Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Dialogues About Discipleship: Mark 10:17-31

Audio available here

In the parable of the sower, Jesus spoke of a seed that that was sown among thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it and it yielded no crop. When He later explained the meaning of that parable to the disciples, He said that the seed sown among thorns was a symbol of “the ones who have heard the word, but the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.” In our passage today, we just such a one as this. Having heard at some point about Jesus Christ and the offer of eternal life, he came running to Jesus, but no sooner had he come that he went away because he was deceived by his riches.

As we examine the passage we will see three dialogues about discipleship. First, a dialogue between Jesus and an unnamed man about the requirements for eternal life. Second, a dialogue between Jesus and the disciples about the deceitfulness of riches. Third, a dialogue between Jesus and Peter about the blessings of discipleship.

I. The Requirements for Eternal Life (17-22)

As Jesus is beginning to depart on a journey to Jerusalem, “a man” comes to him with a question. Mark simply calls him “a man.” The context admits that he is a rich man. Matthew’s gospel tells us that he is young. Luke’s gospel tells us that he was a ruler, meaning that he was probably one of the leaders at a local synagogue. Therefore, this “man” has become known to us as “The Rich Young Ruler.” This title is a very impressive résumé in the eyes of the world. He has three things highly valued in his favor: He has wealth, he has youth, and he has power. He has come to Jesus at the right time of life. And he comes to Jesus in the right manner: he ran to Him and knelt before Him. This indicates that the man understood the urgency of seeking Jesus and the reverence which was due to Him.

Even the title that he gives to Jesus says that he understood something of the nature of Jesus. He called Him “Good Teacher.” As Jesus Himself says, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” Rabbis in that day were called by any number of titles, but none would allow himself to be called “Good Teacher,” for fear of blaspheming the greatness of God.[1] But you will notice in the text that Jesus does not refuse the title. His statement in v18 seems to press home the issue of His identity. We might paraphrase what Jesus is saying about being called “Good Teacher” like this: “That’s interesting that you call me good, because we both know that only God is good. Do you see some connection between God and myself? Your words indicate that you do. Do you really know Me or God in such a way to make that statement?”[2]

Something about Jesus has led this man to assume that He knows the answer to a question that is plaguing his soul. He asks Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” This may be the most important question anyone could ever ask. Before the days of this life are over, we must know how to enter the life of the Kingdom of God to come. But you will notice that the emphasis of the question falls on the word, “DO.” What must I DO?

Like all Scripture, this passage is best understood when it remains tightly joined to its context. In the verses immediately preceding, Jesus has announced that whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all. As we studied that passage, we concluded that Jesus was not commending certain virtues of childhood like innocence, humility, or naivety. Rather, He was speaking of what children lack. They are needy, helpless and dependent upon the kindness of others for their well-being. This is how each of us must come to Jesus. We must see ourselves in need, without help and without hope, completely dependent upon His grace to rescue us and provide us with eternal life in His Kingdom. But here we find a contrasting picture to that one, as this man comes before Jesus taking about doing rather than receiving. He has not yet come to childlike receptivity, but seems to think that there is some work he can do, some ritual he can undergo, some activity he can engage in which will earn him eternal life.

Jesus’ response is interesting. He says, “You know the commandments.” In other words, if you are so intent on doing, do those things that the Law requires. And Jesus lists six of them, five of which are from the second table of the Ten Commandments: Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, honor your father and mother. To these He adds “Do not defraud.” These are all observable, external, moral behaviors. They can be done, and if they are done, they will be seen. And to this, the man says, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” Now, we tend to doubt the sincerity of this statement, for no one can say with integrity that they have kept the whole law. Every descendant of Adam has failed the righteousness of God at some point, in word or thought or deed. But, you will recall that Paul even said that as a faithful Jew, when he was considered by the standards of righteousness that is found in the Law, he was blameless (Php 3:6). Jesus did not present the man with internal, heart-level commands that focus on intentions or motives. These commands are not impossible to keep, and from Jesus’ reaction, we don’t have any reason to think that Jesus doubted that this man had lived a morally upright life, and He would certainly have known the truth behind the man’s words.

After the man acknowledges that he has kept all the commandments listed, we see Jesus’ response. “Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him.” This is the only time in Mark’s Gospel that we read of Jesus loving someone, though we know He loves everyone. The look and the love express Jesus heart for this man. He is so close to the Kingdom. He wants to know what to do to enter it, and he can say with honesty that he has done all that he knows to do. But he remains unfulfilled spiritually. The doing of all these things has given him no assurance of eternal life. In his mind there must be something more to be done. And Jesus says, “One thing you lack.”

In Romans 3:20, Paul says, “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” The Law cannot provide eternal life to anyone. It was never intended to. It was only intended to show people where they have gone astray from the Lord. If it was possible for a person to keep the entire Law, they would still be lacking in righteousness before God. So Jesus says, “One thing you lack.” Don’t you want to know what that one thing is? I am sure this man was eager to find out what the one thing is.

