Matt. 19:16-26 “You
Can’t Get to Heaven…”
Translation & Sermon by Nate
Wilson for Christ The Redeemer Church, Manhattan, KS, 10 Mar. 2013
19:16 And look, one man said to Him as
Teacher, what good thing shall I do in order that I might have eternal life?”
19:17 So He said to him,
“Why do you
declare me to be good? No one is good except the one God!
But if you
wish to enter into the Life, start keeping His commandments.”
19:18 He says to Him, “Which ones?”
And Jesus said,
not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal;
not testify falsely; 19:19 continue to honor your father and your mother;
shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
19:20 The young man says to Him,
things I have kept since my youth! What am I still lacking?”
informs him, “If you want to be perfect,
go on, start selling your possessions and giving to destitute
and you will have a treasury in heaven.
Also, here, keep following me.”
19:22 Well, after hearing the word, the
young man went away grieving,
for he was
holding a lot of real estate.
19:23 Then Jesus said to His disciples,
“I’m telling you truly
that a rich
man will enter into the kingdom of the heavens, [but] it is disagreeable.
19:24 I’m telling y’all again, it is easier for a camel to go
through a needle hole
than for a rich man to go into the kingdom of God.”
19:25 Now, after the disciples heard,
they were utterly astounded, saying,
is able to be saved?”
19:26 And, after looking at them, Jesus
to humans, this is impossible,
according to God, all things are possible.”
The other night I dreamed I visited
heaven. I met angels there who showed me around streets of gold and then to a
magnificent palace. Inside the palace were strange devices I had never seen
before. They had flat faces with a sort of armature moving before them. I
noticed banks of them along the walls of every room, with official-looking
angels reading and taking notes about each one. My first impression was that it
was some sort of clock, but upon closer inspection, I noticed that there was a
number register on each machine like the odometer of a car. Most curious of all
was that engraven on each one of these devices was a different name. One said,
“Joshua Tanner Wilson,” and the numbers were rolling steadily forward. The next
one said, “Beniah Baruch Wilson,” and I began to realize that there was one
such machine for every person in our church. As I look around the room, I found
every one of you, but I couldn’t find my own name on any of the machines.
Fascinated, I asked the angel what these things were and why the angels were
taking notes about each one. “Oh,” he said, “Those are your sin-ometers. The
arm moves around every time that person sins, and the register advances by one
“Wow,” I said, “I didn’t know that Josh
sinned that often! Could I ask one more question, though? Where is my
sin-ometer; I couldn’t find it anywhere?”
“Oh, that one, said the angel, it’s back
in the office; we use it for a fan!”
Now, that was supposed to just be a
joke, but it raises a serious issue. If God hates sin, can
sinners even get to heaven, and if so how? How good do you have
to be to get into heaven? That is the question posed to Jesus as He was on His
way to Jerusalem.
19:16 And look, one man said to Him
as he approached, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do in order that I
might have eternal life?”
ειπεν αυτῷ Διδασκαλε
αγαθον ποιησω ‘ινα
- V.20 tells us that the man who came and asked Jesus
this question was a “young” man, and the parallel passage in Luke tells us that this guy was a “ruler”
(an office-holder at the synagogue).
- When he addresses
Jesus, the majority of Greek manuscripts of this verse include the word
“good” along with the title “master/teacher.” The parallel accounts in
both Mark 10:17 and Luke 18:18 also say, “Good teacher,” so, whether or
not Matthew originally penned the young ruler’s greeting as “good
teacher,” the man did call Jesus “good.”
- The KJV translation follows a meaning of the
English word “master” which is not in common use anymore, but you may have
read books from a previous century which spoke of a school teacher as a
“schoolmaster,” and that is the sense of it.
- This man knew that Jesus taught how to get/obtain
eternal life – the
life of God which never ends. The way he asks the question, it sounds like
he is not sure that he will receive eternal life, so he is asking Jesus if
there is some special deed he could do in order to get on God’s good side
and earn his way into heaven.
- There are a lot of people who think this way:
- Muhammed told his soldiers that if they died
fighting non-Muslims, they would go straight to heaven,
the Pope told Crusaders that they would go to heaven if they died
- The more refined citizens of our day and age
figure they can buy eternal life by starting a charitable organization to
help the sick or the poor.
- But no. God says that all our good deeds are like
filthy rags (Isa. 64:6) and that we all have sinned and fallen short of
His glory (Romans 3:23).
