It’s not just difficult to qualify for salvation – it’s impossible! That is the truth we learn from the plight of the “rich young ruler” a man with enough money and influence to consider himself qualified in the eyes of Jesus, but sadly he learned the opposite.
The encounter with this rich young man is, I think, often misunderstood as a simple condemnation of wealth.
It might also be used by some to “prove” that we must obey the Old Testament laws as well as the commandments of Jesus to be acceptable to God. That is to miss the whole point of the story.
Who Was This Man?
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell this story (Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18-30).
All three say he was rich. But only Matthew tells us he was young (Matthew 19:20); and Luke alone says he was a ‘ruler’ (Luke 18:18). He was probably a Jewish ruler, or even a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court that dealt with religious issues in Jesus’ day. That makes his questioning all the more poignant, and misguided.
He was not only rich, he was extremely rich (Luke 18:23). He was law-abiding, a religious Jew, very wealthy and influential in society. So in coming to Jesus, perhaps (we do not know) he was insincere and trying to present himself as good candidate for the coming Kingdom. He was about to learn the truth.
“Now as He [Jesus] was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17, NKJV).
Before anything else, Jesus picks up on his use of the word “good”. Mark 10:18 ‘But Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.’
Why did Jesus find fault with that? Clearly, Jesus KNEW himself to BE God, so why did he challenge this word? He appears to be saying to the young man, “do you REALLY believe that I am God?”. Perhaps Jesus wanted to pinpoint the hypocrisy, or pretended worship, that he often perceived in the religious Jewish leaders.
Bear in mind that this story in the bible comes shortly after another that points out the futility of arrogance and self-righteousness in religious Jews, so we might perhaps link the two thoughts together.
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:
He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14
Salvation By Works
Now we move on to stage two, the reliance of the religious Jews on the Old Testament Laws for salvation. Jesus next says, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). Again, Jesus is testing this man’s motives, trying to make him see that presenting himself as a good righteous law-abiding Jew is “not gonna wash” as far as salvation is concerned.
The ruler then (proudly?) claims he’s kept ALL the laws! So, he thinks to himself, what’s new about this Messiah’s teaching? Is he not content with God’s Laws, or is he really – as many claim – coming here to challenge and break the Law of Moses? (One example was Jesus’ attitude to the Sabbath, or to paying the Temple Tax, as in Matt. 17:24–27)
After all, the religious rulers were keen to challenge Jesus:
Then they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Him in order to trap Him in a statement. They said to Him, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not? Shall we pay or shall we not pay?” But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, “Why are you testing Me? …”
Of course, the rich young ruler believes he is keeping ALL the laws. Indeed, he’s been a good law-abiding Jew all his life! What else does he needs to do? So Jesus continued, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (verse 21).
Jesus Proposes Good Works?
Some might think, based on this verse, that as well as being a God-fearing, righteous law-abiding person, self-sacrifice will put the cap on the claim to salvation and make people fit for heaven. NO, just the opposite.
In reply to the questions, Jesus hit upon the area in which this rich young man was least able to make a claim for a ticket to heaven. Jesus KNEW that this young man was still unable to see his total unworthiness; he had only his self-proclaimed holiness to offer. Why wasn’t that enough?
After all, wealth and success to a Jew was proof of godliness. This man had already impressed his fellows, his village, his Synagogue, his family and his very own self, so why wasn’t he able to impress the Messiah as well?
So Jesus hit hard, in the one area that demonstrated his reluctance:
“If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
Thus demonstrating what Jesus later said “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
Is Poverty a Requirement?
But what if people take this statement of Jesus to the rich ruler literally, to “sell everything you have, give to the poor, and come follow me, in poverty…” ? Thus they end up selling or giving away all their worldly goods, becoming a monk or nun, and living out their days in contemplation of the goodness of Jesus. They have given up everything, but have they earned heaven by their good works? Again I say NO.
Read what Jesus said to his disciples:
Luke 18:24 – 26
“How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?” But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”
Here we have the crucial point of this whole story.
We are not being encouraged to make the supreme sacrifice, and to abandon everything we own and love in order to squeeze through a difficult entrance to the afterlife. It’s NOT the effort of going through the eye of the needle.
Putting a camel through the eye of the needle isn’t just difficult, it’s IMPOSSIBLE.
