Pastor David B. Curtis


The Only Good Man?

Mark 10:17-27

Delivered 12/10/2006

Jesus and His disciples are on their way to Jerusalem. Jesus is heading for the Cross. Remember that all that is happening in this portion of Mark is designed to teach the disciples and prepare them for their future mission to the church. In our text we find them in Perea east of the Jordan river across from Judea. As the Lord finished his comments about marriage, some of the local people began to approach Him with their children seeking Him to bless these little ones.

The text in Mark 10:13-31 contains two major paragraphs describing two separate but related incidents. The first paragraph, verses 13-16, contains Mark's description of our Lord's response to the disciples' attempt to hinder parents bringing their children to Jesus, for Him to touch, to pray for, and thus, to bless. The second paragraph contains the incident of the "rich young ruler" who came to Jesus to learn what he must do in order to obtain eternal life, along with the response of Jesus and His disciples (verses 17-31).

There is, I believe, a clear thread of continuity which ties these two paragraphs together. In the first place, all three gospels include both incidents, both of which are found together in each gospel, and in the same order. Second, both paragraphs deal with how men enter into the kingdom of God. In the first paragraph, child-likeness is an essential element. In the second paragraph, being rich is a hindrance.

Mark 10:13-16 (NASB) And they were bringing children to Him so that He might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to them, "Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 "Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all." 16 And He took them in His arms and began blessing them, laying His hands upon them.

What is the characteristic of a child that models what we need to be in order to enter the kingdom of God? He is welcoming the children, but it is also metaphoric in that He is saying there are characteristics of a child that model how we should come, even as adults. The characteristics of children that I believe Jesus is referring to are helplessness and dependence. We must come to Christ with a realization of our helplessness. We must also come with a realization of dependence. From helplessness comes the need to depend upon One who is able.

The issue is one of dependence over self-reliance. Children must depend upon others. In contrast to these dependent children, the rich man, in the following text, was relying solely on himself. The kingdom of God belongs to those who depend on God rather than the self-reliant.

Mark 10:17 (NASB) And as He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and began asking Him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus was leaving the area when this man comes running up to Him and kneels before Him. It is obvious from this that the man had just heard Jesus. He was evidently present when Jesus answered the Pharisees' question on divorce, and he saw Jesus blessing the children. He has a pressing question so he comes to Jesus.

Who was this man? All Mark tells us is that he is a man. Luke alone tells us that he was a ruler:

Luke 18:18 (NASB) And a certain ruler questioned Him, saying, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"

The word translated "ruler" is the Greek word archon, which means: "one who has administrative authority, leader, official." It is used of various Jewish leaders, including those in charge of a synagogue and members of the Sanhedrin.

Matthew's account adds another detail and refers to the ruler as a "young man," which is lacking from both Mark and Luke:

Matthew 19:20 (NASB) The young man said to Him, "All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?"

Young is the Greek word neaniskos, which means: "a relatively young man, youth, young man." Unfortunately, the use of this word tells us very little about the age of the man. He could have been anywhere from 20 to 40, which I would consider young.

We also know that the man was rich; this is variously described in all three Gospel records. Matthew and Mark say, "He was one who owned much property." Luke tells us, "he was extremely rich." "Rich" is the Greek word plousios, which means: "having an abundance of earthly possessions that exceeds normal experience, rich, wealthy." The adjective "extremely" translates the Greek sphodra, meaning: "a very high point on a scale of extent, greatly."

So the common label given to this man of "rich young ruler" is an accurate description of this man who approaches Jesus. So here is this rich young ruler of a synagogue who runs up to Jesus and kneels before Him in the dirt of the roadside at the edge of town, with a burning question on his heart. That would not be characteristic of a man in his position, which tells us this was very important to him. Notice his question:

Mark 10:17 (NASB) And as He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and began asking Him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"

The word translated "inherit" is the Greek word kleronomeo, meaning: "acquire, obtain, come into possession of something, inherit."

"Eternal life" is aionios: "perpetual, eternal, for ever, everlasting," and zoe, "life." The eternal life he was seeking was that taught by the Pharisees, life in the future eternal kingdom, for they believed steadfastly in the resurrection from the dead and eternal life in the future Kingdom.