- This young ruler does not understand that the
way to eternal life is not earned by doing something grand but is received
as a free gift by those who follow Jesus as their Savior and Lord.
- He does not understand that goodness is not
something humans generate by doing stuff, goodness is the
character of the one true God.
- Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity
gently begins to correct him:
19:17 So He said to him, “Why do you
declare me to be good? No one is good except the one God! But if you wish to
enter into the Life, start keeping His commandments.”
‘Ο δε ειπεν αυτῷ
Τί με λεγεις αγαθον
ουδεις αγαθος ει
μη εἷς ‘ο θεος
ει δε θελεις
εισελθειν εις την
- Now, if you are not reading from a King James
translation, you may have noticed the wording of my translation was
different from yours.
- There are several
ancient Greek manuscripts of the N.T. which the United Bible Societies
put greater stock in than the traditional Greek texts, and those manuscripts
read, “Why do you ask concerning the good…” They state, however
that there is “some degree of doubt” over whether this is the original
wording of Matthew.
- The phrase, “Why do you call me good,” is
the reading of the majority of Greek manuscripts of Matthew 19 here, as
well as the parallel accounts of Luke 18 and Mark 10, which, as we saw
earlier, also read that the ruler called Jesus, “Good Teacher.” The two
go together, “Good teacher? … Why do you call me good?”
- Either way, Jesus raises the ethical issue of
where goodness comes from. Does it come from humans or does it
come from God? Can we come up with good things to do, or
has God already told us what is good in the Bible?
- Wait a minute! I though Jesus was not a legalist.
I thought He offered salvation freely by grace through faith! Well that’s the point. Jesus is calling the
- This young ruler is a legalist who thinks he is
good enough for God, but his standard of goodness is way too low.
casually used the word “good” to refer to Jesus, whom he thought was a
mere man like himself, and he expected Jesus to return the favor and say,
“Hey man, I sure appreciate that you think I’m good. I think you’re good guy
too! I’ll see you in heaven!”
- Isn’t that the way
it is in our society today? Everybody is calling each other “good” (or
“cool”), no matter how rebellious against God they are, and they are all
mighty relieved to hear other people’s opinions that they are “all right.”
Furthermore, they positively hate anybody who tells them that they are not
good, and they sure don’t want to hear the opinion of the True and Living
God about themselves!
- Jesus cuts to the
quick by going to the demand of the law for perfection. This appeal to the
law of God will convict a man of sin if the Spirit is at work in him to
bring conviction, because
it is the Spirit who convicts us of sin, righteousness and judgment (John
- What Jesus says is quite true, by the way; if
there were someone concerning whom no sin had ever been counted against
them and who had kept/obeyedNIV all the laws in the Bible
perfectly, then of course he would be right with God and rewarded with
eternal life. As Moses
wrote, “He that does these things [in the law] shall live” (Leviticus
- The problem is, as Jesus pointed out, “there is
only one good man,” and it’s not you, pal, it’s Jesus. Only the One
God who defines good from evil has the ability to be absolutely
good, nobody else can, just by the nature of things.
- Another way of
stating this problem is that the ruler, like many people today, “thought
of goodness as quantitative (a series of acts) and not qualitative
(of the nature of God).” ~ATR
- John Calvin
explained that in the book of Romans, “Paul lays down a twofold righteousness,
the righteousness of the law (Rom. 10:5), and the righteousness of faith
(Rom. 10:6). He makes the first to consist in works, and the second,
in the free grace of Christ. Hence we infer, that this reply of
Christ is legal, because it was proper that the young man who inquired
about the righteousness of works should first be taught that no man is
accounted righteous before God unless he has fulfilled the law (which is
impossible), that, convinced of his weakness, he might betake himself to
the assistance of faith.”
- But he’s not
“convinced of his weakness” yet…
19:18 He says to Him, “Which ones?”
And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall
not steal; you shall not testify falsely;
ποιας; ‘Ο δε Ιησους
to honor your father and your mother; and you shall love your neighbor as
την μητερα, και
πλησιον σου ‘ως
- This guy appears to
be asking honest questions – not to test Jesus but – to learn what Jesus
has to say. He knows that many religious teachers throughout history (like
the Mormons and the Masons today) depend on a body of teachings outside
of the Bible that is used to interpret the Bible or that makes the
initiates of that knowledge insiders to spiritual mysteries that
nobody else knows. He was wanting to hear Jesus’ secret, and he appears to
be surprised when all Jesus does is quote the 10 Commandments instead of initiating
him into some new secret knowledge.
