"The God of Impossible Salvations"
(Delivered Sunday, December 9, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
This morning, in the nineteenth chapter of Matthew's Gospel, we learn one of the most important lessons we could ever learn about the most important subject of all; and we learn it through the experience of one of the most 'successful' people in the Bible.
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As you're turning to Matthew 19, let me tell you a little about this remarkable man. As we compare the different Gospels in their accounts of his story, we can put some of the pieces together about him.
First of all, we know that he was "young". He is referred to as a "young man" twice in this morning's passage (Matthew 19:20, 22). And that fact alone makes the other things that we learn about him even more impressive.
We also know that this young man was an important and powerful person in society. He is described as a "ruler". In fact, he was called "a certain ruler" (Luke 18:18), which may indicate that he was a particularly important community leader. Some scholars believe that he may have been a ruler of a local synagogue; which would have made him an extremely respected and important community leader. For a young man to have achieved such a level of status in that culture as to be called “a ruler” was a considerable accomplishment!
We're also made to understand that he was very wealthy. Our passage tells us that he was so financially and materially successful that he was referred to as "rich"; and that he was said to have "great possessions". Put it all together; and you find that this was a young, powerful, and wealthy man. He was everything that even our own culture values as the very picture of "success". If they had magazines in those days, his face would have been found on a few covers.
And there's one more thing that you need to know about him. He apparently didn't achieve these great accomplishments, or reach this remarkable level of success, through any unscrupulous or immoral means. He appears to have been an outstandingly moral man. He was able to make a rather bold claim—a claim that we don't see in any way contradicted, even by the Lord Jesus. He was able to say that, from his youth, he kept the law of God with respect to right treatment of other people. He would have been able to say what the apostle Paul once said of himself—that "concerning the righteousness which is in the law", he was "blameless" (Philippians 3:6).
This young man was, in a strictly worldly sense, one of the most remarkable and outstanding men you could ever meet. He was a tremendous success-story; and he had all the appearances of becoming an even greater success in time to come. He was, in respect to this world's standards, among the very best of men.
And yet, as successful as he appeared to be, we find in our passage this morning coming to Jesus in desperation—pleading for an answer to an aching need that plagued his soul.
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Now; I think it's interesting to note that this passage follows immediately after the story of Jesus' encounter with some people who were—in this world's eyes—the opposite of this dynamic man.
Do you remember that, as Jesus journeyed on His way to Jerusalem, some mothers and fathers brought their little children to Him? In Matthew 19:13-15, we read;
The disciples didn't think that the little children were very important—certainly not important enough to bother their Lord and Master. And yet, He rebuked the disciples for stopping them from coming to Him. He said that these little ones—these children who came to Him in child-like faith; offering nothing to Him that they could do, but only coming to Him to receive—were the ones who were doing it right! "Of such," He said, "is the kingdom of heaven".
What a contrast they are to this young man! As great as he was, and as much as he may have accomplished, this 'rich young ruler' was still empty inside. He knew that he had not yet accomplished what Jesus said was true regarding these little children.
I believe that the best way to understand this man's story is to look at three basic questions that are put to Jesus in this passage. Together, these three questions show us that, not even the very best of us can be saved in any other way than by God's grace through faith.
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Let's look together at his story. The first question—the question that drove this young man disparately to seek Jesus out—was a question that ought to be on the lips of everyone . . .
1. "WHAT GOOD THING SHALL I DO THAT I MAY HAVE ETERNAL LIFE?" (vv. 16-19).
We're told, "Now behold, one came and said to Him, "Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?" (v. 16).
Now; I believe we should say, "Hats off!" to this young man for asking that question. Stop and think of how many people who are in his category of life—young, powerful, wealthy, successful—ever even consider eternal life; let alone ask about it! How few people of his caliber ever even stop long enough to think about their soul! And yet, he did. I believe he should be commended for that.
