18 And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” 21 And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. 24 Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For 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.” 26 Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” 28 And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” 29 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, 30 who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.” – Luke 18:18-30 ESV
It’s amazing to consider the sovereign nature of all of Jesus’ encounters. Nothing that ever happened to Him was ever a case of luck or blind chance. It was all providentially orchestrated by His Heavenly Father. Every lame person who ever came to Jesus for healing did so of their own free will, but under the sovereign direction of God. Even those individuals whose lives were under the oppressive control of a demonic spirit somehow scored a face-to-face encounter with the Son of God. Even the demon within them could not stop the inevitable and irresistible will of God.
God’s timing was always impeccable, and the Son’s adherence to His Father’s will was always irreproachable. So, as Jesus walked in lock-step with His Father’s plan, it was inevitable that He would encounter those whom God had providentially preordained Him to meet. And that is exactly what happens when the rich, young ruler comes to Jesus with an important question. This was not just a case of good timing. It was an example of God’s carefully orchestrated oversight of every phase of His Son’s life and ministry. This particular man showed up at this particular time and with this particular question on his mind.
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” – Luke 18:18 ESV
Keep in mind that Jesus had just made a startling admission regarding entrance into the kingdom that left His disciples dazed and confused.
“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” – Luke 18:17 ESV
And prior to dropping that bombshell on His disciples, Jesus had made another unexpected disclosure regarding justification before God.
“…everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:14 ESV
So, this man’s appearance could not have come at a better time. And his question could not have been more appropriate and applicable to the circumstances.
Luke tells us that this man was a ruler, which infers that he was both powerful and influential. The other synoptic gospels add that he was also rich and young. In other words, he had a lot going for him. We are not told what kind of ruler this man was. He could have served in some kind of governmental capacity. Perhaps he was a leader in the local synagogue. Or he could have been a member of the Sanhedrin. But regardless the nature of his leadership capacity, he seeks out Jesus. And notice how Jesus responds to the him.
“Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” – Luke 18:19 ESV
Jesus seemingly ignores the man’s question and focuses on a single word contained within it. The man referred to Jesus as a “good” teacher, but uses this polite but overused description to make an important point. According to psalmist, only God alone is good.
God looks down from heaven
on the children of man
to see if there are any who understand,
who seek after God.
They have all fallen away;
together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one. – Psalm 53:2-3 ESV
So, why was the young ruler using this word to describe Jesus? The truth is, the man meant nothing by it. But whether the man or anyone else in the crowd understood it, Jesus was subtly inferring His own deity. Jesus really was a “good” teacher. In fact, He was the God-teacher, the God-man.
But Jesus doesn’t belabor the point. Instead, He points out five of the Ten Commandments.
“Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.” – Luke 18:20 ESV
Matthew adds that the man’s request was focused on what “good deed” he must do to inherit eternal life. From the conversation that followed, it seems clear that the man believed he had already done enough. He was young and rich, and from the perspective of most Jews, he was already blessed by God because of his wealth. He was also a religious man because when Jesus listed the five commandments and told the man to keep them, he proudly announced, “All these I have kept from my youth.”” (Luke 18:21 ESV).
This man was looking for confirmation, not a list of things to do. As a faithful Jew, he believed he was a child of Abraham and, therefore, a rightful heir to eternal life. As a descendant of Abraham, he was guaranteed a place in God’s eternal Kingdom. Now, he was asking Jesus to place His Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on his life.
The wording of the man’s question is very specific. He uses the word klēronomeō, which means “to obtain by inheritance.” This reveals that he believed eternal life was already rightfully his, but he wants to know how to he can get his hands on it now. He was not willing to wait. His attitude is similar to that of the young man in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. In that story, Jesus described another young man from a wealthy family who was destined to inherit his father’s vast riches. But unwilling to wait for his father to die, he demanded that he be given his inheritance right way.