Jesus tells us:

John 17:3 (NASB) "And this is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.

So "eternal life" is the never-ending, active relationship with the living God.

What does this rich young ruler believe about eternal life? He believes that eternal life is something that one earns or merits by what he does ­ "What shall I do?"

This is a very common belief even today. Ask the common man or woman in your community, and you'll probably come up with a similar belief: "You go to heaven if you do good. You go to hell if you do bad things. Eternal life is a reward for what you do on earth." That's what people tell you.

Notice how he addresses Jesus ­ "Good teacher" ­ a somewhat improper way to address a Rabbi. We don't see this expression elsewhere in Rabbinical literature until the Fourth Century. The word "good" is the Greek word agathos, which means: "pertaining to meeting a high standard of worth and merit."

By the very form of his question, the Lord clearly knew that this man was hung up on being "good." In typical Rabbinic style Jesus answers his question with a question:

Mark 10:18 (NASB) And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.

This answering a question with a question was designed to make the questioner think and come to the answer themselves. Jesus got people to see the truth not by telling them, but by leading them. Often we see that when Jesus was asked a question, He responds not with an answer but with a question, and His question is the answer.

Jesus' question is "Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone." Why did Jesus ask him this? The issue is goodness. In the definitive sense of that word, He could not be "good" if He was a mere man. The Tanakh taught that no one was good except God:

Psalms 14:1-3 (NASB) The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God." They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good. 2 The LORD has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men, To see if there are any who understand, Who seek after God. 3 They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; There is no one who does good, not even one.

In Jewish circles goodness was seen as belonging only to God. Goodness was never attributed to a rabbi, but only to God. There is no instance in the whole Talmud of a rabbi being addressed as "Good Master."

Exodus 33:19 (NASB) And He said, "I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion."
Psalms 34:8 (NASB) O taste and see that the LORD is good; How blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!

Only God was good, and that could mean only one thing. Jesus could not be good unless He was also God. Jesus was trying to get this man to see who He was. The man was seeing Jesus as a good man, a wise teacher who had some answers. He was not seeing that all that is truly good is found in God. He was not seeing Jesus as the Christ, as God in the flesh. He was also trying to get the young man to see that if none are good, then he is not good. Only God is good.

The young man can't understand anything else Jesus will tell him unless he grasps that our relative standards of goodness are much, much different than God's absolute goodness and God's standards of righteousness.

From a composite of the three parallel passages, the young man seems to have used the word "good" in two ways in his questions to Jesus. First, the young man used the word "good" as a description of Jesus ­ "good teacher." Second, he used the word "good" with reference to the work he must do to inherit eternal life:

Matthew 19:16 (NASB) And behold, one came to Him and said, "Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?"

If the man had realized that he was not good, then he would have understood that he could not have done a "good" deed.

In Matthew's text Jesus says, "But if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." To which the man responds, "Which ones?"

The Pharisees, after looking into the Tanakh, came up with 613 commandments, which they codified and elaborated upon. Jesus gave him six:


To this list, Matthew reports that Jesus even added, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 19:19). It ought to have been convicting. But it wasn't! Indeed, it actually elicits one of the most arrogant replies in all of Scripture. The young man says:

Mark 10:20 (NASB) And he said to Him, "Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up."

This is arrogance personified in this young man. He is telling the Lord that he is about as close to perfect as you can get.

There are many in this situation today. In our society, there are many who live good, clean lives. They are honest, they treat others fairly and with respect. They are faithful to their wives or husbands. They give their employers an honest day's work for an honest day's wage. They do not lie. They do not steal. And they pretty much live exemplary lives. They are clean, upright, morally and ethically pure; at least as pure as any man can be. Or so they think.

Had this man kept all these commands? The verb "kept" is the Greek phulasso, which means: "to continue to keep a law or commandment from being broken, to observe, to follow." Had he? Of course not! What child is there who has always honored his father and mother? Where is the man who loves his neighbor as himself from his youth and up? Even if he had avoided the grosser sins on the list, he had certainly not avoided them all.

