Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

IMPOSSIBLE - The Rich Young Ruler, Part 1

This series examines some of the ways Jesus used the Law to bring conviction of sin and prove the impossibility of human perfection. Ultimately, Jesus' intention is to have us see our need and trustingly surrender to His sovereign Lordship.

We have seen this principle in Jesus' interaction with Nicodemus; now let's take a look at how our Lord responded to a very religious young man. The story is found in three of the four Gospels, in Matthew 19, Mark 10, and Luke 18.

Below you can read the three accounts merged into one harmonized story, which will help us to notice some interesting details . . .

As He was setting out on a journey, a man who was a ruler ran up to Him, knelt before Him, and asked Him, "Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do to inherit eternal life, that I may obtain eternal life?" And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments. Then he said to Him, "Which ones?" Jesus replied, "You know the commandments, ‘DO NOT MURDER, DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, DO NOT STEAL, DO NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS, Do not defraud, HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER. And YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF." The young man said to Him, "All these things I have kept from my youth up; what am I still lacking?" When Jesus heard this, looking at him, He felt a love for him and said to him,"One thing you still lack; If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions, all that you possess, and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." But when the young man heard this statement, he became very sad and he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property and he was extremely rich. And Jesus looked at him and said, "How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!" And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, "How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” The disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! For again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." When the disciples heard this, they were even more astonished and said to Him, "Then who can be saved?" But looking at them, Jesus said to them, "With people this is impossible, but not with God; the things that are impossible with people are possible with God, for all things are possible with God."

As we move along, I'll be looking specifically at the phrases highlighted in light blue. Several months ago, we studied the beginning of this story in a 4-part series called "My Goodness, What a Paradox!"

Jesus begins by leading this man to the Law of Moses. This Law was the God-ordained path by which the Jewish people were to be led to Christ, as Paul explains here:

Galatians 3:19-25 Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions ... Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.

The Law was not meant to be a means of salvation, but a means of exposing sin and proving the need for Christ's righteousness. It is not meant to save a person from sin and guilt. Rather, it proves us guilty and sinful. Jesus applied the Law with this purpose in mind.

The list of commandments given by our Lord is notable in three ways. First, he adds a commandment not directly given in the Old Testament: Do not defraud. Is it possible that the rich ruler had gained his wealth through a scheme of some sort? Or perhaps his money came from a father who had perpetrated such a scheme. Could it be that Jesus added this command to give the man an opporunity to question it - and thereby realize that he was guilty of breaking the spirit of the Law in this way? We can only speculate, but we have to address the obvious question, why did Jesus include this particular command in His list? Secondly, Jesus adds "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," which is not properly part of the ten commandments. Could it be the young man had not treated others with love, though he had lived a strictly moral life, outwardly? That, after all, was the plague of Pharisaism: a hyper religiosity with strict outward morality and supposed love for God - and all of it entirely discredited by a lack of compassion and an indifference to the needs of others. Thirdly, Jesus does not mention the first 4 commandments, which focus on our relationship with God. He also does not mention the last commandment, "Do not covet" - the only one of the 10 commandments that deals solely with the inward man. He gave the most tangible, obvious, outward commands dealing with our treatment of other human beings.

Jesus was applying the Law in a targeted way, aiming right at this man's most obvious sins. But the intended effect of the Law was not happening, and the elite ruler remained self-righteously blind to his need for a Savior. The Lord was not finished with him yet, however . . .


  1. Something must be wrong with your notion that people cannot obey the Mosaic law perfectly, because the New Testament says they can:

    Luke 1:5-6
    5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.

    6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.

    Unless you say you can be righteous in God's sight via IMPERFECT obedience to the Law, the only reason you can give for why these two people's obedience made them righteous in God's sight, is because God regarded their obedience as perfect.

    Which means Luke 1:6 proves that sinners CAN (and often did) perfectly obey the Law of Moses.

    So if you find some passage by Paul that says no sinner can keep the law perfectly, you've either misunderstood, or Paul is wrong, or Luke is wrong.

  2. Dave,

    Thanks for commenting, and especially for abiding by the rules stated in the sidebar. Gracious disagreement can be a rare thing, so I thank you for that.

    You've brought up an interesting point that deserves attention. I think there is another alternative to your either/or scenario - is it possible we commonly misunderstand the meaning of "blameless"? You defined it as perfect obedience to the law, but I'm going to make a Biblical case that this is not the true meaning. We are naturally legalistic in our thinking, so we often impute shades of meaning to Biblical words that are not actually there. Open-hearted Bible study is the cure for this, and it's a cure we all need. The Bible is a document with amazing continuity and thematic resonance throughout its pages. God doesn't make mistakes, so things that appear contradictory can't be truly contradictory, and these seeming contradictions (a.k.a. paradoxes) often lead to a deeper understanding as we work through them. We are forced to look at things the way God does, and not with our man-made ideas. If we won't to do this, we can only distrust the Bible.

    The approach you have taken is probably very similar to that which was taken by the early Judaizers who opposed the apostles. The Judaizers believed obedience to the Law was the way to righteousness. The tone of the whole New Testament, and indeed the entire Bible, is actually opposite to this, as I am about to show with regard to this word, "blameless."

    First, let's consider three verses from David (not generally considered a "sinlessly" righteous man or a "blameless" man in terms of keeping all the requirements of the Law)

    2 Samuel 22:24 - "I was also blameless toward Him, And I kept myself from my iniquity.

    NOTE: He says "MY" iniquity. So David's blamelessness did not equal sinlessness. David describes himself as both blameless AND sinful. Or, better, blameless in spite of being sinful. We can and should carry this connection over to Luke 1:5-6.

    Psalm 18:32 - "The God who girds me with strength And makes my way blameless?"

