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The Life of Jesus - Series 10: Episode 7

Jesus & the rich young man

| Martin Charlesworth
Mark 10:17-31
Luke 18:18-30
Matthew 19:16-30

The rich young ruler wanted to please God by following religious rules. Jesus shocked him by telling him to give away his wealth and follow him. He was not willing but for those who do - there will be reward in heaven.

The rich young ruler wanted to please God by following religious rules. Jesus shocked him by telling him to give away his wealth and follow him. He was not willing but for those who do - there will be reward in heaven.


Hello, welcome to Series 10 and we're in Episode 7. Today's episode is about an encounter between ‘Jesus and a Rich Young Man’. This story is told in Matthew, Mark and Luke. We're going to take Matthew's account as the primary text in order to study this passage, and it's Matthew 19: 16 - 30. 

Introduction and Recap

To give this context, it's important to look at the previous event that took place, which is also recorded in Matthew 19: 13 - 15. We studied it in Luke's account in Luke 18: 15 - 17. This is the occasion when Jesus was travelling around and young children were brought to him for him to bless them and this was the subject of our last episode. If you listened to the last episode, you'll know this story but the two are closely connected and when studying the Gospels the connections and the context give the best advantage for us in terms of working out the meanings. I'm going to quickly read that little section again, and make a key comment about his conclusion, and then you'll quickly see, when we move to the next story, how these two things are surprisingly closely connected. In Luke's version of the little children being brought to Jesus, in Luke 18: 15 - 17, we have the following statement:

‘People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them, but Jesus called the children to him and said, "Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it."’

Luke 18:15-17, NIV

The story is partly about children and the value that Jesus puts on children, and we discussed that in the last episode. I don't want to go back over that theme again. It is also about what we can learn from children, in terms of our relationship with God. We ended the last episode by pointing out that, as Jesus is talking about children here, so we in one sense are children in our relationship with God, our heavenly Father, if we are born again, and if we've entered into the Kingdom of God. We discussed that in the last episode. Jesus concludes by saying that we can't receive the Kingdom of God - we can't become born again, we can't enter into salvation - unless we become like children in their attitudes.

We ended the last episode by mentioning three things that we can learn from children in their approach to adults and how they negotiate life; one is their simplicity, another is their trust, or their faith in adults, and a third point we mentioned was their humility; they don't tend to think that they know everything. They know there's a lot to learn from adults. Children are usually simple, trusting and humble in their normal relationships with adults, especially little children, the ones that Jesus was discussing, and meeting in this particular episode. Jesus is giving an interesting insight into how we get into the Kingdom of God. It turns out that our inner attitude is fundamental and important in that process. This is not something we've achieved, this is some attitude and approach that we have towards God. We need to approach God with simplicity, humility and with a trusting attitude, or more formally we would describe that as with faith: the willingness to trust God for our salvation. That's where that story ended.

Matthew has the same story in a slightly more abbreviated form in the middle of Matthew 19, in the verses that immediately come before this story. The connection between the two is that the rich young man, who approaches Jesus quite suddenly and dramatically in this story, is asking a very fundamental question about how we enter into eternal life, or to put it in other words, how we enter into the Kingdom of God, how we can be born again, how we can be justified, how we can be forgiven, how we can be in relationship with God. He's asking that very key question from a very adult, a very Jewish, and a very religious point of view. Jesus has already given a general answer in a different context when dealing with the children, but this man takes a fundamentally different approach, as we're going to see in just a moment.

Let's read this interesting and challenging story together. Matthew 19: 16 - 30,

‘Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" "Why do you ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments." "Which ones?" he enquired. Jesus replied, "‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honour your father and mother, and love your neighbour as yourself." "All these I have kept," the young man said. "What do I still lack?" and Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you'll have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Truly, I tell you, it's hard for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God." When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." Peter answered him, "We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?" Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields, for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first."’