This man missed the whole purpose of the law. The law teaches that "no one" is righteous. Look with me at what Paul says to the Roman believers:

Romans 3:9-20 (NASB) What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; 10 as it is written, "THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE; 11 THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS, THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD; 12 ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS; THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD, THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE." 13 "THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN GRAVE, WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY KEEP DECEIVING," "THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS"; 14 "WHOSE MOUTH IS FULL OF CURSING AND BITTERNESS"; 15 "THEIR FEET ARE SWIFT TO SHED BLOOD, 16 DESTRUCTION AND MISERY ARE IN THEIR PATHS, 17 AND THE PATH OF PEACE HAVE THEY NOT KNOWN." 18 "THERE IS NO FEAR OF GOD BEFORE THEIR EYES." 19 Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God; 20 because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

What is the purpose of the Law? The Law was given to show the plight of man in Adam ­ that was its purpose! Paul says, "Through the Law comes the knowledge of sin."

Do you see the rich young rulers problem? He was the only good man. The Tanakh had clearly stated that all were sinners, but he thought he was the exception. He was self-righteous! He was a man who was not poor in spirit, who had no sense of sin, and certainly would not consider himself as deserving of the wrath of God. As we saw in our last study of Mark, only the poor in spirit inherit the kingdom of God, and this man wasn't that. He was a success morally, socially, and financially. Because he didn't see himself as a sinner, he didn't think he needed a savior. Notice Jesus' response:

Mark 10:21 (NASB) And looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him, and said to him, "One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me."

"One thing you lack"­ He lacked a need, he lacked poverty of spirit. He lacked the simple spirit of dependence so characteristic of the little children Jesus had just received (Mark 10:13-16).

Notice what Jesus tells this man, "Go and sell all you possess, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me."

Can anyone suppose that selling all and giving to the poor are really conditions for going to heaven? Jesus didn't rebuke friends who owned property or command them to sell their homes and businesses. In fact, He often ate with people and stayed at their homes. Friends like Mary and Martha or Zacchaeus the publican were clearly not among the poor. Jesus was even buried in the newly excavated tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin.

Clearly, this is a call to discipleship. It is an invitation to the utmost self-denial in the form of unstinting generosity. Its outcome, Jesus declares, will be heavenly treasure.

Jesus was again pushing this man to consider who He was. Jesus was good, since He was God. If He were not God, His demand to give up all for Him was both fantastic and egotistical. Could a mere human Teacher talk like that and still be sane? How could a mere man offer eternal treasure to his followers on no other authority than his own? Would it not be foolish to trust an offer like that?

He concludes with a command. "Come, Follow Me!" The word "follow" is the characteristic word of discipleship, Greek akoloutheo, which means: "figuratively, to follow someone as a disciple, be a disciple, follow."

Jesus is not answering the man's question about how to obtain eternal life. I think He is inviting the rich young man to join Him on His journeys, to become one of the disciples who enjoy the immense and unspeakable privilege of spending time with Jesus and learning from Him on a day-by-day basis. If he would do this, he would learn how to obtain eternal life. Can an unbeliever be a disciple of Jesus? Yes! When Jesus called His disciples, did they understand who He was? NO! If this man would have given up his wealth and followed Jesus, he would have gotten his answer.

Do we actually have to divest ourselves of our fortune and take a vow of poverty in order to serve Christ? The passage has been interpreted that way. For hundreds of years in the Christian church, almost from the end of the First Century, men and women have understood it this way. They took a vow of poverty, gave away everything and became monks and nuns and priests and hermits. Some gave up everything and went around as beggars. But did this mean they were truly obedient and fulfilling this passage? These words were spoken to the rich young ruler, not to everyone who was a disciple of Jesus. Jesus obviously had some rich disciples:

Matthew 27:57-58 (NASB) And when it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who himself had also become a disciple of Jesus. 58 This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given over to him.

The call to discipleship is costly, but it does not call for everyone to sell all they have. While all may not be required to take these words literally, we must all take them seriously. It seems to me that we must all relinquish the right of possession of our goods, even though we may not all be required to sell all that we have.

