When the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.

Matthew 19:22

All persons who are alienated from God and outside of Christ are part and parcel of a mighty deception!

They are called upon to pretend that they can have peace of mind within and that they can be relatively happy and make a big success of their human lives if they have youth and wealth and morality and high position.

In that sense of what is going on all around us, David never had to apologize for writing that “every man is a liar!” (see Psalm 116:11). The whole human concept of success and happiness and inner peace, based upon who we are and what we have, is completely false.

The rich young ruler who came to question Jesus had wealth, morality, position and youth. But his very first question gave the clue to his own inner emptiness of life: “What good thing should I do, that I may have eternal life?” (see Luke 18:18).

He knew very well that there is not a person alive who has eternal youth or eternal position or eternal righteousness. So, like every other man, he had to make a choice!

Lord, make me sensitive to those within my sphere of influence whose goals for success and happiness are based on a faulty foundation. I pray for these people, Lord, that their eyes may be opened to the truth and that they will fully repent.[1]

22. But when the young man heard this word he went away sorrowful, for he had much property. He was “sorrowful” (cf. 14:9; 17:23; 18:31; 26:22, 37). “His countenance fell” (Mark 10:22; cf. Gen. 4:6). Placed before the choice of either surrendering to Jesus or clinging to his material wealth he chooses the latter.

The demand which Jesus had made on this bewildered man was suited to his particular circumstances and state of mind. The Lord does not ask every rich person—for example Abraham (Gen. 13:2), or Joseph of Arimathea (Matt. 27:57)—to do exactly this same thing. There are those opulent individuals who, speaking by and large, are living for themselves. What they contribute to the cause of others is wholly out of proportion to what they keep for themselves. There are other wealthy persons, however, who are willing to go all out in helping others, including even the ungenerous (Gen. 13:7–11; 14:14); and who, motivated by gratitude, are constantly building altars and bringing offerings to God (Gen. 12:8; 13:18; 15:10–12; 22:13).

According to Scripture two men were asked to make a sacrifice. The one was Abraham (Gen. 22:1, 2); the other, the rich young ruler. The sacrifice Abraham was asked to make was by far the most enormous. By means of his willingness to make the sacrifice Abraham proved the genuine character of his faith. He “believed in Jehovah, and he reckoned it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6; cf. James 2:21–23). The rich young ruler, though asked to make a much smaller but still considerable sacrifice, refused, thereby proving that he did not have the faith whereby salvation is accepted as God’s free gift. Abraham placed his trust in God; the young man, in his riches. That was the difference. See 1 Tim. 6:17.[2]

The Response to Jesus

The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieved; for he was one who owned much property. (19:20–22)

The man’s response-“All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?”-was probably sincere but it was far from true. Like most of the scribes and Pharisees, he was convinced in his own mind that he had kept all of God’s law. He told Jesus, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up” (Mark 10:20). Because the commandments concerning attitudes toward God were just as familiar to the mart as the one’s Jesus quoted, he obviously thought he had fulfilled those as well. His view of the law was completely superficial, external, and man-oriented. Because he had not committed physical adultery or murder, because he was not a liar or a thief, and because he did not blaspheme the Lord’s name or worship idols, he looked on himself as being virtually perfect in God’s eyes.

By asking, “What am I still lacking?” he implied that there either must have been a commandment of which he had never heard or that something in addition to keeping the law was required to obtain eternal life. It simply did not occur to him that he fell short in obedience to any part of God’s known law. Because his outward, humanly observed life was upright and religious, he never suspected that his inner, divinely observed life was “full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27). He would not admit to himself that lust is a form of adultery that hate is a form of murder, or that swearing by anything in heaven or on earth is a form of taking the Lord’s name in vain (Matt. 5:22, 28, 34–35). And it certainly never occurred to him that “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, … has become guilty of all” (James 2:10).

Like most of his Jewish contemporaries, he totally failed to see that the Mosaic commands were not given as means for humanly achieving God’s standard of righteousness but were given as pictures of His righteousness. The law was also given to show men how impossible it is for them to live up to His standards of righteousness in their own power. Obedience to the law is always imperfect because the human heart is imperfect.