And to appreciate how disparately he wanted the answer, you should know some of the details we draw from Mark's Gospel. Mark 10:17 says that as Jesus and His disciples were "going out on the road", this man "came running, knelt before Him, and asked" this question. In other words, this man was a man of great dignity in the eyes of this world; but he was willing to be "undignified" in the presence of Jesus, and plead with Him for an answer to the great need of his soul.
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I believe that the man's manner toward Jesus said something about what He believed about Jesus Himself. He had a disparate question concerning his soul; and he believed that this man Jesus had the answer. He had "faith" in Jesus. But I also believe that his faith in Jesus was deficient.
You can see this in the initial exchange Jesus had with him. The man ran up to Jesus and said—as it says in the translation I'm using—"Good Teacher". The word "good" is not in many of the ancient manuscripts of Matthew's Gospel; and so, many other translations do not include it. But it is present in the original language the other Gospel accounts of Mark and Luke; so it's clear that he truly said it. He didn't call Jesus "Lord", or "Master", or "Thou Son of God". Instead, he referred to Him by a very honorable title—"Teacher" or "Good Teacher"; but it was a title that only recognized Jesus as a mere man. He says, "Good Teacher; what good thing shall I do to inherit eternal life?"
And it's then that Jesus forces him to come to terms with his belief about who it is that he was speaking to. In the translation I'm using, Jesus responds to the man by asking, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is God" (v. 17a). Once again, different ancient manuscripts have recorded Jesus' question differently. The New American Standard version, for example, translates these words in a textually reliable way: "Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good . . ." But the other Gospels have Jesus putting His question in the way we see it translated in the New King James Version; and in either case, the point seems to remain the same. The man was calling Jesus "Good Teacher" and was asking Him about what was "good" before God. And yet, only God Himself is "good". It's as if Jesus was asking the man, "What are you saying about Me? Are you calling Me 'God'?"
Don't pass that point by too quickly. That really touches on the heart of the matter. Remember that this One who claimed to be the Son of God in human flesh was—even then—on His way to Jerusalem to die on the cross for sinners. And when it comes to how we may achieve eternal life, it's very important that we recognize Him for who He truly is.
You might remember another outstandingly great leader who spoke to Jesus on this matter. His name was Nicodemus; and he was a Pharisee—"a ruler of the Jews". He came to Jesus by night and said, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him." And Jesus, knowing the real question that was nagging his soul, answered and told him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:1-3). It was in that very same conversation that Jesus went on to say,
Jesus was, I believe pressing the rich young ruler to come to terms with who it was that He was speaking to. If he truly understood Jesus' identity, he would have the answer to His question of what He must do.
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Well; back to the man's question. Look at it carefully. The man didn't ask, "How can I be given eternal life?" If that had been his question, the Lord's answer would have been different. But the man asked a specific question; and the Lord gave him a specific answer to that question.
The question was "What good thing shall I do?" (emphasis added). The man had assumed that it was up to himself to “do” something; and so, he wanted to know what “good thing” it was that he himself had to do to earn eternal life. Perhaps he thought that salvation before God was “earned” in just the way that everything else he had accomplished was earned. And in answer to that specific question, Jesus told him; "But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments" (v. 17b).
Matthew tells us that the man went on to ask a follow-up question: “He said to Him, 'Which ones?” (v. 18a). And I don't believe we should understand the man to here be asking an evasive question. There was a lawyer who once asked the Lord the same question this man was asking: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” When Jesus told him that, among other things, he must love his neighbor as himself, the man “wanting to justify himself” asked, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-29). In that case, the question was evasive. But in this case, it was not. I believe the man was disparate; and that he sincerely wanted to know.
Matthew goes on to tell us; “Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (v. 18b). In other words, Jesus went on to quote the second table of the ten commandments—the commandments that had to do with man's relationship with his fellow man.
Jesus was telling the man what he had asked to know. He wanted to know what good thing he himself had to do in order to inherit eternal life; and Jesus pointed him to the law. If anyone wants to know what they themselves must do to inherit eternal life, then here's the answer—keep the law.