Before we move to the man's response to Jesus' call, notice what Mark tells us:

And looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him ­ this is the Greek word agapao, which refers to a divine love. It's rare in the New Testament that we find Jesus being spoken of as directly loving individuals and perhaps the most remembered statement is in:

John 13:23 (NASB) There was reclining on Jesus' breast one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved.

This refers to John (see also John 20:2, 21:7,20). The only other place that I can think of such a statement being made is in:

John 11:5 (NASB) Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.

So why did Mark record that Jesus felt a love for this man? I can't be dogmatic, but it's possible that this young man was Mark himself. It is only Mark who tells us that when Jesus looked at this young man, He loved him. How could Mark know that if Jesus had not told him? And Mark was indeed a rich young man, a member of the aristocratic ruling class in Israel.

Let's look at the rich young ruler's response to Jesus' call:

Mark 10:22 (NASB) But at these words his face fell, and he went away grieved, for he was one who owned much property.

That sounds like an oxymoron to us. Would you go away grieved if you owned much property? If you had just won the lottery, would you go away sorrowful?

The word translated "grieved" is the Greek lupeo, meaning: "to be sad, to cause grief, to be in heaviness." Luke uses the word perilupos, meaning: "very sad, deeply grieved."

Jesus required the rich young ruler to adopt a much higher view of this rabbi than he currently held. Indeed, it required him to reach the conclusion that Jesus was exactly who He had hinted He was, a divine Person! And that meant that He was the Christ, the Son of God.

In a very real sense, he has broken the first commandment: "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3). Nor can he obey the Shema, which, as a devout Jew, he recites twice a day: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" (Deuteronomy 6:4). This man loved his wealth more than he loved the Lord.

That he is unwilling to spare all his goods to help the poor should bring into question whether he really loves his neighbor as himself.

This man's attitude is the opposite of Paul's. Do you remember that the apostle Paul, in the Book of Philippians, identified himself as a high achiever? As a matter of fact, he was the best of the best. He performed as well as anyone, but he said:

Philippians 3:7-9 (NASB) But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, 9 and may be found in Him, 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,

Our text goes on to say:

Mark 10:23 (NASB) And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, "How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!"

Remember that everything we are seeing in these chapters is designed to prepare the disciples for their future mission. This statement shocked the disciples:

Mark 10:24 (NASB) And 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!

The amazement and astonishment of the disciples came because what Jesus had just said was so contrary to the teaching of the Rabbis which had so influenced current theological thinking in Jesus' day. The Rabbis taught that wealth and prosperity was God's favor upon man.

Mark 10:25 (NASB) "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."

Camels were a curiosity to Israelites. Farmers didn't use them ­ the donkey was their animal of choice. But camels were used by traders whose caravans would travel through Galilee on their way to Jerusalem and the trading centers of Egypt. Nevertheless, the camel was the largest animal they regularly saw in Palestine.

The eye of a sewing needle was a tiny opening. If you've ever tried to thread a needle, then you know just how tiny it is. In some rabbinical writings, we see a similar phrase: "Draw an elephant through the eye of a needle." Both this saying and Jesus' saying share the same contrast between the huge beast and the proverbially small eye of a needle. The point of both these figures of speech is impossibility; they are proverbs of impossibility. We know this because Jesus uses the word "impossibility" (Greek adunatos) in verse 27.

For hundreds of years there have been various explanations floating around to soften Jesus' teaching of "impossibility" to some kind of "you can do it if you really try" approach. One of these pseudo-explanations imagines a gate through the wall of Jerusalem called "the needle's eye"; so small that a laden camel couldn't get through unless it were to be unloaded and kneel down. Preachers and tour guides love the story. It is very picturesque. But it has absolutely no support in fact. It also distorts what Jesus is trying to say from "impossible for man" to "possible by man." Note that the disciples' reaction was surprise at the impossibility of salvation for the rich.

Some have also suggested that there is a misprint in the Greek. The Greek word kamelos, meaning "camel," should really be kamilos, meaning "cable" or "rope." Still, passing a rope through a needle's eye is, nevertheless, impossible.

