commentators I’ve read, by the way. It’s represented in the many sermons I’ve heard on this text. On the surface, this account seems disturbing and perplexing. We don’t know quite what to make of it. I mean, is Jesus, here, laying down a pattern of evangelism that we need to follow? Are the formulaic patterns of evangelism that we have learned, are they all wrong?

I’ll be quick to say, as I already said, that much of what we have been taught about evangelizing and discipling people has been very, very wrong for many, many years in our country in mainstream evangelicalism. So I want to emphasize that footnote: Don’t just trust everything you read on an evangelistic website. Go back to the word of God. Go back to what Jesus actually did and said.

But again, the pattern that I recited a few moments ago, the one we commend to you and the one we teach, the one I practice, is that the wrong approach? Should we be telling those who want to know how to have eternal life, “Obey God’s law, sell all your stuff, give it all the way to the poor, follow Jesus with nothing more than the clothes on your back”? Are Christians to be a band of humble mendicants, homeless beggars who are united by this one great sacrifice that they made to gain heaven and guarantee eternal life? Or is something else going on, here?

Short answer: yes. Longer answer: It’s my sermon. So we’ll get into the text and take a closer look. And here’s the first point for this morning, verse 18, number 1, the ruler and his question. The ruler and his question. We’re going to consider the ruler and his question separately. First, the ruler, then his question. Look again at verse 18: “And a ruler,” literally, “a certain ruler,” “asked him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’”

So here’s this certain ruler. He’s anonymous. He’s unknown to us. He’s got no back story. No name is given. We might think there’s not much to know about him, but actually when we combine the other synoptic gospel accounts, we get the composite picture. And there is actually a lot we can know about this man. In fact, there’s more to know about this man, more to explain in detail than I have time for. So I have to reduce it down to keep it flowing here.

But there’s a lot we can know. He’s been known to the church through the centuries as the “rich young ruler.” Three identifying marks from this composite picture, this summary we get from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. He is the “rich young ruler.” All three synoptic accounts tell us that he is rich. Matthew and Mark say, “He had great possessions.” Luke says, verse 23, “He was extremely rich.” From Matthew’s account, and only Matthew’s account, by the way, we know that he is young. He’s not an older ruler, he’s not middle-aged; he’s a young ruler. Twice in Matthew, Matthew 19:20 and 22, Matthew identifies him as a neaniskos, which can mean “youth,” it can mean “a young bachelor,” it can mean maybe an older teen.

Here, it means “young man.” He’s between 24 to 40 years old. He’s in the prime of his life. It’s a season of life, as we all know, some of us remember fondly, some of us even more faintly, remember a season characterized by strength and capability and increasing skill and competency and growth in muscle tone and all the rest, and upward mobility. That was a good day, wasn’t it? Yeah.

Luke is the only writer, though, to tell us that the man is also a ruler. A ruler, the word archon. He is a significant man. He’s a man of social and political influence in his community. He is a highly esteemed man. He’s a man who is in authority. He’s a man in public prominence. He has a public face. He’s known, and he’s looked to as an example. Now, the exact position that he holds isn’t known to us, but most commentators see this man as a local synagogue ruler. I’m inclined to agree with them. The word can refer to a number of ruler positions. It can refer to a member of the Sanhedrin, which is how John identified Nicodemus in John 3:1, as a ruler of the Jews. The man’s young, young age argues against his position on the Sanhedrin.

Some say by “ruler” Luke meant “magistrate,” but that’s an entirely different word, so it’s not likely. For the Jews, all civic duties of magistrates were handled by these synagogue officials. Others think that he may have been an official of the high priest, that his environment and his duties were occupied in the temple. But that’s really unlikely because the priesthood was dominated by the Sadducee party, and the Sadducees were theological liberals. That does not at all fit the profile that we see of the man who’s come to Jesus. Doesn’t fit him at all.

So he’s most likely a synagogue ruler, in charge of a local synagogue, and probably closer to Jerusalem, which is probably where they are right now. Probably a large synagogue, probably very prominent. And it’s quite remarkable for a man of his age to be in this position, very uncommon for a young man to have such a high and honored role. But it is likely that his significant wealth had a hand in that. We can suppose he comes from a prominent family, that he has received inherited wealth, and he’s also improved upon it. He has increased the wealth, and he’s used his family’s wealth in a very generous and charitable way. The young man has made a name for himself. He’s turned from the path of any self-indulgence that is common for sons raised in great means. He’s given himself, instead, to building his family’s business, improving his family’s wealth, and then all to turn back and benefit his own community, and thus he’s received this honorable position as synagogue ruler.

