To Gain Eternal Life
Preached by Jason Abbott
In today’s passage, Jesus has a conversation he must’ve encountered often—considering that he’d become a renowned religious teacher, or rabbi, around Israel. When someone is supposed to know a lot about spiritual matters, a basic question, which people want to ask them, is: How can I live forever? How can I please God, so that he’ll welcome me into eternal life?
That is the question this religious teacher asks Jesus here. And, we have a lot to learn from how Jesus responds to him. So, let’s look at the passage together and, then, pray for God’s blessing on our time studying it.
25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
In this back and forth between Jesus and the lawyer, there are two questions and two answers. Our lawyer asks (1st) a big question about gaining eternal life; so, in response, Jesus points him to (2nd) an authoritative answer in Scripture. Once they agree on that answer, the lawyer has (3rd) a deeper question for Jesus, therefore, Jesus answers him with (4th) an unsettling story.
So, let’s dig into the passage together and see what we can learn.
1. A big question (v. 25)
Is there life after death? may be the biggest of the big questions people ask. I think it’s fair to say that every culture, throughout human history, has grappled with this question and attempted to come to a consensus. I think it’s also fair to say that the majority of these have concluded there is some sort of life after death—some reincarnation or underworld or heaven or hell ahead. It’s really the exception (not the rule!) to conclude that there’s only nothingness after death.
(As an aside, let me point out that it takes faith to believe there’s an afterlife, and it takes faith to believe there is not an afterlife. In fact, in my humble opinion, it takes a greater faith to look at what exists—majestic mountains, star-swept skies, human ingenuity—and believe it all came from nothing and will return to nothing. Again, in my view, that takes a tremendous faith!)
Of course, once we’ve trusted that there is some kind of life following death, the next big question is: How do we inherit the good kind and avoid the bad kind? And this is precisely where we find our religious lawyer and Jesus. He asks Jesus, so as to test him, this question:
“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 25).
Note a couple of things about this question before we move on. First, notice that this lawyer’s question is really a question about finding assurance of salvation. Thus, one commentator sums up this testing of Jesus in the following way:
The test was to see if Jesus could correctly answer a fundamental question: “How can I be sure I’ll be saved in the final resurrection?” 1
So, this religious lawyer is asking Jesus to communicate how he might rest and know with certainty that he’s gained God’s favor and eternal, resurrection life. He’s really asking for assurance and for comfort and—as we’ll see in a moment—for a way to know that he has justified himself before God (v. 29).
Second, notice what the religious lawyer is assuming here. In his question, he reveals something key, which is flawed, about his perspective of justification. What’s his salvation focus? On what does it depend? It’s revealed in his question: “What must I do…?” Do you see?! This lawyer assumes that it all depends on him. He imagines he can do it, gain it, earn it…himself! He assumes self-justification, and that is the biggest hurdle separating him from eternal life.
Sadly, the idea that we can justify ourselves is often our biggest hurdle too. We think, like this lawyer, that we must do more to earn God’s favor and reward. Yet, nothing could be more contrary to the gospel. I like how John Gerstner put it. He said:
The main thing between you and God [between you and eternal life] is not so much your sins; [but]…your damnable good works. 2
In other words, it’s not our sin problem that separates us from eternal life—Christ took care of that on the cross. Rather, it’s our self-righteousness problem that keeps us from God. It’s the heretical idea that we can justify ourselves to him through our good works. This is what often keeps us from turning to Christ in faith and receiving the gift of eternal life. Friends, don’t go in on damnable good works. Trust in Christ’s work for you and receive God’s grace and salvation.
Well, this brings us to Jesus’ response to the first question. And he gives…
2. An authoritative answer (vv. 26-28)
Now, this seems like a strange thing to say because Jesus actually answers with a question. Thus, you might wonder: How’s answering this lawyer’s question, by asking him another question, an authoritative answer to his original question? Well, the answer to that question is—the authority isn’t in the response Jesus gives. Rather, it’s in the source to which he points.
Look again at the text with me. Jesus asks the lawyer:
“What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” (v. 26).
This answer fascinates me. Just think about it. Jesus has supreme authority in himself. He has authority to heal the diseased. He has authority to raise the dead. He has authority to forgive sins. Even the wind and the waves obey his commands. Regularly, the crowds are amazed at his teaching because he speaks to them as one who has authority. And, yet, he doesn’t simply give this religious lawyer an answer by his own authority. Instead, he points at the Bible and asks—What does it say? In short, he says—Doesn’t Scripture give an authoritative answer?
Let’s pause and consider this. Sometimes, I think, we’re tempted to imagine that, if God audibly spoke to us, then it would somehow possess greater authority over our lives than does the voice of Scripture. We think, if only God would speak to us, as he spoke to Paul on his way to Damascus, then we’d have some certainty about our salvation or about how to really please God. But, that’s simply not true. When Jesus speaks, Scripture speaks; and, when Scripture speaks, Jesus speaks. That’s what Jesus indicates when he points this lawyer to his Bible for the answer. Jesus and Scripture speak with one, authoritative voice. We must not forget this! We must give the Bible authority in our lives!
Well, the lawyer is more than happy to show Jesus he’s got the right answer. Look at his quick reply and how Jesus affirms it. The religious lawyer says:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And [Jesus] said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live” (vv. 27- 28).
