Introduction: In his commentary on the Gospel of Mark, Kent Hughes relates the following account:
Amy Carmichael … described in her famous book Things as They Are sitting with a Hindu queen in her palace as the queen revealed her spiritual hunger. As the conversation developed, she kept pushing Miss Carmichael regarding what was necessary for salvation, and Amy attempted to deflect her, saying she should wait. “But she was determined to hear it then [Amy wrote] and, as she insisted, I read her a little about what He [our Lord Jesus] says about it Himself. She knew quite enough to understand and take in the force of the forceful words. She would not consent to be led gently on.’No, I must know it now,’ she said; and as verse by verse we read to her, her face settled sorrowfully. ‘So far must I follow, so far?’ she said, ‘I cannot follow so far.’” (Mark, Vol. 2, p. 63)
Today we will learn about another person who discovered he could not follow our Lord Jesus so far as He demanded. He was only willing to follow to a certain degree, but no farther. In fact, he initially ran to catch up to Jesus only to remain behind after meeting Him. With this in mind, let’s get into the passage.
NKJ Mark 10:17 Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”
There are several things we must take special note of here.
First, Mark tells us that this rich young ruler “came running” up to Jesus. This demonstrates the eagerness of the young man not to miss the opportunity to meet with Jesus. It also indicates the gravity of the man’s situation, for he was apparently somewhat desperate to have an answer to his question.
Second, Mark tells us that the young man “knelt” before Jesus. This was an an open sign of respect for Jesus.
Third, the reason for the young man’s earnestness is quickly apparent when we see the question that he had for Jesus. When he asked Jesus, “what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”, he was no doubt thinking of the eternal life that is to be ours at the resurrection, about which the Prophet Daniel has spoken:
NKJ Daniel 12:2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, Some to everlasting life, Some to shame and everlasting contempt.
The young man was apparently worried about his ultimate salvation and thus sought assurance from Jesus about it. Unfortunately, he would never find such assurance until he quit asking the wrong question, namely, “What shall I do…?” As we shall see, Jesus confronts this attitude head on!
Now, the other two synoptic Gospels tell us more about this man who came running up to Jesus and who so humbly knelt before Him. Matthew tells us that he was a young man (Matt. 19:20), and Luke tells us that he was a “ruler” (Luke 18:18). And all three synoptic Gospels describe him as a rich man. This is the reason that he is so commonly referred to as the rich young ruler. This also means that he was almost certainly a leader in the local synagogue, and perhaps even a member of the Sanhedrin (BAGD3, 1167, 2a).
It is all the more astonishing, then, that this young man would would have adopted such an undignified stance by running up to Jesus and falling on his knees before Him! In my opinion, this shows that the young man was sincere in his quest for an answer and in his respect for Jesus. Yet, rather than immediately answer the young man’s question directly, our Lord Jesus instead responded with a question of His own.
NKJ Mark 10:18 So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.”
It is important to understand first of all that such a form of address as that used by the rich young ruler with respect to Jesus – calling Him “good teacher” (vs. 17) – is without parallel in the Judaism of Jesus’ day. They simply did not use such an address when speaking to men (William Lane, The Gospel of Mark, p. 365). This may help us to see more clearly why Jesus seized upon this title in His response to the young man. But how are we to understand Jesus’ response? We will consider first a wrong view and then a right one.
A wrong view concerning the meaning of Jesus’ answer would be to see it as a denial by Him of His own goodness. This cannot be right, for elsewhere Jesus affirms His own goodness and even claims to be God in the process. For example, in John 10 Jesus claims to be the “Good Shepherd,” applying to Himself the language of Ezekiel 34, which foretells a time when the LORD Himself (Yahweh) would shepherd His people:
NKJ Ezekiel 34:7-12 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 8 “as I live,” says the Lord GOD, “surely because My flock became a prey, and My flock became food for every beast of the field, because there was no shepherd, nor did My shepherds search for My flock, but the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed My flock”– 9 therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the LORD! 10 Thus says the Lord GOD: “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require My flock at their hand; I will cause them to cease feeding the sheep, and the shepherds shall feed themselves no more; for I will deliver My flock from their mouths, that they may no longer be food for them.” 11 For thus says the Lord GOD: “Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so will I seek out My sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day.”
As I have already indicated, our Lord Jesus takes up this language with reference to His own Messianic ministry:
NKJ John 10:11-14 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. 12 But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. 13 The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own.
