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Matthew 19:16-22 meaning

A devout young man who had great influence and wealth remarkably runs to Jesus and asks what else he can do to enter into eternal life. Jesus loves and admires his zeal and tells him to sell his possessions and give to the poor, and follow Him. But the man departs sad because he loved his tremendous earthly treasures more than the kingdom.

The parallel gospel accounts of Matthew 19:16-22 are found in Mark 10:17-22, Luke 18:18-25.

As Jesus was departing from the area called Judea beyond the Jordan (Matthew 19:1, Mark 10:17) on the way to Jerusalem (Mark 10:32) someone came to Him with an earnest question.

This someone was a young man who owned much property (v 22). Luke said he was a ruler and was extremely rich (Luke 18:18, 23). As a ruler he was someone of authority and influence. He was also moral and kept the commandments. This rich, young ruler was likely known for his piety. Not many rich, influential people were drawn to Jesus, but this man was. And, unlike Nicodemus who sought Jesus in the secret of night (John 3:1-2), this man was unafraid to show his admiration and great respect for Jesus in public.

Mark described the rich, young ruler's enthusiasm and humility. He "ran up to Him and knelt before Him" (Mark 10:17). The sight of someone important running after Jesus would likely have caused a scene. Jewish men did not run. Running was seen as a sign of indignity or a loss of self-respect. And when he caught up to Jesus, he knelt before Him, displaying for all to see that Jesus was greater than himself.

This pious young man recognized and addressed Jesus as a person of great moral authority. He addressed Jesus as "Good teacher" (Mark 10:17, Luke 18:18). The Greek word for teacher is "Didaskalos." "Didaskalos" is the Greek term used for the Hebrew term, "Rabbi" (John 1:38). Rabbis were revered in Jewish culture. Rabbi was a title of honor. Rabbis were experts in the law and prophets. They taught how God's commandments should be applied.

The rich, humble, moral, influential, and young ruler was boldly, earnestly, and literally running after Jesus. And he did so because he believed Jesus would give him the answer to a most important question.

His remarkable behavior, heart, and faith in Jesus indicate that this man either believed that Jesus was or at least hopefully expected that He might be the Messiah.

His question was "what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?" (v 16). Mark and Luke are more specific than Matthew about what he asked Jesus. They wrote "what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17, Luke 18:18).

To obtain something means to acquire or gain it. Obtain is a general term. Something can be obtained any number of ways. It could be bought, it could be discovered or found, it could be earned, given, built, inherited, etc. To inherit something is a specific way a thing may be obtained. To inherit means to obtain or receive something from your family or a benefactor. An inheritance is something that is passed down to a person. It is something that rightfully belongs to a person, but the transfer and possession of it may not have yet occurred. An inheritance is obtained at a designated time or when certain conditions are met.

The man was asking Jesus, "what are the conditions that I need to meet in order to obtain my inheritance of eternal life?"

But what did the rich, young ruler mean by eternal life? Did he mean "go to heaven and live forever?" Or did he mean "enter the kingdom?" The meaning of eternal life in his question is a critical term to understand.

Some say that the young ruler was asking how to get to and live forever in heaven. The Bible teaches that people receive the gift of eternal life through faith in Jesus. It also says that our good works have nothing to do with receiving this gift.

"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, so that no one may boast."
(Ephesians 2:8-9)

And Jesus told Nicodemus that the gift of eternal life is a matter of believing in Him as the Son of God. He told Nicodemus all that was needed to gain the gift of eternal life was to have sufficient faith to look at Jesus upon the cross, hoping to be delivered from the venomous poison of sin (John 3:14-16).

The gift of eternal life is a matter of pure grace and simple faith. However, eternal life is also a reward, something that can be inherited. This is made clear in Romans 2, where Paul says that at the judgement, God will "render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life" (Romans 2:6-7).

We can see in this verse that eternal life is a reward for doing good, and for seeking to please God, seeking honor, glory, and immortality from Him rather than from the world.