One of sin’s greatest curses is the spiritual and moral blindness it produces. It would not seem to require special revelation from God for men to realize that even the commandments concerning their relationship to other men are impossible to keep perfectly. What truly honest person would claim he has never told a single falsehood of any sort, never coveted anything that belongs to someone else, and always treated his parents with respect and honor-much less that he had always loved his neighbors as much as he loved himself? But one of Satan’s chief strategies is to blind sinners to their sin; and because pride is at the heart of all sin, there is a natural inclination toward self-deceit. And nothing is more effective in producing self-deceit than works righteousness, which is the basis of every man-made religion, including the God-given but humanly corrupted religion of first-century Judaism.

The young ruler was aware of what he did not have and needed to receive, namely eternal life. But he was not willing to admit what he did have and needed to be rid of, namely sin. He had too much spiritual pride to acknowledge that he was sinful by nature and that his whole life fell short of God’s holiness and was an offense to Him. His desire for eternal life was centered entirely in his own felt needs and longings.

He had no hatred for sins that needed forgiving and no admission of a heart that needed cleansing. He was therefore not looking for what God needed to do for him but for what he still needed to do for God. Like most Jews of his day, and like most people in all times and cultures, he believed his destiny was in his own hands and that if his lot were to improve it would have to be by his own efforts. All he wanted from Jesus was another commandment, another formula, another rite or ceremony by which he could complete his religious obligations and make himself acceptable to God.

But salvation is for people who despair of their own efforts, who realize that, in themselves and by themselves, they are hopelessly sinful and incapable of improving. Salvation is for those who see themselves as living violations of His holiness and who confess and turn from their sin and throw themselves on God’s mercy. It is for those who recognize they have absolutely nothing good to give God, that anything good they receive or accomplish can be only by His sovereign, gracious provision in Jesus Christ.

Paul spends three full chapters of Romans declaring the sinfulness of man before he ever discusses the way of salvation. John 1:17 declares, “The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” Law always precedes grace; it is the tutor that leads to Christ (Gal. 3:24).

Jesus took the focus off the young man’s felt religious and psychological needs and placed it on God. He tried to show the man that the real problem in his life was not his feeling of emptiness and incompleteness, legitimate and important as those feelings were. His great problem, from which those felt needs arose, was his separation from God and his total inability to reconcile himself with God. Scripture says, “God is angry with the wicked every day” (Ps. 7:11 KJV). In himself this man not only fell far short of God’s righteous standards but was, in fact, an enemy of God and under His wrath (Rom. 5:10; Eph. 2:3). And God will not save those who try to come to Him harboring sin.

Evangelism or personal witnessing that does not confront people with their utter sinfulness and helplessness is not faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ, no matter how much His name and His Word may be invoked. A profession of Christ that does not include confession and repentance of sin does not bring salvation, no matter how much pleasant emotion may result. To tell an unbeliever that God has a wonderful plan for his life can be seriously misleading. If the unbeliever turns to Christ and is saved, God does indeed have a wonderful plan for him. But if he does not turn to Christ, God’s only plan for him is damnation. In the same way it is misleading and dangerous to tell an unbeliever only that God loves him, without telling him that, in spite of that love, he is under God’s wrath and sentenced to hell.

God’s grace cannot be faithfully preached to unbelievers until His law is preached and man’s corrupt nature is exposed. It is impossible for a person to fully realize his need for God’s grace until he sees how terribly he has failed the standards of God’s law It is impossible for him to realize his need for mercy until he realizes the magnitude of his guilt. As Samuel Bolton wisely commented, “When you see that men have been wounded by the law, then it is time to pour in the gospel oil.”