- The young ruler appears
to have been confused by living in a humanistic society. He’s heard the
Pharisees tell him so many rules that when he hears Jesus say, “The
Commandments,” it’s not the 10 Commandments that jump to mind;
instead he’s wondering. Which commandments? How could anyone say
“THE commandments,” as though there were a fixed body of them? Everybody
is constantly making up rules and judging me for not following them!
just like that today, isn’t it? The politically-correct gurus in
Washington and in Hollywood are constantly churning out new do’s and
don’t’s, and the world judges you for not towing the line on the latest
fashionable trends, whether it’s going paperless or not bullying or
reducing your carbon footprint or going vegan, or buying fair trade, or
- So, to clarify, Jesus outlines the second table
of God’s law – the ethical duties of humans toward each other – numbers 5-9
of the 10 Commandments, ending with the summary of that half of the
law from Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself, ” also known as the second of
the two great commandments (Mt. 22:39).
- Jesus doesn’t even
mention the hard ones – the commands that require perfection in our
thoughts: to love the Lord God, never having another god before Him, and
the 10th commandment about not even thinking about wanting
something that is not yours.
- Although Jesus does not discount the other
commandments (they are included by synecdoche), piety toward God can be
faked, so maybe that’s why He doesn’t start with keeping the Sabbath or
not worshipping idols.
- The commandments He does mention are enough to
test anybody because, as it says in 1 John 4:20, “He who does not love his
brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not
seen.” If this ruler fails on the second table of the law, he
automatically fails the first half of the law too.
- Nevertheless, this guy has what John Calvin
called “a blind confidence in his works,” which caused him to miss Jesus’
19:20 The young man says to Him, “All
these things I have kept since my youth! What am I still lacking?”
‘ο νεανισκος Παντα
- “From my youth up” is another disputed phrase
found in the majority of Greek manuscripts, but not in the United Bible
Societies’ edition of the Greek New Testament, but it does not change the
gist of what the guy said.
- He claimed that he valued the O.T. law and
diligently kept it, guarding himself like a shepherd guards his sheep,
like a soldier guards his charge.
- As if to excuse the ridiculousness of this guy’s
claim that he has actually kept God’s commandments all his life, Matthew
mentions here that it was a “young man.”
- Now, the Scripture teaches
us that it is possible for “young men” like this to be filled with the
Holy Spirit (Acts 2:17), to know the word of God, and to overcome the
Evil one (1 John 2:14), so being young is no excuse for being spiritually
- “What do I lack still? Where am I failing? Where
am I still coming up short? What do I still need to do?” the young ruler
- “[T]hough he tried
hard to believe in his own virtue and respectability, he was actually
feeling ill at ease.” ~Wm. Hendricksen
- This is typical of a legalistic mindset:
If life is all about keeping the rules, and if humans make
the rules, then you never know if there might be somebody out there with
a rule you don’t know about yet. However, Humanism has a simple
solution: just learn the new rule and go out there and be a winner.
- However, the Biblical worldview is different:
God is the only lawgiver (James 4:12), and He has already revealed what
His commandments are. There’s ten of them. There will never be a new
edition coming out with eleven commandments.
- Since God is the One to whom we are
accountable, it is proper to have a concern over whether or not we
will come up short of His standard. (“Therefore, let us fear if,
while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to
have come short of it. Heb. 4:1, NASB)
- But then we find out that “all fall short
of the glory of God” because “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23), so followers
of Christ realize that the key to entering eternal life is not to
find one more good thing to do, because we will never be able to do
enough good things to earn God’s love. Our only hope is to come in to
heaven on the coattails of Jesus, the only One who has ever been able to
keep God’s law perfectly without coming short.
- How will Jesus explain this to
the young ruler?
informs him, “If you want to be perfect, go on, start selling your possessions,
and giving to destitute men, and you will have a treasury in heaven, also,
here, keep following me.
αυτῷ ‘ο Ιησους
τελειος ειναι ‘υπαγε
πωλησον σου τα ‘υπαρχοντα
πτωχοις και ‘εξεις
- Mark 10:21 says that Jesus “looked” at this man
and “loved” him. So what Jesus said to him was not a snide comment or an
intentionally misleading one. Jesus spoke out of love for this young
- And the grammar Jesus uses (ei + present indicative) indicates
that Jesus thinks that this man really does want to be right with God.
