Matthew 19 22-30: WHO THEN CAN BE SAVED?

(1) Introduction. Read Matthew 19 22-30.

The passage needs to be studied in conjunction with what precedes it and what follows it. The rich young ruler's rejection of Jesus was what prompted the Master's remarks on the difficulty the rich have entering the Kingdom of God. The parable of the Workers in the Vineyard addresses the dangers of a bargaining spirit as exemplified by Peter's attitude.

(2) Reasons why the rich find it difficult to enter the Kingdom of God.

Many of the rich do not look for the small gate that leads to life and those who find it are not keen to enter through to the narrow way that ends in glory. Jesus said, "It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." v23. There are at least 5 reasons for this. The rich:

(a) Are inclined to be pleased with themselves. Their riches are a measure of their success in life. It is hard to be humble if a great success at anything. Whenever I scored a lot of runs at cricket it was a huge boost to my ego. We can easily think that because we are a success with men we are a success with God. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost - life's failures - publicans and sinners

(b) Are self-made men. They have made themselves what they are, pulling themselves up by their boot laces. The rich often succeed without help from anyone. They have earned everything they possess. God has played no part in their accumulation of riches.

(c) Are used to paying their way. The rich man does not need charity from anyone. He or she is self-sufficient. Independence is a virtue. It comes hard to depend upon someone else for anything and yet this is what is necessary to enter God's kingdom. A man or woman must rely on Jesus for salvation. The only way into the kingdom is by submitting to Jesus.

(d) Stand to lose a lot by following Jesus. They are used to being their own master and following their own agenda. Jesus may ask them to relinquish some of their possessions if they are proving a distraction.

In her little book, 'A peaceful retirement', Miss Read (Dora Saint) makes this observation: Does anyone these days read that remarkable book, 'Helen's Babies', published at the turn of the twentieth century, describing the trauma of a bachelor uncle left in charge of his two young nephews?

The conversation has turned to presents. Budge, the elder boy, wants everything from a goat carriage to a catapult. Toddy, aged three, says he only wants a chocolate cigar.

"Nothing else?" asks his indulgent uncle. "Why only a chocolate cigar?"

"Can't be bothered with lots of things," is the sagacious reply.

A devoted follower of Jesus does not want to be bothered with lots of things!

(e) Receive the admiration of men. They may well be looked up to and revered. The rich appear to have made a success of their lives and are the envy of the poor. It is not easy for them to come as a beggar to Jesus. The words of the hymn, 'Rock of Ages', are inclined to stick in their throats:

          Not the labour of my hands
          Can fulfil Thy laws demands;
          Could my zeal no respite know,
          Could my tears for ever flow,
          All for sin could not atone;
          Thou must save, and Thou alone.

          Nothing in my hand I bring,
          Simply to Thy cross I cling.

(3) The baggage the rich must jettison.

There are many different suggestions what the eye of a needle was. Some say it was the actual eye of a needle - but if that was the case it would be impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom. I think the eye of a needle was the name given to a very narrow entrance into Jerusalem. If that was the case then it would be hard, but not impossible, for a rich man to enter the kingdom.

Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus does speak about finding, and passing through, the narrow door that leads to life. See Mt7v13and14. In order to pass through the straight gate it may be necessary for a man or woman to offload excess baggage just as a camel might shed its load to get through a narrow entrance. Let's have a look at some of the superfluous baggage:

(a) Self confidence. A rich man is generally a successful man and success builds confidence.

Jesus said we must become as little children to enter the kingdom of God. A child is not particularly self confident. It's aware of all the things it cannot do and must frquently ask its parents for help.

We must accept that we cannot earn salvation. We do not enter the kingdom of God on merit. I think this was the cardinal weakness of the rich young ruler. He was looking to DO something for eternal life.

(b) Self importance. A very successful person is used to being important in the field at which they excel. Nicodemus was a man of this sort. He was a member of the Sanhedrin - one of the Jewish elite. As such he thought he could pass judgment on Jesus. Nicodemus and his colleagues considered that Jesus status was dependent upon their judgment of him.

A little child is not self important. He becomes aware of how dependent he is on others.

Anyone who wishes to become a Christian is dependent upon the grace of God the Father, the mercy of God the Son and the life giving work of God the Holy Spirit.

(c) Self-sufficiency. A rich person, like the young ruler, was used to solving problems, overcoming obstacles and succeeding through their own efforts. The rich young ruler asked Jesus:"What good thing must I do to get eternal life?" He considered that he could achieve eternal life through his own efforts.

I think that when Jesus told the young man to sell all he had and give the proceeds to the poor, he was teaching him that however good he was, he could always be better. This route to eternal life led to a dead end. It wasn't enough for the ruler to sell all his possessions, it remained necessary for him to follow Jesus. He needed to be submissive rather than self-sufficient.

(d) Self righteousness. At the time of Jesus a rich man tended to think that his material well-being was a sign that God was pleased with him. He took a pride in his possessions because they were tangible evidence of God's approval. This is why the disciples were astonished by Jesus' assertion that it was hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The rich young ruler and others like him, including Saul of Tarsus, also prided themselves on keeping the Law. Jesus told the short parable of the Pharisee and Tax collector to illustrate the danger of pride. The Pharisee told God how good he was. See Luke18v9to14. But it was the Tax collector who beat his breast and cried out, "God be merciful to me a sinner!" who was justified before God.