It’s also likely that considering his high regard for the law, which is evident in the text, that he’s a member of the Pharisee party. We don’t know that for sure, but it seems likely that he is religiously, politically conservative and connected to the Pharisee party. He’s morally upright, and so much so that he’s become respected in the community. He’s well-known. He’s one of the leading men of his city, even though he’s a young man. Obviously, this is a remarkable and exemplary young man. He has turned away from the sins of young men that are self-indulgent and undisciplined and lacking self-control, and has given himself instead to the good of his community, to the good of other people. He is certainly a model for others to follow.

But as we see here, indicated in verse 18, he is also a troubled young man. He’s troubled. He’s got a nagging question on his mind, his conscience has been bothering him, and he’s been no doubt provoked even further by Jesus in his teaching, as Jesus has shown up and has been teaching. He’s seen the character of Jesus, the power in his ministry; and if we accept his word in verses 20-21, as Jesus seemed to, he’s been a moral, law-abiding man, keeping the Torah ever since his youth. But in his heart of hearts he has this nagging lack of assurance about his true standing with God, about his fitness for the kingdom. In Jesus he sees this quality of life that he himself is lacking, and so he’s compelled to come to him, compelled to put the question to Jesus.

We can imagine, wherever this is along the journey that will eventually end up in Jerusalem, Jesus has entered this town or city, as he always did, and that he had been doing what he’s been doing all throughout his ministry. He’s been preaching the kingdom of God. He’s been healing the sick, casting out demons, showing mercy and compassion to all the people. And after the ministry of healing and preaching and teaching, and during this interval that is provided for a brief respite for Jesus and his disciples before they get up and move on to another place, that’s the setting for the previous account when parents started to bring their children to Jesus and asking him to bless them. We went through that last time, Luke 18:15-17.

And as we saw last time, Jesus was eager to take these children in his arms and bless them. He received parents and their children alike. He took the infants and children into his arms and blessed them. He said to his disciples, “‘Let the children come to me, and don’t hinder them, for to such belong the kingdom of God.’” And then he said in verse 17, “‘Truly, I say to you, whoever doesn’t receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’”

What does that mean? We talked about this last time: just as infants. They’ve got no power of their own, no strength, no wealth, no social standing, no ability to exercise their will. That is how all kingdom citizens must receive the kingdom of God: like helpless babes, utterly, totally dependent on God. And that is why every newborn infant, every helpless baby, including those in the womb, everyone is a living picture of a true kingdom citizen. Just want to strengthen your understanding of the sanctity of life in this evil age we live in.

Well, that’s what Jesus meant by that. What does that mean, then, for this rich young ruler? What does it mean for him? He stands there already troubled in his conscience, and any doubt he’s been having about the state of his soul has been amplified by hearing Jesus teach. He’s troubled, and now he’s perplexed. He is anxious. He’s wondering how he can know that he’ll ever enter into the kingdom, how he can know he’ll have eternal life. Infants are weak, but he’s strong. Infants are dependent and incapable. He’s not. He’s independent. He is self-sufficient. Perfectly capable. Infants can’t do, achieve, or gain, but he has already done much. He’s kept the law. He’s achieved much. He’s gained status, gained prominence. He’s increased his wealth, improved his station. So what’s to become of him with regard to the kingdom?

So as Jesus and his disciples prepare to move on, as they are getting ready to leave this town, wrapping things up and moving to another town, we get the picture from Mark’s account, which tells us, “As Jesus was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt down before him and asked him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” But for a man of his stature to run in public? To kneel down in public, to risk denigrating his office, his personal dignity? He shows a flagrant disregard for any social propriety at this point, for any dignity that benefits his status, his station, his person. He doesn’t seem to care about any of that at this point.

That’s why I think this man is sincere when he comes, when he comes to Jesus with a sincere question, with a burning question in his heart, on his mind. The verb Luke uses there in verse 18, “a ruler asked him,” it’s eperotao. It’s an intensified form of the verb “to ask.” And it’s used often in this gospel to describe a hostile form of questioning, such as when the Pharisees would interrogate Jesus and try to set him up to fail. But in this context, eperotao conveys an intense concern in the question. There’s a total focus in the question. He’s dogged. He’s intentional. He’s got a sincere, staunch intent to search out, discover the answer to this particular question, and not leave until he finds it. That’s the idea. This man is sincere. He’s asking a sincere question.

