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The man who left Jesus sad

Dr. Jim Denison is the CEO of Denison Forum.
His Daily Article and podcast globally reach over 160,000 subscribers. Dr. Denison guides readers to discern today’s news—biblically. He is the author of multiple books and has taught on the philosophy of religion and apologetics at several seminaries. Prior to launching Denison Forum in 2009, he pastored churches in Texas and Georgia. He holds a Ph.D and a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jim and his wife, Janet, live in Dallas, Texas. They have two sons and four grandchildren.

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Topical Scripture: Matthew 19:16–26

Delivered February 9, 2020

National Pizza Day is today. Americans should celebrate this day, since we eat one hundred acres of pizza a day, 350 slices a second.

In less fattening news, this morning we were treated to the first supermoon of 2020 as well. Native Americans called it the “snow” moon because it usually coincides with heavy snow.

Pizza won’t cost you much and looking at the moon won’t cost you anything. But a somewhat more expensive news item caught my eye this week: six homes sold in the United States last year for more than $100 million.

That’s the highest number of sales at that price for any given year in US history. One of them sold for $150 million. It’s known as the Beverly Hillbillies mansion, since its exterior was used to film the show’s credits.

About twice that number are on the market today. One goes for $165 million, with a twenty-thousand-square-foot main house and two additional two-story structures for guests. Another house for sale at $115 million was once owned by Sonny and Cher. A $110 million listing has a workout area described as a sports complex, complete with a chandelier.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau noted in 1750, “Money buys everything, except morality and citizens.” By contrast, Gertrude Stein said, “Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping.”

Today, we’ll decide who was right.

If the world were a village of one hundred people, sixty-one of us would be Asian, fourteen would be African, eleven would be European, nine would be from Latin or South America, and five would be from North America. At least eighteen of us would be unable to read or write. Thirty-three of us would have cellular phones; sixteen of us would be on the internet. There would be eighteen cars in our village. Sixty-three of us would have inadequate sanitation.

You and I are members of the wealthiest generation in history. But research shows that our emotional well-being levels off once we achieve an annual income of $75,000. Additional income does not produce additional happiness. We need something more than money.

We’re watching Jesus changes lives of people who are willing to be changed. Today we meet a man known to history as the Rich Young Ruler. We’ll listen to their conversation and watch the man leave Jesus “sorrowful” (Matthew 19:22). Then we’ll decide if we’ll do the same.

Leaving Jesus “sorrowful”

Our story begins, “And behold, a man came to him [Jesus]” (v. 16). What do we know about him? Matthew tells us he’s young, Luke says he’s a ruler, and Matthew, Mark, and Luke all say that he is wealthy. Let’s explore further.

Luke 18:18 tells us that he was a “ruler,” someone in charge of a Jewish synagogue. A layman elected by his peers to this position. He governed the affairs of their local synagogue, selected the preachers and readers for the services, presided over the elders (a kind of board of directors), and generally ran the institution. A tremendous honor and great religious accomplishment.

Matthew 19:20 says that he is “young.” He had to be at least thirty to be a synagogue ruler; he’s probably just that, most likely the age of Jesus. He’s successful at an early age, with his whole life before him.

And he’s wealthy. In fact, Matthew 19:22 says that he had “great possessions.” The word means that he possessed fields, houses, and other property as well as great financial means. A real estate tycoon, we would say today.

In the eyes of the world, he’s just like us.

  • We’re religious. In fact, your attendance at church puts you in the top 36 percent of America, the average weekly church attendance. If you go to Bible study weekly, this puts you in the top 14 percent.
  • We’re not all young, but the median age of Americans is 38.2 years.
  • We may not think we’re wealthy, but we are. The average household income in America is $59,039.

Like this rich young ruler, most of the world would consider us to be religious, young, and wealthy as well.

But all his success is not enough for his soul: “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:19).

Like most Americans, he thinks that eternal life is something we get from the things we do. If you’re good and believe in God, that’s enough. So, Jesus shows him that this won’t work. “Keep the commandments,” he tells him. He lists the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and fifth, then he summarizes them with Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The man says that he’s kept all these. So Jesus shows him that he has not: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (v. 21). If you truly, perfectly, completely love your neighbor as yourself, you would sell what you have and give it to him. If you want to get eternal life through what you do, this is what you must do.

But the man won’t do it: “When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (v. 22). He was the only man in all the Scriptures who came to Jesus in faith and left sad.

