A transaction for eternal life? (Luke 18:18-23)

POST OVERVIEW. An investigation into Luke’s account of the encounter between “rich young ruler” and the Lord Jesus. Why was this man not converted? How does this affect our evangelism?

Each of the synoptic gospels contains this encounter between Jesus and the “rich, young ruler.” Our young friend seems to ask the right question of the right Person and he seems to be genuinely interested in eternal life, yet, in the end, he walks away from Jesus empty-handed. What went wrong? What did he miss?

TWO APPROACHES TO THE ENCOUNTER

I want to take two different approaches to this episode with the rich young ruler. The first post will be the traditional one where we simply examine the text, studying this meeting between a religious young man and the Lord Jesus to see why some people never receive the gospel, even though they appear to have every reason to do so.

But in a second post will focus on Luke 18:22 and consider what we who are disciples of the Lord Jesus can learn about stewarding those things which the Lord has entrusted to us.

CONSIDERING THE ENCOUNTER ITSELF

As mentioned before, the most striking feature of this encounter between Jesus and this “rich young ruler” (RYR) is that this man who seemed so ripe for harvest and so eager “to inherit eternal life” went away from Jesus without it. There must be something here that requires deeper exploration, because for some reason, the Lord of glory did not convert this simple evangelistic opportunity. A closer look at this story reveals that the RYR’s claim to desire eternal life was only a passing whim.  

TWO DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES ON THE SAME ENCOUNTER

In this encounter, even though the young ruler and Jesus seem to be talking about the same thing using a common vocabulary, they are, in fact, seeing this encounter and its outcome from two very different perspectives. So, when the RYR expresses a desire for eternal life, instead of quickly answering his question, Jesus presents him with a series of tests to see if his desire is sincere.

So, first, Jesus tests the RYR to see if he understands Jesus’ true identity. Those who receive eternal life confess Jesus Christ as Lord, and they will only do that when they grasp that Jesus is incarnate deity, God in human form, the Word made flesh. The RYR has addressed Jesus as “good Teacher (Luke 18:18),” but does he understand that Jesus is divine? Jesus thus issues him a test, essentially asking the RYR, “Do you understand that I am God?” The man fails the first test and remains willfully ignorant of Jesus’ identity.

But also, it is telling that the RYR comes to Jesus for eternal life, not for an eternal relationship with the living God. It seems that the man expects the good Teacher to give him a short list of required behaviors so that he can check the boxes, nail down this eternal life thing, and get back to his wealth. As Simon the magician (Acts 8:18-19) wanted to obtain the Holy Spirit without saving faith in Christ, so the RYR wants to inherit eternal life without surrendering everything to Jesus. His thoughts are of a commercial transaction, a fair price for a desired good. Perhaps his thinking goes like this: “Good Teacher, I have a lot of money and can afford to give some of it away to gain eternal life. So, go ahead; name Your price and we can do this deal and You can move on and so can I.” The young man is interested in what the good Teacher can provide, not in the good Teacher Himself. But it is precisely an eternal relationship with Himself that Jesus is offering. To the one who declares Jesus as Lord, to the one who will bow before Him and obey His commands, Jesus gives Himself forever and He will never leave him or forsake him. The RYR must realize what we all must realize that Jesus is not selling eternal life, but He is calling people to deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Him (Luke 9:23). Jesus is offering an eternal relationship with the one true and living God to all those who will give away everything and submit to His lordship and follow Him.

Jesus next tests the young man’s awareness of his own sin and his consciousness of his sin’s consequences (18:20). Does the RYR realize that he is a sinner deserving God’s wrath and full judgment for his rebellion, or does he see himself as a decent chap who is better than most? In the parable that Jesus has just told in Luke 18:9-14, is the RYR the Pharisee or the tax collector? Our young friend’s response (18:21) reveals that he is the Pharisee in the parable. Thus, he fails another test.

A FINAL TEST

At this point in our story, this man wants to obtain eternal life without declaring Jesus as Lord, he wants eternal life apart from loving the One who gives eternal life, and he wants eternal life without confession of sin and repentance from sin. He wants eternal life on his own terms for his own ends. As an act of grace, Jesus gives the man one last opportunity. If our friend passes this last test, he will certainly obtain eternal life.

“Sell all you possess and distribute it to the poor, and come, follow Me (18:22).”

This is a direct command from the Lord of the universe. Like all biblical commands, there are only two possible responses, obedience or disobedience. There are three parts to the Lord’s command and the man must obey all three parts. The RYR’s hardness of heart is starkly revealed in his refusal to obey any of them. Jesus commanded him to sell all he possesses and he flatly refused. Obviously, he had nothing to distribute to the poor. And, most damning of all, when commanded to follow the King of kings, the RYR walks away. He disobeys Jesus and turns his back on Him because he wants to keep his money and his position and his respectability much more than he wants eternal life.

So, what at first appeared to be a man ripe for harvest, a man whom the Father was drawing (John 6:44), turned out to be someone whose heart was still hard and who was only willing to inherit eternal life if it cost him nothing.

APPLICATION TO OUR OWN EVANGELISM

As we reflect on this story and its surprising outcome, it may be instructive to consider how this bears on our own evangelism. Because my own evangelistic opportunities are few, my tendency is to interpret any interest in the gospel as an indicator of saving faith, but this story of Jesus and the RYR says otherwise. Our Lord tested this man’s enthusiastic question (18:18) to see if he understood what eternal life would cost him. Therefore, as we encounter those who appear curious about the gospel or about church or about Jesus, we would be wise to be cautiously optimistic. Does this person understand that Jesus demands everything from those who would be His disciples? Will you bow down to Jesus Christ as Lord and obey His commands? Do you acknowledge your sin and will you repent of it, knowing that Jesus has atoned for the sins of His people? These types of questions can be helpful in determining if this person asking about “eternal life” is also willing to pay the price to obtain it.

Soli Deo gloria            rmb                 1/18/2023                   #612

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