I once shared the Gospel with a business owner who relied on his “good” behavior to get him into heaven. He said, “I’ve never killed anyone. And I’ve never committed adultery. I think I’m a good person.” God shares an account about another man—a rich young ruler—who thought his “good works” would gain him entrance into God’s kingdom.
Who Was the Rich Young Ruler Jesus Spoke To?
A message from Pastor Charles Stanley gives us some insight into who this rich young ruler was:
“Three of the four gospels contain an account of the young man who asked Jesus a very important question: ‘What shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Luke 18:18). A ruler with great wealth, he considered himself a moral man because he had kept God’s commandments.”*
(We will unpack the rest of Pastor Stanley’s words throughout this article).
The record of Jesus’ interaction with the rich young ruler may be found in Matthew 19:16-22, Mark 10:17-22, and Luke 18:18-30. Mark’s Gospel tells us the man ran up to Jesus and knelt before Him, and we see at least an outward display of humility from the rich young ruler. Each record tells us he was rich, and Luke’s Gospel reveals he was a ruler (probably a member of the Sanhedrin).
What Do We Know about the Great Young Ruler?
What we know of the rich young ruler can be inferred from his description above, his demeanor, his conversation with Jesus, and his response.
The rich young ruler obviously knew about Jesus; he called Him Good Teacher. He also showed Jesus respect for His authority by asking Him about securing eternal life. And eternal life is a valid concern for everyone, even those rich, young, and influential.
Pastor Stanley adds this key thought:
“When God made us in His image, He created us to live forever. So, though our earthly body will perish, our spirit will never die. The question about eternal life is important, as we’ll spend eternity either with God in heaven or in an insufferable state, separated permanently from Him (Matthew 25:34, Matthew 25:41).”*
Why Did Jesus Answer the Rich Young Ruler’s Question the Way He Did?
Jesus is the Master Teacher, and we mustn’t lose sight of the valuable lesson we all learn from this interchange between Him and the rich young ruler. As we read the Gospels, we see Jesus seldom gave a direct answer to a question.
Jesus challenged the young man, asking him why he called Him good since only God is good (Mark 10:18). It’s a rebuke, for sure, yet Jesus handles it with gentleness. Jesus wasn’t impugning His own character. His response places a human’s standard of good against God’s perfect standard of righteousness. The definition of good is subjective to one’s values. God’s standard of what is good is the only one that matters. It sets the rich young ruler on his heels.
Jesus reminded the rich young ruler of the commandments—not to murder, not to commit adultery or theft, not to speak falsely or commit fraud, and to honor his parents (Mark 10:19).
Why would Jesus, who Himself fulfilled the Law and the prophets, give the impression the entrance to God’s kingdom is by following the Law? The Law does not bring salvation; it instead reveals sin (Galatians 3:19). But Jesus is only leading the man toward the truth He knows must be disclosed.
The rich young ruler probably breathed a sigh of relief as he replied that he’d kept all those commandments since he was young (Mark 10:20). He didn’t realize he’d just fallen into a quicksand of self. At this point, Mark 10:21 reveals Jesus’ compassion when he says, Jesus loved the man. Then Jesus told the man to sell all he had and give to the poor, and he would have treasure in heaven. After that, the young man could come and follow Jesus (Mark 10:21).
What Was the Rich Young Ruler’s Mistake?
When Jesus told the rich young ruler what he still lacked (Matthew 19:20), the Bible tells us the ruler was discouraged because he had many possessions (Mark 10:22). This young man should have been on that hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee when Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, for there He explained the gist of the Law and how He fulfilled it (Matthew 5:1-7:27).
By telling the rich young ruler to follow Him, Jesus essentially told him to throw away his idols (great wealth/possessions) and follow the only One who could save him. Deuteronomy 6:5 exhorts us to love God with all our hearts, souls, and might. To follow Jesus meant to love Him with all he was, not what he had. That is exactly what the young man lacked, and when he was confronted with the truth of his greatest love (money), he went away because he did not want to give up his riches. The rich young ruler indeed brought the sense of works-based salvation in his question to Jesus. What he didn’t know was he was face-to-face with God Incarnate.
Stanley continues his insightful look at this rich young ruler’s beliefs:
“…he was operating under the false assumption that good works bring salvation. He seemed to be asking Jesus what else he had to do to secure his place in heaven—besides all the good things he’d already accomplished.
