Without any recorded hesitation, the man said, “All these things I have kept from my youth”, and then added, “What do I still lack?” He must have felt very self-satisfied, proud and justified before God.
Clearly, the man understood that his entire eternal welfare was connected to his ability to obey God’s law as found in the Ten Commandments. And in his estimation of himself, he had kept them all, even when he was young. Further, he asked Jesus if there were any other commandments just to make sure he had not overlooked any.
Not too many people would have responded to Jesus as this man did. Many would admit that they had broken some along the way like perhaps lying or stealing. But generally, they would say they stack up pretty well against these commandments, and are in good shape as regards inheriting eternal life.
But Jesus didn’t let go of the matter yet. He said to the man, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” However, we’re then told that after the man heard that, he left sorrowfully “for he had great possessions.”
Many people think that this is a teaching of Jesus against being rich. The Bible certainly warns of the dangers of being rich. The Apostle Paul warned the young pastor Timothy that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10) like greediness, but no where in the Bible does it say that being rich is wrong.
So why did Jesus tell the man to sell all of his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor and then follow Him?
The first commandment is, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). Jesus was essentially saying to him, ‘You say you have kept all the commandments since your youth. Well, let Me test you on the very first commandment. Who do you love and serve more, your wealth or Me? Have your riches essentially become an idol to you? You say you’ve always loved your neighbor as your self, so here’s an opportunity to help the poor’.
When Jesus included the command, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’, He was not just giving one more command, but was providing what is in fact the very sum of the law. All of the commandments are to have as their motive love for God and love for our neighbors. As such, all of the commandments are linked together. If one commandment is broken, then God considers all of them to be broken since every infraction is a violation of the fundamental law of love. We read, “whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10).
Jesus was not just trying to make the man sorrowful, but was helping him to see that he had not kept all of the commandments, but had essentially broken them all since his real love lay with his wealth and himself.
If God still requires absolute perfect obedience to His moral law and the young man has in fact not kept these laws since his youth, then what about his hope of eternal life? Or anyone’s for that matter since we humans have never truly kept the Ten Commandments?
It would have been better for the man if instead of going away sorrowfully, he had then cried out, “Then what must I do to be saved?” That question would have been an admission that by himself he was lost and would not inherit eternal life, that he had offended God by his sins. In fact, his use of the word inherit should have reminded him that eternal life, like an inheritance, cannot be earned, but is a gift.
Jesus probably would have answered as the Apostle Paul did to the Philippian jailer who asked the same question. The Apostle said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:32). And to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ is to believe that Jesus, God Himself in the flesh, came to obey the law completely on behalf of believing sinners. He also came to pay the debt for their disobedience of God’s law.
In this way Jesus has acted as a Substitute for fallen men, women and children. And the fact that Jesus rose from the dead bodily is proof positive that God has accepted Christ’s substitutionary work on behalf of breakers of God’s laws like you and I.
To believe this is to truly inherit eternal life, and the proof of this belief is a changed heart that now seeks to obey God’s law out of a genuine love for God and for one’s neighbor.
We don’t know for sure what ever happened to this man, but in Mark’s account of his encounter with Jesus, he adds that, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (Mark 10:21). What an encouragement that is to young people, rich people, and all people who sincerely come to Jesus and ask about the true way to heaven. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).