Treasure in Heaven and the Deceitfulness of Riches (2)
We are now ready to pick up on our Lord’s conversation with the rich young ruler in Mark 10:18-22. Continue reading . . .
We are now ready to pick up on our Lord’s conversation with the rich young ruler in Mark 10:18-22. Let’s look again at the text.
And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions (Mark 10:18-22).
Jesus directs his attention to the Law hoping that it will do its job of exposing him to his moral failures and his desperate need for grace and mercy. This man had little or no grasp of his having offended an infinitely good and holy God. He had a superficial view of the Law, perhaps not unlike the Pharisees of the day. Thus, the 10 Commandments are the answer to this man’s question, not because by keeping them he can gain eternal life, but because if he honestly looks at how poorly he has kept them, at how far his heart is from the true intent of the law, he will be confronted with his own spiritual bankruptcy and fall on his face to receive the kingdom as a gift, just like a little child.
Jesus uses the Law to awaken in him his utter helplessness, his powerlessness, his “good-less-ness”! Thus, he had approached Jesus believing that eternal life is to be gained on the basis of doing, so Jesus addresses him on that level hoping to expose his self-delusion.
“Oh, come on, Jesus. Are you kidding me? I’ve been doing all those things faithfully ever since I was a kid.”
“Oh,” our Lord replies. “OK, let’s see if that’s really true. Let’s see if your so-called ‘obedience’ to the Law is anything more than skin deep.”
Don’t fail to take note of a remarkable statement in v. 21. There it is said that Jesus “loved him.”
Jesus “loved” him. This is not condescending or mere feelings of pity. The heart of our Lord is moved with deep affection and he wants this man to see the truth! The fact that Jesus is said to have loved him indicates he was not a hypocrite, or even arrogant in his response. Naïve and uninformed and unreflective, yes, but not pompous and self-righteous.
Consider our view of “love” today: if you love someone be certain that you don’t offend anyone; don’t be insensitive by challenging their false beliefs; avoid painful topics; don’t say or do anything that might be upsetting. Above all else, be tolerant!
Jesus, on the other hand, precisely because he loves this young man and cares deeply about his eternal destiny, uses the Law as a surgical knife and cuts deeply into his soul to expose his most fundamental and debilitating problem: covetousness and greed!
So what’s up with this guy? On the surface, you want to say: “What a perfect recruit for the kingdom! Sign him up! Jesus, this is just the sort of guy you want on your side.”
Outwardly he appears to have it all together. He’s young, respectful, sincere, serious and not in the least flippant or casual about the important matters of life; he’s wealthy, influential, intelligent, moral, civil, and probably not at all unpleasant to be around. But in a brilliant use of the law and with a probing, painful command, our Lord uncovers the problem: he loved his stuff more than he loved Jesus.
Does Jesus ask this of all his disciples? Are we to universalize this command? Does he really expect everyone who follows him to sell everything they have and give it to the poor? No. We know that many of those who were among his closest disciples were wealthy and retained their property. Peter kept his house in Capernaum and his fishing boat and business. Lazarus, Mary, and Martha retained their property in Bethany. Jesus and his disciples were actually supported financially by others.
So why does he use this approach and make this demand of this one young man? Because Jesus, knowing the hearts of all men, knew that the young ruler’s problem wasn’t with adultery or murder or theft. He knew this man didn’t dishonor his parents. He knew that his most basic and hidden struggle was covetousness and greed.
This particular command, therefore, was a test specifically designed for this one young man to reveal and bring to the surface and lure out into the light the fact that his desire for eternal life was at best half-hearted; he wanted eternal life, but only if he could continue to serve money alongside of Jesus.
Jesus was looking for a concrete expression of a truly broken and repentant heart. His reluctance to obey revealed that his outward display of interest in Jesus was not borne of genuine sorrow for sin and a desire to enthrone him as Lord of all.
I love the way one author put it when he said that “Christ was using God’s word, ‘thou shalt not covet,’ as a knife to lance the festering sore of greed in the man’s soul. The sin was invisible to the human eye. It did not show its colors on the surface of the ruler’s behavior. But in all its filth and ugliness, covetousness ruled his soul. Like a dart, the law of God pierced the conscience of this youth for the first time.”
This young man suddenly realized that he couldn’t follow Jesus as Lord of his life, because he already had a lord in his life: his wealth! So, “disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (v. 22).
Did you know that this is the only instance in the entire NT where someone leaves the presence of Jesus “sad”? Many often left “mad,” but only this man left “sad”.
It’s instructive to contrast our Lord in his encounter with the young ruler with the tactics of many so-called evangelists today. Jesus was honest and direct with him in a way that few are in today’s world. The last thing most evangelists or pastors want is to say or do something that might result in a negative response and drive a person away. Jesus, on the other hand, never recruits or calls anyone to his kingdom on false pretenses. He never enlists followers with false promises of what the Christian life entails. “You want to follow me and keep money enthroned as lord of your life? Hey, no problem. Come on, we’ll make it work somehow.” Not for a moment!
Instead of “Stand up and come forward,” Jesus says, “Sit down, and count the cost!”
This young ruler desired the benefits of the blood of Christ, but wanted nothing to do with the cross on which it was shed (see Mark 8:34-37).
Being the excellent teacher that he is, Jesus immediately turns to his disciples to drive home the point.
And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is 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” (Mark 10:23-25).
This was quite a shock to these disciples of the first century. “Most Jews expected the rich to inherit eternal life, not because their wealth could buy their way in, but because their wealth testified to the blessing of the Lord on their lives” (D. A. Carson, 425).