Some say they see in his address to Jesus as “good teacher,” they think that by using the word “good” and using that, especially in the way Jesus corrects it, they think that maybe he was trying to flatter Jesus, and Jesus called him on it, threw a flag. Maybe. But we see that when Nicodemus came to Jesus, he addressed him in a similar way. He said, “Rabbi, we know that you’re a teacher from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” I think that’s not flattery. I think that’s respect. It’s complimentary. Certainly, it falls far short of what is due to Jesus, who is the Son of God. He’s not just “a teacher come from God.” He’s not just “a good teacher.” He’s God. If they truly recognized who he is, they’d be bowing on their face before him.

Still, along with many other commentators, Alfred Plummer says this, he says, “In the whole Talmud, a rabbi being addressed as ‘good teacher,’ the title was absolutely unknown among the Jews.” So this address, “good teacher,” this really is beyond the pale. This is totally out of the ordinary. Yes, I think he’s paying Jesus a compliment, here. I think it’s a sincere compliment, not flattery. When he sees Jesus, the only adjective that comes to his mind is “good.” He just hasn’t thought carefully enough about what that adjective really means. He hasn’t thought carefully enough about what he’s saying. I think all of us have used language loosely at one time or another. And this is a time like that. More on that in a minute.

But look again at his question. He says, “‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” or “‘What doing life eternal will I inherit?’”, literally how he says it. Eternal life is a concept that Jews believed and discussed and hoped in, just as we do, but it’s obviously without the fullness that comes together in the New Testament. But they get this concept, you can go back to, you can look at it or write it down, in Daniel 12:1-2, Daniel 12:1-2. They read about the time of the end, “when Israel,” it says, “shall be delivered, and everyone whose name shall be found written in the book, and many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

So this word “everlasting,” it’s the Hebrew word for “eternity,” olam, and it’s used repeatedly in the Old Testament, most often describing God’s covenants, his covenants with Noah, with Abraham and Israel and David, and most particularly in the New Covenant. The word olam also describes the statutes of God, the word of God, all of its covenant promises to Israel. The word olam describes the throne of David as being forever. The kingdom over which David’s son will rule and reign is forever. The word olam describes the temple of the Lord as well, the place where God will put his name forever.

In all those ways and more, olam conveys this concept of eternity. It’s rooted in the concept of everlasting life, which is the life of God. It’s sourced in God. Abraham called on the name of the Lord Yahweh in Genesis 21:33, “who is el olam, the Everlasting God.” Moses told Israel in Deuteronomy 33:27 that “the eternal God,” that is the word olam, “the eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” “The Lord Yahweh, he’s king forever and ever”; that’s olam, Psalm 10:16. “And his throne is forever and ever”; that’s olam, Psalm 45:6. And why is his dwelling place in his arms and his throne and his kingship forever and ever? Because God’s essence is eternal. Moses said in Psalm 90:2, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” “From olam to olam, from eternity to eternity, you are God.”

And so when God shows his love, as we read this morning in Psalm 103:17, that love, too, is an everlasting love. “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him and his righteousness to children’s children.” Isaiah asks in Isaiah 40:28, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He doesn’t faint, he doesn’t grow weary, his understanding is unsearchable.” And then Jeremiah 10:10: “The Lord is the true God. He is the living God and the everlasting king.” This concept of eternal life, everlasting God, and the concept of olam, they knew this, the Jews knew this about God. This is not foreign to them. For them, this is Theology 101, that Yahweh is the everlasting God.

So when this man comes to Jesus, he already has a high view of God. He already knows the God with whom he has to do. When he comes seeking eternal life, he doesn’t come seeking a quantity of life. It’s not like the billionaires today who are trying to preserve their bodies in cryogenic chambers and wake up in 200 years when the technology is enough to give them everlasting life. It’s not quantity of life. Living on, whether a billionaire or a total pauper, living on in this flesh for eternity, you know what that’s called? Hell. We don’t want to do that. We need a change. We need a life from God, an eternal kind of life, so that the eternal quantity of life is bearable. Not only bearable, but majestic and holy and righteous. He understands that. He’s seeking a God-sourced quality of life, the kind of life that’s found in the coming kingdom of God.

Now, I went through a lot of texts there, a lot of scripture, and I didn’t have you turn to one of them. You haven’t done any work this morning, so I’m going to wake you up a little bit, and I want you to turn to some texts, starting with Isaiah chapter 60, Isaiah chapter 60. Isaiah 60, and just to fill in what this man is seeking when he says, “‘What do I do that I would inherit eternal life?’”, this is what’s on his mind: Isaiah 60:1. The heading in my Bible says, “The Future Glory of Israel.” And that’s right.