Matthew 19:16-30, NIV

The Rich Young Ruler

Who is this man who comes to Jesus and initiates a startling and challenging conversation? He's a young man; he has great wealth; and Luke chapter 18: 18 in describing the same person, describes him as a ruler. We have a young man who is rich and who is influential; he's a ruler. What kind of a ruler might he be? There are two obvious possibilities. He could be what's known as a synagogue ruler, someone who oversees the local synagogue. We have an example of that in Luke 8 and that is Jairus, the synagogue leader who came to Jesus on behalf of his daughter. He could be a synagogue ruler, or he could be a public official, a civil servant or an agent of the government, and therefore a ruler in the local district. We can't be certain which of these meanings it is, or whether it's something similar that we're not aware of, but this man was influential in society. My inclination is to think that he was a synagogue ruler, because the implication here is that he's very serious about religious matters, and he's very focused on the Old Testament law. Anyway, this man comes, he's young, he's rich and he's powerful.

We don't have his name, but we do sense something urgent happening when he suddenly approaches Jesus. Mark tells us a little bit more detail, in Mark 10:17 about this man's approach,

‘As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. saying "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"’

Mark 10:17, NIV

According to Mark he ran to him and he fell down on his knees. Here is a man in a bit of a crisis. He's young, he's rich, he's influential, he's got what's needed to make life successful, as far as we can tell, but there's something going on inside him. He's a troubled young man and he's troubled because he's not sure that he has the right relationship with God. He's willing to risk his credibility and respectability by coming to Jesus, and making himself vulnerable.

The Young Man's Question

His question is,

"What good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Matthew 19:16, NIV

That's a very interesting question. He must have been aware of Jesus' ministry. He must have been challenged by Jesus. He must have had a lack of assurance about his relationship with God and he must have had some kind of a spiritual quest going on. But his mentality was to think that it was good works that he did that would earn justification, salvation, and eternal life from God. This is a characteristic mindset of many of the Jews of Jesus' day as we've encountered on many occasions, in earlier episodes, and it's been represented to us very forcibly on many occasions by the Pharisees, whose attitude was very much concerning doing good works, obeying religious laws, and gaining God's favour by such obedience. He would have been influenced by the Pharisees, and he would have been influenced by the general culture of Judaism. He would have been a reader of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament; and if he was a synagogue ruler, he would listen to the Scriptures being read every single Sabbath day. Here is a religious man with a great question in his soul.

This rich, young man represents so many people in the world today who pursue religion, whatever religion it might be; they aim to please God, however they understand him to be, and they do so through the traditions of their religion, and through the religious laws that are imposed upon them.

Jesus' Response

Jesus' response to this man is first of all to talk to him on his own terms. This is the force of the next bit of the discussion. He says, "Keep the commandments." The man just says, "Which ones?" He knows all the commandments, and

‘Jesus replied, "You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honour your father and mother, and ‘love your neighbour as yourself’"’

Matthew 19:18, NIV

These commands were the central, practical commands of the Ten Commandments, plus Jesus has added another one in here. In the Ten Commandments we have commandments numbers five to nine listed here, and the earlier ones were concerning the Sabbath day, and concerning aspects of worshipping God as the deity. These are the practical ones that relate to our human relationships, rather than our relationship directly with God. This is how to conduct ourselves with other people. Then Jesus adds in a command, that he discusses quite a number of times in his ministry, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, taken from Leviticus chapter 19: 18, which is a more general command about how we relate to other people. Jesus is saying here, ‘have you related well to other people in an honourable way according to the commands of Moses?’ And the man said, ‘Yes, I have’. This is a clue.

The Young Man's Further Question

He's a religious man; he's a devout man; he knows the commandments; he's following them. But then he asks his next question, "What do I still lack?" He knows in his heart there's something wrong inside, there's something missing, there's something controlling his life, there's something making his conscience uneasy, there's something blocking his relationship with God. He knows that a miracle has to happen in his heart for him to be sure that he's done enough or he's found peace with God.

