You Lack One Thing
The story begins with a man running up to Jesus and kneeling before him and asking, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Maybe some in the room hear that question and think, This sermon isn’t for me. You’re a secular person, interested only in the here and now, and you think, Really? Eternal life? This man’s question is not even a concern to me.
At first pass, you may not think you’re interested. But pause for just a minute and ponder it. If you’re honest, you’ll admit there are times when the secular explanation of the world simply does not fit the depths of human experience. When scientific naturalism does not explain the compelling beauty of art or story, or even the power of a peaceful moment. And you’re not alone. More and more secular people are willing to say that they do often experience a kind of supra-natural meaning and a longing for something beyond this life — something like “eternal life” — that secularism cannot explain.
The admissions now are becoming so common that philosophers are coining terms for it. Charles Taylor calls it “fullness” — the sense that human life is greater than science can explain. Philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly call it “The Whoosh.” Tim Keller summarizes this “fullness” or “whoosh” like this:
Sometimes one experiences a fullness in which the world suddenly seems charged with meaning, coherence, and beauty that break in through our ordinary sense of being in the world. Some who experience this know unavoidably that there is infinitely more to life than just physical health, wealth, and freedom. There is a depth and wonder and some kind of Presence above and beyond ordinary life. It may make us feel quite small and even unimportant before it, and yet also hope filled and unworried about the things that usually make us anxious. (Making Sense of God, 18)
Maybe the question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is just as relevant as ever, and this interaction that Jesus had with a young, urban professional almost two thousand years ago has something to say to you tonight. Maybe it’s not all that foolish, but actually a flash of brilliance, to ask a famous religious teacher like Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
So let’s look, then, at how Jesus responds, first to the man and then to his disciples who are standing by. There are three layers to his answer about eternal life.
1. You Cannot Earn Eternal Life
The man asks his question, but Jesus isn’t just a quick answer guy. He’s a teacher. In verse 27, Jesus will say clearly, “With man it is impossible.” But let’s see how he gets there as we follow the story from verses 17–25.
Watch how Jesus’s response keeps escalating, from first a hint, to finally an expressly stated impossibility. The hint is verse 18, when he says, “No one is good except God alone.” The man could have heard the answer when Jesus said, “No one is good except God alone.” If you’re going to come into eternal life, it will not be through you earning or achieving it. The man’s question assumes there’s something he can do. He says, “What must I do?” Jesus is ready to disavow that right away. So first he goes after the man’s performance, and then his possessions. And in doing so, he makes plain for us two pathways that do not end in eternal life: what you can do for God and what you have and can give to him.
Not with Performance
First is performance, or our obedience or doing good. Jesus says, “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.’” Now murder, adultery, stealing, lying, honoring father and mother — those are all from the Ten Commandments, but one sticks out: “Do not defraud.” This is not one of the Ten. This is Jesus’s application to this rich man. And I suspect Jesus nails him on this one. But even then the man answers, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” Be careful before you disdain this man too quickly. His naïveté is easy to look down on – until we realize how prone we are to be just like this.
But amazingly, Jesus, who is good — not like this man, and not like us — doesn’t look down on him. He doesn’t disdain him. He doesn’t despise him. He loves him. Verse 21: “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” We take great encouragement from this, that even when Jesus could snicker at, and scorn, our lack of self-knowledge, instead of looking down at us, he looks at us with love. And this is not uncharacteristic of Jesus. We’ve seen this before in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus having pity (1:41) and compassion (6:34; 8:2; 9:22). This is who Jesus is and how he handles annoying, inconvenient, and frustrating people.
Not with Possessions
So obedience and good deeds — performance — cannot earn eternal life. But then Jesus goes after wealth and possessions (which, for this man, is the heart issue). Verses 21–22: “‘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.’ Disheartened by the saying, [the man] went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
Jesus hinted at it with “no one is good,” then he challenged him with “do not defraud.” Now he puts his finger right on what’s keeping this man from eternal life: “sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Doubtless this man thinks his great possessions will be an asset to God’s kingdom, not a liability. Jesus’s disciples think so. Once the man goes away, Jesus turns to his disciples and says in verse 23, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And how do they respond? “The disciples were amazed at his words” — because they’re thinking wealth is an advantage. Don’t we want the rich guy? Doesn’t God?
Jesus senses their amazement, and doubles down: “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” Now the disciples are “exceedingly astonished,” verse 26, and they say, “Then who can be saved?” If it’s essentially impossible for a rich man, how much more so common folk like us? They’re getting the point. “With man it is impossible” (verse 27).
Why the camel and the needle? It’s a jarring way of saying it’s impossible. A camel cannot go through the eye of a needle. Perhaps you’ve heard someone try to explain Jesus’s image here by saying “the eye of the needle” was a low gate in Jerusalem, and a camel would have to go to its knees and shuffle to get through. That totally misses Jesus’s point in the passage. The point isn’t that a rich man has to go to his knees and shuffle to get into heaven, but that he cannot. It is impossible with him. Not through his performance. Not through his possessions. And if not the rich, with their assets, the disciples ask, then who?
So to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’s answer is you cannot do. You cannot earn it. Good performance can’t do it, nor can great possessions. “With man it is impossible.”
However, Jesus has more to say. He’s not done yet.
2. Only God Can Give Eternal Life
Verse 27 is the main point and most important statement in the passage. After the disciples have been “exceedingly astonished” at the camel and the needle, and have asked, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus answers, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”
It is such good news that Jesus has more to say than simply, “With man, salvation — eternal life — is impossible.” This is what we Christians call “the good news.” All things are possible with God, even this — even rescue from our rebellion against God, even eternal life.