This is what I refer to as the ‘great deception’—the false belief that eternal life can be earned through our own efforts. If we give credence to this lie, then we do not understand the problem of our sin and how it separates us from God. Scripture tells us that we have inherited a sinful nature from the first man (Romans 5:12). Ever since that time, humanity has been in rebellion against the Lord and under His judgment. There is nothing we can do to pay for our sin. If this were the end of the story, we would be a people without hope for today or the future. But the good news is that the heavenly Father recognized our plight and mercifully provided the way to heaven (John 14:6)”*
Can Rich People Go to Heaven?
Luke’s Gospel adds to the account of the rich young ruler. After Jesus recognized the rich young ruler’s sadness, He stated how difficult it is for rich people to enter the kingdom of God, comparing it to a camel trying to make it through the eye of a needle. Those within earshot asked how anyone could be saved. Jesus answered that God can do what is impossible for humanity. Peter said they had left their homes to follow Him, and Jesus assured them they had made the right choice—everyone who left things behind for the kingdom of God would receive much more, including eternal life (Luke 18:24-30).
Some would take this to mean only the poor can enter the kingdom of God. But that is not what Jesus is saying. We learn His intent within the context of the passage. Jesus always points to God, and the lesson He just taught is multi-faceted.
Jesus said to love the Lord first and foremost. It’s the first and greatest commandment. People who make wealth and/or possessions an idol are placing something above God. Conversely, a poor person may boast of his lowliness and make that position a banner of his so-called humility. It’s still placing himself above God.
Jesus also teaches us we cannot earn our salvation. And that’s the onus of the lesson. The rich and the poor can go to heaven, but not because of anything they did. None of our works save us, only grace which is God’s gift that no one can boast about (Ephesians 2:8-9). It’s our heart’s attitude that matters. The Bible implies, that the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart.
How Can We Pray Using These Lessons about the Rich Young Ruler?
Father, I praise You as Jehovah Jireh, the God who provides. And in that provision, I know my salvation was part of how You provided for me. Thank You that it wasn’t up to me or anything I’d try to do on my own merit to enter Your kingdom. I praise You for Jesus, the Author and perfecter of my faith. Thank You that when I surrendered to Jesus, You assured me I am now in Your Kingdom.
Lord Jesus, I am prone to think more highly of myself than I ought. You tell me in Your Word I am not to do that. My pride bubbles to the surface and I cling to my accomplishments and any wealth I’ve acquired, as if it were mine to begin with. Jesus, it’s all Yours! I am so thankful for Your perfect patience with me as I work out my salvation with fear and trembling. I don’t deserve life with You, but Lord, You have welcomed me, sinner that I am. Change me, I pray into a person who is one after Your own heart.
Father God, I can’t do anything without You. I don’t know why I even ever tried. The work I do, I now do to please You. So, I pray that whatever You give me as a vocation, I lift it to You and work heartily as unto You and not myself. I know I will stand before You one day to give an account of what I’ve done with all You’ve given me. That scares me, Father, because I get selfish and prideful. Please, Father, reign in me.
Lord, thank You for saving me. All my works are as chaff before you, and no matter how I try, I cannot work my way into heaven. Knowing You died in my place makes me realize I could never atone for even one of my sins. My life is a mess without You. Thank you for forgiving me and inviting me to be with You forever in Your presence.
All these things I pray in the matchless name of Jesus. Amen.
*All Charles Stanley quotes are taken from “The Rich Young Ruler ” by In Touch Ministries (used by permission).
Photo Credit: Getty Images/BibleArtLibrary
Lisa Loraine Baker is the multiple award-winning author of Someplace to be Somebody (End Game Press – Feb. 2022). She writes fiction and nonfiction and her current works-in-progress include a children’s picture book to accompany Someplace to be Somebody (co-written with Michelle Medlock Adams). Lisa is also writing a Christmas story anthology and she and her husband are writing a Christian living book. In addition to writing for the Salem Web Network, Lisa serves as a Word Weavers’ mentor and is part of a critique group. She also is a member of AWSA, the Serious Writers’ Group, and BRRC. Lisa and her husband, Stephen, a pastor, live in a small Ohio village with their crazy cat, Lewis.
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