- The parallel passages in Mark and Luke say, “One
thing you lack,” instead of, “If you would be perfect/completeNAS”
– in other words, “You are missing something, but it’s not what you
think it is. You have more maturing to do, but if you’ll give away
your stuff and become my disciple, that will do it.”
- This is similar to the parable of the treasure in
the field that Jesus told in Matt. 13:44, which uses many of the same
words found here in Mat. 19:21: “Again, the kingdom of the heavens is like
a treasure-chest which had been hidden in the field, which a man
found, then hid, and then, out of his joy, he goes on and sells
all of however much he possesses and buys that field.” (NAW)
- Jesus seems to be saying three things to this
- First: “You’ve got investments or business ventures
that require too much of your time for you to be able to walk around with
me and listen to me. These things have even become idols in your life
that keep your attention away from God. Sell
those things off.
- Secondly, you have
had such a focus on those investments and businesses that your thinking
has become consumed with making money, and you have stopped caring for
the poor. (Just like those people that said “Corban” over their
possessions to keep from having to support their parents in their old age,
so you have come up with excuses for amassing wealth and not being
generous to the poor.) You need to change that attitude and begin loving
lowly people, or
you’re not going to be able to stand being around me, because I am poor,
and I love on needy people.
- Finally, making these changes to your thinking
and your life circumstances will enable you to follow me, and as you
follow me and absorb my teaching, you will really be completed as a man
- Now, it is important to understand that “Jesus
was not endorsing the ‘salvation by good works’ doctrine… ‘Trust
completely in me’ was exactly what the Lord was telling him.” Jesus was
fleshing that out as to what it would mean for that particular man to have
no other gods before Him.
- For each one of us it may be different what we
are called to give up in order to follow Jesus with undivided attention.
- For instance, with Abraham, God didn’t ask him
to give up his wealth, instead, God asked him to give up his only son.
That was the test of whether Abraham trusted God completely and had no
other gods before Him.
- Now, I want to fast-forward through the next
section and save it for my next sermon, but I’ll read through it anyway to
keep things in context:
19:22 Well, after hearing the word,
the young man went away grieving, for he was holding a lot of real estate.
19:23 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “I’m telling you truly that a rich man
will enter into the kingdom of the heavens, [but] it is disagreeable. 19:24 I’m
telling y’all again, it is easier for a camel to go through a needle hole than
for a rich man to go into the kingdom of God.”
19:25 Now, after the disciples heard,
they were utterly astounded, saying, “Who then is able to be saved?”
δε ‘οι μαθηται
λεγοντες Τίς αρα
- I have heard it said that “the eye of the needle”
was a reference to a small door in a city wall that a man could walk
through without his luggage. This would imply that a man could get into
heaven, but it would be a squeeze, and he wouldn’t be able to take all his
possessions with him. However, I see three problems with this
- One: This exact phrase doesn’t appear anywhere
else in the Bible or any other ancient Christian literature, as far as I
can tell, so
it doesn’t appear to be referring to anything in common use.
- The only other places in the Greek Bible where
the word for “needle” appears are Exodus 27:16 and 38:23, where it is part
of a compound word translated in our English versions as “embroidering,
weaving, or needlework,” which doesn’t have anything to do with a
- The Babylonian Talmud records a proverb to the
effect that nobody has ever seen an elephant pass through the eye of a
needle – not even in their dreams, which effectively means that some
things are inconceivable. Marvin Vincent suggested that Jesus was
alluding to this proverb, but substituting a camel for an elephant,
since His disciples had probably never seen an elephant.
- From the Greek words themselves here in Matt.
19, I think the phrase means a pinhole made by a sewing needle, or
perhaps the eye of a needle.
- Secondly, if this phrase meant “a small but
maneuverable entrance,” it would be hard to understand why Jesus’
disciples were “exceedingly amazedKJV” “very/ greatly
astonished” when they heard Jesus say this and then to have concluded
that nobody could be saved. Jesus had to have presented an impossible
situation such as feeding a camel through an actual pinhole in order for
the disciples to respond as they did.
- Thirdly, if we look at what the whole of
Scripture says about salvation, we see that ever since Adam and Eve
rebelled against God it is not merely difficult for humans to
enter heaven on their own, it is totally unachievable.