Jesus said, “Go and sell all you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heave; and come, follow Me.” Wait a minute. That’s not one thing. That’s three things. Go and sell; give to the poor; come, follow Me. I thought He said one thing! He did. And the one thing is “Come, follow Me.” Only in following Jesus by faith can we receive the righteousness that God requires. It is not in our doing, but in our childlike receiving that we have eternal life, and it is only as we follow Jesus that we can receive Him and the Kingdom life He offers. So why does Jesus tell the man to go and sell all he has and give to the poor? Because Jesus knows that this man will always be tempted to trust in his own merits unless they be stripped away from him. The call of Jesus to this man is no different than the call He has given to His disciples. To those who were fishermen, He called them to leave their boats and their nets. To Matthew, the tax-collector, He called to leave his collection booth and follow. And to this man, He calls to leave his riches and follow. Jesus is not here declaring that the poverty is a requirement for eternal life. He is saying that anything which impedes the call to follow Him is a grave danger to us. The wealth and power that this man has amassed will always rival his allegiance to Jesus unless they are abandoned in faith in order to heed the call of following Jesus. As long as this man stands on his own merits of wealth and power, he is falsely self-assured of his standing before God; but Jesus calls him to leave his comfort zone and step out in faith where his only claim before God is that He has turned away from all that this world holds and followed Jesus in the path of discipleship.

And so it is for each of us. Whatever in our lives we may consider to be to our advantage, we must be willing to forsake in exchange for Jesus Himself, for it is only as we follow Him that we will enter eternal life. And presented with the call to follow Him, we must make a choice to cling to our own human efforts or to abandon our own merits and cling to Him alone. And when this man was presented with the call, what did he do? He was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property. His riches were his reason for rejecting the call to follow Jesus. And in one of the most tragic scenes in all of Scripture, this man closed the door to eternal life upon himself, choosing to go on pursuing the desires of this life instead of the offer of eternal life. His choice revealed the fact that though he had kept many of the law’s demands, he had fallen short of the first commandment to have no other gods before the one true God. His wealth was an idol that he placed above the Lord in his affections.

Wealth is not always wrong, and does not automatically disqualify one from eternal life. But for this man, wealth presents an eternal danger for his wealth prevented him from doing the one thing which was necessary for eternal life: following Jesus. If there is anything in our lives which would stand in our way of full obedience to the call of following Christ, that thing has become an idol. We must hold on loosely to the things of this world, and be willing to let them slip from our grasp when the call of Christ commands. Whatever we sacrifice for Christ’s sake will be recognized by the Lord and rewarded in heaven, as Jesus promises this man. If he will give up his possessions and bless the poor with his wealth, he will have treasure in heaven. But even if he gives it all away, he still will only gain eternal life if he chooses to follow Jesus. In this dialogue, we see that one thing is a necessary requirement for eternal life: we must follow Jesus, for only in Him will we receive the righteousness that God requires. The sad ending of this encounter leads us to the next dialogue, which concerns …

II. The Deceitfulness of Riches (v23-27)

The seed of the word had been planted into the soil of the Rich Young Ruler’s life, but it was choked out by the thorny deceitfulness of riches. And Jesus says now to His disciples, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God.” This amazed the disciples, for they could not understand how one with so much to boast of in the things of this world could be turned away from eternal life. He was the epitome of earthly success. But Jesus says to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God.” Notice that He calls His disciples, “Children.” Could it be that Jesus wants to remind them that they have come empty handed to Him, willing to receive what He alone can give, while this man came offering to do something, and thinking that some merit within himself could warrant eternal life?

As long as a person is deceived by their riches, their power, or their own self-made claims into thinking that eternal life is something they can earn for themselves, it remains very hard for them to enter the Kingdom. So hard that Jesus says, “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.” This statement was a take on an often used Jewish proverb ascribed to difficult or impossible situations. Any number of large animals were inserted in, but Jesus chose a camel. Some have suggested that Jesus was not speaking of a literal eye of a needle, but was instead referring to a gate in Jerusalem known as “The Eye of the Needle,” through which a camel could only pass by throwing off its burdens and stooping to a crawl. That’s an attractive suggestion, but that particular gate was not built in Jerusalem until about 900 years later, so we have to abandon that theory. It is hyperbole, an exaggeration used for the effect of making His hearers understand just how impossible it is for anyone who trusts in the things of this world to earn them eternal life.