Jesus' Shocking Response

Then comes the shocking and surprising response of Jesus, upon which this whole story hangs. "What do I still lack?" was his question, and in verse 21,

‘Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect," (that means having undivided loyalty to God) "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And then come, follow me."’

Matthew 19:21, NIV

This is a complete shock! No one would have expected Jesus to have said such a bold and direct thing. In the tradition of the Jews, particularly the Pharisees, those who had a reasonable amount of money and wealth were considered blessed by God. It was a good thing to have. But here Jesus says, ‘Sell your possessions. Start to give things away; start to sell them; give the money that you get from selling your possessions to the poor’.

Then his second command is equally radical, if not even more radical. He said, “And come, follow me." In this particular context, that's a very literal statement. Jesus is inviting this rich, young man to make a few decisions at home: sell possessions, give the money to the poor, and then to get on the road with Jesus with his disciples, with his other followers, and go with him on his final journey towards Jerusalem, which is nearing completion. He's asking the man to make a sudden, major change in his life, promising him that he'll have treasure in heaven. In other words, he'll be inheriting eternal life. But the indication here is that his wealth and his riches are literally blocking the way; they're controlling his life. We find this borne out very much by the next verse,

‘When the young man heard this he went away sad because he had great wealth.’

Matthew 19:22, NIV

How did Jesus know he had great wealth? This was supernatural knowledge of the man. Nothing had been said about money. He had a lot of money, a lot of wealth, and he didn't want to be separated from it. Jesus uses this situation and the man's quiet retreat back into the crowd, to say to his disciples that it's hard for rich people to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven,

"It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God."

Matthew 19:24, NIV

In other words, riches are a real block. The wealthier you are, the more likely it is for it to be difficult for you to embrace the Kingdom of God, and to embrace the path of discipleship. That's a really shocking message. How can a camel go through the eye of a needle? How can something really large, a large animal, go through a tiny, tiny little space - the eye of a needle where you put the thread when you're going to sew clothes together? It's a powerful metaphor that Jesus uses there, just to say how very difficult it is.

He carries on to say this may look impossible to you, but it is possible for God to save rich people. But it does take a miracle, because riches and wealth have an extraordinary controlling power over us humans. We want to acquire them, we want to acquire wealth, and we want to hold onto it and protect it, and we'll often use very extreme measures to protect our wealth. We don't want anyone asking us to part with our wealth. This man was certainly not willing to follow Jesus at this particular point.

Peter's Response to Jesus

This leads us to the final section of this story where Peter, thinking through what's happened and responding instinctively and emotionally, as he often does, and leading the way, Peter says to Jesus,

"We've left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?"

Matthew 19:27, NIV

So, Peter can easily explain to Jesus the cost that it has been for him and for the other disciples to follow Jesus. They've left their livelihoods, their jobs, their homes; they've got an uncertain future. Opposition to Jesus is rising up, there are threats to him, threats to the disciples, their future is unknown. They've put their trust in Jesus and they are letting go of their material security, at least for that period of their lives.

Jesus Reassures Peter

Jesus says some remarkable things that are really encouraging and helpful to us who are disciples of Christ, and who face big challenges with material wealth and resources, and what to do with them, and what to believe about them. Here's Jesus' perspective. In verse 28 he speaks specifically to the twelve disciples,

"Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel."

Matthew 19:28, NIV

This is a reference to Jesus' Second Coming. We've been teaching about the Second Coming in one recent episode. Jesus is beginning to teach about this more formally. Jesus is going to return publicly in power to this earth, a long time after his death and resurrection, sometime in the future, and he's going to be sitting on his glorious throne. That's a reference to the throne of judgement; he's going to come as the judge. Of the twelve disciples he said, "You're going to sit on twelve thrones, you're going to judge the twelve tribes of Israel; you've taken a very humble part with me now, but you'll have a position of authority when I return." The implication of this is, that ethnic Israel, the nation of Israel, which is in the process of rejecting Jesus at this point, will experience God's judgement and purification at the time that Jesus returns, and the twelve disciples will play a part in that process. They will be shown to have believed correctly in Jesus the Messiah, to have put their trust in the right place, and they'll be rewarded with authority in the eternal age.