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, thick darkness the peoples. But the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you, and nation shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes all around, and see. They are all gathered together; they come to you. Your sons shall come from afar, your daughters shall be carried on the hip, and then you shall see and be radiant. Your heart shall thrill and exult because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you. The wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, young camels of Midian and Ephah, all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord. All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you. The rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you. They shall come up with acceptance on my altar, and I will beautify my beautiful house.”

Skip down to verse 10. “Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their king shall minister to you; for in my wrath I struck you, but in my favor I’ve had mercy on you. Your gates shall be open continually; day and night they won’t be shut, that people may bring to you the wealth of the nations, with their kings led in procession. For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste. The glory of Lebanon shall come to you, the cypress, the plane, the pine to beautify the place of my sanctuary, and I will make the place of my feet glorious. The sons of those who afflicted you shall come bending low to you, and all who despise you shall bow down at your feet; they shall call you the City of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.

“Whereas you’ve been forsaken and hated, with no one passing through, I will make you majestic forever, a joy from age to age. You shall suck the milk of nations, you shall nurse at the breasts of kings; and you shall know that I the Lord am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty one of Jacob. Instead of bronze, I’ll bring gold, and instead of iron, I’ll bring silver; instead of wood, bronze, instead of stones, iron. I’ll make your overseers peace and your taskmasters righteousness.

“Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise. The sun shall be no more your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give you light, but the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun shall no more go down, nor your moon withdraw itself; for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended. Your people shall all be righteous; they shall possess the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified. The least one shall become a clan, and the smallest one a mighty nation. I am the Lord; in its time I will hasten it.”

Notice two times, there, verse 19, verse 20, “the Lord will be your everlasting light.” Again, that’s the word olam. No more fossil fuels, no need for alternative fuels, for green energy. The everlasting light of God is the power and the energy of the millennial kingdom. That’s what the man sought, that’s what he wanted assurance about, that he’d be participating in this kingdom, in this life and this age and the age to come.

Now turn over, with that in your head, turn over now to Jeremiah 32, Jeremiah 32. We’re just going to go consecutively through a couple of these prophets. In Jeremiah 32:37-40, it says in verse 37, “Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation. I’ll bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I’ll give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I’ll make with them,” here’s the word olam, “an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I’ll put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.”

Don’t just trust everything you read on an evangelistic website. Go back to the word of God. Go back to what Jesus actually did and said.”

Travis Allen

What is that everlasting covenant? Back up to chapter 31:31: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant I’ll make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall each one teach his neighbor, and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Now go back to chapter 32 and verse 40. This everlasting covenant, we understand, is a covenant of forgiveness. It’s something truly new. It’s not like the old covenant God made with Israel through Moses. This is a covenant that speaks of regeneration, of internal knowledge of the truth, and it’s a knowledge that reconciles a forgiven people with their God and then produces a life-long, lasting, eternal relationship with God.

All right, chapter 32:40: “I’ll make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I’ll put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness with all my heart and all my soul. For thus says the Lord: Just as I have brought all this great disaster upon this people, so I will bring upon them all the good that I promise them.” Interesting to see that this new covenant is holistic in nature; it addresses the fullness of man and humanity in his composite being. It is both physical and spiritual. It is a material and an immaterial reality. Verse 42, how did God bring all this great disaster upon this people? Was it spiritual only? No. Was it not physical, too? Clearly, in the same way, God will fulfill promises of total salvation in the kingdom in an everlasting covenant of everlasting life.

One more passage to look at, Ezekiel 37, Ezekiel 37:21. Says there in Ezekiel 37, this is the end of the dry bones prophecy, which is a very vivid picture of spiritual regeneration for the nation of Israel. In Ezekiel 37:21: “Say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they’ve gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them into their own land, and I will make them one nation in the land on the mountains of Israel.” Could it be more specific?

“And one king shall be king over them, and they shall no longer be two nations, no longer divided into two kingdoms. They shall not defile themselves anymore with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. But I will save them from all the backslidings in which they’ve sinned, and I will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes. They shall dwell in the land that I gave to my servant, Jacob, where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children’s children shall dwell there forever. And David, my servant, shall be their prince forever.

“I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be,” here it is again, “an everlasting covenant with them. I’ll set them in their land and multiply them, and I will set my sanctuary in their midst forever. My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And then the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore.” That last word: olam. Again, “everlasting covenants,” verse 26; “everlasting sanctuary in their midst,” verse 26, verse 28. And Ezekiel describes that temple vividly and even measures it in chapters 40 to 48.