“I want my share of your estate now before you die.” So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons. – Luke 15:12 NLT
Finding himself suddenly wealthy beyond belief, that young man ended up spending everything he had on a life of excess and immorality. He had gotten what he wanted but had misused and abused it.
And, in a similar way, the rich young man kneeling before Jesus was demanding that he be given what was rightfully his: His guaranteed inheritance of eternal life. This man had it all but he wanted more. He coveted the one thing that was missing from his portfolio: Assurance of eternal life.
Because of his wealth, social standing, and success at religious rule-keeping, this young man believed himself to be blessed by God. He viewed himself as a good man who deserved everything that was due to him. And if Jesus could guarantee him that he had done enough to earn eternal life, he could live the rest of his life in ease and comfort. But when Jesus emphasized that “No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19 ESV), He was letting this man know that there was only one “good man” participating in this conversation. And it wasn’t the rich, young ruler.
And while this man could brag about having kept the commandments, Jesus knew the truth about his heart. It’s interesting that Jesus only listed five of the commandments and they all had to do with the horizontal relationships between individuals.
These five commandments bring to mind Jesus’ sermon on the mount. In that message, Jesus stated, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19 ESV).
And Jesus had gone on to explain what it looked like to “relax” one of God’s laws. He put hatred on the same par as murder (Matthew 5:22). He compared lust to adultery.
“…everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Matthew 5:28 ESV
Lust, like adultery, is essentially taking what does not belong to you. It is a form of stealing. And Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29 ESV).
All throughout His sermon on the mount, Jesus painted a radically different picture of what it means to keep God’s law. It wasn’t just about rule-keeping. It was about a change of the heart. Those who hoped to inherit God’s kingdom would have to live sacrificially and selflessly. Their adherence to God’s laws would have to manifest itself in their relationships with others. That’s why Jesus said, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42 ESV).
Which brings us back to the rich young man. Jesus turned to him and said, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22 ESV). This proved to be the deal-breaker. This one “good deed” was more than the man could handle. He was unwilling to part with his wealth. All his law-keeping had cost him nothing. But now Jesus was demanding that he do one thing that would cost him everything.
The man was focused on what Jesus was asking him to give up. But the real tragedy of this story is what the young man eventually turned his back on. He was willing to walk away from eternal life so that he could keep living the “good life.” Mark sadly reports that the man “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Mark 10:22 ESV).
He was possessed by his possessions. He was held captive by the things of this world. His love of material goods and temporal pleasures proved too great. And years later, the apostle John would probably recall this sad scene when he wrote the following words.
Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT
This man had been young and full of life. He was wealthy and blessed by every imaginable earthly pleasure. He was a ruler who wielded tremendous power and responsibility. In other words, He was great. He was all that the disciples hoped to become. When they looked at the rich young ruler, they saw the image of what they aspired to be. And as the disciples stood in stunned silence watching the young man walk away, Jesus further exploded their misconception of greatness.
“How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” – Mark 10:23 ESV
This led some in the crowd to exclaim, “Then who can be saved?” (Luke 18:26 ESV). If the wealthy, who were obviously blessed by God, were going to find it difficult to enter the kingdom, what hope did they have? But Jesus assured them, “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27 ESV).
At this point, the ever-impulsive Peter stepped into the conversation and reminded Jesus how he and his companions had sacrificed all to follow Him. They weren’t rich like the young ruler, but they had given up everything to be His disciples. Peter was hoping that Jesus would confirm that they had eternal life locked in. According to the criteria Jesus had given the young ruler, Peter figured they had done enough.
But Jesus surprises them by stating: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life” (Luke 18:29-30 ESV). What Peter did not yet understand was that, with Jesus’ coming death on the cross, he and the other disciples would eventually inherit the Holy Spirit. Not only that, they would end up becoming part of the much larger family of God. But the greatest blessing they would receive would come at the end of the age: Eternal life. But all of it would be based on the work of Christ, not their own human effort. Eternal life was a gift, not a reward for work well done.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson