The Lord Jesus Christ’s encounter with a man commonly known as the rich young ruler became a very important teaching occasion. So much so, that it has been recorded in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-23). The Lord taught him—and in the Gospels he teaches us all—that God gives eternal life to people who follow Christ, and not to any other.
Successful and prosperous, the young man had been appointed as a leader1 over his city or nation. He had a serious concern about the state of his soul, and about how he would stand before God on the Day of Judgement. Like with all of us, he was a fallen descendant of Adam, heaping up his own sins. But, unlike with many, his conscience troubled him enough to make him look beyond his usual religious teachers, whom perhaps he had already visited but they had not helped him.
As things stood with the man, he had no doubt that God would condemn him to eternal death, which he knew he deserved. But he still thought that he was partly good enough for God, and that what he only needed to be directed toward what he must put right in himself. With these thoughts in his mind he sought out Jesus. And when he had found Jesus, he ran and knelt before him and he reverently asked, “Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18).
Running, bowing on both knees before, and offering respect to someone who was considered an “unofficial” religious teacher was all undignified behaviour for a ruler of the people. But what is most interesting is that he had shown his appreciation of Jesus and the things he had taught by addressing him as “Good Master” (teacher). In his answer to the man, the Lord took hold of this word “good” and he draw attention to moral goodness, which the young man had perhaps not intended: “And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God” (Matthew 19:17a). What do you know about what is good?
God’s law is good (Romans 7:12). But, as Jesus had explained, “none is good, save one, that is, God.” Clearly, therefore, the Lord’s intention was not to direct the young man to good works in order to make himself deserving of eternal life. Jesus’s words would also have reminded him of the 14th Psalm: “There is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Psalms 14:3)—but with this difference: He said not only that no-one does good but that no-one is good. If no-one is good then no-one can do good works that are so pleasing to to God, and so meritorious, that he would reward the worker with eternal life.
Retribution (making amends to those who had suffered because of his sins) may be possible but self-salvation is not. Understand man’s total depravity2 and you will understand that this is out of the question for any fallen human being. This included the one who was kneeling before Jesus: he needed to understand that he was not a good man. No-one is good—and I’m looking at you. You are not even partly good.
“But if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17b). This ruler in Israel had been schooled in the Ten Commandments from his childhood, and he had them all deeply rooted in his memory (see Luke 18:19). Young man, God instructed Moses to tell your ancestors—and you, yourself: “Ye shall do my judgments, and keep mine ordinances, to walk therein: I am the LORD your God. Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 18:4-5). If it really is your will and desire to enter into life, then you must keep the commandments.
“Which?” he asked Jesus (Matthew 19:18a). Seeing that this man had been taught from childhood that he ought to keep all God’s commandments (compare Deuteronomy 27:26), his question was not, “Which of God’s commandments should I keep?” but, “Which have I not kept? Which have I not kept fully?”
“Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 19:18b-19). Here, the Lord started where the rich young ruler was now going in his mind by listing most of the second table of the law: commandments 5 to 9. These moral laws had to do with what were, to the young man, the most obvious temptations or sins of his heart. For he knew what concerned him about the state of his soul; and that is why he had come to Jesus. (Maybe sins that break the tenth commandment, “thou shalt not covet,” were the only ones that were not characteristic of this man of wealth.) As for the first table of the law, summarising man’s duty toward God—where his mind should have gone first—the Lord will lead his thinking upwards to God, in a moment.
Up to this point, however, the man thought he could obtain eternal life by doing something. He judged himself to be intrinsically good. He thought that all he needed was for “Good Master” Jesus to give him, as it were, a one-step program or rule to follow. “What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16). He was concerned about not having eternal life—but he was under the delusion that he could obtain it by his own efforts. He thought that there was a religious work which he could accomplish, that would make him perfect and acceptable to God.
The rich young ruler was not seeking salvation—he didn’t think he needed to be saved from his sins. So, Christ directed him back to the law, the covenant of life, to learn its lessons. Do that. Do it all. Do it all perfectly, perpetually, without fail. “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17).
“None is good”—there is not one fallen human being who can keep God’s commandments, or who has not broken God’s commandments many, many times. Learn for yourself that you cannot keep any of God’s moral laws, and that, therefore, you can never enter into eternal life that way. And besides, it is too late for you to even begin on this path to eternal life—for the covenant of life is already broken for humankind in Adam3 (Romans 5:12), and you yourself are always breaking them in your own sins. You need to see that, unless you have been saved by the Saviour, the way you are walking in is the broad road leading to destruction (see Matthew 7:13-14).
The rich young ruler knew the commandments but he did not know himself. He told Jesus he had kept all the commandments that he quoted. Still confident in his own abilities and accomplishments, “The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?” (Matthew 19:20). That was quite a boast! And it revealed how shallow he was in his thinking.
No, young man, you have not kept any of them at all. Why would Jesus have drawn your attention to these commandments if you already kept them? You are a long way from obeying any of God’s moral laws in their spiritual depth of meaning. Murderers and haters are both alike in danger of the judgment of God; and people who lust are adulterers already in their hearts (Matthew 5:21-22, 28). Words reveal a lot about a person: “for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matthew 12:34). And people who are so intent on possessing wealth that they trample God’s moral laws underfoot—they have nothing and no place in heaven: “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
It was the same with this young man as it was with another, named Saul of Tarsus (Acts 7:58)—he too thought he was fully alive and doing very well in his own soul. Saul was an advanced scholar of the Law of Moses, but even he had not understood the spiritual depth of the law or applied it rigorously to his own heart. But when he eventually did understand—all his self-righteous conceit died: “For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died”4 (Romans 7:9). You need to die like that, young man.
At this point the Lord moved the rich young ruler on to face the first table of the law, concerning man’s duty toward God. He focused on the first commandment—“Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3)—and he applied it to the greatest sin of his heart.
Jesus knew that the young man’s money, and the status and everything else it bought him, was his life. Whatever else he did, his greatest sin was his dedication to getting rich and being rich. How do we know that he was this kind of man? Because the Lord demanded that he repent of it all.
The Lord Jesus Christ did not ask for any of this man’s money. He asked for the man. “Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me” (Mark 10:21).
It was not that there was only one thing he lacked—it was that, for him, everything was subsumed under the great sin that ruled in this ruler’s heart. You wanted one “good thing” to do to make yourself perfect, young man (see Matthew 19:21); well, this is the one thing that you need to do: face up to who you really are, and how things really are within your soul. That is your god.
Being rich is not evil, whether the riches have come by inheritance or hard work.5 Not money, but “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). He did not thank God for what he had, and nor did he attribute it to “luck” or the Roman false goddess Fortuna. No, the great sin of his life was that loved his wealth, loved his life, and he was proud of himself for obtaining it all. And he would rather worship self and wealth than God.
After receiving this challenge and briefly considering it, the rich young ruler didn’t want to hear any more from Jesus. He turned his back on the Saviour. “And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions” (Mark 10:22). Liquidate all my skilfully acquired assets—cash in my heart—and give it all away to poor people? Give up my life and follow this man? And worse: draw down the world’s hatred and persecution upon myself, even the dreaded and real possibility of a Roman crucifixion, for being a follower of Jesus? Treasure in heaven?! No, he placed no value upon that kind of wealth: He would rather keep his earthly riches—his villa or mansion, his servants, his gold, his place as a ruler in his nation, and everything else he possessed—and not have God and eternal life, after all.
In rejecting the Christ he took back his opening greeting: “Good Master.” Now he devalued Jesus’s doctrine, and devalued the Lord Jesus himself, in his own estimation. And to think, I called him good! How can he be a “good master” if he is demanding all this of me? Follow him? No, I will not.
Young man, you are hopeless, lost, and condemned, because you do not believe on the name of the only begotten Son of God (John 3:18). You are condemned to hell for that is where the sins of your heart are taking you. You came on your knees to Jesus, but you fall prostrate before who you imagine yourself to be.
In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord Jesus taught his disciples: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). The rich young ruler held to his great possessions and despised God.
On another occasion, Jesus gave a warning to some not-so rich people by giving them a parable about a wealthy landowner whose heart was similar to the rich young ruler: “And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth. And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:15-21).
The rich young ruler’s greatest sin was thinking of himself as a great man because he had accomplished and accumulated so much. His stuff, his success and his standing in this world were everything to him—which ultimately meant that God was nothing to him. What a fool! It does not end well for people who want nothing to do with God.
Jesus exposed the young man to the fact he had no hope in himself. But he refused to look outside of himself—even though he had come to Jesus on his knees with a good question. He got up off his knees and went away sad, rejecting Christ’s answer.
Whether or not you have what it takes to rise to the top in this world, reader—none of that really matters, because “There is none good but one, that is, God” (Matthew 19:17).
What good thing must you do to have eternal life? Stop pretending that you deserve eternal life because you are good. Or if you know you don’t deverve for God to allow you into heaven, admit to yourself that you cannot earn a place there by doing good or by being good. Face the truth: you are not good, and there is no hope for you, in yourself.
What you must do is repent of your sins and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent” (John 6:29). Become a follower of the Lord Jesus and give up everything else that you worship—whatever this means in your own case. Examine your heart. All that fills your heart where God should fill your heart must go, because God’s first commandment to you, whoever you are, is, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).
The truth is as the Lord Jesus himself proclaimed: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).
We do not know whether the rich young ruler came to repentance and faith later in his life. What we do know is that his name has not been given to us in any of the three Gospel records of his encounter with Christ (or elsewhere in the Bible). Maybe he has been left respectfully unnamed in deference to his civil authority, or in the hope that he too would later become a Christian, or both.
People can change. But if this man did later become a true follower of Christ, that would have to have been by a work of God’s irrestible grace in his soul. “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44).
The word ruler translates the Greek word ἄρχων (archon), meaning a ruler, commander, chief, leader, magistrate, or prince (Strong’s Concordance). ↩︎
There have been occasions where a group of Christians have pooled their resources, or individual Christians have sold part of their property, to help fellow Christians in need (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37). But the Bible does not teach that all should do this, nor does it teach we should make themselves poor or give everything away. Rather, we should work hard and earn, and if possible, own private property and set up businesses. Whatever we do, we must do all to the glory of God. Examples: Genesis 2:15; 3:19; Numbers 36:1-12; Proverbs 11:18; 24:27, 30-31; Isaiah 65:21-23; Acts 5:4; 1 Corinthians 10:21; Colossians 3:23; 1 Thessalonians 3:6-12; 4:11. The website Theology of Work is a good resource on this important topic. ↩︎