All right, now go ahead and return to Luke 18:18; and as you’re getting back to our text, let me answer the question that some of you are asking, or maybe should be asking: Why did we just read all those passages? Because I want you to see that this man, this rich young ruler, along with many of the Jews in Jesus’ day, they had a better and a fuller and a more robust understanding of the concept of eternal life than most people today, and I would say even many evangelicals today. It is really important for us to recognize that so that we don’t underestimate the sincerity of this man, his understanding, and the serious nature of his question. When he asked, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”, he wants to know, “How do I live in such a way right now so that I can know that I’ll have eternal life in the future?”

Good question. Man, it is a question that I wish 21st-century Americans or Coloradans or Greeleyans, I wish it’s a question they’d be asking. Darrell Bock says, “He’s asking Jesus, ‘How can I be sure I’ll be saved in the final resurrection?’” He’s seeking certainty about the future of his soul. Is that not a good question to ask? Seeking certainty about the future of a soul, and he doesn’t have it. He wants assurance about eternal life, and he lacks it.  

Well, Jesus is about to start answering this young ruler in verse 19, and his answer won’t be complete until we get through verse 22. But first, Jesus needs to poke around a little bit in this man’s mind and expose his thinking. And if you’re wondering right now whether or not we’re going to finish this sermon this morning, no, we’re not going to. I’ve got a Part 2 planned. Here’s our second point for this morning, starting in verse 19. We talked about the man and his question; here’s the teacher and his investigation. The teacher and his investigation. “Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.’”

Of all the things that Jesus could have said, he chooses here to pick apart his use of the word “good.” Our evangelical impulse here is to address the seeming contradiction between doing and inheriting, right? I mean, to us, “What must I do?” sounds like works. It seems inconsistent with the concept of an inheritance, which is all about a gift, something that is not attained by works. So why didn’t Jesus do that? We’re not entirely wrong on that count, by the way, but our judgment is not entirely complete. It’s not fully built-in accurate here. We should notice that Jesus says nothing to correct this man’s interest in doing something; and in actual fact, nothing is inherently wrong with his desire to do something, to do good works. After all, doesn’t James tell us that “faith without works is dead”? Our faith is completed in our works. Our works give evidence of the true life of our faith. If there’s no works, there’s no faith.

So what is wrong in his thinking, which Jesus is about to expose, is this man’s orientation to his works, this man’s thinking about his works. So Jesus sets this aside for a moment, sets aside this man’s emphasis on works, and he focuses, first, on his view of goodness. “Why do you call me good? Why do you call me good?” Again, Jesus is not denying that he shares in the divine essence of goodness in his divine nature, as some liberals like to believe. He has not, here, denied his deity. He’s not admitting his sinfulness in any way, not at all. His deity is intact, his sinlessness is perfect.

But in pursuing the answer to this man’s question, along the way, he’s driving at something else. This man has rather impulsively, thoughtlessly, called Jesus “good.” And Jesus wants to stop here, make sure he stops, he arrests his attention, and he wants him to think carefully about it. Because the concept of divine goodness, it is absolutely critical to answering this man’s question, to settling his concern about assurance of eternal life.

The term “good,” agathos, when referring to persons and inherent character, it means upright; it means worthy, which is then grounded in the concept of divine perfection, total completion. And God and God alone is the one who possesses that quality of absolute perfection and total completion. He is, as one puts it, the ultimate measure of goodness. God is because he’s the only being in whom is total perfection. He is the only undivided being in his oneness. He is non-composite. He is not composed of parts. He’s absolute and perfect simplicity: one.

Jesus said to him, verse 19, “‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.’” More literally, “No one is good except one,” comma, “God.” Another way to put that: “No one is good except the one God,” which echoes the Shema of Israel, Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Jesus is intentional in that allusion to Deuteronomy 6:4, here. This Jewish ruler is going to hear that allusion to Deuteronomy 6:4, the Shemah of Israel, loud and clear, and he’s going to be immediately snapped back to his confession of faith.

So when Jesus says, “‘Why are you addressing me as good?’”, obviously, that response is startling. It arrests his attention. It helps him think about the concept of good and how he’s used it. I mean, did this ruler really see the deity of Christ standing before him? He did. Did he recognize it, though? Was his spiritual perception truly that strong to penetrate deeply, to see deity robed in humanity? No. Then Jesus would say, “Let’s stick with what we know about God and proceed on that basis, shall we?”