Instead of being wounded by the law, however, the rich young ruler was self-satisfied in regard to the law. He diligently sought eternal life, but he sought it on his own terms and in his own power. He would not confess his sin and admit his spiritual poverty. Confession of sin and repentance from sin are utterly essential to salvation. John the Baptist began his ministry preaching repentance (Matt. 3:2), Jesus began His ministry preaching repentance (4:17), and both Peter and Paul began their ministries preaching repentance (Acts 2:38; 26:20). Peter even used repentance as a synonym for salvation when he wrote that “the Lord … is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).

True conviction, confession, and repentance of sin are as much a work of the Holy Spirit as any other part of salvation (John 6:44; 16:8–9). They are divine works of grace, not pre-salvation works of human effort. But just as receiving Christ as Lord and Savior demands the action of the believer’s will, so do confession and repentance. It is not that an unbeliever must understand everything about confession, repentance, or any other aspect of salvation. A person can genuinely receive Christ as Lord and Savior with very little knowledge about Him and the gospel. But genuine belief is characterized by willingness to do whatever the Lord requires, just as unbelief is characterized by unwillingness to do whatever He requires.

In another attempt to make the self-satisfied young ruler face his true spiritual condition, Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” In this context, complete is used as a synonym for salvation, as it frequently is in the book of Hebrews, where the same basic Greek word is translated “perfect” (see 7:19; 10:1, 14; 12:23). Jesus was saying, “If you truly desire eternal life, prove your sincerity by selling your possessions and giving what you have to the poor.” If he truly lived up to the Mosaic command to love his neighbor as himself, he would be willing to do what Jesus now commanded. His willingness to obey that command would not merit salvation but it would be evidence that he desired salvation above everything else, as a priceless treasure or a pearl of great value for which no sacrifice could be too great (see Matt. 13:44–46).

The ultimate test was whether or not the man was willing to obey the Lord. The real issue Jesus presented was, “Will you do what I ask, no matter what? Who will be Lord in your life, you or Me?” That hit a sensitive nerve. Jesus demands to be Lord, sovereign over all. There was no better way to find out if the man was ready to accept Christ’s sovereignty than to ask him to give up his riches. The Lord challenged his wealth to force him to admit what was most valuable to him-Jesus Christ and eternal life or his money and possessions. The latter was clearly the man’s priority, and therefore for him salvation was forfeited.

The first part of Jesus’ command was quite capable of being obeyed in the man’s own power. But he refused to comply with it, not because he could not but because he would not. He not only failed to keep God’s impossible commands but failed to keep this one that was easily possible, proving conclusively that he really did not want to do God’s perfect will and be spiritually complete.

Mark tells us that as He gave the man that command, “Jesus felt a love for him” (10:21). The Lord must have felt for him as He did for Jerusalem as He looked out over that great city and cried, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it” (Luke 13:34). Jesus was approaching the time when He would shed His own blood for the sins of the rich young ruler, and for the sins of Jerusalem and of the whole world. But as much as He loved the man and desired for him not to perish, He could not save him while he refused to admit he was lost. The Lord can do nothing with a life that is not surrendered to Him, except to condemn it.

It is possible the man did not even hear Jesus say, “Come, follow Me.” He was so dismayed by the command to sell his possessions and give to the poor that Jesus’ call to discipleship did not register on his conscious mind. His call to discipleship always falls on deaf ears when there is unwillingness to give up everything for Him (see Matt. 8:19–22).

The young man did not want Jesus either as Savior or as Lord. He was not willing to give Him his sins to be forgiven or his life to be ruled. Therefore when he heard Jesus’ statement, he went away grieved; for he was one who owned much property. Contrary to his own self-assessment, he did not live up to any of God’s law, but he was especially guilty in the area of materialism. The property he thought he owned really owned him, and he would rather be its servant than Jesus’.

He went away grieved because, although he came to Jesus for eternal life, he left without it. He did not desire it above the possessions of his present life. He wanted to gain salvation, but not as much as he wanted to keep his property.

Zaccheus was also a wealthy man. But when Jesus called him, “he hurried and came down, and received Him gladly.” Spontaneously he volunteered to do essentially what Jesus commanded the rich young ruler to do. “Half of my possessions I will give to the poor,” Zaccheus said, “and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.”Jesus then told him, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:5–9). Zaccheus was not saved because of his new-found generosity. Rather his new-found generosity was evidence that he was truly saved. As implied in the next verse, Zaccheus was saved because he confessed he was lost (v. 10).

