The Rich Young Man and Wealth - Matthew 19:16-30

Matthew 19:16-30 (NIV)

16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” 17 “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.” 18 “Which ones?” he inquired. Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” 20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. 23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 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.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” 26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” 28 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. 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. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

In the earlier verses of Matthew nineteen, our Lord had come to Judea to the “other side of the Jordan” and began healing many. During this time, He encountered some Pharisees who began putting Him to the test by asking if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife (a discussion then occurred between Jesus and His disciples on that very matter). Sometime later, people began bringing little children to Jesus to receive His (Christ’s) blessing. This part of the narrative connects with what comes next in the context involving the rich young ruler who asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Earlier, Jesus had said that the “kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (referring to children). What Jesus said here relates to what He said elsewhere on having that “childlike” faith necessary to enter the kingdom (Matthew 18:1-4). In Matthew eighteen verse three, Jesus stated that unless a person changed by humbling themselves by becoming like little children, they could never enter the kingdom of heaven. This is what the rich young man (speculation about his age being somewhere in his forties has been made but with no actual conclusion) needed to do. But as we see in the story itself, this was the move he refused to make because he was too attached to the kingdom of darkness to embrace the kingdom of light.

Uncertain of his spiritual status before God, the “young” man inquires Jesus in verse sixteen, asking what he needs to inherit eternal life. It is sad to see someone like this come so close yet still fall short. The Lord’s answer involved the true gospel of faith by grace alone in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is the only truly good there is. So when He says, “There is only One who is good,” Jesus pointed to the only work required for salvation in the only One who could save anyone (since man cannot save himself). And the only truly good work of God is to “believe in the one He has sent” (John 6:29). Since “by no deeds of the Law shall any man be made justified” (Romans 3:20), Jesus was not saying that keeping the commandments earned salvation (a works-based gospel). Of course, true saving faith does demonstrate itself through an obedient life so that any believing Jew of that day would manifest a respectful lifestyle to the Law of Moses concerning that which did apply (and still applies today). But our Lord mentioned “keeping the commandments” not just to help reveal the sign of one’s salvation (James 2:14-22) but also to expose the impossibility of trying to earn one’s way to heaven (specifically aimed at the young man). Despite his “noble” lifestyle, the rich young man still fell short of salvation because he did not combine his “zeal” or “knowledge” of/for God with true saving faith.

Romans 10:1-4 (NIV)

Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. 2 For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. 3 Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4 Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

Hebrews 4:1-2 (KJV)

Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. 2 For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.

All of the commands mentioned by Jesus in verse eighteen in the passage of our topic constitute the most important ones Israel was to obey. All of them (except for “love your neighbor as yourself”) are part of the ten commandments. However, the biggest and most important commandment our young man missed was what Jesus gave in the old testament and elsewhere in the gospels (Deut. 6:4-9, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27, Matthew 22:37-40). Indeed, faith is needed to please and obey God for anything we do to mean a thing to Him. Nothing done in unbelief means anything to Christ and will not be remembered or rewarded in eternity (no matter how seemingly good or noble the deeds).

Matthew 22:37-40 (NIV)

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Hebrews 11:16 (KJV)

6 But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.

In Verse twenty-one of our main passage, our Lord tells his inquirer to sell all his possessions and follow Him. Now, it should be obvious to any casual reader of these verses that the Lord isn’t asking us to sell all our possessions to follow Him (even if there have been some exceptions throughout history). What God wants from us is a genuine, complete commitment to surrendering our hearts entirely to Him. How can we love our Savior with all our hearts if we prefer something more? Jesus had just exposed the inner disposition of this man’s attitude and what he truly valued most. He did not want to believe in and accept Christ because he loved the world more. One cannot follow the Lord if they have chosen to pursue and serve something else (which amounts to idolatry). Since wealth is what the rich man valued more, he went away “sorrowful” (vs 22) because he was unwilling to relinquish that which was getting in his way.