Notice how the question has now changed from “What must I do?” to “Who can be saved?” To the question “What must I do to earn eternal life?” Jesus answers you cannot. And to the question, “Who can be saved?” Jesus answers those whom God saves. We cannot get ourselves to God by our doing; only God can bring us to himself. But how?
What Jesus hasn’t made clear yet is how eternal life is possible. Yes, God can do for humans what we cannot do for ourselves, but how does he do it? And how we do get access to it? These are the pressing questions, and we’ll come back to them, but one of Jesus’s disciples, Peter, instead of asking for more details, is eager to confirm that he’s on the right side. The rich man walked away because he was unwilling to part with his great possessions, but now Peter points out to Jesus, “See, we have left everything and followed you” (verse 28).
How does Jesus respond? Again, when he could have responded with disdain, he loves him. He has more good news for the disciples. Not only is God able to rescue us and give us eternal life, but now, as Jesus will say in verses 29–31, any sacrifices we make in the process will be far surpassed by what we receive from God. And sacrifices will be necessary. Jesus welcomes all, and affirms none. What is the heart issue for you? What are you trying to keep Jesus away from?
3. God’s Rewards Will Far Outweigh Your Sacrifices
Here’s what Jesus says to us in verses 29–31:
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.”
Jesus turns the world upside down. “The first will be last; the last first.”
Riches in this world do not mean riches forever, and poverty in this world does not mean poverty forever. This life is not all there is, but just the prelude to eternal life. And sacrifices made here, for Jesus’s sake and for his message of eternal life, God will repay, he says, a hundredfold here. Don’t miss this: Jesus does not say, “Sacrifices here, hundredfold in the next life.” He says, “Hundredfold in this life, and then —” what? If God makes up for every loss here a hundredfold here, what do we say about how he makes up for it eternally? A thousandfold? A millionfold? We have a term for it: “eternal life.”
Maybe you profess to be secular and think you think eternal life is a myth. Or maybe you profess to be a Christian, but you’re mainly interested in the hundredfold here and now. And just to be clear, when we talk about the hundredfold here and now, we’re not talking about the so-called “prosperity gospel,” that God gives us health, wealth, and material prosperity in this life. No, the hundredfold in this life is deeper than that. And better than that. More satisfying than that. It’s more satisfying than a mere physical house; it’s spiritual home. A place you really belong. It’s more satisfying than mere physical brothers and sisters and mothers and children. It’s true family. People who genuinely care about you, and have your eternal good in mind — and in particular, a heavenly Father. And even as it comes with persecutions in this life, we are not alone. We have a spiritual home and spiritual brothers and sisters and mothers and children. And all this, just in this life. But what God offers in this life pales in comparison to what’s coming.
And if what we receive in this life is a hundredfold, then what can we say about what is to come? What will it mean to have God make all things new, to prepare for us a new heavens and new earth, and a city, like no city before it, where we dwell in true peace with God himself? What will it mean to have him wipe away every tear, and for death to be no more? For there to be no more mourning, nor crying, not pain anymore? What will we call it? Jesus calls it “eternal life” (verse 30). Which brings us back full circle to the rich young man’s question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
How God Makes It Possible
I said a few minutes ago that while Jesus does make it clear that eternal life is impossible with man, but not with God, he doesn’t say how. As we close, let me point out two small but important details we’ve passed over so far.
First, this story begins in verse 17 with these words: “As [Jesus] was setting out on his journey . . .” This encounter with the rich young man has a specific context. Jesus is headed somewhere. He’s on a journey. To where? Verse 32 tells us: “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem.” Jesus is headed to Jerusalem, knowing (as he says in verses 33–34) that there he will be delivered over to wicked leaders and condemned to death and killed. And after three days, he will rise.
And the second important detail we passed over was the “one thing” the rich young ruler lacked. Jesus said to him in verse 21: “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.” One thing. What is the one thing? It’s not his selling all he has. That’s just the means to the one thing. It’s not giving to the poor. That’s still means. “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.” Me. “You lack one thing: . . . me.” The one thing he lacks is Jesus.
Remember how the rich young ruler first addressed him? “Good Teacher.” And when Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone,” he was not saying, “Don’t call me good!” Rather, he was saying, “You don’t even know how right you are to call me good!”
And when Jesus says, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God,” he’s not just talking about his Father in heaven making it possible, but himself. That’s why he says, “Follow me.” He is good, because he is God. All things are possible with Jesus. And he is on his way to Jerusalem to die, to bear the penalty for your sin and failure, so that you might indeed inherit eternal life. How? Not by your performance. Not by your possessions. But through faith in him. One thing you lack: Jesus. Believe in him. Release your grasp on whatever it is that is keeping you from him. Follow him. And you will inherit eternal life.
To the Table
Each Sunday we come together at this Table — as brothers, sisters, mothers, children, with our great heavenly Father — to celebrate together who Jesus is and what he has done for us. Here we taste not only some of the hundredfold grace we receive now in this time, but also we remember that eternal life is not just possible but as real as this bread and wine.
This is a meal first and foremost for the members of our church. But if you’re a guest with us, and Jesus is your Savior, Lord, and greatest treasure, we invite you to eat with us. And if Jesus is not yet your Lord, we would ask you just to let the bread and wine pass by. But I’ll be standing here at the front when the service ends, and I would love to talk with you if you want to know more about Jesus.