Although every sin must be forsaken for Christ’s sake, there is often a certain sin or group of sins that a person finds particularly difficult to give up. For that young man it was love of his wealth and the prestige associated with it. Willingness to give up his property would not have saved him, but it would have revealed a heart that under the convicting work of the Holy Spirit was ready for salvation.

When Jesus declared, “No one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions” (Luke 14:33), He was not referring only to material possessions. For some people the supreme obstacle to salvation might be a career, an unsaved boyfriend or girlfriend, or some cherished sin. Many people who are materially destitute are just as far from the kingdom as the rich young ruler. Yet they must be willing to give up whatever they do possess, even if all they have left is pride, if they would be saved.

Salvation involves a commitment to forsake sin and to follow Jesus Christ at all costs. He will take disciples on no other terms. A person who does not “confess with [his] mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in [his] heart that God raised Him from the dead,” cannot be saved, “for with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation” (Rom. 10:9–10).[3]

21–22 Many have taken these verses to indicate a two-tier ethic. Some disciples find eternal life, and others go further and become perfect by adopting a more compassionate stance (e.g., Harrington; NIDNTT, 2:63). But G. Barth (“Matthew’s Understanding of the Law,” 95ff.) convincingly disproves this exegesis. In particular the young man’s question in v. 20, “What do I still lack?” clearly refers to gaining eternal life (v. 17), and Jesus’ answer in v. 21 must be understood as answering the question. A two-tier Christianity is implicitly contradicted by 23:8–12, and the same word (“perfect”) is applied to all of Jesus’ disciples in 5:48. Matthew shows no strong tendency toward asceticism. Therefore, the basic thrust of v. 21 is not “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” but “Come, follow me.”

What the word “perfection” suggests here is what it commonly means in the OT—undivided loyalty and full-hearted obedience. This young man could not face that. He was willing to discipline himself to observe all the outward stipulations and even perform supererogatory works, but because of his wealth, he had a divided heart. His money was competing with God, and what Jesus everywhere demands as a condition for eternal life is absolute, radical discipleship. This entails the surrender of self. “Keeping the individual commandments is no substitute for the readiness for self-surrender to the absolute claim of God imposed through the call of the gospel. Jesus’ summons in this context means that true obedience to the Law is rendered ultimately in discipleship” (Lane, Mark, 367). Warren Carter (Households and Discipleship: A Study in Matthew 19–20 [JSNTSup 103; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994]) has an excellent discussion on how wealth was viewed in the ancient world (pp. 127–43) but badly misses the point when he assumes that this young man’s wealth was gained by oppression (p. 388). There is not a hint of that in the text.

Formally, of course, Jesus’ demand in v. 21 goes beyond anything in OT law (cf. Banks, Jesus and the Law, 163). Equally remarkable is the fact that the focus on God’s will (vv. 17–19) should culminate in following Jesus. The explanation of this is that Jesus is prophesied by the OT. The will of God as revealed in Scripture looks forward to the coming of Messiah (see comments at 2:15; 5:17–20; 11:11–13). Absolute allegiance to him, with the humility of a child, is essential to salvation. The condition Jesus now imposes not only reveals the man’s attachment to money but shows that all his formal compliance with the law is worthless because none of it entails absolute self-surrender. What the man needs is the triumph of grace, for as the next verses show, entering the kingdom of heaven is impossible for him (v. 26). God, with whom all things are possible, must work. The parable in 20:1–16 directly speaks to this issue. But the young man is deaf to it. He leaves because if a choice must be made between money and Jesus, money wins (cf. 6:24).[4]

[1] Tozer, A. W. (2015). Mornings with tozer: daily devotional readings. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Vol. 9, pp. 726–727). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[3] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Mt 19:17–20). Chicago: Moody Press.

[4] Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 478–479). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.


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