- It’s entirely possible that the disciples were
brought up short here. “Man alive,” they might have thought, “That wealthy
young ruler is a really nice guy, and he has meticulously followed all
God’s rules. If he’s not good enough to get in, and if it would be
easier to thread a camel through the eye of a needle, then I’m sunk!”
- And they’d be right.
The only way we can be made right with God is for God to decide to save us
and send his Son to pay the penalty of death for our sin, and send the
Holy Spirit to change our rebellious heart into a heart that believes and
loves God, and apply the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ to our record, and
draw us into fellowship with Him. That’s how we enter the kingdom of God, through God’s salvation, not through our earning it.
- Jesus was speaking to them along the same lines
that He had spoken to the young ruler, impressing upon them the impossibility
of entering heaven on our own terms and the absolute necessity of trusting
the grace of God in Christ to get you in.
- However, I do think
that the basic idea of “you can’t take it with you” does apply. This rich
man couldn’t treasure or rely upon both God and his
wealth at the same time and ever expect to make it into heaven, because this
division of loyalty would violate the very first commandment, “You shall
have no other gods,” literally, “after [or in] addition to
my presence.” (Ex. 20:1, NAW)
19:26 And, after looking at them,
Jesus said, “According to humans, this is impossible, but according to
God, all things are possible.”
‘ο Ιησους ειπεν
αυτοις Παρα ανθρωποις
εστιν παρα δε
- Why didn’t Jesus
answer right away? Why did He just look at them first?
- Possibly it was to
answer their question with a look. “Who can be saved?” “You, Peter. And
you, John. And you, Matthew…” And so on down the line.
- On the other hand,
Jesus could have been expressing some displeasure that they did not
already know the answer, or maybe He was just accentuating His answer
with a pregnant pause so that they would remember it well:
- Note that the
context has changed somewhat from considering the salvation of the rich
young ruler, to the more general question of whether anybody
can be saved. It should be very disturbing to each of us therefore when
Jesus says that salvation is humanly impossible.
- Contrary to popular opinion, it is not
possible for humans to solve all the world’s problems; it is not
possible for mankind to save themselves. No human community has ever
achieved utopia in all the thousands of years of recorded history, yet
every generation keeps trying. Take Jesus’ word for it; it’s impossible.
- The only way forward with salvation, to the
healing of all harms, to the solution to every problem, to eternal life in
heaven under the kingdom of God, is through God.
With God all things are possible.
- This, by the way, is not a statement of human
potential. I’ve heard people use this phrase, “With God all things are
possible” to mean that with me plus God
I can accomplish anything I want to do. That’s all backward.
Rather think of it as God, with or
without me, you can do anything He wants to do.
- Job said, “I know
that You can do all things, And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.”
(Job 42:2, NASB)
- And one of those things we know God wants to do
is to save the world (1 John 4:14).
- It is His will revealed in the Bible to
eradicate death (Rev. 21:4)
- and put all things under Christ’s complete
control (1 Cor. 15:25)
- and save some from every language, nation, and
family (Gen. 12:3, Rev. 5:9),
- to redeem all of
creation from its brokenness that came from sin (Rom. 8:21, Gal. 3:13)
all our tears away (Isa. 25:8), and dwell with us forever (Rev. 21:3-4,
- Our humanistic government is doing its best to do
all these things apart from God, but it will never succeed. God, on the
other hand, has the power to do the impossible; Jesus can and will
save the world!
It is good to ask the question, “How
do I get eternal life?”
The right place to look for the
answer is in the words of Jesus – the Bible. There we find just a plain old
Gospel message that many of you have heard before:
Only God is good, and only God can
define what is good from what is bad. His 10 commandments are moral obligations
we must follow, and we have no business adding other rules on top of God’s.
We need to recognize that we are not
morally good because we have participated in rebellion against God and
disobeyed His commands. We have totally disqualified ourselves from eternal
life by our sin and can do nothing to improve our situation with God.
So to get eternal life, we must look
to God to give it to us. He is the only source from which it can come. We can
ask Him to save us, and He will save us. The way He arranged it was to send His
son Jesus to become a man and live a perfect life and then die as though He
were a sinner. God now takes the punishment Jesus suffered on the cross for sin
and applies that to us who are looking to Him as our Savior.
Now the penalty of eternal death is
paid for us and we enter into the eternal life of God. A life free of guilt,
free of wondering whether God is mad at you, free of fear, and free of the
burden of always having to do one more good thing. A life free to love
and be loved by God forever. That’s good news!