    NOTE: David's blamelessness did not come from his own sinlessness or observance of the Law. It came from God's direct intervention in his life. He was depending on God, not his own performance (which obviously fell short at various times in his life - yet he said he was blameless toward God).

    Psalm 19:13 - Also keep back Your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not rule over me; then I will be blameless, And I shall be acquitted of great transgression.

    NOTE: Here blamelessness is described in terms of forgiveness rather than perfection or Law keeping. If blamelessness is a result of forgiveness, then it actually requires one to be a sinner prior to becoming blameless or righteous. This is a strong theme in the book of Matthew, where it is said that heaven rejoices more over one sinner who repents than it does over 99 who don't [think they] need to repent. Paul makes a similar point in Galatians 2:16-17. Again, Scripture has an amazing cohesiveness that can never be broken by any human reason - though many have tried.

    More to follow . . .

  3. Now let's trace blamelessness into the New Testament for some further examples.

    Philippians 3:6 - as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.

    NOTE: This is Paul's testimony of the life he lived before Christ rescued him. He was externally "blameless" and "righteous" in regard to the law, and yet that wasn't good enough. Later he says, "not having a righteousness OF MY OWN derived from the Law, but that which is THROUGH FAITH in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith" (Php 3:9). Romans 7 shows us that somewhere along the line, Paul had a major battle with covetousness, to the point of calling himself "wretched." So, outwardly he may have been blameless all his life, but inwardly there was sin, and the Law provided no resources to change this. Even if there is perfect outward obedience (and apparently there was in the cases of Zechariah and Paul), there can never be perfect inward obedience because every person covets. It's impossible for any fallen human being to completely avoid breaking the 10th commandment, given enough time and opportunity. It happens all the time, but nobody else knows about it.

    I Thess 3:12-13 - and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you; so that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints.

    NOTE: Here Paul gets to the heart of the matter, which is the heart. Rather than perfect outward obedience, Paul indicates that it is love - as it is given increase by God Himself - which makes our hearts blameless in holiness before Him. As Paul says elsewhere, "Love is the fulfillment of the Law." And love, I daresay, is the exact opposite of covetousness. So it is love, not perfect obedience, that fulfills the Law. And this does not happen SO WE CAN BE saved; it happens BECAUSE WE HAVE BEEN saved, by grace through faith on the basis of Christ's perfect inward and outward obedience.

    "Blameless" outward observance of the Law is certainly achievable, but it cannot justify a person in God's sight. This is the limitation of the Law to which I am referring in the post. It is when the inward aspects are applied, e.g. the 10th commandment, that we see our need for a Savior who died for our sins. I do not deny that one can outwardly observe the Law, but with Paul I deny that any person can thereby please God or become righteous in His sight. It is faith alone that saves, by the grace of our loving and kind God, through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    Notice also, later in Luke 1, Zechariah was struck mute because he did not believe the angel's message. So, while he was outwardly blameless in observing the Law, he did not have the perfect and blameless heart that would trust the God Who must Himself sanctify all of our obedience, forgive all of our failure, and perfect all of our works. This is the Gospel, and it is continuously interlaced through the whole text of Scripture. I pray you may know the power of it, and be found truly blameless by Him on that day.

    Thanks again for commenting. One quick question: the picture on your profile looks like a demon - is there some significance to this? I know that apart from Christ, I could never be anything more than a devil, with or without the benefit of the Law.

    Grace & peace,
    Derek Ashton

  4. Your comments about being "blameless" are irrelevant. When Paul says he is "blameless" in Philippians 3:6, the Greek word is amemptos. When Luke 1:6 says Liz and Zach were righteous, the Greek word is dikaios. When Paul says righteousness cannot come by the law (Galatians 2:21), the Greek word for righteousness is dikaiosune, and derives from the same base that is used in Luke 1:6. Had you dealt with the actual Greek word at issue in Luke 1:6, no comments about being "blameless" would have supported your argument.

    I have a few problems with the idea that Paul was a true apostle, and those problems would continue to exist even if I granted that the gospel of Jesus is true. Would you like to discuss those problems and other apologetics issues?

  5. porphyryredux,

    Claiming my comments are "irrelevant" and simply noting which Greek words are used in certain Biblical texts does not make much of an argument. I took for granted that the same Greek roots were at issue in the passages cited. However, context must be observed carefully. A single Greek word or concept might have a wide variety of different meanings, depending on the place and time it occurs (setting), the Biblical book or Testament in which it appears, the immediately surrounding verses, cultural background, etc.

    As an example, look at the word "Zeal" in Philippians 3:6 (Greek ZELOS). Paul uses it in a fairly positive indication of his credentials as a "Hebrew of Hebrews," yet it is the negative trait of "jealousy" among believers in James 3:14, and it is a characteristic that promotes disorder and every evil practice in James 3:16; it is a tell-tale work of the flesh in Galatians 5:20; nevertheless, it is a godly longing of Paul for his fellow believers in II Corinthians 11:2 (yet a negative trait of the Corinthians just one chapter later in II Corinthians 12:20); yet it is a commendable trait of the Corinthians in II Corinthians 7:7, 7:11 and 9:2; it is a positive trait of Christ Himself in John 2:17; it is used to describe God's fiery wrath in Hebrews 10:27.

    Do you still think that the mere use of a particular Greek term, by itself, forms a valid argument about its meaning, apart from context? In order to argue convincingly that my comments are "irrelevant," you might need to make a case that takes context much more seriously.

    Unfortunately, I do not have time available to discuss the many onion-skin layers of skeptical opinion about these matters, but I wish you well and hope you may find full assurance of the Truth as it is in Jesus.

    Grace to you,


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