But be forewarned. The standard is high. In fact, it's beyond human achievement. Jesus has already said, “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
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Now; here is where I believe the man truly came to the end of himself. He said something that—I believe—he truly meant. And I believe he said it with a sense of great desperation of soul. We read, “The young man said to him, 'All these things I have kept from my youth'” (v. 20a). This leads us to the next important question in our passage . . .
2. "WHAT DO I STILL LACK?" (vv. 20-22).
The man looked at his life and saw his effort to keep the law, and yet knew—deep within himself—that he still did not have peace with God. He knew that he still had not succeeded in “doing” the good things that he must “do” in order to inherit eternal life. And so he asked, “What is still missing, O good Teacher? Where have I fallen short in doing all that needed to be done? Why do I still have that nagging emptiness inside that tells me that I have not yet achieved the right to claim eternal life to myself?”
I believe that Jesus Himself knew that He was not dealing with some hard-hearted rebel. He knew the man's desperation of heart. In fact, in Mark's Gospel, we're told that at this point, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him . . .” (Mark 10:21). And in love, Jesus showed the man what was still wrong. He put His finger on the real problem when He laid a challenge to the man.
I don't believe that Jesus was actually meaning to be understood to say that, if anyone wants to inherit eternal life, they must do what He was telling this man to do. Rather, Jesus was tailoring His challenge in such a way as to reveal the fact that the man could not—in any way—“do” the good things that he would need to do to inherit eternal life.
Think of what Jesus had told the man before. He had told him what he already knew. He told him that he needed to keep diligently the second table of the law—that is, the last six commandments that have to do with our relationship with our fellow man. Jesus even summed it up through the commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
But do you notice what Jesus had not said to the man up to this point? Do you notice that He didn't yet mention the first table of the law—that is, first four commandments? Elsewhere, He summarizes the first four commandments with the quote from Deuteronomy 6:5; “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:36-37).
And so, when Jesus tells this wealthy young ruler to sell what he has, give the money to the poor, and then follow Him, he is putting his finger on that which the man loved more than God. He loved his success and wealth so much that he was breaking the first commandment in which God says, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). The man had worked all his life to keep the law; and to his horror, he discovered that he'd been breaking it all along. He stood guilty before God as a sinner. That's why he went away grieved; “for he had great possessions”.
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Do you know that the word in the Bible that we translate “sin” means? That word comes from the world of archery; and it means “to miss the mark” or “to fall short of the target”. That that's our situation before God. He has a standard—a “target”—which is expressed in His law. But we are sinners because we have failed to meet the standard of holiness He has established. As Romans 3:23 says, “[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Before we go any further, it would be very good to pause and ask yourself what Jesus would put the finger on in your life to show that you have fallen short. For this man, it was his love for his wealth. He loved his money and the opulent life it made available to him more than he loved God. He had another “god” before the one true God in his life. But what would it be for you?
Are you trying to “earn” God's favor with your good works? Have you worked hard all your life to be “a good person”? Would Jesus then say to you, “If you want to be perfect, then go into obscurity and serve your fellow man in a menial way. Give up the attention and reputation that you love. And come and follow Me”? Or, might He say, “If you want to be perfect, then give up your pride. Take My cause up as your own, and be willing to be despised by this world. Then, come and follow Me”? Might He even say, “If you want to be perfect, then give up your independent spirit. Remove yourself from the driver's seat of your life, and allow Me to have control. Let me lead you where I want you to go—rather than where you want to go—and then come and follow Me”?
What is the “god” you place in your life before the one true God? What would Jesus show you to prove that you cannot earn your salvation on the basis of what “good thing” you might “do”? How might He reveal that you have not kept the first great commandment?