Even so, many try to explain it by saying the ‘needle’ is the tiny Eye Gate of Jerusalem which could only be accessed by unloading your camel of all its load. This implies that entrance to the Holy City (and by implication Heaven) is possible by laying down your bundle – of whatever that holds you back – wealth, influence, family, career, success…
But the disciples understood correctly. I say it again: Putting a camel through the eye of the needle is IMPOSSIBLE. That is the point Jesus makes. It’s not difficult, it’s impossible for man to qualify for Heaven!
They say, in dismay: “who then can be saved?” (Answer, nobody! Not by self-effort, massive self-sacrifice, obeying all the laws, or anything else the human being has to offer.)
HOW then can we be saved?
If then no law-abiding, righteous, good person can be saved, who can? It’s is not man’s effort that does it, but God’s salvation. What is impossible for man, is possible with God.
The very reason Jesus had to come to earth was because (despite everything) man was still unable to save himself and qualify for entrance to the Kingdom.
It is impossible!
That is because every human being is born with the Adamic nature that is, in itself, deadly and condemned. No good works can cleanse us of that nature. The nature of mankind itself is out of step with God, and that can only be remedied by having another nature.
You might as well tell a dog to be a cat, if only cats are acceptable to God. That isn’t difficult, it’s IMPOSSIBLE! Only by receiving a NEW nature untainted by Adam can we be proclaimed acceptable to the Father.
What Jesus did on the cross were two equal things. Both are necessary:
(1) He shed his blood, as the sacrificial lamb, that redeemed us from our sins and washed us clean
(2) By his DEATH he removed the sin-nature of Adam!
This is reflected in the Yom Kippur feast day, when TWO goats were offered, one to shed its blood before the altar of God as a redeeming sacrifice for sins, and one (the scapegoat) to be REMOVED from the Temple, carrying sin far away from the people, to be lost by death in the barren wilderness.
Jesus fulfilled both types, to atone for the ongoing sinfulness of man but also, and more crucially, to put to death the sin-nature.
That part of me no longer lives:
“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.”
What Jesus wanted to convey to the rich young ruler, whether his intention was honest or not, was that all his efforts to be made holy and acceptable to God were in vain, and certainly his worldly wealth and influence were no asset in that regard, in fact they were a drawback.
The part we then learnt, as disciples, was that even if this man did forsake his wealth, it would do him no good as far as salvation is concerned, because that is IMPOSSIBLE for human beings to achieve.
Which one of us can shed holy perfect blood; which of us can descend as a perfect being to the “lower parts of the earth” (Eph. 4:9-10) to obtain the “keys to death and Hades” and rise again to victory, to sit at the right hand of God? If THAT is what it takes to enter heaven, which of us can achieve it?
No, we must humbly accept the death and resurrected new life of Jesus as our own, thereafter, as Paul says to be seated IN HIM:
And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked…But God… made us alive together with Christ … and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus … For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.
Note: the Hebrew word ‘Gamala’ [gimel-meem-lamed-alap] used for both ‘camel’ and for ‘thick rope’ are exactly the same lettering.
The greek translators guessed it wrong with ‘camel’.
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Interesting! I’d never heard of that. However, in the end the meaning comes out as the same thing, it’s not just difficult but impossible to put a thick rope through the eye of a needle. I found this discussion about it online. https://www.neverthirsty.org/bible-qa/qa-archives/question/should-the-word-camel-in-matthew-1924-be-thick-rope/
Thick rope needs to be unraveled strand by strand thus enabling each strand to be put through a needle. Just as a rich man needs to separate his wealth and disburse it widely. I hope that helps, Stephen.
I came across a group that calls themselves the “Jesus Christians”. They have a YT channel called “Voice in the Wilderness”. They appear to teach the false doctrine that salvation is gained by giving away ALL ones worldly possessions (no doubt, mostly via the organizers) even to the point of homelessness and destitution. They mis-use this passage of scripture ‘re the rich young ruler.
Glad you covered this passage, as many people are manipulated via misunderstanding it.
Blessings in Christ,
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Sorry – I meant “Voice in the Desert” – for the cultic false teaching group.
There’s always something in scripture which people misunderstand and twist around, things like ‘money is evil’, don’t dress up or wear makeup, don’t admire other people’s possessions as it’s coveteousness, ad nauseum. The Shakers said that marriage was forbidden.