Mark 10:17-31 | The Rich Young Man
17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’ ” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
In Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade, Indiana’s father searches for eternal life. He’s after the Holy Grail. But he’s lost during his search. So Indy goes to find him. Through obstacles that include Nazis and snakes, he finally makes his way into the presence of the Grail. But it’s hidden among dozens of false grails. Only by drinking from it can he find the true one. A drink from a false grail leads to instant death. Indiana Jones must choose wisely.
Of course, there is no Holy Grail in a cave somewhere. But there is a reason a movie was made out of that idea. The entire world is looking for a fountain of youth, a Holy Grail, life eternal. And the world is full of deadly false hopes.
The gospel of Mark is something like Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade. There is a search, there are snakes, there are those who are lost and those who are found, and there is a man on a journey to find eternal life. And we meet him here in Mark 10. In fact, he appears in all three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Matthew tells us he’s young. Luke tells us he’s a ruler. All three tell us he’s rich, and show us this search for eternal life is an ancient one.
This man met Jesus face to face to ask about eternal life. We’re going to explore that meeting today under three headings.
The path of eternal life. (vv. 17-22)
The impossibility of eternal life. (vv. 23-27)
The promise of eternal life. (vv. 28-31)
The path of eternal life (vv. 17-22)
Have you heard the story of the blind men? They stand beside a large object, describing it to one another by touch. The first says, “It’s long and slender.” The second says, “It’s short and thick.” The third says, “It’s small and fluffy.” What are they touching? An elephant. The first touches its trunk. The second, a leg. The third, the tail. But they touch the same thing. The moral is they’re all right but think the others are wrong. We have limited perspective and subjective experiences, all of which may be equally true.
That’s how our culture describes the path to heaven. All roads lead there. Listen to almost any funeral sermon and you come away thinking the only requirement to get to heaven is to die. Everyone’s going. Why? Because they were a good person. They did more good than bad. It doesn’t matter what they believed. Hell is only for really bad people.
That’s not what the Bible says. Not all who think they’re going to heaven will get there. It’s not a wide path; it’s a narrow one. Not a wide but a narrow door. Some claiming to know Jesus will meet him at the end to find he never knew them. We cannot make our own way. We must follow God’s way, and his way is through faith and trust in Jesus alone. If we refuse him, we lose eternal life. Enter the example of the rich young man of Mark 10, a man searching for a way into heaven.
Now, he came to the right person, didn’t he? And verse 17 shows he came the right way—he ran and knelt before him. He respected Jesus. He was like so many who came to Jesus before, falling at his feet, begging for help. But he comes not for a cure to an illness, nor for an exorcism. He comes for a different reason. He has a question. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
He was spiritually troubled. For all his works thus far in life, he still sensed a lack. I wonder if you’ve been there? Maybe that’s why you’re here this morning. You’ve been a good person. You’ve followed the rules, obeyed the laws, loved others as best you can. You want to please God, and you want heaven when you die, because who wants hell? Yet, there’s a lack, an ache, an uncertainty that you can’t quiet or still. What do you do with that? Where can you find an answer to that longing? “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
It’s easy to think those first in this world have answers to life that the rest of us don’t, as if youth, wealth, and status remove certain needs. But this man proves you can have all this world has to offer yet still lack hope.
Tom Brady is the NFL’s greatest all-time quarterback, with six Super Bowl championships and accomplishments that run a full page long. In 2005, after his third Super Bowl victory, 60 Minutes did an interview with him. During that interview, Brady said, “There’s times where I’m not the person that I want to be. Why do I have three Super Bowl rings, and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, ‘Hey man, this is what is.’ I reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me, I think: ‘it’s gotta be more than this.’ I mean this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be. I mean I’ve done it. I’m 27. And what else is there for me?”
The interviewer asked, “What’s the answer?”
Brady responded, “I wish I knew. I wish I knew.”
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Everyone asks that question. As much as we like the idea of everyone finding their own path, too few find it. We need certainty that only God can give. Until then, no matter how much we have, all we can see is our lack. That’s all this rich young man saw. He was the Tom Brady of his day, still not the person he wanted to be.