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As Jesus watched the man walk sadly away, He then said something surprising:
I believe that many Bible teachers and scholars have sought to make Jesus' words out to mean more than what a simple acceptance of them at face value would mean. They are meant to be taken as a hyperbole. He speaks of the largest animal that the disciples would have been familiar with—a camel; and makes them think of pushing that huge beast through the smallest hole they could think of—the eye of a sewing needle. It would be impossible! Even if you could get the camel part of the way through, there's still that hump! And in actuality, if you even tried, all you'd have is a very broken needle—and a very perturbed camel!
And yet, Jesus says that, as hard as it may be, it's easier to push that camel through the eye of a needle than it would be for a rich man—a man who would have to give up his love for his wealth—to enter the kingdom of God. Praise God, it's not “impossible” for a rich man to enter. But it is most definitely “hard”.
Now; this completely knocked the disciples out! The word that the original language uses is one that means that they were extremely struck out of their wits. Matthew writes, “When the disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished . . .” They looked at the man who was walking away, and felt that so many of their preconceived notions were destroyed. In their mind, a man such as the one who had just spoken to the Lord—young, powerful, materially wealthy, and so obviously moral with respect to the law—would most certainly have been blessed of God. He would have most certainly been “worthy” of eternal life. He was among the best that humanity had to offer. But as it turns out, even he could not do enough “good things” to be able to inherit eternal life.
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And in their astonishment, the disciples asked the final basic question we find in our passage:
3. "WHO THEN CAN BE SAVED?" (vv. 23-26).
I believe that the disciples were feeling in all of this that the effect of the law was not to make someone “savable”. Rather, it was to make them into sinners who needed to be saved by God's merciful grace. And if this was the case, then they were being 'steered' by the law toward the One who was standing before them—the Jesus who was about to die on the cross for their salvation. And if that's the case, then they were learning the lesson that this passage is meant to teach us.
The apostle Paul expressed this truth very clearly in the book of Galatians, when he wrote;
The moment we (or the disciples—or even the rich young ruler) read the law of God, see the righteous demands of God's holiness, come to terms with the fact that we have not kept His law and stand before Him as guilty sinners; and then, as a result of it all, throw up our arms in despair and say—as the disciples said—“Who then can be saved?”, then the law has done its job in us.
And then, we're ready for the answer that Jesus gives. Matthew writes,
As Paul has written in Romans 8:3, “For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin . . .” God has so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes on Him—that is, believes that He is the sinless Son of God that took our sins upon Himself and paid the full penalty for them on His cross; and from then on ceases from seeking to earn eternal life on the basis of their own works, but trusts in Him for our salvation—will not perish but will have eternal life!
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Let me close with another story about another man who asked a similar question. He wasn't a rich young ruler. He was a jailer. In the providence of God, he was given custody of Paul and Silas—two missionaries who were imprisoned for the ministry of the Gospel.
The Bible tells us that, at midnight, Paul and Silas were in the jail singing hymns of praise to God. Suddenly, God caused a great earthquake to occur—shaking the prison to its foundations, and causing all the prison doors to open. When the jailer saw this—thinking that the prisoners had all escaped—he drew his sword and was about to take his own life. But it was then that Paul and Silas cried out to him not to harm himself. They were all present and accounted for.
Then, the jailer ran to Paul and Silas, fell down before them, and said something very similar to what the rich young ruler said. He said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” But notice that his question what a little different. He didn't ask what “good thing” he must do that he may have eternal life. He had no hope of earning any such thing. He knew that he was utterly unworthy of life. All he could do was cry out and say, “What must I do to be saved?”
And the answer is wonderfully simple. Paul and Silas simply said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). Everyone in the man's household who similarly believed on Jesus would also be saved.
Salvation is impossible for men to accomplish. We can never do enough good things to earn eternal life. Not even the best of us can be saved by our own efforts. But all can be saved by faith! What is impossible with man is possible for the God of impossible salvations.
All that is required is that we believe on the Lord Jesus; and we shall be saved.
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