Sometimes when I am reading through the Gospels, Jesus really surprises me. He has this way of throwing these curve balls at my expectations of what He would say or do at times. Take His encounter with the rich young ruler (found in Matthew 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-31, and Luke 18:18-30) for example.
In the account, a wealthy young man approaches Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life.
Now his question is framed around a major false premise and the rest of his brief interaction with Jesus reveals other serious issues he had, but let us first ponder Jesus’ initial question and statement in His response. Here is Luke’s recording (v. 19) of how Jesus began His response:
“Why do you call Me good?” Jesus asked him. “No one is good but One —God.”
I’ll admit. For a while when I read this passage, Jesus’ response surprised me because…well…can I be transparent here…Jesus seems rather… frumpy. Here is a young guy asking Jesus a question that most of us would love people to ask us! Here is a guy who is initiating a conversation about the gospel with Jesus! And yet, at first glance, Jesus’ response seems a little snide.
And then to confuse me even more, the rest of Jesus’ response seems to be contrary to the gospel. He talks about keeping the commandments as if salvation is found in them. Then He tells the man to sell all he had as if charity leads to salvation.
So for a while, this account was one of those unhittable curve balls that twisted me up at the plate.
But here is what I came to understand in time – and what I hope you do as well if you don’t already see it – Jesus indeed shared the gospel with this man. He just missed it and I did for quite a while as well.
In fact, the gospel is imbedded securely in Jesus’ initial question and statement: Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One —God.
Let’s come back to this in a moment and unpack what the man said to Jesus to see what he was missing.
- What must I do? I really want to be gracious with the young man when it comes to this question. While it seems to reveal a works-based mentality in the man’s mind and heart, I have to give him the benefit of the doubt at least for a moment. After all, the crowd at Pentecost which was clearly convicted asked basically the same question of Peter (see Acts 2:37). But when you factor in the rest of what the man says and his poor decision at the end of the encounter, I think we have little choice but to recognize that this man indeed came from a works-based framework. He believed that there was something he could do to earn God’s favor. Sadly, he is not alone. One of Satan’s greatest lies is the belief that people can do something – anything – on their own to be right with God. From a works-based context, the answer to the man’s question is a resounding NOTHING! From a gospel-based context, it is an emphatic repent and believe!
- Which ones? Matthew records the man’s question about which commands to keep while Mark and Luke omit it. I suspect it was important to Matthew because he was writing to a Jewish audience who might share the same flawed thinking as the young man. It’s amazing how this seemingly benign question reveals a deep flaw in the man’s understanding of following God. Let me try to illustrate this way. (This is going to be far-fetched, but stay with me!) Imagine that my wife is out of town and I am home with my three children. As I am making them a healthy dinner, I forget to take the tv dinners out of their cardboard boxes before throwing them into the 600 degree oven. A few minutes later, I smell something burning and look up to notice the kitchen is on fire. Thinking fast, I call my wife for ideas on what to do. Her response is clear and emphatic: get the kids out of the house! At this point I reply with a question: “Which ones?” Now what do you suppose my wife would say? I know that is an absurd illustration, but I hope it helps you in turn see the absurdity of the man’s question. You see, “which ones” betrays the man’s thinking that some of God’s commands were more important than others. Or put another way, some were less important than others. Jesus tells him to obey the commandments and his gut response is to look for a loophole. Surely, God doesn’t expect him to keep all of the commands in the Old Testament, right? After all, there were 613 of them all told! And it is this thinking – that most of the Jewish leaders in that day shared – that revealed how far the man was from salvation. Instead of being condemned by his inability to keep even a fraction of the law’s commands, he graded himself on a curve and truly believed that God was pleased by his effort.
- I have kept them all. This claim dovetails with the previous question about which commands to keep. Notice that Jesus offers the man commands from the second part of the Ten Commandments – the part that deals with man’s relationship with one another – rather than the first part that deals with man’s relationship with God. Jesus is not intimating that these commands are in any way more important; instead He is trying to show the young man that He can’t even possibly keep these commands let alone the much more difficult commands to truly love and worship God alone. Do you think the man kept all of these commands from his youth as Mark records? Perhaps he could make an argument for keeping the first three – murder, adultery, and stealing – but surely not the final ones – lying and honoring his parents. Somehow, the man had rationalized his life and indeed believed he was righteous before God. (By the way, it is helpful for us to connect this encounter with the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus clarifies that our score card is not ultimately based on our behavior, but our hearts. We can rationalize and justify that we have never murdered someone – we haven’t physically taken someone’s life – but Jesus targets the anger in our hearts and declares that our anger alone condemns us. We don’t have to act on it in an external way to be guilty.)
- What do I sill lack? The man’s belief that he was truly righteous before God is revealed in this final question. Just like his bank account, the man looked at his life and believed that he had an overflow of credit before God and was lacking nothing. This is contrary to the gospel. The gospel compels us not to ask what we lack but what we have of our own that is of any value. Works-based thinking led the man to believe he had everything and lacked nothing. Gospel-based thinking leads us to know that we have nothing and lack everything apart from Christ.
The final piece of evidence of the man’s flawed thinking and heart? His final action. He walked away from Jesus. He could not exchange his wealth of temporary junk for the one true treasure – Jesus. Let this resonate in our hearts: every single possession that young man had vanished hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Many of his possessions didn’t even outlast the rest of his life. And yet, he clung to all of that instead of turning to Jesus.
Which takes us full-circle back to the gospel found in Jesus’ initial question and statement: Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One —God.
We now can see better what Jesus in His omniscience knew all along – that the young man was not as close to salvation as he thought he was. His sin and pride were hindering him from seeing the answer to his question that was right in front of him – or rather who was right in front of him. Mark and Luke both record that the young man addressed Jesus as “Good Teacher.” Had he only believed in his heart what rolled off of his tongue that day.
And that is why Jesus asks why the man called Him good and pointed out that only God is good. Jesus was trying to get the man to see that he had just answered his own question. Had he only recognized that Jesus is indeed worthy to be called “Good Teacher” because He is God he would have found salvation that day. Had he only grasped the goodness of God that is manifested not in holding us to the impossible task of obeying perfectly, but in extending us grace – amazing grace – that covers our ongoing failures. Had he only understood that he was an impoverished beggar standing before the Owner of all the riches of the universe.
The account ends tragically with the young man walking away from Jesus. I want to encourage you to imagine what that must have looked like that day and to sear that image in your heart and as you teach this session to your kids. As you continue to build into them, draw from this image for conviction, determination, and passion. Pour the gospel into your kids so that they don’t follow the flawed thinking of the young ruler. Point them to how good Jesus truly is. Pray that God uses you in some way to turn every one of your kids toward Jesus so that you never see a similar scene as the rich young man walking away in their lives.
Here is more help for leaders preparing for the March 1, 2015 session (Unit 31, Session 1) of The Gospel Project for Kids.
Brian Dembowczyk is the team leader for The Gospel Project for Kids. He served in local church ministry for over 16 years before coming to LifeWay in 2014. Brian earned an M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a D.Min. from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Brian and his wife, Tara, and their three children – Joshua, Hannah, and Caleb – live in Murfreesboro, TN, where Brian enjoys drinking coffee and teaching 1-3 graders at City Church.