In Matthew chapter 19, The Lord Jesus Christ encounters a wealthy man who is eager to find out what he specifically must do have eternal life. In this exchange there are many powerful principles that a Christian can learn. Was Jesus instructing this man to follow the Ten Commandments in order to have eternal life? What is the meaning of this conversation and how does it fit in with the Gospel message of faith in Jesus Christ to go to Heaven? This article will answer those questions and focus on a particular point: that the law of the Old Covenant, also known as the Mosaic law, does not save a person. It is only through faith in Christ that one can be saved.
And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. – Matthew 19:16-17.
Already in these two verses there are some things that can be learned about this rich, young ruler. For one he views Jesus as a rabbi or an enlightened teacher of the Word, hence him calling Him “Good Master.” This was done out of respect, but Jesus’ response already gives insight into the rich man’s lack of understanding. “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God” Many have interpreted this part of verse 17 to mean that Jesus is distinguishing Himself from God the Father. On the contrary, Jesus was prodding the young man to understand that he was standing before God in the flesh [B&E: the reader would be wise to consider this when encountering Bible passages that are difficult to understand. Perhaps like the young man in this chapter, you are being challenged to look deeper into the Bible to understand The Lord’s message. Pray for Divine help in these times]. Jesus Christ, the Savior, the way to eternal life, was standing right before this man and yet he did not recognize it.
but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. – Matthew 19:17.
And this statement by Jesus confirms the interpretation above. Rather than tell the man the Gospel, Jesus is now challenging the young man. Why? Because the man erroneously believed that there was something he could do to earn his salvation. Notice the question from verses 16: “what GOOD THING SHALL I DO, that I may have eternal life?” The rich man did not believe the Biblical Gospel, in which eternal life is received by faith – but instead was trusting in his own good works to redeem himself. So now Jesus was going to show the error of the man’s ways.
He [the rich man] saith unto him, Which? 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. The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? – Matthew 19:18-20.
Jesus starts listing some of the ten commandments as well as one of the new commandments He issued to the church (“love thy neighbor as thyself”). The rich man says that he kept all of these commandments but he still felt something was lacking. He still did not have eternal salvation and knew it. This is an important lesson. As we explained in detail in our article Are Christians Under The Law?: Understanding The Law and The Gospel, the Mosaic law or Old Covenant, was never meant to be a means of salvation. It was implemented because of sin, to provide correct standards until Jesus came to Earth and convince all people that they need a Savior for their sin.
Many people today are living their lives believing the same false gospel of the rich man: that they have done enough “good” in their lives to “earn” their way into Heaven. This is the exact opposite of what Scripture says. The Bible says that “no one is good, no not one.” That all of our righteousness are as filthy rags. The Mosaic law had a condition that if it was broken in one rule, the offender was guilty of all. So no one is good enough to work their way into Heaven by good deeds. All people have sinned and all sin is punishable by eternal damnation. Which is why all people need a Savior. And this young man, standing face to face with the Savior was still trying to profess his good works and trust in himself rather than Christ. After showing the error of the man’s belief, Jesus then goes to the heart of the matter to convict him of his sin:
Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. – Matthew 19:21.
No matter how “good” a person may think they are, all people have sin in their lives. Jesus, speaking in the sermon on the mount in Matthew chapter 5, showed that His standards even went to our thoughts and that just thinking about sinful behavior was a sin. Knowing the rich man’s heart, Jesus was easily able to show that despite his protests to the contrary, this man was not living a sinless life, but instead loved his wealth more than God. Here he was being offered eternal life and eternal riches and he turned it down! What does this mean? That he did not have faith – which is what one really needs to be saved.
This passage has unfortunately been misused by Bible skeptics and even some Christians to imply that Jesus was giving a universal command of all Christians to sell their possessions and give everything to the poor. Suggesting this is clearly taking this verse out of context and a case of wild misinterpretation. Jesus was looking into the heart of a specific person and making a statement to show him and those listening the man’s sin: namely that he believed in his own wealth more than Heaven. This is not a command to all believers in Christ to sell everything they own.
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. – Matthew 19:23-24.
Here Jesus does give a general principle: those who have material wealth have a harder time being saved. Why? Because it is much easier to believe you “have it made” when you are wealthy. The temptation to think you have no need for God, prayer, the Gospel or the Bible is greater when a person seems to “have it all.” So this portion of the account is a clear warning for all of those who have material abundance.
When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible. – Matthew 19:25-26.
Jesus drives the point of this account home: people cannot save themselves. No matter how many good works, or how well one tries to keep the Old Covenant law, earning salvation is “impossible.” But when one no longer tries to earn their salvation and puts their full faith and trust in Jesus Christ and the work He did on the cross – taking the punishment for the sins of the world and serving as the perfect atoning sacrifice for all time, then all things are possible.
Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life. But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first. – Matthew 19:27-30.
The chapter closes with Jesus encouraging His disciples by reminding them of the rewards they will receive for their faithfulness, as they will sit in positions of authority during the Millennial reign of Christ. And for all born again believers will be rewarded “an hundredfold” and with eternal life. Being a Christian may require losing friends, having falling out with family members, passing up earthly riches or fame in order to remain a faithful believer. A Christian may not be considered “good” by the world’s standards at all. But if one’s suffers for their faith, rest assured the Savior is watching and will remember it. These are the true riches, the eternal riches, that you can put your trust in forever. And they are not attained through work, but through faith in the work done by The Lord Jesus Christ.
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9.