Jesus’ actions must have astonished his disciples. Here, at long last, is one of the elite ready to follow him. Someone with means and influence. Someone who can advance Jesus’ movement enormously. But Jesus sends him away sad.

Now he shocks them even further: “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 23). They thought just the opposite—wealth is a sign of God’s blessing and favor; the wealthy have the best chance of heaven. But they don’t.

In fact, it’s impossible: “Again I tell you, 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. 24). Some have suggested that the “eye of a needle” meant a small door in the city wall through which a camel could crawl. Others say that by changing one letter in “camel” we get “rope,” and that’s Jesus’ point. But it’s not.

When the bewildered disciples ask, “Who then can be saved?” (v. 25). Jesus is blunt: “With man this is impossible” (v. 26a).

As impossible as shoving a camel through the eye of a needle. We cannot do it. We cannot keep the commandments and get to God. No matter our wealth or prosperity, our religious accomplishment or social status, our youth or energy. With man it is impossible to “get eternal life.”

But here’s the good news: “but with God all things are possible” (v. 26b).

How to leave Jesus happy

Now, what does this story say to us today? Let’s apply God’s word through two questions.

First, are you willing to follow Jesus anywhere? Can he send you anywhere, to do anything, to talk to anyone, to give anything you have to anyone in need?

If you will, be encouraged. You are doing exactly what Jesus wanted this rich young ruler to do, and all of us as well. You will leave Jesus happy today. If you will follow Jesus anywhere, and do anything for him, then for you the message is done today.

But if you’re not there yet, let me ask a second question: What is keeping you from complete commitment to Christ?

For this man, it was his money. Note that this was the only person Jesus ever asked to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor. Not Nicodemus, or Zacchaeus, or Joseph of Arimathea, three famous wealthy men of the gospels. Just this man.

The reason was simple: his possessions possessed him. He had to sell them to gain his soul. This is not a condition for everyone to follow Jesus. But it was essential for this man, since his possessions possessed him.

Would you sell your possessions? If not, they possess you. Let them go today. Give them over to Jesus. Tell him that you’ll sell anything he wants you to sell, do with them whatever he says. Give them to him, right now.

Perhaps the issue keeping you from complete commitment to Jesus isn’t your possessions. Then, what is it? What possesses you?

Is it your career? Your vocational ambitions, which you are afraid will be compromised if you fully follow Jesus? Do you fear that you won’t get the promotion, or the position, or the status you want so much? If so, ask yourself: is it really wise to trade a forty-year career for the eternal rewards reserved only for those who fully follow Jesus? Is this a good career move?

Is it your time? I don’t need to sell my possessions, but I do need to sell my calendar. I must occasionally remember that the One who died for my sins loves me and knows far better than I do how to make my life significant. Every day I must surrender that day’s plans and agendas to his Lordship. What about you?

Is it your friends? When you have to choose between popularity with them and pleasing Jesus, does Jesus lose? Remember that Jesus died for you—did they? Would they? Remember that he knows the future, and all that is best for you—do they? Remember that he will be there for you through the hardest times of your life—will they? Remember that your eternal reward in heaven is based on pleasing Jesus, not popularity with your friends. Is putting friends before Jesus the right thing to do?

Is it your family? Under God, my family is my first priority. I will put them before my work, my ambitions, my friends. But will I put them before God? Will you? Can God ask you to do something which would appear to hurt your family? To make a sacrifice which will cause them to sacrifice as well? Know that he loves your family more even than you do. But know also that following him means putting him before everyone else, even them. Have you done this?

Conclusion

Giving everything to follow Jesus is worth the decision. He wants your best, every time. And he can give you a significance and joy in living which no possessions, career, ambitions, friends, or family can offer. Others will see Christ in you, if Christ is truly your Lord.

John Stott was one of the most effective pastors and theologians of our generation. Consider his observation:

“When we meet some people, we know immediately and instinctively that they are different. We are anxious to learn their secret. It is not the way they dress or talk or behave, although it influences these things. It is not that they have affixed a name tag to themselves and proclaimed themselves the adherent of a particular religion or ideology. It is not even that they have a strict moral code which they faithfully follow. It is that they know Jesus Christ, and that he is a living reality to them. They dwell in him and he dwells in them. He is the source of their life and it shows in everything they do.

“These people have an inner serenity which adversity cannot disturb; it is the peace of Christ. They have a spiritual power that physical weakness cannot destroy; it is the power of Christ. They have a hidden vitality that even the process of dying and death cannot quench; it is the life of Christ.”

I want this. Don’t you?

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