There's a similar passage in Luke 22: 29 - 30, just to emphasise the point in a different context, Jesus says in the Last Supper,

"And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel."

Luke 22:29-30, NIV

There's a particular promise to the twelve disciples that their costly sacrifice will be rewarded in eternity by a position of authority and respect, and a vindication of the lifestyle that they have chosen. This is an important message for them, because after Jesus died, rose again and ascended, and the Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost, these twelve disciples were scattered to many different countries over the years, and many of them suffered much persecution, and even martyrdom. There was a great cost to be paid, but a great reward to be looked forward to when Jesus comes again.

Jesus' Promise to Other Followers

Jesus had promised rewards to the rich, young man. He'd said, ‘if you give your possessions away you're going to get treasure in heaven.’ but that man had decided to hold on to his own material wealth. Verse 29 goes on to speak more generally about Christian disciples throughout the ages, which can include you and me. He makes a promise, not just to the Twelve, but to all disciples. Verse 29

"And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life."

Matthew 19:29, NIV

A double promise here. If your discipleship separates you from family, from home, from economic resources in this life, you will receive a hundred times as much in this life, and then you'll receive eternal life and heavenly reward. What does this mean? First of all, it's a realistic statement about what sometimes happens for us when we choose to follow Christ. We can be separated from family, friends, home, and our working environment, sometimes, and our economic resources, as persecution and opposition come. But he said, ‘You're going to receive a hundred times as much.’ That's through the Church, through the body of Christ, you'll have other close friends, you'll have a spiritual family, you'll have other economic resources, you'll have other social networks and friendship networks, and these networks will be not just in one place, but wherever you travel and the body of Christ exists, then you will have a point of connection and relationship with them. That's basically what he's saying. That applies even today, and many people have this extraordinary experience that, as their own family turn against them for their faith, in situations where that happens, then they are embraced and received by the family of the church, which of course is such a big family that it could even be a hundred times as much, which is obviously a kind of metaphorical, numerical statement, but it's telling us the richness of what God will allow us to receive in this life, even though, as Mark 10:30 says, ‘this will come with persecutions and with difficulties’. It's not going to be easy, but we're going to find real blessing in this life, and even more blessing in inheriting eternal life.

So, it turns out that the ‘first will be last and the last will be first’. This is a reference primarily to the economically strong and the economically weak, the rich and the poor. The basic point here is, many people who appear successful in this life because they're rich, will turn out to have missed the opportunity to enter into eternal life. They are now first but they will be last, and many people who are relatively poor now, because they've chosen the path of discipleship, will be rich in God's Kingdom when Christ comes again. This is a remarkable story.


The command given to this rich young man was a one-off command, in a one-off situation, it's not a general rule. But it is really helpful to think about in terms of those of us who may be battling with wanting to hold on to an excess amount of wealth that we don't really need. Materialism and wealth can control us. It's best to identify following Jesus as far more rewarding, even though it comes at some considerable cost in this life. This is a sobering, and a powerful, and a significant passage, that sheds further light on one of Jesus' great themes, which is the path of discipleship. So much material in this part of the story, and in the series that have come just beforehand, shed light on different aspects of the path of discipleship; the path that I'm encouraging you to tread strongly and confidently by faith.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What did the young man who came to Jesus have and what did he lack?
    2. Is it possible to know well what the bible teaches, and still not actually follow the teaching?
  • Discipleship
    1. How do we balance giving away our wealth with being grateful and wise with the resources we have been given? Give practical steps.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Jesus makes promises to the Twelve Apostles and then to all his followers. What are these promises? Remember they are for you, too.
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