Mark 10:26 (NASB) And they were even more astonished and said to Him, "Then who can be saved?"

The disciples shared the common Jewish view that God enriched and prospered the righteous. There were many Old Testament examples of this: Abraham, Solomon, and Job, to name only a few. If salvation was hard for people like that, must it not be nearly impossible for those less signally blessed?

"Then who can be saved?" they wondered. And Jesus in essence says, The point I am making about the rich is true for everybody. This is not a problem with money. It's a problem with the human heart. Christ is instructing them that, through his own efforts, no one can be saved. He does not mean just the wealthy cannot be saved, but no one can be saved through his money, his skills, his talents, his intellect, or his good looks! Salvation was hard for the rich man precisely because he trusted in his own riches. He found it difficult, therefore, to feel totally dependent on Another, particularly on Jesus. The exchange with the rich young ruler had certainly demonstrated that!

I think that it's interesting that the disciples, after ten chapters, finally use the word "sozo" for salvation in the spiritual sense. Up to this point, the word was used for physical healing, and now the disciples make the connection. Jesus had been giving them pictures in the physical that pointed to the need in the spiritual. What Jesus had been doing in the physical, He can also do in the spiritual, and we can be saved.

Mark 10:27 (NASB) Looking upon them, Jesus said, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God."

The disciples ask, "Who then can be saved?" And Jesus, in effect, says, No one ­ unless God intervenes to do what is humanly impossible. Man cannot do it, he must trust God to do for him what he cannot do for himself. Salvation is impossible for men to achieve by their own efforts. But God does the impossible in rescuing us, cleansing us, making us holy, and changing our hearts. How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom ­ impossible, in fact. But possible through God.

This stresses the miraculous nature of the work of converting men and women and the bringing of them into the kingdom of God. As Jesus would say elsewhere, men came to Him only because it was given to them by the Father:

John 6:65 (NASB) And He was saying, "For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father."

And because the Father Himself drew them:

John 6:44 (NASB) "No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.

Some have tried to interpret the word "draw" here as "call or invite." But this is not what the word "draw" means. The Greek word translated "draw" is helkuo, which means: "to drag." It is used eight times in the New Testament. The usage of this word makes it very clear that helkuo means: "to draw by irresistible superiority." So, John is saying that no one comes to Christ unless the Father draws them by irresistible superiority:

1 Corinthians 2:14 (NASB) But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.

Apart from a work of God, no man can or will ever come to Him. Jesus was saying, salvation (verse 26) is the gift of God, and only made possible by the work of God on them and within them. It is the greatest miracle of all.

Now, there is a theology that says, Yes, with man conversion is impossible apart from God's grace, but God makes it possible for everyone by a universal work of grace, which He gives to all people everywhere. So, this view says, God overcomes the deadness of our fallen nature and makes all men able to believe. So it would be impossible without this grace, but with this grace it is possible. And God has given it to everyone. And now the decisive act of conversion is our work, apart from any added work on God's part.

But Jesus says, "With men it is impossible." In other words, even if there is a universal grace that enlightens every man that comes into the world, what Jesus is explaining here is one particular man's refusal to leave money and follow Jesus, even with such a universal grace. And His explanation for this man, even with such universal grace, is: He did not follow Me because "with men it is impossible."

Therefore, what Jesus means when He says in verse 26, "With God all things are possible," is that God can and does effectually enable people to leave their riches and follow Christ. He does work in us the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8). He does the humanly impossible to convert sinners and bring them to eternal life.

The issue is one of dependence over self-reliance. Children must depend upon others. In contrast to these dependent children, the rich man, was relying solely on himself. The kingdom of God belongs to those who depend on God, rather than the self-reliant.

As long as we think that we can have a hand in salvation by our own ability, then we will not come to know the Lord. So many believe in Christ, believe that He died on the cross, but they do not believe that what Christ did was enough. They still cling to their own ability before God. Jesus Christ tells us that it is impossible, that man is incapable of doing anything toward improving his standing with God.

Are you trusting in the grace of God alone for your salvation? It is not you plus Christ that saves. It is Christ alone.

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