Consider how “deceitful” riches can be. (1) They lull the human heart into thinking that since all things are going well physically and financially, all things must be well spiritually. (2) They deceive us into thinking that eternal life is just like everything else we’ve ever wanted: available for the right price, and since we have always been able to buy everything else we needed, why should heaven be any different? (3) We mistakenly think that if God was good enough to enable us to amass earthly wealth, it is because he loves us in a way he doesn’t love others who are less well off. Surely, then, our souls are safe.
Some of you are thinking, “Well, this has no relevance for me. I’m anything but wealthy!” Don’t kid yourself. By the standards of virtually all people in Jesus’ day and when compared with the vast majority of the billions of people on earth today, everyone reading this article is wealthy! It may not feel like it, but that is only because you are comparing yourself with others who make a six-figure salary. Trust me. We are all wealthy, with a few obvious exceptions.
So just how hard is it for the wealthy to be saved?
“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” (Mark 10:25).
The camel was the largest animal in Palestine and the eye of a sewing needle the smallest hole. Thus we have here a proverbial saying for the absolutely, humanly impossible.
You are undoubtedly familiar with the popular interpretation that the “eye of the needle” is a reference to a smaller door that sits within the larger gate that brings entrance into a city. The idea is that you and your camel can enter in without it being required that the larger gate be opened. It’s difficult, but you can do it. Just have the camel get on its knees, hunch down, remove all luggage it may have been carrying, and push really hard.
The problem is that this interpretation was invented in the 11th century, a thousand years after Mark wrote his gospel. Worse still is the fact that there isn’t the slightest evidence whatsoever that this smaller gate was ever called “the eye of the needle.” Even worse is the fact that this explanation destroys the point Jesus is making. Jesus isn’t saying it is difficult and unpleasant and demanding for a rich person to enter the kingdom. He is saying it is humanly impossible!
The disciples are now more bewildered than ever! “My goodness. If that is true of the wealthy, what chance does anyone have to be saved?” None! . . . if it were left solely to the human heart. If it is solely a matter of your mind and your will and your desires, salvation is impossible. From a human point of view, taking into account only the good intentions of the human mind and the efforts of the human will, salvation is utterly impossible. It requires a miracle of divine power and grace! God must intervene sovereignly and graciously to do what the human heart refuses to do and therefore cannot do.
What Jesus is saying here is precisely what he meant in John 6:44 – “No one can come to me [there is the impossibility] unless the Father who sent me draws him [there is the ‘all things are possible with God].”
You have to stop trying to “do” anything to gain entrance and simply receive it as a gift, the way a little child would. But that requires the supernatural agency of the Spirit. If and only if the Spirit regenerates our high-minded, self-righteous, prideful souls and opens us to see as a child would the mercy of God in offering us the kingdom for nothing that we do, then what is impossible for human beings is overcome by what is always possible with God.
How will you respond to this human impossibility? Will you quit and go home and give up all hope that your husband can be saved or that your child can return from a rebellious and drug-laced life or that your co-worker who mocks you and makes your life miserable can ever see the light of eternal life?
Or will you say, “Since all things are possible with God, including the conversion and repentance and softening of the most hardened and arrogant of sinners, since this is indeed possible with God, I will speak the gospel ever more passionately and pray ever for fervently that he will regenerate their hearts and give them eyes to see and a will that is quick to repent and believe.”
Pause right now and think of the most stubborn and obnoxious and life-long unbeliever you know. As you do you are likely to say: “There’s no way. It’s beyond hope. They are too far gone, even for God.” Oh really?
Stop and reflect on the most humanly impossible thing you face: illness, financial roadblocks, rebellious and ungrateful child, and rejoice in the knowledge that with God all things are possible. I didn’t say they are probable, because I can’t control or predict the will of God. What I can say is what James said in James 4:2 – “You do not have, because you do not ask.
This isn’t just another version of the name-it-and-claim-it doctrine of the horridly unbiblical prosperity gospel. This is the biblical renounce-everthing-but-trust-in-God-and-his-goodness-and-greatness doctrine.
Note Peter’s response: “See, we have left everything and followed you” (v. 28). Some have taken this as an expression of resentment or perhaps even self-pity: “Hey, Lord, have you forgotten us? You loved that guy and he walked away, unwilling to sacrifice anything for your sake. But we’re still here. We gave it all up to follow you. Don’t we deserve a little recognition or pat on the back?”
I think this is being a bit hard on Peter. There’s no indication that Jesus took it that way. Instead, he reminds Peter that no one who has truly forsaken everything will ever live to regret it.
This is not a commendation or approval of poverty for its own sake. Jesus is not saying that you should renounce family relationships for no reason. Nor is he suggesting that everyone who follows him will necessarily suffer ruptures in all such family ties. He’s talking about what you willingly embrace as the inevitable result of following Jesus. Follow me, says Jesus, and it will likely cost you the security of your possessions and the favor of your family and those you thought were your friends.
But don’t think you have suffered any ultimate or meaningful loss. The fact is, if you are deprived of your earthly family in the service of Christ, it will be made up a hundredfold in your spiritual family, the church. But even if you labor for years without being surrounded by hundreds of sisters and brothers and mothers and children in the faith, you still have Christ! John Piper summed it up this way:
“If you give up a mother's nearby affection and concern, you get back one hundred times the affection and concern from the ever-present Christ. If you give up the warm comradeship of a brother, you get back one hundred times the warmth and camaraderie from Christ. If you give up the sense of at-homeness you had in your house, you get back one hundred times the comfort and security of knowing that your Lord owns every house and land and stream and tree on earth. Isn't what Jesus is saying to prospective missionaries just this: I promise to work for you and be for you so much that you will not be able to speak of having sacrificed anything. That's the way Hudson Taylor took it, because at the end of his 50 years of missionary labor in China he said, ‘I never made a sacrifice.’”