In Mark 10:17 we meet a rich young ruler. Given our envy, as soon as we read that he is rich, (and young, and a man!), it may be tempting to draw an unflattering conclusion about what he is like.
But this guy has all the outward appearance of a fine Christian man. With his mind on eternity, he comes running to Jesus. He kneels with humility and bows his soul before the Son of God in the middle of a street.
Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? (Mark 10:17)
The question of the young ruler and his reply to Jesus tells us two things:
First, his concern for obedience to the law and secondly, his ignorance (at this point) about who Jesus is.
Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. (Mark 10:18)
The implication in the Lord’s question seems to be: “Do you recognise who I am? And this, as we’ll see, is the heart of the matter. The gift of eternal life does not lay with what I do, but my answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” (Mark 8:29).
Nevertheless, Jesus meets the man where he is at and replies,
You know the commandments: Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honour your father and mother. (Mark 10:19)
On his knees and with apparent respect and sincerity, the young man claims that he has sought to honour God through obedience to all these commandments since he was very young.
The Lord does not rebuke his desire to obey the commandments, nor does He rebuke the young mans claims that he has observed them faithfully. On the contrary, the young mans confession produces a loving and tender response from the Lord.
And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “One thing still you lack.” (Mark 10:21)
Imagine being that close to the kingdom of heaven where you only lacked one thing! I’d say things were looking pretty hopeful if, in this life, I only lacked one thing.
So, what was that one thing? Jesus doesn’t tell us. Not directly, anyway.
…go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. (Mark 10:21)
Now, I ask you, what would the young man achieve by distributing all of his wealth? Secondly, if this were truly a condition of eternal life, then how goes it with you today? Have you sold everything you own?
Is Christ suggesting that that the young mans poverty leads to eternal life? Does he lack poverty, is that it? I don’t think so.
Is Jesus saying, “Just one more good deed – generosity – and your home!”? Is generosity what he lacks?
Some might say yes. Yes, he needs to obey the commandment to love his neighbour as himself. Would that have secured his eternal life? I don’t think so.
Anyway, what happens next is a pretty sad conclusion to what seemed like a very hopeful encounter.
Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Mark 10:22)
Jesus is not playing with the young man’s heart here. Instead, He’s revealing it. One of the things this exchange reveals is that what condemns a man is something that lies wholly within himself. But what saves a man is something that he lacks, something that lies wholly outside of himself.
Having applied himself to obedience all this time why would he now turn away? The solution seems so simple. He only lacks one thing. What was the one thing that was required?
I believe that the conversation that follows will tell us.
The disciples had been party to this conversation and in Mark 10:23-26 we read that they are dumb-struck by Jesus’ words. They are shocked – and then they are shocked again!
How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! And the disciples were amazed… (Mark 10:23)
…It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:24)
And His disciples were astonished!
Why should the disciples be so gob-smacked by this? If Jesus is truly only referring to the difficulty that rich people will have entering heaven, why the astonishment? Why the absolute shock? The disciples could have simply made a mental note: “Got it, rich people are gonna have problems getting in…”.
I have two reasons for believing that Jesus’ remark refers to far more than just the hang-ups of rich folk.
First, the disciples’ response: “who then can be saved?” (Mark 10:26), implies that the Lord’s statement encompassed a wider class of people. If the only people who were going to have problems were the rich, the disciples could have answered their own question.
Second, to suggest that rich people (as a class) were going to have greater difficulty implies that the difference lies within the individual or that God is going to find it harder to save rich people for some strange reason.
Jesus drives home His point,
With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God. (Mark 10:27)
With man it is impossible. Man cannot contribute anything towards his own salvation.
Let’s suppose that the young man did sell all and follow Jesus for the remainder of His ministry. Would that have saved him? Not likely (1 Corinthians 13:3).
So, what was the one thing lacking? Faith. Eyes to see and believe the one He was speaking to.
It takes faith to give up everything you have. It takes new eyes to see the inestimable value of following Jesus. It takes faith to give up providing for yourself and to trust in God’s provision. It takes faith in the words of Jesus that, “all things are possible with God”.
Levi the tax collector was rich and yet, when given the same invitation, he responds by dropping everything and following Christ (Luke 5:27). Where does the difference lie? In the men? In Levi? If the difference lies in Levi, why then, he should get the glory of it!
But the Lord makes it clear that it is simply impossible, without exception, for a man to do anything to merit eternal life. By asking the young man to do the impossible, and allowing him to go away grieved, Jesus demonstrates to the disciples this great truth: Though we lack both the will and the power, God provides both! (cf. John 6:44).
The one thing needful was the gift of faith, to believe on Jesus Christ as the Son of God for eternal life (John 6:28-29).
In Matthew 27:57-60 and John 19:38-40, we have the account of the burial of Jesus. At that burial are two men. Nicodemus, who we met earlier in John, and a new face, Joseph of Arimathea, a rich ruler of the Sanhedrin who had purchased an expensive burial ground for himself.
Many scholars have suggested that the rich young ruler here in Mark 10 was the same rich ruler, Joseph of Arimathea who has now handed his wealth over for the sake of Christ. It’s a beautiful thought to think that this rich young ruler, that once was lost, had now been found, and was following Jesus.
You can tell what a man believes by what he does. This man had not yet believed, or did not yet know, who Jesus was. And this is the heart of the matter for all of us.
Do you know and believe who Jesus is?
Then welcome to eternal life.
But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name. (John 1:12)
There is nothing for you to add and nothing for you to fear. You have only now to stand amazed at the Salvation of God for sinners and give thanks.