Jesus said when outlining kingdom values: "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

(4) The benefits of following Jesus.

(a) The unworthiness of Peter's response. Peter's response to the rich young ruler's encounter with Jesus leaves a lot to be desired. He asked Jesus, "We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?" Peter is anxious to find out what's in it for him and the rest of the disciples.

I think there have always been people like that - especially when Christianity is spreading and people from other faiths are converting. People considering converting might well think, "What is going to be in it for me?" We call them loaves and fishes disciples.

(b) What Jesus didn't say to Peter. He didn't say:

  • "Come now, Peter, you still have access to your boats. You may have taken leave of your business but you have not sold up."

  • "Peter, you haven't gone without as my disciple. The rich ladies who follow us about have made sure of that."

  • "What an exciting life you are living; listening to me teach, witnessing so many exceptional miracles, enjoying the companionship of others. You're living it up! Make the most of it."

(c) What Jesus did say to Peter. He said: "I tell you the truth, 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."

Jesus' response has given rise to much controversy. Some scholars believe Jesus is referring to the judgment that follows his Second Coming and the General Resurrection. They think this is what Jesus meant by 'the renewal'. So the disciples will share in the Judgment with the enthroned Jesus.

I don't think this is a very likely interpretation because:

  • Jesus has been enthroned since his ascension. He sits on the right hand of God. See Acts2v33to35.

  • The word translated 'renewal' is never used to refer to the resurrection. It is only used on one other occasion - in Paul's epistle to Titus: He (Jesus) saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Titus3v5and6.

  • Jesus will not need any help at the resurrection with judgment. He will accomplish this with his angel escort. Nowhere in the Bible do men share in the judgment with Christ.

    In the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, Jesus said, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats." Mt25v31.

I believe Jesus was speaking about the rebirth that occurred at Pentecost and subsequently with the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus' faithful Jewish followers were regenerated and renewed by God's Spirit. Thereby they came to understand what Jesus' death and resurrection signified. In this respect they passed judgment on all Jews from every tribe who refused to believe and be saved.

When I restarted my teaching career at Debenham I inherited a year 10 G.C.S.E. class that was very unmotivated. Very few ended up with a pass grade in Geography. But one girl, Rachel, excelled and got a grade A in the subject. Her outstanding success was a judgment on all those who failed. She showed that it was possible with Mr Reed as teacher to do well.

It is in this sense that every believer in Jesus passes judgment on all who share the same opportunity but refuse the new life on offer.

(d) A promise to all believers. Jesus took the opportunity to teach that those who make sacrifices for Christ's sake will not lose out in this life. This is true of:

  • Relationships. People who convert to Christianity may well be estranged from their natural family but they become, by faith, members of God's family with many new brothers and sisters.

  • Possessions. A house is for most people their dearest possession. My parents never had enough money to buy a house. My father was a poorly paid Baptist minister. When he retired he and my mother had to leave the chapel manse. It worried my father for years what would become of him. He needn't have worried. I bought a house for my parents to live in!

  • Jobs. Perhaps we can take the mention of fields to suggest jobs. In the time of Jesus a farmer who lost his land lost his livelihood.

    I gave up my job as a school head of Geography to care for my father after mother died. I believed this to be the will of God. When my father died I got straight back into teaching at a lovely school with friendly, affectionate and appreciative pupils. I was rewarded a hundredfold. God is NO MAN'S DEBTOR. See Hebrews6v10 AV.

(5) Who then can be saved?

This is undoubtedly the most important question asked during Jesus' encounter with the rich young ruler and its aftermath. It was prompted by Jesus' describing the difficulty a rich man faced entering the Kingdom of God.

So what do the disciples mean by their query, "Who then can be saved?" It seems likely they are asking who can be saved from being excluded from the kingdom. Jesus has already taught his disciples that they needed to become as little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. Mt18v1to4. But now Jesus is more enigmatic. He tells his followers, "With God all things are possible." v26.

God makes salvation possible for all by:

(a) Convicting men and women of sin by his Spirit. A man may be rich and highly successful but still uneasy about his moral worth and standing before God. The Spirit can work this up! So a man begins to be vitally concerned about his eternal well being. Such was doubtless the case with Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.

(b) Accepting the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross to atone for the sins of all who believe. God's acceptance of Jesus' sacrifice is all of grace. A sacrifice is always a token payment and it depends for its effectiveness upon the one sinned against being willing to accept it. God was willing!

(c) Making his Spirit a gift to the believer in Jesus. The Holy Spirit makes a real, vital and lasting contribution to a believer's spiritual life. For example, the Spirit creates:

  • A desire to read the Bible, to worship and to pray.

  • An understanding of the Bible and the important truths of Christianity.

  • A pleasure in the company of other Christians - a love for the brethren.

  • Most importantly of all - a devotion to Jesus and a desire to serve him.

(6) Conclusion.

The disciples have very little understanding at this stage in their relationship with Jesus, of God's grace. There is a lot in Matthew's gospel about what Jesus expects of his followers and it does not always make very comfortable reading. In the passage we have been studying and in the proceeding, 'Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard,' the emphasis switches to our dependence upon God's grace. This is a subject the great apostle Paul emphasises in his epistles to the inestimable comfort of believers.

It is why Jesus can say: "But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first."