It’s interesting that the lawyer answers correctly but doesn’t feel the weight of his response. His answer should destroy his hope of ever inheriting eternal life; yet, it doesn’t seem to faze him. Now, if you’re having trouble seeing what I mean, just consider all of the alls in his correct response. For this man to get into heaven, he must love the Lord God with all his heart and all his soul and all his strength and all his mind. In short, he must love the Creator perfectly. There is no halfway about it. There’s no room for error in it. If he truly understood what he was saying, he’d despair. But, he doesn’t because he still trusts in damnable good works.
This, I think, is why Jesus sends him off to fail: “do this, and you will live.” You see, until this lawyer recognizes his sin, until he comes to the end of himself, Jesus knows he won’t reach out for grace. So, Jesus sends him up against the rocks of the Law to, hopefully, crush his sinful arrogance and create humility in its place. And, I’d offer that Jesus does this in love. Sometimes—in order to love people—we must allow them to run after their false-gospels and to recognize, on their own, that whatever it is they’re pursuing is incapable of bringing them real happiness. Only once they realize this will they be ready for God’s grace.
This might seem a strange idea to you. It may even seem counterintuitive. However, I would argue it’s almost certainly what Jesus is doing with this lawyer, and it’s precisely what Jesus suggests God the Father does in another famous story he shares later in Luke’s gospel—the tale of a loving father and his wayward sons. In that story—like Jesus does here—a father lets his children pursue false-gospels in hopes that they’ll reject their idols and return to him for grace.
Friends, I think we must be willing to follow Christ’s example in this text while trusting in God’s sovereignty over our calling to share the gospel.
Well, let’s look now at the second question the lawyer asks. It’s…
3. A deeper question (v. 29)
Look at the text again with me:
But [the lawyer], desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (v. 29).
I’ll simply point out that it would make more sense for him to ask Jesus about the alls of loving God—Jesus, how can anyone ever love God this much?! How can anyone love God this perfectly?! But, he steers clear of that big question when hoping to justify himself. Instead, he wants to know what neighbor to love—Where are the lines of neighborliness?, he asks Jesus. After all, I cannot be called to love everyone like I love myself. Yet, Jesus is about to challenge this view.
(Before we move on, let me just point out a potentially beautiful detail here which gives us some hope for this lawyer. Notice that we find out his inner desires. We know that he desires “to justify himself.” However, how would we know this unless he shared it with someone? Maybe with someone like Luke?!)
Well, let’s close with a look at the story Jesus answers his question with…
4. An unsettling story (vv. 30-37)
I’m not going to reread this little story about the good Samaritan for you, because it’s meaning is as straight forward as can be. Basically, it clearly illustrates that a neighbor is a person who helps others. The last two verses make the meaning of the parable obvious. So, Jesus asks the lawyer:
Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise” (vv. 36-37).
Much could be and has been said about the characters in the story. They are, without a doubt, important. For a Samaritan to be the one who’s the hero in the tale and for a Pharisee and a Levite to be the ones who act shamefully would’ve been, for Jesus’ audience, a huge surprise. It’s tantamount to making a hero of a gangster and villains of a pastor and church secretary. It teaches each of us to look deeper, beneath stereotypical veneers, to see truly who a neighbor is. And, it challenges us to ask if we are indeed good neighbors ourselves.
Yet, friends, in all this good stuff, don’t miss the most important detail here. Jesus has flipped the script and changed the question. The religious lawyer asked: Who is my neighbor? Jesus, however, answers with a story that poses the question: Who is a neighbor? That’s important! That’s challenging! And, that’s so unsettling when we really reflect personally upon it.
I was driving to work on 322 last week, and I passed a car in morning traffic that had stalled on the side of the road. Do you ever think about stopping to help? Sometimes I do, but I rarely, if ever, actually stop and help. I felt bad for this guy standing next to his car in the cold, until I saw an ιχθύς—a Christian fish symbol—with legs on the back of his car. And then, I celebrated. That is until I got to work and realized that this was my next sermon text. At that point, I was forced to ask: Am I a good neighbor? No…not according to Jesus.
Friends, God’s standard is so high! We’ll not be able to go and do likewise. We’ll always fall short. Yet, nevertheless, we’re called by Christ to live this way. So, then, what are we to do?
Well, this is precisely where the gospel comes in. You see, it’s totally honest about our sin. It tells us that we are broken and that we will fail. This is why Christ came to atone for our sins—to offer us grace. We, consequently, don’t need to rely on our achievements and our holiness since the Lord—through our faith in Jesus—reckons Christ’s achievements and holiness as ours. Therefore, we’re victorious through faith in Jesus already. We have nothing to prove.
And, if we have nothing to prove, we can shoot for the stars without any fear of failure. Failure can’t alter our identity in Christ. In fact, our faithful failures are for the glory of God. They are literally acts of worship.
Do you really believe this? If you do, you can attempt to love the unlovable; you can work to forgive the unforgiveable; you can step out and try great things—things beyond what’s reasonable from a human perspective. And—if you fail—know that your righteousness is still and forever founded in Christ. God loves you, and always will love you…even as he loves Jesus!
The French Poet Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said:
If you want to convince men to build ships, don’t pass out shipbuilding manuals. Don’t organize them into labor groups and hand out wood. Teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea. 3
And, friends, only when we’re in awe of the Lord’s love for us will we long for a sea of righteousness in us—only then will we strive to be good neighbors.
If you really want to be a good neighbor? Then, let the truth of Christ’s love for you (a never-ceasing or wavering love) sink in. Only once you’ve embraced it, will you—by the power of the Holy Spirit—begin to long for and strive for a love resembling that of the Samaritan in Christ’s story.
Amen! Pray this along with me.