So, in applying Ezekiel 34 to Himself, Jesus not only calls Himself “good,” but He also proclaims Himself to be God. We know, then, that Jesus was most definitely not denying His own goodness, and that He therefore must have had another reason for asking this question of the young man.
A right view concerning the meaning of Jesus’ answer would be to see Him as challenging the young man to think about what he was really saying, for he was either 1) implying a belief in Jesus’ divinity or 2) using the term “good” in a way that supposes that a man can indeed achieve “goodness.” So, Jesus was forcing him to stop and think about the implications of his words. Did he really mean to imply that Jesus is God? Or did he really think Jesus was merely a man, thus revealing his faulty understanding of moral perfection as achievable through human effort?
As we have already seen, that the young man does wrongly believe in the possibility of a man achieving true righteousness through his own efforts was implied in the question he has asked Jesus in verse 17: “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Just how deeply this notion was ingrained within him becomes apparent as Jesus applies the law more fully to the man’s life.
NKJ Mark 10:19 You know the commandments: “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not bear false witness,” “Do not defraud,” ‘Honor your father and your mother.”
Jesus cites from the Ten Commandments, with the exception of the command, ‘Do not defraud,’ which either stands in place of the command not to covet, or, better, is an application of the commandments not to steal or bear false witness, which immediately precede it in Jesus’ list. I would suggest to you that Jesus must be stressing this particular point for a reason, perhaps because it is an area in which a rich person may have had struggles.
But why does Jesus take this approach to the young man? Although the text doesn’t clearly indicate why at this point, I would suggest that it is because Jesus is using the law in accordance with one of its divinely appointed purposes. Consider, in this regard, the teaching of the apostle Paul concerning the law:
NKJ Romans 3:19-20 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. 20 Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
NKJ Galatians 3:22-24 But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 23 But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.
That Jesus was, in fact, applying the law with this purpose in mind becomes clear as we see His further interaction with this earnest young man.
NKJ Mark 10:20 And he answered and said to Him, “Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth.”
Here we have the real source of the young man’s apparent lack of assurance, for as long as he placed his confidence in his own ability to keep the law, he hadn’t yet been able to place his faith fully in God. And the law had not yet fully accomplished its purpose in his life. So, in order to drive this purpose home, Jesus exposed the young man’s true nature by giving him just what he asked for … something to do in addition to all he had claimed to have done already.
NKJ Mark 10:21 Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him,”One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.”
There are several important points to observe in this verse.
First, Mark tells us how Jesus directed His gaze directly at the young man and that He loved him. Mark wants us to know that the very challenging command that Jesus gave the young man was motivated by His love for him.
Second, we must understand that the command that Jesus gave this rich young ruler is not expected of all who follow Him, but was given specifically to this rich young ruler precisely because it was the clearest point at which he had not, in fact, kept the law as fully as he had claimed. For he had not, as we shall see, obeyed the first commandment:
NKJ Exodus 20:3 “You shall have no other gods before Me.”
Third, when Jesus commanded the young man to “Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me,” He not only required him to renounce his love for – and faith in – his worldly riches, but also to place his faith fully in Jesus as Lord, following Him and trusting Him with his life.
Jesus was simply proclaiming the truth to this rich young ruler, as Mark has already told us was characteristic of Jesus’ ministry. Recall Mark’s earlier description of our Lord’s ministry back in beginning of his Gospel account:
NKJ Mark 1:14-15 Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Even so, Jesus was calling the rich young ruler to recognize and repent of his sin and to demonstrate this by forsaking his former idol of riches. He was also calling the young man to trust in Him and to demonstrate this by a willingness to follow Him even unto death. Sadly, however, the young man loved his money more than God, as we see in the next verse.
NKJ Mark 10:22 But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
Notice that this young ruler’s riches had not brought him peace, for if they had, he wouldn’t have been so desperate in his search for assurance from Jesus. How sad that the torment his love for his riches had brought him was not ended for him that day. Instead, he weighed the cost and chose this world’s riches over the treasure of Heaven and the eternal life that he ostensibly come to Jesus to find. He came seeking assurance, but he left without it because it can only be had by those who trust in the Lord rather than in their own efforts or possessions or prestige in this world.
Conclusion: For those of us who already know Jesus Christ Lord and Savior, let us renew our commitment to follow Him even unto death. Let us call upon God for His grace to that end. And for those who have not yet trusted Him as Lord and Savior, I urge you to turn from your sins and trust in Christ alone to save you, for only then will you receive the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life that He freely offers, and only then will you find the peace and assurance of He can provide.