Understanding the Red Letters Part 3
In the gospels, Jesus explained the path to eternal life on several occasions. Here are a few instances.
“He who believes in the Son has eternal life” (John 3:36).
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24).
“Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent’ “ (John 6:29).
“For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40).
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life” (John 6:47).
The way to eternal life under the new covenant is clear. Believe in Jesus. Believe in the One that God has sent. So with that introduction, let’s look at this interaction in Matthew chapter 19.
“And someone came to Him and said, ‘Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘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?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not commit murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; 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; what am I still lacking?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me’ “ (Matthew 19:16-21).
Whoa, what gives? Do you see Jesus’ answer to how one obtains eternal life? “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” Life is found in keeping the commandments. How does this fit all the eternal life verses above? It sounds like quite the opposite of “he who believes”.
When you hear this story preached, the message is almost always about the dangers of wealth, but I want to focus on “eternal life”. Folks who think all of Jesus’ words are meant for us to live by today have to just gloss over this “eternal life” dilemma. In my experience, those who believe that all of Jesus words are given as a pattern for living the Christian life have to ignore more of Jesus’ teaching than those of us who see His words through the lens of the coming new covenant. But back to the passage.
The key word in Jesus’ answer is the word “perfect” in verse 21 and it harkens back to Matthew 5:48. “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” So here is the scoop as I see it.
Jesus knows the heart of the questioner and that this young man is seeking to be justified by the old covenant method of the law. So Jesus complies. Under the old covenant, the path to life was in keeping all of the commandments, all of the law. So Jesus asks him how he is doing at that. And seeking to justify himself, he replies that he is doing quite well at keeping the law. So Jesus adds this zinger.
Knowing that it will be impossible for this young man to follow through, Jesus adds giving his possessions away as a requirement for perfection, a requirement for eternal life. This was a requirement the man was not prepared to meet. “When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Matthew 19:22). This brings us back to Jesus’ point about perfection, here and in the sermon on the mount.
Perfection is what is required for eternal life. And because we cannot follow through on that, we need Jesus to be our “perfection”. And this is Jesus’ offer of eternal life. He was perfection for us by living a perfect life and then dying in our place to take away our sin, to take away our imperfection. The result? When we believe the gospel, Jesus’ perfection becomes our perfection. “For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14).
To summarize, the point of this story is not the danger of wealth. And it is not that we must give our possessions away to obtain eternal life. If that is the requirement, then we just disqualified the person we gave our money to. The story is Jesus giving an old covenant answer to an old covenant question. And doing it in a way that shows the complete inadequacy of the old covenant to give us eternal life. Only faith in Jesus is the path to eternal life.