The Good Teacher
Preached by Jason Abbott
What do you value most in this world?
At different stages of my life, it’s been different things for me. When I was in preschool, I probably valued my blanket more than anything else. I remember feeling very sensitive about my attachment to it when I was too old to be taking it around town anymore. When I was in high school, it was athletics. Winning games in soccer or winning races in track was paramount to me. In college, relationships were the most important; my friends were everything to me. When I met Natalie, she trumped my friends in every way. I’ll bet you can think of a similar evolution of desire or value in your own life.
But, what do you value most in this world…right now? That’s the question Jesus asks us here. And, how we answer, he teaches, reveals much about our faith and our future. Let’s look at his teaching together.
18 And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” 21 And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.”22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. 24 Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” 28 And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” 29 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, 30 who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”
To learn from this story, it will help us to look at the three participants in it. Each of them has something to teach us. So, (1st) we’ll look at the rich young ruler; (2nd) we’ll look at the twelve disciples; and, (3rd) we’ll look at Jesus, the teacher, because only when we begin to see and know him can we accept his calling.
1. The rich ruler (vv. 18-23).
This conversation Jesus has with a rich ruler is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. So, even if you’re not all that biblically literate, you might be familiar with this encounter simply because of its repetition. However, if you’re still not, you’re almost certainly familiar with the proverbial saying that emerged from it—”For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (v. 25). The saying has found its way into book titles, song lyrics, jokes, and board game questions…to name just a few.
While this is all very interesting, the character to whom Jesus was referring, when he coined the phrase, is an overwhelmingly tragic figure. Certainly, he seems to have everything anyone could want. He seems to have the world on a string—young, wealthy, and respected in society. When, however, we take a deeper look, we find he’s insecure about his standing before God and a slave to his possessions. We see that he’s a deeply unhappy man.
His initial question reveals his insecurity. The young man approaches Jesus and asks him:
Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? (v. 18).
Apparently, what his religious culture has taught him concerning salvation has not given him any peace in the matter. He’s still looking for something to do—something to accomplish and give him assurance that he’s earned God’s approval. This young man is a seeker. And, we think—He’s asking Jesus the right question. Then, however, Jesus answers him, and we’re confused.
I mean, would you respond like Jesus responds here? If someone asked you how he or she could get to heaven, would you say—Stop your sleeping around; Don’t kill anybody; Stop your shop lifting; Don’t tell lies about people anymore; Respect your mom and dad? I hope not. That’s not the gospel.
So then, we have to ask—Why does Jesus answer this way?
Well, this man asks about what he can do to gain entrance into the kingdom of heaven, so Jesus answers him accordingly. In a sense, he is saying go be perfect like your heavenly Father is perfect. In a sense, he’s saying go figure out that you can’t do it on your own.
But, the young ruler believes he can. He thinks he’s kept all the commands. He tells Jesus that he has obeyed these laws (v. 21). And, that answer is revealing. It exposes much about this seeker. It tells us he’s pretty naïve concerning the laws or the standards of God. He has a bankrupt view of what it really means to be holy like God is holy. In short, you could say this young ruler thinks he knows the Lord, but he really doesn’t have a clue who God is or what he’s like. God is other!
Now, it would be easy to judge him. Yet, we need to recognize how similar to him we naturally are. We are all capable of precisely what this rich young man is doing here. In fact, making the Lord look like us, crafting him in our own image rather than letting him craft us into his image, is native to us.
– We think God must be annoyed by what we’re annoyed by.
– We believe he dislikes the people whom we dislike.
– We imagine God’s politics are roughly aligned with our politics.
– When we sin, we tell ourselves God gets it and doesn’t care too much.
You see, like the rich young ruler, we naturally think we’re doing pretty well when it comes to God’s commands. But, we don’t actually understand his holiness if we think this way. Doing this reveals that we don’t really have a clue who God is or what God is like. We’re bankrupt just like this ruler. And, that’s the first thing we have to learn if we’re going to inherit eternal life—that we’re morally broken and unable to please the Lord on our own. We must not judge the rich young ruler in this passage but, rather, identify with him and be warned by him.
Well, Jesus will not leave the young man in his dangerously naïve condition. So, he begins to operate on him. Look at how he responds. Jesus says:
One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me (v. 22).