1 John 2:15-17 (ESV)

15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

Matthew 6:24 (NIV)

24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

Jesus now turns to His disciples in verse twenty-three by continuing the dialog with them on the issues of wealth. It isn’t that being rich by itself is sinful (that isn’t the problem). The main concern Jesus expressed is that those who have a lot often have a harder time giving their lives over to Christ (in the case of unbelievers) and making sacrifices for Him (in the case of believers). Wealth tends to be a time-consuming stumbling block for those who have more to keep track of and maintain. The more one has the more distractions and the greater the difficulty of keeping an undivided mindset toward God. Does this mean great believers can’t be rich? Absolutely not! We have the example of Job and Abraham in the old testament of two great men of God who were among some of the wealthiest people of their time (although they passed great tests of their faith to get what they received from God). Additionally, making and having a lot of money can be a great asset for those with the gifts of giving and helping. So there is no question that God allows some believers to be rich to fulfill their ministry and service to the church. But “to whom much has been given, much is expected.” It would be a great shame for a brother or sister to possess the “entire world” and yet not even bat an eye to their spiritual family’s needs. All believers should give if the circumstances demand it (see passage below), but how much more so the rich! 1 John 3:17 refers to all believers who can lend a helping hand. But those especially without an excuse are those (depending on the need) more able to help out.

1 John 3:17 (ESV)

17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?

And, of course, there is the false teaching of the prosperity gospel (also known as the health and wealth gospel). We need not comment too much on that since we should know that it is false (dangerously so), but a few things need to be said.

First, whether some people want to accept this or not, God does want some believers to be poor and even (in some or many cases) sick (some for the rest of their lives as a thorn in their flesh meant to refine and grow their faith). There are, undoubtedly, a good handful of Christians out there who are some of the greatest spiritual warriors alive today who have little compared to their wealthier brothers and sisters. Some of the greatest believers in our day (many of whom are undoubtedly persecuted Christians and those living in third-world countries) are dirt poor and malnourished. Yet, despite being poor in the secular sense, they are spiritually rich! And that is because, as often is the case, persecution and difficult life circumstances tend to force us to throw ourselves at the mercies of God’s grace. In other words, when times are difficult, we are more likely to walk more closely with Him in faith. But when times are good (the prosperity test), we are more likely to relax our efforts in spiritual growth and rely less on God for our daily provisions (both physical and spiritual). This does not mean there are not great believers living in first and second-world countries with a lot (or at least a reasonable amount) of money. How spiritually mature and “on fire” for God we are has nothing to do with what we do or do not have or how physically and mentally healthy we are (although we should all strive to take care of ourselves as much as our lot and circumstances will allow). Spiritual maturity is about how much we walk in faith with God. And this trust and reliance on Him must stem from a proper attitude and disposition of heart. Unfortunately, this is lacking in our lukewarm era of Laodicea (speaking of most believers worldwide) that we currently live in today. Faith has become stagnant or “stationary” for so many because of this deceptive attitude that they are spiritually “healthy and wealthy.” But as Revelation 3:14-22 confirms, this is far from the case. Even for most genuine believers today, wealth has proven to be a stumbling block.

Revelation 3:14-22 (ESV)

14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. 21 The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

Verse twenty-four of Matthew nineteen reads, “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.” Jesus used contrasting extremes to express two crucial points. The first point we have noted above for reasons already intimated; wealth makes it harder for people to receive Christ (unbelievers) and to remain faithful to Him to the very end (believers). In the case of genuine Christians (or who once were), we find in 1 Timothy 6:10 the words, “ For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.