When we consider how Jesus understood and answered this believing man's question, we see that it is based on faithfulness, a reward for doing good, rather than on saving faith. Jesus answered him, if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments (v 17). If Jesus was telling him what he needed to do to live forever in heaven, then His response would contradict what He told Nicodemus in John 3:14-16, which was to simply believe in Him.

What is far more likely is that Jesus was answering about what this man needed to do to enter the kingdom, and receive its blessings.

Given the context of the kingdom-focus of Matthew's Gospel; and taking into account who this rich, young, pious, believing man was; and understanding the answer Jesus gave to this man's question; and considering what Jesus and His disciples discussed about this exchange afterward (Matthew 19:23-26), there can be little doubt about what this man was asking Jesus. He was asking what he needed to do to enter the kingdom.

One of Matthew's main themes is identifying Jesus to the Jews as the Messiah, the king, who had a kingdom which could be entered through acts of faith. Jesus is emphasized in Matthew as:

  • the prophesied lawgiver (Deuteronomy 18:15-19)
  • and king (2 Samuel 7:12-16).

Jesus's ministry as described by Matthew proclaimed the kingdom (Matthew 4:17). The goal Jesus had for those who believe in Him is for them to enter that kingdom through faithful living. It is in this way they can receive the kingdom's blessings.

Jesus's teachings were about the kingdom (Matthew 5-7, 8:10-12, 10:5-42, 12:25, 13:52, 16:24-28, 17:25-27, 18:3-4, 19:12, 19:14, 20:20-28, 26:29).

Jesus's parables almost exclusively depict something within the kingdom (Matthew 13:19, 13:24, 13:31, 13:33, 13:44, 13:45, 13:47, 18:23, 20:1, 22:2, 25:1, 25:14.

And Jesus's main exhortations from "seek first the kingdom of God" (Matthew 6:33) to the "Great Commission" (Matthew 28:18-20) are issued with the kingdom in mind. We enter the kingdom by seeking the kingdom. We seek the kingdom by obeying the Great Commission.

Within the context of Matthew, to obtain eternal life is synonymous with the terms:

  • the "Makarios" blessings of the Beatitudes, that attend living with godly perspectives (Matthew 5:3-11)
  • being rewarded by your Father in heaven for giving and praying as unto Him (Matthew 6:4, 6:6,)
  • to enter through the narrow gate and way by following God's commands, rather than taking the world's path of least resistance (Matthew 7:13-14)
  • recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as a reward for living by faith (Matthew 8:11)
  • being confessed by Jesus before His Father in heaven as a reward for confessing Jesus before men (Matthew 10:32)
  • find life as a reward for losing it for Jesus's sake (Matthew 10:39, 16:25)
  • enter the kingdom (Matthew 18:3, 19:24)
  • enter into life by keeping God's commandments (Matthew 19:17)
  • be saved (in this case, being delivered from missing the best blessings of the kingdom) (Matthew 19:25)
  • celebrating with the king (Matthew 22:10) and the bridegroom at the wedding feast (Matthew 25:10);
  • enter in to the joy of your master, after being a faithful servant (Matthew 25:21, 25:23).

Notice how four of these exhortations begin with the word: enter. Notice also that the term, enter into life (Matthew 19:17) is the exact expression that Jesus used to answer this man. And notice once more how 'enter the kingdom' (Matthew 19:24) and 'be saved' (Matthew 19:25) are terms used by Jesus and His disciples when He described what the rich, young ruler missed when he went away. In this case, "saved" refers to being delivered from losing the greatest reward of life.

Jesus makes clear that the way to enter into life to its fullest is to enter the kingdom; that is the way to gain the greatest blessings that can be gotten in this life. Following Jesus, walking in His ways is the means by which we enter the kingdom.

Jesus prefaced His response to the rich, young, ruler with another question and comment. Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good (v 17). Mark and Luke say "Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone" (Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19).

God is the only One who is good (v 17). Jesus's rhetoric is a challenge and invitation to this influential and god-fearing ruler. It is a challenge and invitation to this devout young man, who possibly already believed that Jesus was the Messiah, to go even further in His faith and to confess that Jesus was also God.

