A Descent Into Obscurity
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 19:21d (Holman) “Then come, follow Me.”
Here was Jesus’ ultimate requirement. The Rich Ruler was commanded to align himself with the One despised by the young man’s peers. Behind and beneath all we do as Christ-followers must be a strong devotion to Jesus, a riveting of ourselves to Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Following Jesus due to this is our purest expression of supreme love for Him.
Unless love for Jesus rules our hearts, our good deeds are for naught; we are Pharisees. When full of us, we cannot contain anyone else. Christian living requires always reaching for a higher us by ever loving Jesus more and more.
For Jesus to reign in our hearts, He must be made King over our whole inner domain. People always want two worlds, Heaven and Earth, but our heart is not big enough to house two thrones. We may not want to pick one over the other, and think we can dodge the issue, but we do choose. If a proactive conscious choice to choose Heaven is not made, our choice by default is Earth.
Jesus did not single out the Rich Young Ruler for harsh treatment. The Lord asked him to do what He had required of the Twelve, to leave all behind. They were not rich, but did have to abandon a life of security to stay near Jesus.
According to our text, the Rich Young Ruler was offered not only treasure in Heaven, but also a benefit here, a life near Jesus. Not only were the pearly gates opened to him. The door to leaving an everlasting legacy was too.
Can you name the disciple who denied Jesus, the disciple who doubted, and the disciple Jesus loved? Probably yes on all three. Can you name this Rich Young Ruler? No. His influence died with him. His name is forgotten, lost to history. He disappeared into obscurity, reminding us, losing Jesus means losing all that really matters, not only in the next world, but also in this world.
“What do I still lack?” he had asked. Only one thing, but lack of this one thing meant the loss of everything. In many situations, the lack of one key ingredient can nullify the whole enterprise. Like a garden without one item: seeds. Like a car engine without one thing: fuel. Like a television without one item: the screen. Like trying to go to Heaven without one thing: loving Jesus supremely. Lacking this one thing will cause a person to miss Heaven entirely.
One sin, even one we are not radically excited about, can be enough to keep us from following Jesus. We can be ruined by sins we commit reluctantly.
I wonder if the Young Ruler would have been better off had he not been so straight-laced. Had he been less self-infatuated, he might have felt more of a need for grace. Grace, if received, sweetens and humbles us, making us better.
When I was a young Pastor, one of the finest men I’ve ever known died of cancer. His unbelieving son shared many of his dad’s winsome traits, but his life and influence were not up to the level of his dad’s. One thing he lacked.
Being more brazen than I probably should have been, I sent the son a long handwritten note after his dad’s funeral. I bragged on his dad, and on the son. I then shared the fact God’s grace and salvation were the crowning touch of his dad’s life. I encouraged the son to take the one spiritual step higher that would lift him from good to great. I never heard from him. One thing he lacked.
Jesus had now given an ultimatum to the Rich Young Ruler, who must decide immediately whether or not to obey and follow Jesus. Something in us cries out to this humble, eager, winsome, earnest man, “Do it!! Follow Him!!”
Matt. 19:22a When the young man heard the command, he went away . . .
Imagination can easily see Jesus beginning to walk, continuing his journey. We can sense His using a hand to beckon the Rich Young Ruler to follow his steps. But oh no! “He went away.” He headed the wrong direction.
On my first Easter Sunday as a Pastor, I preached hard on the cross and pressed for decisions in the invitation. One young man was deeply moved, his agony of soul obvious, but he gripped the pew in front of him. “He went away.” Later that week he was accidentally electrocuted. I helped preach his funeral.
From the first of his story, we have watched the Rich Ruler’s earnestness. He came running, and knelt down to Jesus, but did not have enough zeal to reach far enough to seize the prize. The unexpected command staggered him.
His earnestness chilled instantly. Total collapse was immediate. Feeling no need to take time for reflection, he spoke not one word. The die was cast.
Being a legalist, the Rich Young Ruler was too honest to be a hypocrite. Some believers love this world and turn back, making a scandal of their faith, but the Rich Ruler showed no pretension. “He walked away” at the very first.
“Away” to what? To things he knew could not satisfy him. They already had failed him. He knew they held no assurance, but he could not leave them.
The bewitching nature of the world’s stuff had ensnared him. “He loved it too well to give it up, but not enough to feel that it is enough” (Maclaren). I wonder if later in life he ever feared that the things he had loved too much to give up were destined to become a tomb for his everlasting soul.
Don’t hastily condemn him. We who well know our hearts know we all need to be suspicious of our own resolve. No condemnation here; only sorrow.
Matt. 19:22b . . . grieving, . . .
Neither angry nor flippant, his sole response was a broken heart. He had wanted assurance, but did not find it. The result was excruciating, agonizing.
No misery is worse than that which follows almost finding satisfaction. Raised expectations, if unfulfilled, fall the farthest. Disappointment crushes.
He was sad to leave with no assurance. Was part of his sadness learning what was in his heart? Did conscience grieve him? Did he know Jesus had not asked too much? Was he disappointed in his unwillingness to sacrifice? He may have felt a tinge of all these, but one thing overpowered all other sadnesses.
Matt. 19:22c . . . because he had many possessions.
To be suspended between love of Heaven and love of Earth creates a Hell of soul. Many people love this world too much. This temptation is especially strong for people who have much of Earth. If renouncing this world’s stuff is what it takes to go to Heaven, many with possessions would say, if not by words, at least by actions, “Jesus, You can keep Your Heaven to Yourself.”
Many want to gain materially from their religion, or at least not suffer from it. They will be religious only if they lose nothing financially. To these people, money is not a gold key opening Heaven, but a lead bar holding it shut.
The Rich Ruler had much to give up, and found it impossible to let it all go. But make no mistake. The fact “he had many possessions” was not the root problem, as Zaccheus proved. The breakdown was, the possessions had him.
Jesus calls us to be greater than our possessions, to rule over them. We can become so riveted to Earth that we can forget there’s an afterlife. Love for stuff can make it harder to die. As believers we have to rise above this.
If we see what we have as given to us only for self-indulgence, they are a chain. If we see stuff as given to us to honor God and help others, it is a crown.