The man had asked an important question: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answer suggests that there is nothing that can be done to earn it. And so the disciples now ask a much more important question. In light of the futility of trying to gain eternal life by works, and in light of the unworthiness of any of us to gain it, “Then who can be saved?” This is the first use of the word saved in this eternal context in Mark’s Gospel. We talk often about being “saved,” but I wonder if we have grasped “saved” from what? If we think that being saved means going to heaven instead of going somewhere slightly less pleasant, or going to heaven instead of rotting in a grave in some churchyard, or having a happy life instead of a sad one, then we haven’t even fathomed it. The disciples understand that to not inherit eternal life is to inherit eternal condemnation in hell, and if that is what we are all destined for, what hope do we have? When Mark says that they were amazed in v24, the word he uses could be translated as scared or even terrified. They recognize that if God could bar the doors of heaven to such a one as this – a rich man, a young man, a powerful man, a moral man, what hope do any of us have? After all, Jesus has not limited the difficulty of entering the Kingdom to rich men alone. He has said in v24 that it is hard for anyone to enter. This is a terrifying realization.

Jesus response contains some bad news and some good news. First the bad news: “With people it is impossible.” If you are thinking that there is something you do, some price you can pay, some activity on your part that will save you, you are dangerously deceived. It is impossible. Everything of our own doing that we trust to save us is yet another camel trembling before the impassable eye of the needle. But there is good news: “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” It is He who through Christ is able to save the vilest sinner. His grace is limitless as it reaches out to save all who would recognize their neediness, their helplessness apart from Him, and their dependence upon Him. He is able to save all who receive Him in this kind of faith. But those who are deceived by their riches, those who are determined to gain life by their own efforts, those who are convinced they are going to strut into heaven boasting of their own merits, will find that their pride, their possessions, and their pomp has played a cruel joke on them and led them to a narrow gate that they are incapable of entering. They are riding camels that will never pass through the needle’s eye. With the promise of God’s salvation now declared, the narrative turns to another dialogue, this time between Christ and Peter. And this time the focus is …

III. The Blessings of Discipleship (28-31)

This entire episode has caused the disciples to question their own security with the Lord. There are some in our day who consider doubt to be a terrible thing. To them, for one to doubt the authenticity of his or her faith is a dangerous thing. However I suggest to you that there is at least one thing more dangerous: to be falsely assured of salvation when in fact you have not received it is a much more dangerous state to find oneself in. And if doubting would produce a reexamination, then that reexamination may lead to genuine assurance, or else to a recognition of the need to yet be saved. Then, thanks be to God for the doubt that came.

Peter is stricken by the entire episode that has transpired. The words of Jesus and the departure of the young man have caused him to wonder if all is well between him and the Lord Jesus. “Behold,” he says, “we have left everything and followed You.” There is a question underlying this: “Do we lack something more? Have our sacrifices been noticed by God, and will they be laid up as treasures in heaven for us?” And Jesus responds: “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms for My sake and for the gospel’s sake but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age … and in the age to come, eternal life.” There are several important truths to draw from these words.

First notice that not everyone who has made sacrifices in life are included in this promise of blessing. These blessings are reserved for those who have sacrificed the comforts of this world “for My sake,” Jesus says, “and for the gospel’s sake.” People make sacrifices in life for any number of reasons, some more noble than others. But these are those who have put away every earthly barrier that would hinder them from fulfilling the call to follow Jesus.

Second, notice that these blessings will be enjoyed in this life. It is one thing for us to believe in a “Pie in the Sky, By and By, When You Die,” kind of religion, but here Jesus says that these blessings will come to His disciples in this life! Now, you may ask, “How will someone who leaves houses and farms and family for the sake of Jesus and the gospel receive a hundred-fold return on those things in this life?” The answer is found as disciples live in covenant community in the church. Has the call of Christ caused you to leave family members behind? You have a new family in Christ, with countless brothers and sisters, even mothers and children, in the family of God. And these relationships are not “pretend.” They are real. The covenant bond of the family of God is just as real as the biological bond between family members. You recall when Jesus’ family members sought to divert Him from His ministry, He said in Mark 3:35, “Whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother.” Twice in his letters to Timothy, Paul refers to Timothy as “my son.” Peter refers to Mark in 1 Peter 5:13 as “my son.” This is a hard lesson to get across in the South, where one of our favorite sayings is “blood is thicker than water.” Yes it is, but the blood of Christ that binds His disciples together in the family of God is thicker than the blood of man. But what about this promise of receiving a hundred fold on houses and farms? You will recall that the early church we find in Acts 2 is described as having all things in common, and selling their property and possessions to share with any who may have a need. My pastor liked to point to that passage and refer to a “no-needs” church, because its members helped one another meet whatever need they had. In parts of the world where faith in Christ forces believers to live as fugitives, they must depend on the kindness of their brothers and sisters in the faith.