It’s essentially what Jesus is doing, here. After all, in seeking eternal life, it’s a life that finds its source in God and God alone. Evidence of that eternal life, this goodness that he finds in Jesus, that is also sourced in God and God alone, and for the Jews and for this rich young ruler, what has revealed the goodness of God, the life of God, if not Torah, if not the Ten Commandments?

And so Jesus takes him, verse 20, to the Law. “‘You’re a ruler of the synagogue, aren’t you? You know the commandments, you know them. Do not commit adultery. Do not commit murder. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness. Honor your father and mother.’” He’s saying, “You want to know what you can do, do you, so that you can be assured that you’ll inherit eternal life and enter God’s kingdom? God already revealed eternal life in his word. He’s already given you commandments that are good. So do those commandments, and you’ll really be living.”

But the young ruler doesn’t really seem to be picking up what Jesus is laying down, here. So he says in verse 21, you can see it there, “‘All these things I’ve kept from my youth.’” Matthew expands that: “‘All these things I’ve kept. What do I still lack?” “I’ve got AWANA badges. A list? It’s just a mile long, Jesus. I know my Bible. I’ve been doing my Bible. I’ve been serving in the church, serving in the synagogue. I am now at the highest post in the synagogue. What do I still lack?”

Now we see more clearly that when he asked Jesus in verse 18, “‘What must I do?’”, he wasn’t thinking about doing something quote-unquote “ordinary.” He wasn’t thinking about doing something as rather plain and mundane, like obedience to God’s word. The ruler sought to do something more, something extraordinary, something befitting his upward move in this world, something that his wealth could fund. The ruler is revealing a heart that is unsatisfied with the goodness and the life of God in the word of God.

Before we’d be too quick to condemn him, can we admit together that we’ve done the very same thing, that we’ve seen his revealed word as rather mundane and plain at times, that we don’t see obedience to the word of God the way we ought to, the way Jesus did, as something that fills us with joy and satisfaction, that reveals God’s goodness and his life? This tells us everything we need to know about the state of this man’s soul. No contentment in the revealed word of God. No contentment in reading it and relishing its great treasures and meditating on its truths and memorizing it, rejoicing in the truth. So listen, if he doesn’t have that, he will find no assurance of life in himself. Why? Because he has none.

So, unsatisfied with the goodness of God in the word, discontented, with no experience of the life of God in the world, the young ruler expected Jesus to assign him some greater work to do. Pretty typical of young men, isn’t it? Pretty typical of young men. “Oh, man, I don’t want to do that. Don’t you know who I am? Don’t you know what I can accomplish? Don’t you know what’s contained between these two ears of mine? Amazing truth. I understand things. I mean, you know the books I’ve read?”

Same thing with this guy. “Jesus, what great project can you give me? What great charity can I perform? What impossible mission can you send me on, that I can either accept or not. All these have kept. What do I still lack?” Now, he’s not boasting, here, as some people think. He’s not boasting. He’s not claiming sinless perfection, either. He’s simply marking his personal adherence to the Law, which is regular in his life, ever since he reached the Jewish age of religious responsibility; that is, when he became a bar mitzvah, a “son of the Law,” at about age 13.

So he’s not boasting. He’s not claiming sinless perfection, but he is clearly not thinking deep enough. He’s not thinking comprehensively enough about his life, deeply enough about his sin. He’s saying, “Look, I’ve been doing all those things already. Already, I’ve been doing that. Ever since bar mitzvah I’ve been doing that. You got something more?” It’s like, “Law of Moses, check. What’s next? Give me a real challenge here.”

By this point, as I said, Jesus has heard all he needs to hear. What he sought in his wise investigation, he has found, and we’re ready to hear his answer in verse 22. But let’s go back and clarify and ask the question, why did Jesus start this investigation by picking apart his use of the word “good”? Why did Jesus make the connection immediately to the goodness of God, and then check this man’s experience of obeying these commandments? What is he after?

I’ll give you two things. First, Jesus is checking the man for signs of spiritual regeneration. He’s checking the man for signs of spiritual regeneration; and what he exposes, here, in his examination, is a lack of regeneration. This man has no life in himself. If this man had been regenerated, what would his experience of keeping the Law be like? Pure joy, right? Deep, deep contentment, spiritual satisfaction, nourishment from the life of God, which is found in the word of God.