The other point Jesus made in His use of the camel (one of if not the largest animal(s) in Palestine) and the eye of a literal sowing needle (one of the smallest entry ports used and known during that period) was that what is impossible with man is possible with God (as verse twenty-six confirms). Jesus’s reply in verse twenty-six was prompted by the disciple’s question, “Who then can be saved?” Trying to work one’s way to heaven through the good deeds of the law or through misplaced trust in wealth results in man-made religion where people attempt to save themselves by “doing something” for God. But without faith in the grace and power of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is impossible to enter God’s kingdom (just as it is impossible to force a physical camel through the literal eye of a needle).

After speaking these words to His disciples, Peter, realizing that they did the exact thing the rich ruler was unwilling to do by forsaking everything they needed to leave behind to follow Jesus, speaks up to ask what else would be in store for them other than eternal life. Our Lord had indirectly clarified that true saving faith involves a right disposition of heart to Christ, the world, and oneself. Peter and the other future apostles (except Judas) had already done what they were supposed to do in this regard. But it may have been that Peter was expecting some earthly rewards. But this life involves sacrifice and suffering, whereas eternal life is perfect and blissful in every way, with rewards lasting forever and ever. Since our hope needs to be on our future eternity with Christ and all the “bonuses” that come with it, our Lord gave attention to what truly mattered. Wealth and all the so-called “great things” in this life are fleeting and temporary. But what awaits the justified believer in eternity far outweighs anything (whether accomplishment or possession) in and of the world. Our Lord’s words earlier in Matthew sixteen are pretty applicable here.

Matthew 16:24-26 (ESV)

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

However, although it is true that “all who desire to live righteously will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12) and that we must all pass through various trials, temptations, and tribulations to enter the kingdom (Acts 14:22), Christ has promised us true peace, joy, and hope in this life (even if we can’t experience those spiritual qualities as we will perfectly in eternity).

Galatians 5:22-23 (NIV)

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

For the reasons above, our Lord said that the rewards for making sacrifices in faith (leaving family and wealth to follow Him) would produce a hefty return at the judgment seat (or Bema) of Christ during the Millennium (the renewal of all things) and on into eternity that far outweighs the deeds themselves. But whatever a person had originally before losing or giving it up for Christ would pale in comparison to what they will receive and possess in eternity. The point is that the amount of spiritual and heavenly treasures the disciples would inherit would be far greater (and worth way more) than whatever they had in this life. Part of this reward would include sitting on twelve thrones and judging the twelve tribes of Israel. But so much more still awaits them! We can see Jesus using rewards to motivate His disciples to fix their eyes on heavenly things (Colossians 3:2) by storing their treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). Our Lord gave them an even greater incentive to “run the race” with even more vigor.

Finally, Matthew nineteen in verse thirty ends with the sentence, “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” There can be multiple meanings to this. One is that the disciples should remain humble and not assume that they would be more highly rewarded than most other believers in eternity (even if that will probably be the case) just because they had given up so much to follow Christ. I believe our Lord meant this to be a sobering statement spoken to temper the disciple’s own views of themselves and others because our Lord wanted them to keep themselves and their callings in perspective and refrain from judging before the time (1 Corinthians 4:5). The other meaning involves the rich ruler himself and the world’s expectations of what true success looks like. First, although being successful in this life seems to indicate someone as being “first,” the reality is that a lack of faith produces nothing after one’s life is over. For “we brought nothing into this world, and so we cannot take anything out of it” (1 Timothy 6:7). Those in this life who seemed “righteous” and thus highly deserving of eternal life (such as the religious elite in Jesus’s day) would end up last (separated from God forever and ever standing condemned at the great white throne Revelation 20:11-15).

On the other hand, there will be significant “shocks” and “surprises” even among believers at the judgment seat. Many who were thought to be more productive (and thus, more worthy of greater eternal rewards from the viewpoint of other believers) in this life through their individual gifts and ministries will actually end up behind many of those who were perceived to be less “spiritually successful.” This doesn’t mean that those who seem highly productive are not so, and vice versa. But there will be many surprises awaiting us all on judgment day when it comes time for us to receive all our eternal rewards.