Jesus saw his lack as well. And, ultimately, that lack is the reason verse 22 says the man walked away sorrowful. Other translations say grieved. How did he get there? How did he go from optimism to disheartening so quickly? Here’s how: he came to Jesus to ask a question, but he wouldn’t follow him to find an answer. Do you see the difference? At the trailhead of eternal life’s path, he turned away. He came to the right person in the right way but wouldn’t repent and believe because he was looking for something to do, not someone to follow. He wanted to make his own way, but there is only one way into eternal life, and Jesus was there to show him. But he didn’t see it because he trusted in himself rather than Jesus.
Like so many others he called him “Good Teacher.” Many people do that. They like his example. You know, morality, loving people, and so on. They respect him as a good teacher, but that’s it. So Jesus asked why he called him that. Doesn’t he know only God is good? Jesus isn’t saying he isn’t God. He’s testing him. Does he really think he’s a good teacher? Can he still call him that when the answer to his question comes? You can’t call Jesus a good teacher until you’re ready to accept him as God. Was this man ready?
We see soon enough that he isn’t. He looked for some spiritual something to add to his life—like an advanced degree, or a new, healthy lifestyle. Just add a little Jesus, get some sleep, all better in the morning. But Jesus doesn’t work like that. Jesus doesn’t point you on the way; Jesus is the way. He’s not an addition—more like a destruction. He will destroy your life and remake it in himself. That’s why Jesus says it’s like being born again. Christianity isn’t an add-on; it’s a whole new life. If you want eternal life, it comes only through the life God gives by his Son through his Spirit. You must surrender your righteousness for his.
So, Jesus deconstructs this man’s idea of himself. He wants to know what to do. Jesus tells him. Look at their conversation in verses 19-20. “You know the commandments” Jesus lists some, summarizing God’s law. The man says he’s obeyed them from his youth. Notice what Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “No, you haven’t.” He doesn’t say that at all. If this man were a really bad guy, Jesus probably would’ve pointed that out. But he wasn’t a bad guy. By outward appearances, he did obey. He was a good guy. And that was his problem. He was trusting in his goodness, and he thought there was some other good he could do to inherit eternal life.
So Jesus plays by his rules. He says, “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Go. Sell. Give. Come. Follow. Here’s his path. But it’s a hard one because it’s an explosion of his entire life. How so? Well, he says he obeyed the law. Fine. But he lacked one thing. What thing?
What’s the most important law? What’s the first commandment? “You shall have no other gods before me.”
“So,” Jesus says, “If you’ve obeyed, obey this. If you call me Good and only God is Good, obey this. Make me your only possession. Attach your life to me alone. Go. Sell. Give. Come. Follow. Then you’ll have eternal life because you’ll have me. I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
Jesus laid out the path before him. It’s the same for us all. We come with nothing, in total dependence on God, like a child coming to his father, knowing he will provide. But he couldn’t do it. It was too much for him. He was disheartened, sorrowful, grieved. Why? Because he had great possessions. He wanted life abundant but couldn’t part with the abundance in his life. Pastor Tim Keller says, “When Jesus called this young man to give up his money, the man started to grieve, because money was for him what the Father was for Jesus. It was the center of his identity. To love his money would have been to lose himself.” But that’s exactly what Jesus calls us to do. We must lose our self to have Jesus.
The path opened before this young man. The answer to his question was there. And he couldn’t go. Why? Well, that takes us to our next point.
The impossibility of eternal life (vv. 23-27)
If that entire episode disturbs you, good. It should. It’s a warning. Jesus looked at his disciples and said, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. Money was a sign of God’s blessing. How could this man’s money be his problem?
But lest we take this as some rejection of the wealthy, Jesus expands his comment. “Children [Notice the assuring address], how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! [Notice: no wealth mentioned] 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.” And they were exceedingly astonished. They asked, “Then who can be saved?”
Now maybe you’ve heard that Jesus is referring to a narrow entry gate into Jerusalem called the Eye of the Needle. A camel could get through it, but it had to bend down and squeeze through. It was difficult, but it was possible. That’s not what Jesus meant. A camel was the biggest animal in Israel. The eye of a needle was the smallest opening. Jesus is saying, “You know what’s absolutely impossible? That big camel fitting through that tiny hole. You know what’s even more impossible? Someone getting into heaven.”
What is Jesus doing? He’s telling us that salvation is not something man can accomplish. No matter how much we do, we can never gain heaven. We’re a big, smelly camel trying to fit through the narrow holiness God requires. And we just can’t do it. We’re too fat with sin, too lumpy with unrighteousness. It’s impossible to squeeze ourselves into heaven.