Is that too much for you to imagine? Listen to these testimonies, then, from the psalmist in Psalm 119. Verse 16: “I will delight in your statutes. I will not forget your word.” Verse 18: “Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” Verse 20: “My soul is consumed with longing for your rules at all times.” Verse 24: “Your testimonies are my delight. They are my counselors.” Not my books, not the Internet, not Google. “They, your testimonies, are my counselors.” Verse 35: “Lead me in the path of your commandments.” Why? “Because I delight in it.” In the interest of time, Psalm 119 is a long psalm, so I’m not going to go through all of them, but that is the testimony throughout Psalm 119 of a regenerate, a believing heart, and it’s all about the life and the goodness of God’s law.

Christian, do you find something of this same spirit in yourself? Or do you battle to pick up the Bible? If you do battle, pray. Seek the Lord. Ask him to light that flame once again, that your heart is consumed with longing for God’s testimonies at all times. I’d say that without a doubt every single counseling issue that I address in the pastoral office could be solved if people had a longing and they were consumed with longing for God’s testimonies at all times. Because every answer is there. Everything we need for life and godliness is here in the word of God. And yet, where are people spending most of their time, even Christian people? On the Internet listening to podcasts, watching stuff. Their minds are filled with distraction and filled with the opinions of men and women.

Beloved, don’t let anything mediate, stand between you and your Bible. Get into it, memorize it, love it, learn it, and find its goodness and riches of life everlasting in its pages. This is not a dead word. David said the same thing, Psalm 19:
“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart. The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever. The rules of the Lord are true, righteous altogether. More desired to be are they than gold, even much fine gold, sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned. In keeping them there is great reward.”

The law of God in a regenerate believer: life itself. Life itself. More essential than food or drink, as Moses said, Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of Yahweh.” If the rich young ruler had been regenerate, his question about assurance, of eternal life, it would have been answered in his love for God’s law, because that’s life: to love God’s law. By loving God, giving thanks for his goodness in what has already been revealed, by obeying what God has commanded for our good in his word: That is what gives us assurance about the life of God at work in us. Our affections are changed, our attitudes are different, our volition is set toward godly and righteous things like loving and doing his word. So if we’re experiencing the life of God now, we know that we will participate in the life of God then as well. You get that?

So since the ruler failed the first test, as Jesus checked for signs of spiritual regeneration, Jesus moved on to a second test to see if there are any signs of spiritual conviction. It’s another use of the Law: to convict the sinner. Jesus sought to know if the Law was affecting this young man’s heart and doing its penetrating, convicting work. In trying to keep the Law without a new nature, had he been frustrated in his efforts? He said he kept it ever since his youth. Does he admit to, “Hey, I I’m really frustrated. I cannot fulfill this Law”? Had he been thwarted in obeying the law of God by his sin nature? Did he find within himself no ability whatsoever to do what the Law required?

When he considered the commandment, “Do not commit adultery,” did he find within himself adulterous impulses, lusts in his heart that couldn’t be tamed, subdued, mortified? When he looked at the commandment, “Do not murder,” did he look down to find the root of murder, which is anger, and the welling up of angry thoughts within him toward others? Did he find resentments? Did he find bitterness? Did he find a seething and a simmering and a vengeful spirit? Did he find a lack of patience and gentleness with people? Did he find a sharp, critical spirit, signs of anger, signs of murder?

When he considered the commandment, “Do not steal,” did he see the depth and the breadth of it? Did he see the connection to the Tenth Commandment against coveting? Did he notice within himself an impulse of envy and jealousy, which are the impulses of theft, stealing? Did he ever desire to steal glory for himself, to get credit for himself, to steal praise from others, to overstate his own good works? Did he complain when he was overlooked?

When he thought about that one positive commandment Jesus cites here, “Honor your father and mother,” did he think about how he’s honored others, starting with his parents? Did the honor that he practiced toward his parents, did it translate into honor for his elders, for his teachers, for others? Did honor for others govern and restrain his youthful ambitions?

In Matthew’s gospel, we find out Jesus added another, a summary commandment that encapsulates the entire Second Table of the Decalogue: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Listen, which one of us can say we’ve kept that for five seconds? In an external way, this ruler gave himself a gold seal of approval for law-keeping. It’s what we all tend to do, Proverbs 21:12: “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes.” Oh, but next part: “But the Lord weighs the heart.” That’s exactly what our Lord has just done, here, before our very eyes. He’s weighed this man’s heart, and he’s found it wanting.

