From my seat in the front row of the balcony, I could see almost every seat in the large auditorium. Almost a thousand people had gathered for the Sunday morning service. A Bach organ prelude had welcomed us in, followed by a piece from Handel’s Messiah, beautifully sung by the full choir, and a solemn invocation by one of the ministers. Finally we all settled into comfortable positions on our red, velvet-covered pews and dutifully followed along with the program, singing when we were told to sing, standing when we were told to stand, and sitting when we were told to sit. Everything was in perfect order.
I noticed that the scripture reading was from Mark chapter 10. Clearly the sermon was going to be about the “rich young ruler.” A few seats down from me sat the president and founder of a large computer manufacturer — a billionaire and a deacon in the church. As my eyes passed over the congregation, I could identify many other fine, upstanding citizens, all quite wealthy. I had to admit that I was doing pretty well myself, creeping into a six-digit income bracket. Were they all thinking what I was thinking? Did they also wish that the sermon would be on some other topic?
I needn’t have feared. The pastor explained everything to us so we could understand it rightly. Jesus had been able to see into the rich young ruler’s wicked, greedy heart and expose his true priorities. He loved his possessions more than he loved God. That was why Jesus had told him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. His riches had become his idols. He devoted most of his energy to acquiring and maintaining his wealth. It had an unhealthy grip on his heart. He wasn’t able to put God first in his life. Of course, we were not like that. We loved God more than our possessions.
Finally the sermon was over and we sang the final hymn. As people made their way down the aisles and out of the church, I remained in my pew, deep in thought. I was aroused by an anxious voice that echoed in the empty sanctuary, originating in the aisle just below my seat. Looking over the balcony rail, I saw a well-dressed young man looking earnestly into the pastor’s eyes as he asked the question, “Pastor, did the rich young ruler have to do something in order to be saved?”
“No, of course not!” the pastor replied. “He only had to believe in order to be saved. Obviously he didn’t really believe because he didn’t do what Jesus told him to do.”
“So then,” the young man continued, “Does that mean I don’t really believe in Him either if I don’t sell my possessions in order to follow Him?”
The pastor laughed nervously and dismissed the question with the comforting response, “Jesus hasn’t commanded us to sell all we have in order to follow Him. But if He did, of course we would obey Him, wouldn’t we? Why don’t you make an appointment with my assistant and he can help you more with your questions, Ok?” Shaking the young man’s hand and patting him on the back, the pastor left hurriedly.
The young man stared for a moment at the empty space the pastor had just vacated, then made his way slowly out of the church, reading to himself from his Bible as he walked, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not as a result of works ...” I rushed down the stairs and out the door just in time to see him get into a bright red Porsche and drive slowly away, perhaps trying to reassure himself that he was saved.
As I left the church, the Master’s words echoed in my mind:
How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! ... Children, how hard 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 man to enter the kingdom of God. (Mark 10:23-25)
And the disciples’ despairing response caught in my throat like a bone,
Who then can be saved? (Mark 10:26)
Clearly the Master’s words had brought them to a different conclusion than the pastor and members of my church had come to. In our church it wasn’t any harder for a rich man to be saved than a poor man — to have assurance of salvation all each had to do was to ask Jesus into his heart and maintain a good Christian life. The topic of possessions never came up.
But why? Of the thousand people in that wealthy congregation, was it possible that not one of them had a strong attachment to his possessions? Was there no one who found his security in his wealth? Might there be at least one who spent most of his energy acquiring and maintaining a comfortable position in life? Then would not the Master’s words apply to that one person whose possessions had a grip on him?
One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me. (Mark 10:21)
Surely if His words don’t apply in this case, then we might as well tear them out of our Bibles and pretend He never uttered them! And that is, in effect, what Christians do — especially the pastors and evangelists. They never let the hard words that Jesus said come out of their mouths, for then, who would be saved?
The grim reality is this: His words have become powerless because even if someone just like the rich young ruler could be found in the congregation, no one would have the authority or the confidence to call him to obey the Master’s words so that he could receive eternal life.
It was obvious to the disciples that the issue with the rich young ruler was salvation. The young man was seeking eternal life. The Master told him what he had to do to receive eternal life. The young man was unwilling to do it, and the Master, although He loved him, watched him walk sadly away, not having received what he asked for — eternal life. Somehow the Master was not compelled to pursue the young man and assure him that he only had to surrender his possessions in his heart. The young man could not be saved because he would not do what the Master commanded. He chose his possessions over eternal life. The Son of God offered him treasure in heaven, and he chose to cling to his earthly treasure.1 He thought he was rich, but he walked away poor, having absolutely nothing. What will a man give in exchange for his soul? 2
Could the young man have bought eternal life with his possessions? Is salvation by the good works of selling your possessions and giving to the poor? Or is salvation by grace through faith? Exactly what was lacking for the rich young ruler to be saved? In fact, all of the ingredients necessary for salvation were there for the young man — all except one. What are those ingredients?
First, the man saw his need for salvation. Although he was a moral man, confident of his obedience to the commandments, he sensed a lack and he humbled himself before the Master, hoping to find out what he was lacking. Second, a true preacher — the very best preacher — was there to speak the word of God to him.3 Third, grace was there in abundance, for the Son was full of grace and truth.4 The only thing lacking was faith. Faith comes by hearing the word of God, but somehow the rich young ruler did not receive faith when he heard the word from the lips of God’s own Son, who was full of grace and truth. He could not receive the faith to save his soul. What was the hindrance?