Third, notice that there are some interesting omissions in the list of family blessings. First, you will notice that Jesus does not mention leaving a husband or wife for His sake. As we have discussed at length previously in the teaching on divorce, God’s plan for marriage is that it be an indissoluble bond, therefore, no one has any biblical basis to say that they are divorcing a spouse for the sake of Christ or the gospel, and there is no promise given of a “hundred-fold” return of husbands and wives. Rather, we have Paul’s clear teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 that a believer who has an unbelieving spouse must remain with that spouse as long as the unbeliever will have them. And you will also notice that, although Jesus mentions leaving a father for His sake or the gospel, fathers are not mentioned in the list of blessings that will be received a hundred-fold. He mentions borthers, sisters, mothers, and children, but not fathers. That is because in the Christian life, we do not have a hundred fathers, but only One. God becomes a Father to His children, and His Fatherhood over us is more blessed than a hundred earthly fathers.

Fourth, notice that along with all these blessings that will accompany the disciples in this life there is a promise of persecutions. Jesus does not promise that the life of discipleship is endless bliss. He is very clear that the call to follow Him is costly. There will be persecutions. This is promised repeatedly in Scripture. Paul promises in 2 Tim 3:12, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” We must know going into it that the cost of discipleship is high, and we must be willing to endure the scorn of humanity as we follow Jesus. those who read the Gospel of Mark when it was first written would take great comfort in knowing that the persecutions that they faced were not a sign that God had abandoned them, but were in fact, part-in-parcel of the Christian life. Our brothers and sisters who live in what we call the 10-40 window today are also comforted by this realization. In America, we have been blessed with freedoms that have prevented us from facing harsh persecutions, though many of God’s people have still had to endure mocking and scorn, the loss of jobs and relationships, because of their faith in Christ. But I must say as I look at the winds of change blowing through our nation today that the security and freedoms we have taken for granted for a long time in this country are beginning to disappear, and perhaps within some of our lifetimes, we will also have to make costly decisions for the sake of Christ and the gospel. We must not wait until that day comes to determine if we will be willing to endure persecution for His sake. We must commit here and now that following Christ is more important to us than any consequence which may come our way because of our faith.

Fifth, in addition to the promise of blessings and persecutions in this life, Jesus promises to those who follow His call to discipleship that in the age to come, they will receive eternal life. This is not a universal promise for all people. It is offered to the one who makes the costly decision to follow Jesus, who makes the necessary sacrifices to follow Him, and who endures the persecutions that accompany the life of faith. But we remember that this life is brief in light of eternity, and if we will persevere and endure, we have eternity to enjoy the presence of God in His Kingdom. So Paul could say in 2 Cor 4, “Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

Finally, we come to the last verse in this section of text, wherein Jesus says, “But many who are first will be last, and the last, first.” In its context we see a very simple meaning for these words: There are many, like the Rich Young Ruler, who are first in the things of this world. He was a picture of earthly success, but in the end when he stands before God, he will no longer be first. The successes of this life will have evaporated, and he who was first will find that he has become last. And then there are those who are despised in this world, those who have abandoned all for the sake of Christ and endured the scorn of their persecutors. In that moment on the brink of eternity, they will find that it has not been in vain, for though they were last in the estimation of this world, they will find that they are first in the estimation of God, and will enter into life eternal in the Kindgom of God as the others are sadly turned away.

Perhaps this message find you today living like the Rich Young Ruler: successful, powerful, moral, but ultimately spiritually unfulfilled and wondering what its going to take to satisfy the hunger in your soul for the assurance of eternal life. Would you come running to Jesus and bow yourself before Him, see Him look lovingly toward you, and hear His call to follow? And when you hear that call, how will you respond? Will you let the pleasures and prosperity of this world slip from your hands and say, “Yes Lord, I will follow?” Or will you walk away sad, clinging to the treasures of this world and forsaking those of the world to come? What a pitiable sight to see someone walk away from the offer of eternal life! The Lord Jesus looks upon us all with love: He looks upon us with love from Calvary’s cross, where He endured suffering and shame and where He died for my sins and for yours. He looks upon us with love from the mouth of His empty tomb where He conquered death on our behalf so that we could enjoy the eternal life which He offers to us freely as a gift, if only we will receive Him. And lovingly He says to us, “One thing you lack … come, follow me.” We echo that call today and beckon you, if you have never committed yourself to following Him before, that you would do so today.

And then perhaps you find yourself having endured much sacrifice for the sake of Christ and wondering if it has all been in vain. You look perhaps with envy upon those who taste success in this world and wonder where the justice of God is when the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. Oh, hear the words of Jesus today as He says to you, “You haven’t given up anything that I can’t more than make up for!” Cherish the blessings of life in His covenant family, and the promise of eternal life awaiting you, knowing that though you may be last in the things of this world, you will be among the first in the life to come.

[1] James R. Edwards, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002),

[2] Adapted from Sinclair B. Ferguson, Let’s Study Mark (Carlisle, Penn.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), 165.

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