So is that it? Did Jesus finish his investigation just to expose this man’s unregeneracy, just to unveil his unaffected, unremorseful, uncontrite heart and then leave him there in that pitiful condition without an answer? Well, no he didn’t. Our Savior, as we know, is kind, merciful, gracious. He points to the way of salvation. As I said, we still have two more points to go, but we have to leave the rest for next week. But let me answer the question because I don’t want to leave you hanging on this. I mean, some of you may be here today and not Christians. I don’t want you to walk out to that parking lot and find yourself in jeopardy. Jesus is not willing to leave this man, or any of you, lost in his sins.

So what does he do next? Verse 22 says, and I’ll just add this footnote that Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus, looking at this man at this point, “loved him.” How did he love him? He loved him by telling him the truth. And he said, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have, distribute that to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come follow me.” Jesus points him, right there, to eternal life and to the assurance of eternal life. We’re going to see how he responded to Jesus’ offer next time. We’ll unpack Jesus’ offer.

But as we close, I want you to go back to what I said at the beginning when I asked you to imagine someone like this asking you, “How can I know that I’ll have eternal life?” And I asked you to consider how you’d answer that question. I assumed you would respond with some pattern of evangelistic teaching that helps you faithfully share the gospel with someone. I outlined that pattern with our familiar GMCRC pattern: God, man, Christ, response, and don’t forget the consequence. The gospel starts and ends with the holiness of God and accountability before God. That bookends the gospel.

So do we find that pattern in what Jesus said to this rich young ruler? Does Jesus help the young man understand God in his goodness and holiness? Absolutely he does, in verses 19 to 20. Did he address G, M? Did he address man, man in his sinfulness? He did, didn’t he, in verse 20, through the exposure to the Law of God. And I’ll just preview coming attractions: the C, R, and the C, Christ, response, consequence, they’re coming, too. So listen, beloved, don’t be reluctant to memorize a faithful pattern of gospel expression, and to make use of that pattern for the purpose of evangelistic teaching. Those patterns, if they’re faithful, they are useful, beneficial, instructive. They give you confidence in that conversation. So do that.

One more brief word. Any of you out there, whether you’re a believer or not a believer, maybe you don’t know, any of you out there get this young man? Do any of you understand this guy? Can you understand and sympathize with him, whether completely or partially, and get what this man was talking about, what he was struggling with? My friend, if that’s you, I want you to know that you can find life in his name today. By God’s grace, listen, you can repent. You can believe the gospel. Coming to Christ, it is, everybody can attest to it, it is like squeezing through an extremely narrow gate. That means you can’t bring any of your sin with you. You can’t bring any of your good works with you. You can’t bring anything but your soul through the narrow gate. And at times it hurts. Following Christ, Matthew Chapter 7, it is like walking on a hard and a narrow way for sure.

But by God’s grace, if you will deny yourself, if you will give up absolutely everything, if you’ll take up your cross daily, if you’ll follow Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, you will find eternal life in his name. And I don’t mean just in the “sweet by and by”; I mean right now. Right now, you know life and you know goodness. As I said, through the word of God and through obedience to his word, you find the richness and the fullness of life in him.

So if your heart is unsettled, if your soul is disquieted, if you find yourself ill at ease, lacking peace, your mind troubled, don’t let another day go by. Come talk to us. Come talk to me. Come talk to Josh, Bret, any of the elders. We’re going to have people at the prayer room over here to my left, your right. They’d be happy to talk about any of this with you, pray with you. But find the answer to this most essential question about the current state of your soul and the future of your soul as well because you can have eternal life today. You can have full assurance of eternal life for the rest of your life until you enter into your eternal inheritance in God’s kingdom. Pray with me, please.

Our Father, we want to give you thanks once again for giving us such a great Savior and a wise teacher, the Lord Jesus Christ. And his words so often, as they so often do, they penetrate deeply, and they flay us open and expose the inner recesses of our hearts. They help us to see things in ourselves that we did not see, we did not know, we could not discern. But by your Spirit and by your word, you have revealed your truth to us. And we want to thank you ahead of time even for things that we haven’t fully processed and fully understand.

I pray if it be your will that you would grant saving grace to some here who do not yet know you. And I pray for sanctifying grace for those who are believers, who have maybe let slide their intentionality of loving and reading and memorizing and practicing your word. We pray that you would give all of your saints full assurance of faith, that you would solidify and anchor their hope in heaven, that their hearts would be drawn ever and always and only to Jesus Christ. Let us see him more fully, more perfectly, more clearly in the perfect word of God; and may your Spirit be kind to reveal him to us. And as we put into practice the things that we read in the word, we pray for the life of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit to grow within us to great effect, that you may be glorified in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.