Point of Reference
by Fred Price
The concept of first place is graphically dealt with by Jesus in Mat. 19, but should not be confused with where we place in a contest or race. In this scripture, a rich young ruler came seeking eternal life, to which Jesus gave a rather startling requirement, “…obey the commandments.” With nothing said of grace or mercy.
Much of evangelism focuses on convincing people of their need of salvation. This young man seems to have already gotten to that point. So what happened? Why was he not successfully converted? He wasn’t willing to forgo what he loved most in the world and commit himself to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Besides being young and rich, Luke 18:18 further identifies him as an archōn – Greek for ruler – possibly in a synagogue. Prominent, respected and influential, he already had much of what the world had to offer. And yet, something was missing, perhaps his soul was restless; the eternal life he sought not solely based on life in the here-after but encompassing the quality of life characterized in the redeemed experience of the here-and-now. He was obeying the letter of the Law without realizing its intent, missing out on all that God had to offer. (Much like many of us today.)
In relating this same story, Mark says that he ran up to Jesus through a crowd. Without hesitation or introduction, he urgently knelt before Jesus requesting advice, asking “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Mark 10:17 (Addressing Jesus as didaskalos – a master or teacher of divine truth.)
Being faithful to Judaism with its dual components of sacrifice and works, his question is not surprising; Jesus’ reply is what draws us up short. “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” “Which ones? The man inquired.” Jesus replying by reciting the last five commandments, adding… Love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man’s reply possibly sounding a bit presumptuous to some, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Matthew 19:17-20
Jesus knew this young man’s “salvation” was based on self-justification grounded in a technical obedience of the Law. His quest for something more was the result of an emptiness in his soul; a desire for a release from anxious frustration and a need of acceptance and hope. All understandable desires, but do they lead to commitment to Christ? Much of evangelism today is likewise deficient in convincing and convicting people of the real problem – sin. It being easier to get a positive response when we offer happiness and personal fulfillment as positive attributes of Christianity while rarely mentioning sin (and even then referring to it as a mistake or bad decision), and the need for repentance to gain forgiveness in and through Christ. Which is why so many churches today are full of people whose lives remain unchanged after their conversion. Evangelist and author John MacArthur writing, “We have no business preaching grace to people who do not understand the implications of God’s law. It is meaningless to expound on grace to someone who does not know the divine demand for righteousness. Those who do not even sense their own guilt cannot possibly comprehend God’s mercy. You cannot preach a gospel of grace to someone who has not heard that God requires obedience and punishes disobedience.”1 Paul, the great expositor of righteousness through faith, acknowledged at the very beginning of his treatise on this subject that part of his purpose was to call people “…to the obedience that comes from faith.” Romans 1:5
Jesus never offered that kind of relief to the young man, it was imperative that he recognize his sinfulness and thus his utter separation from God. (See Habakkuk 1:13; Is. 59:2 & Psalm 5:4,5) Recognition of sin being critical to its resolution and genuine appreciation of salvation. Jesus’ answer took the focus off the young man’s feelings and put it back on God. Measuring this sinner – and all the rest of us – against the perfect law of God so he/we can see how short of the mark we’ve been; and thus, how much we need Him. His purposes becoming paramount in our lives. (Paul prefacing his Roman letter with examples of man’s sinfulness, thereby revealing the role of “judgment” in salvation – because without acceptance of the God-ordained effects of the law, grace is meaningless and mercy loses its power. As without a genuine understanding of the reality and gravity of our sin, redemption is unlikely to take place.)
And then came the ultimate challenge of faith and faithfulness for this young man, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Matthew 19:21 And even though a vow of poverty is nowhere required in scripture of all believers, we are instructed to be content with what we have and to share even that with those in need, gaining more in return than we might imagine. ( Mark 10:29-31)
The young man declined to do so, going away sad, “…because he had great wealth.” Matthew 19:22 Jesus’ final judgment being, “…it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 19:23; specifically because there is so much competition for “first place” in our hearts and minds. Which is not to say Jesus didn’t care for this young man (see Mark 10:21) but that he doesn’t “redeem” sinners on their terms. (See Mark 8:34-37 & Matthew 10:37,38)
1From John MacArthur’s book, The Gospel According to Jesus , Zondervan Publishing
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Fred Price - married (48 years), father of two grown children, grandfather of six.
Fred retired earlier this year after 42 years as a factory worker. He has always had a heart for young people and the challenges they face today. Over the years Fred has taught Discipleship Groups for High School and college students.
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