The Master Himself promised that if any man was willing to do the Father’s will, that man would know whether the word that was being spoken to him was from God or was merely coming from the speaker, apart from God.5 But the rich young ruler, while he claimed to be a godly man, would not recognize the Master’s words as having authority compelling enough to command his life. Regardless of his boast of having kept the law, he was not willing to do the Father’s will. He merely wanted eternal life as an addition to his comfortable life, so long as it didn’t cost too much. But the Master placed Himself right alongside the man’s wealth and demanded that he make a choice, and so He revealed the true condition of his heart — it was full of greed, not faith.
In fact, the young man had not obeyed all of the commandments. He failed in at least one: the command to love his neighbor as himself. If he really had loved his neighbor as much as he loved himself, he would have shared all he had, thus participating in the fulfillment of God’s heart toward Israel:
There shall be no poor among you, since the Lord will surely bless you in the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess ... You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:4,11)
Really, he loved himself much more than his neighbor, for he was content to be rich in the midst of the grinding poverty of so many of the Jews in Judea. Behind his façade of righteousness was a heart full of greed and selfishness.
Still, the Master loved him and offered him eternal life. Saving faith would have caused the rich young man to walk away from his old life, just as Peter and the other disciples had done, and trust the Master completely to meet his every need. True humility would have caused him to see his desperate sinfulness and recognise the immeasurable worth of the Son of God and the eternal life He offered. Then he would have considered his own righteousness and earthly riches to be dung in comparison, and he would have received the faith to die, surrendering everything, so that he could receive eternal life.
What do possessions have to do with eternal life? Everything! Our possessions are the sum total of everything we have given our strength to since we were born. We acquired them by means of the mammon of unrighteousness, for until we come into the kingdom of light, we are under the power of the evil one. Our possessions are the physical representation of our fallen, sinful life in this world. They hold us in their grip, no matter what we claim to the contrary. They possess us. There is only one way to be free from their grip, and that is death.
There is no being born again without dying first. The Scriptures say that you must be buried with Him in baptism,6 and of course no one would bury a live person. Because of your sin, you are under the sentence of death.7 While it is wonderfully true that Christ died for your sins, in order for His sacrifice to be of any value to you, you must voluntarily be united with Him in His death,8 otherwise you will not be made alive with Him. Your old man must die, and your estate distributed to your beneficiaries (the poor whom you desire to bless with your wealth).
That is what happened in Acts 2:45 and 4:34-35 as the result of 3000 people giving up their lives — the new commonwealth of Israel9 was formed as the new disciples made their wealth common to all. They all believed the Master’s words recorded in Luke 14:33: No one can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions. It is obvious from what they did that the gospel Peter preached to them included these “hard words” of Jesus, which today’s preachers carefully avoid or explain away.
Acts 2:42 records that the early disciples devoted themselves to fellowship, and there is no true fellowship where there is inequity — where the rich politely greet their poor brothers in church and fail to supply their needs. In fact, the Greek word koinonia, translated as fellowship, also carries the meaning distribution. Those true disciples were devoted to distributing whatever they had to meet the needs of their brothers. Of course they were! For the love of God had been poured into their hearts10 through the Holy Spirit, who gave them the power to obey the new commandment of their Master:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. (John 13:34)
This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends, if you do what I command you. (John 15:12-14)
Lest we misunderstand the Master’s words or spiritualize them into nonexistence, the Apostle John made the practical application for us:
We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? (1 John 3:16-17)
The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t.
Obedience to the supposedly hard words of Jesus is what gives birth to the church, as it did on the day of Pentecost. The church is a people who have all left everything to follow the Son of God, decisively putting to death their old man, and in doing so have entered into a covenant with Him to live no longer for themselves but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.11 In fact, they can no longer live for or by themselves because they have given up all their own possessions and have left their careers behind. And the only way they can live for Him is by living for their brothers.12
The miracle of Pentecost is that all those disciples could give up all their own possessions in obedience to the gospel and continue to stay alive by sharing all things in common with everyone else who has obeyed the gospel. That is what being a church entails. The word that our Master (who spoke Hebrew) used to describe the church was edah, which means community, as in Jeremiah 30:20 (NIV). The New Covenant community of which Jeremiah prophesied was a people with one heart and one way,13 and the fulfillment of his prophecy is the community described in the book of Acts:
And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they were selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart ... And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them ... and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, and lay them at the apostles’ feet; and they would be distributed to each, as any had need. (Acts 2:44-46; 4:32-35)
There are many who say that this common life didn’t last, and in a sense they are right. When the early church ceased to obey the Master’s commands, such as John 15:12-14 (quoted above), they fell away from that common life of love and unity that fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. This decay was well underway by the end of the first century14 and was certainly complete by the time of Constantine, when the fallen church married the state in an unholy union that has born its bitter fruit of hatred and bloodshed ever since.
Today there is a people being formed who have rediscovered the life of the early church. The restoration of a true church is taking place in their midst because the true gospel is being restored — the good news of a Savior who is worth giving up everything to follow. The greed and insecurity that controls the whole world is being uprooted and replaced by the peaceful fruit of love. Hope is welling up within them that the wonderful Sovereign, the Prince of Peace, the One for whom and by whom all things were created — Yahshua the Son of God — is finally going to have the bride that He deserves.
There is one who pretends to be rich, but has nothing; another impoverishes himself, but has great wealth. (Proverbs 13:7)