Our best and brightest, our most valuable gifts, our most righteous works amount next to God’s holiness as nothing, even less than nothing. Our bigness doesn’t buy heaven. It’s not for sale.
So sell it all. Downsize. Minimize. Simplify. Make our life as small and laser-focused as a thread. Then perhaps we can make it through that needle’s eye. But our smallness doesn’t let us slip through heaven’s doors either.
Our hearts are hard, and our sin runs deeper than our actions; it lives in our blood. It’s hereditary. As Paul realized after his conversion, outward obedience to the law is nothing compared to inward disobedience (Phil. 3:6). There is no earthly cure; only a heavenly one. “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” What things?
Things like making fishermen fishers of men.
Things like casting out an unclean spirit to make a man clean.
Things like healing all who are sick and demon-possessed in one night of miraculous power.
Things like touching an untouchable and making him clean.
Things like telling a paralytic to rise and walk.
Things like collecting a tax collector into the kingdom of God.
Things like restoring a withered hand.
Things like calming a storm at sea.
Things like healing a man with a demon.
Things like drying a discharge of blood that no one could stop for twelve years.
Things like raising a little girl to silence those who doubt.
Things like taking a few loaves and fishes and making a feast in the desert for thousands.
Things like walking on water.
Things like restoring hearing to the deaf and sight to the blind and a right mind to a boy with an unclean spirit.
Things like upholding God’s law, teaching with authority, and calling sinners to repentance.
Things like that, which we have seen so far in Mark’s gospel and show that for all our impossibility Jesus has storehouses of possibility. Jesus came to make a way. With man it is impossible, but not with God. Not with Jesus.
“Then who can be saved?” You can.
But before you can be saved, Jesus must deal with you—the real you, not the dressed-up you. He’ll strip you down first. C.S. Lewis illustrates in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. (Narnia series)
Eustace is in love with his treasures. One night, he falls asleep with a gold bracelet on his arm and transforms into a dragon, becoming an outward manifestation of his inward self. The bracelet gets tighter and tighter, and he can’t get it off. He’s driven from humanity and in a moment of loneliness begins to cry. Aslan, the lion, the Jesus figure, arrives and asks Eustace to follow him.
They go down to a well. The water clear and inviting. Eustace senses the well can heal him. But before getting in, Aslan tells him to undress. Of course, dragons don’t wear clothes. But dragons are kind of like snakes. He realizes Aslan meant he must shed his skin first. So he starts scratching and scratching. He says, “And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, or as if I was a banana. In a minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bath.”
But his scales grew back. So he goes through the exercise again. But it grows back again and again. Aslan says, “You will have to let me undress you.” Eustace was afraid, but he saw the task was impossible in his own hands.
“I was afraid of his claws,” Eustace said, “but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off...
“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off — just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt — and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me — I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again...
“After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me...in new clothes.”
The rich young man was Eustace of his day. He needed to be de-dragoned. We all do. Jesus has to strip us to save us. He has to remove to redeem. He saves the us underneath the stuff we put on top to protect. He saves as we really are, not as who we want to be. He removes our false savior—our false Holy Grail—and replaces it with himself. Jesus is our only hope of heaven.
That was the offer Jesus made to this young man. But he didn’t trust Jesus enough to lay down and let him tear deep. But you can.
With you it is impossible. But not with God. Not with Jesus. Why not lay down all we have built up—all our monuments of righteousness, all our grand obedience and good deeds, our wealth and possessions, and let Jesus tear deep. It might feel like you’ve entered hell, but he’s giving you heaven, which leads to our third point.
The promise of eternal life (vv. 28-31)
The disciples were nervous. Look at verse 28. Peter says, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” He’s saying, “What about us, Jesus? Do we have eternal life?” Jesus cuts him off. When we start down the path of “But God, have I done enough?” we need Jesus to interrupt us. Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”
Jesus isn’t angry with Peter. He comforts him. Remember what Jesus said to the rich young man. He promised treasures in heaven (v. 21). But then Jesus does something interesting. He responds to Peter not first with the treasures to come, but with treasures to be enjoyed now. The promises of God always have both present and future implications. When we follow Christ, we lack nothing, no matter how much we give up. We cannot out-give God.
And He doesn’t say, “Well, just wait, and you’ll get your reward one day.” Though that’s true—we will receive an inheritance in the life to come that will outshine the brightest treasure of earth—what Jesus says is that we will receive in this life far more than what we gave up. When we give something up for Jesus, Jesus gives something back to us that is better than whatever we sacrificed. We have a hard time believing that, don’t we?