Jesus was a good moral teacher. In the two millennia since He ascended into heaven, many have considered His moral teachings to love even our enemies from the heart, to be the most sublime system of ethics the world has ever seen. But Jesus was far more than a good moral teacher. And Jesus does not allow this man to stop at calling Him merely good. If he is going to call Him good, he must also call Him God. There is no middle ground. If we are going to speak about what is good, we should be aware and be ready to acknowledge that we are speaking of the things of God.

Then Jesus told him what he must do to obtain and inherit eternal life in God's kingdom. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments (v 17). It is important to note here that Jesus equates the phrase obtain eternal life with the phrase enter into life. This again underscores that the topic here is not how to gain the gift of eternal life through being born again, but rather how to enter into life, meaning to gain the greatest blessings available in life, which is what the young ruler clearly desires. Jesus clearly states that the way to gain the most from life is to live according to God's commands. God knows what is best for us. His commands are given for our best interest. So if we follow God's commands, then we gain the very best out of life that is possible.

We know from the interactions Jesus had with the Pharisees that they had covered Israel up with commands (Matthew 23:4, 23). To which the young man replied, which ones?

Some say that this man was being unscrupulous and trying to find a loop hole. This does not seem likely, since Jesus does not seem to think so. Jesus normally calls out hypocrisy. Instead, here He gives an honest answer to an honest and most earnest question. Jesus specifically told him the commandments that he must keep:

You shall not commit murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother (vv 18-19).

These were the fifth through ninth commandments of the ten given through Moses (Exodus 20:13-16, Deuteronomy 5:17-20). All of them had to do with how to treat other people. Jesus summed these commandments up with what He would later identify as "the second greatest commandment" and You shall love your neighbor as yourself (v 19) (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39).

The young man said to Him, "All these things I have kept since I was a boy; what am I still lacking?" (v 21) (Mark 10:20, Luke 18:21).

This too was a truthful answer. Jesus accepted his honest and frank response. He did not challenge or ignore it as He often did with those who were doubtful (Matthew 11:4-6, Mark 9:23), deceitful (John 4:16-18), or hypocritically pretentious (Matthew 9:4, 16:4, 21:24-25, 22:18, Luke 23:9, John 6:26, 7:33, 8:19).

Instead, Jesus knew this young man was sincere.

He knew how he strove to keep the commandments Jesus had just mentioned to the best of his abilities. He saw that he was on the cusp of fulfilling his divine destiny and obtaining his divine inheritance. He was almost complete and ready to enter the kingdom. He really had kept the commandments and was now asking Jesus what else he could do to obtain eternal life.

Mark said that when Jesus heard this man's answer, He looked him in the eye and "felt a love for him" (Mark 10:21). This man truly was remarkable. He had exhibited the kind of zeal and devotion that Jesus sought. And he had expressed enthusiastic interest in following Jesus. But the young man had expressed to Jesus that he still felt he was still lacking. He had an innate sense that there was more to life than what he was experiencing. So, given that hunger, and earnest desire expressed by the young man, Jesus gave him a straight answer.

Jesus prefaced His answer "One thing you lack (Mark 10:21, Luke 18:22). Matthew wrote that He said, if you wish to be complete (v 21). The Greek term for complete is "teleios." It means "perfect" or "fulfilled." "Teleios" carries a sense of accomplishment or achieving a goal or purpose. It is the same word Jesus used in the Sermon on the Mount when He said "be perfect."

"Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
(Matthew 5:48)

This is challenging, since it means that Jesus's answer applies to anyone who has the clarity to ask, "How can I get the absolute most that is available to me in this life?"

The rich young ruler was moral, and wealthy, but he humbly knew he was still lacking. Otherwise, he would not have come to Jesus to ask this question. Jesus was completely willing for him to be complete, and told him If you really wish to be complete, here's what good thing you can do: Go and sell all your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come follow Me (v 21). Jesus's answer is to shift the young man's investment time frame from this life to the next. From gaining treasure on earth to treasure in heaven. As always, this is paradoxical. The way to gain the most in this life is to give up all in this life in preparation for the next.