Look, I’ll be brief here. Jesus is playing at the good doctor with these words. He’s helping this man see his spiritual cancer—his idolatry. You see, the rich man thinks he serves God by obeying his commands, but Jesus knows he really doesn’t. Jesus knows that he is a slave to his money and to his possessions. They’re his god. That’s his faith. That’s his salvation. So, Jesus wakes him up. And, the rich man goes away sad…but awake…since now he knows he’s a slave to money.
Yet, are we awake? Are you awake?
Natalie and I had a chance to go to Ashville, North Carolina this last summer on vacation. One of the things we did was visit the Biltmore, this fabulous mansion sitting on thousands of acres of beautiful land. It was built by George Vanderbilt and completed in 1895. Here’s what it looks like:
Truly a fabulous estate! But, did you know George only lived in the mansion for about nineteen years, and the family only occupied it for about thirty-five years before opening it to the public to help pay for its upkeep. The estate required more than they could afford. It became their master in the end.
Why share this? Why bring this up? Because, friends, this is the salvation which wealth really brings. It’s fleeting and fickle. It will not last. It will not save. A new car won’t fix you. A bigger house won’t give you peace. Making money won’t bring you freedom. Only Jesus can do that. And, until we embrace that truth, we’ll simply—like this young ruler—go about enslaved and sad.
Well, we have to move on to our next characters in this scene.
2. The twelve disciples (vv. 24-30)
Look with me again at the aftermath of Jesus’ interaction with the rich ruler. Here’s what Luke records:
Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth 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 person to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you” (vv. 24-28).
When Jesus shares the dangers of wealth with the disciples and the crowd, they are shocked—“Then who can be saved?” (v. 26). Have you ever wondered why they react this way? Well, it’s because they were living in a religious culture drowning in a whirlpool of health and wealth theology. All of them are thinking—If it’s nearly impossible for a rich person like him to enter the kingdom of heaven—a person who’s clearly blessed with tangible gifts from the Lord (great wealth!)—then how much harder to enter heaven for us working class stiffs! Such thinking is at the root of their surprise.
Have you ever felt like this? That…the Lord must love somebody else more than you because that other person seems to catch all the breaks. If you’ve ever felt like that, then know that Jesus is clearly expressing that that’s not how God loves. That’s not how his salvation works. Jesus says—Look at this wealthy young ruler who seemingly has everything. How difficult it is for him to enter God’s kingdom. He needs a miracle, a miracle like getting a camel through the eye of a needle. This is bad news because none of us have that ability. None of us can do that.
Thus, I think, Peter cries out in desperation. At least, that’s the way I read what he says next. I think he’s feeling the weight of the impossibility of salvation and says—But, we’ve left it all for you! To this Jesus replies:
Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life (vv. 29-30).
His answer is so important. To understand and embrace it brings eternal life, but to misunderstand it and embrace that misunderstanding is to forfeit eternal life. And, the key to understanding is in the miracle—a camel and the eye of a needle. Here’s what I mean.
There are two ways to interpret this. You could read it and think eternal life is made possible through the giving up—the forfeiture of house or wife or brother or parents or children. In short, you could believe that Jesus is telling us to give up in order to get. But, that would be works-based salvation…not miraculous!
On the other hand, you could read this and think eternal life comes by way of the kingdom—through your faith at the highest level in God’s kingdom come. In short, you submit all you have to God’s reign and make him king of everything you have—stop trusting in a house or wife or brothers or parents or children and, rather, trust ultimately in the Lord as king. (Remember, the rich young ruler trusted in his wealth, not in Jesus, and went away sad.) What will you trust in?
But, where’s the camel through the eye of a needle? Where’s the miracle—what’s impossible for us but possible for God? Well, the miracle stands before us.
3. The good teacher
Jesus is the miracle. Jesus is what’s impossible for us but possible for God. He’s the camel through the needle’s eye.
He is born God in the flesh—virgin birth. He lives a sinless and perfect life. He submits unwaveringly to his heavenly Father’s will—even to death on a cross. He dies in our place and remains three days in the grave but takes up his life again, defeating death and sin on our behalf. He is ascended and reigning at the righthand of his heavenly Father. He’s the kingdom of God come. Christ Jesus is the miracle; our salvation made possible.
Friends, there’s nothing we can do to earn eternal life. It’s solely a free gift from God through faith in Jesus—faith that he is king, not our money or our family or anything else. He demands we submit to him fully—that we give up everything for the sake of his kingdom. He says it’s all mine. Yet, here’s the thing, friends. We don’t submit everything to a king who is far away but one who is near to us and understands us—one who first gave up all to save us. Amen.