We left our house? God gives his church. We left our brothers and sisters and mother? God gives us one another, brothers and sisters, and mothers in Christ. We left our land where we were comfortable? God provides wherever we go. What did he say to the Apostle Paul when he faced persecution? “Do not be afraid…for I have many in this city who are my people.” (Acts 18:9-10)
Jesus is promising us something—that eternal life is as real as your real life right now.
But, of course, eternal life will be better by far, and we should look forward to it. What we have here is weighed down by sin. Though Jesus saves us and remakes us in his image now, we’re not fully there yet. We won’t be until the resurrection. In this world, even the sanctified things are old and used up. But one day our treasures in heaven will be revealed. I like how Ray Ortlund puts it. “There will be nothing old, dilapidated, impure, or worn out in the radiant kingdom of Christ. We will encounter nothing that has a sad memory associated with it. Everything we experience, every new association and memory, will exponentially increase, purify, and intensify our joy forever, since it all comes from the hand of God.”
But, you say, it might be costly. It hurts to give things up now. It does. When Jesus listed the things we give up and the things we get back, he does something really interesting. He took one thing away and added one thing in. “There is no one who has left father…” He took that away. “Who will not receive a hundredfold…persecutions.” He added that in. Why? That doesn’t sound like good news. But it is! They correspond to one another. If we leave our father to follow Jesus, we don’t lose a father; we gain a new one—a heavenly one, the one all in Christ share. And if we follow Jesus, we will have persecutions. Paul says in Romans 8 that all who are led by God’s Spirit are sons of God who cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit bears witness that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. Here’s the point: the persecutions we face as followers of Jesus prove we have a heavenly Father above. In Christ, we lose nothing, even if things are stripped from us by persecution. Suffering for Christ’s sake and for the gospel proves we truly belong to God. It’s the way of Jesus.
Others will persecute us. They will think we are fools. But the only fool is the one who refuses to follow Jesus. The only fool is the one who turns away from eternal life for this half-rate life we live now.
In 1956, Jim Elliot proved who a fool really is. As a promising young man he left his family and ministry opportunities in what he called the “well-fed” American church to share the gospel with an unreached people group in Ecuador. He knew the danger. Before he even had a chance to sit down with them, they met him at the river bank and thrust a spear into his heart, killing him. A few months before he went, he wrote this sentence in his journal. “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
“See, we have left everything and followed you.” Did Jim Elliot waste his life?
When we follow Jesus, even in giving up everything, we lose nothing. John D. Rockefeller built an empire. He was one of the world’s richest men. When he died, someone asked his accountant, “How much did he leave?” His reply: “He left all of it.” As missionary C.T. Studd said, "Only one life, 'twill soon be past, only what's done for Christ will last". “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
Do you know why, ultimately, the young man walked away sorrowful? Because he walked away from Jesus. But you don’t have to.
Before we end, look back at verse 21. There’s a little phrase I kind of skipped over. After the man said he’d kept the law—look what it says—“Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”
Why did Jesus love him? Or rather, when did Jesus love him? Did he love him when he came in reverence, falling at his feet? Did he love him after he called him Good Teacher? Well, yes, Jesus loved him then, but that’s not when Mark mentions it. He mentions it after the man said he obeyed the law. Why then? Because Jesus loves us in our most vulnerable place. The very place where you’re the farthest from God is the very place Jesus loves you most, because he came to die for that sin. He came to redeem you from it. Aslan came to Eustace when he was thick with skin.
You know, nothing here tells us this young man was even aware of Christ’s love for him. Are you aware of his love for you? This man thought God was waiting for him to achieve something else. But while he sought another road to earn heaven, God sent a Redeemer to give heaven. He had no idea how close he was to the Kingdom. Jesus was there before him, full of gospel love. All he had to do was follow, and life would be his.
So, how do you get eternal life? You look to Jesus, the path, the possibility, and the promise. You lay down and let him save you, placing yourself in his care, following him in repentance and faith. And though it makes you last in this world, he makes you first in his.
Here’s what I know: Jesus loves you. It may seem like he’s pushing you away with his call to follow. His word is hard for sinners like us. But he’s not pushing you away. He’s calling you in. He’s stripping hell away. He’s offering heaven, if you’ll have it.