If the young man would have just said "Ok, then I am good" Jesus might have said, "Great to have met you, glad you're on a good path." But the rich young ruler is asking Jesus how to get the very most out of life. Jesus knew that as devout as this young man was, that he had one obstacle in his way in order to gain the most he could possibly gain out of life. This man was rich in earthly treasure that would soon vanish. Jesus was telling him how to use it to store up treasure in heaven (Matthew 6:19-20).

What exactly did Jesus mean by go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor? (v 21). It seems in this case, Jesus meant literally sell everything and give it to the poor and become poor himself. There was an opportunity at hand to become a disciple of Christ on earth. Perhaps he would have become one of the primary disciples, even possibly taking the place of Judas. Jesus will soon die, and His disciples scatter. Possessions and other responsibilities will be a hindrance to spreading the gospel across the world.

Jesus was literally asking this man to sell everything. It is important to note that Jesus did not say "Sell all you have and give it to My ministry." Was it intended as a universal command for everyone else to do literally sell all their possessions and give to the poor? (v 21). Clearly not. Otherwise, all of Christian society would be in a constant cycle of deeding away property like it was a game of hot-potato. Such obedience would foster chaos and disorder rather than harmony and human flourishing. It would go against the Creation mandate of being fruitful and faithful stewards with the dominions God gave to men and women (Genesis 1:28).

However, Jesus's admonition to the young ruler does have a literal application to all believers.

In advising him to sell and give his property, Jesus is inviting him to give his heart fully to the kingdom (Matthew 6:21). He is inviting him to lose his "psuche" (life) for His sake so that he may find it in Christ (Matthew 16:25). He is inviting him to enter into eternal life by the narrow gate (Matthew 7:13). This passage invites each believer to "deed over" all they possess to God, for Him to use as He sees fit. It is an invitation to live life as a steward of all we possess, stewarding it for the kingdom of God. Sometimes that might include giving all, or a great portion. God has given us all things to enjoy (1 Timothy 6:17). But money is a harsh master, and if we serve it, it leads to loss of joy. That is why Paul instructed those who were wealthy to be generous (1 Timothy 6:18).

Jesus is telling us to count our earthly possessions as lost to us, and consider all we possess as resources of the kingdom. This is part of the attitude that will lead any of us to obtain eternal life, or enter into life in the kingdom, meaning "gain the most that is available from living in this life." This of course takes great faith. We must believe that the rewards we gain from laying up treasure in heaven will greatly exceed the rewards we can lavish upon ourselves through money in this life. But, it turns out that the primary opportunity we can gain from this life is to learn to know God, and others, by faith. That is a precious opportunity we will only get in this life. In the next we will know God by sight (Revelation 21:22-23). Knowing God by faith is such an amazing opportunity that the angels are watching the church in order to learn more about God themselves (Ephesians 3:10).

What will it profit you, rich young ruler, to hold onto your treasures and lose your life ("pusche") and inheritance of eternal life in the kingdom? (Matthew 16:26). Each of us can apply this principle by "deeding over" to God what is already His, and live life as a steward. Everything we own is passing through our hands. The only thing we can take with us is that which we send ahead.

Jesus gave the young man great investment advice, to lay up treasure in heaven. All of us can do likewise.

Matthew wrote, But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property (v 22). God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7). If we desire to reap a great harvest, it requires we sow generosity in this life (Galatians 6:7). If we live life as a steward, we can live without fear of loss, for we have already recognized that everything belongs to God. If we cling to the things in this life, we will miss great blessings and rewards, even as the rich young ruler did.

The thing Jesus told him to do greatly saddened him. And this remarkable young man walked away from the fullest blessings of the kingdom because his heart was encumbered with earthly treasure. He could not leave all he had and follow Jesus, because he was owned by his property. And he followed his heart's master (Matthew 6:24). As close as he was to entering into the fullest and complete experience of eternal life, the rich young ruler took the wide gate and the broad road that day (Matthew 7:13). It seems likely that the young ruler gained a partial reward, rather than a full reward. John warns his disciples about this in his second epistle:

"Watch yourselves, that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward."
(2 John 1:8)



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