Matthew 19:16-26 – life by the Law

These bible study notes were prepared as part of a series of teachings on Matthew’s gospel, given in Johannesburg between 2007 and 2009.

Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.”
“Which ones?” the man inquired.
Jesus replied, ” `Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honour your father and mother,’ and `love your neighbour as yourself.’ ”
“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
Jesus answered, “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.”
When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell 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 greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

We must understand the man’s question, or rather what lies behind the question, before we can understand Jesus’ answer. It is the idea (a) that man can of himself do good and (b) that man can, by doing his good thing, earn his place in the kingdom of God.

What do we mean by saying, ‘that man can – of himself – do good?’
Look how Jesus’ responds to the young man’s question: ‘There is only One who is good, so do what He tells you to do.’ If so, then it is not your good thing that you are doing, but His good. In other words the good originates in Him and in what He has commanded, not in you.

The rich young man was a Jew, born under the Law and evidently brought up in the knowledge and fear of God. So Jesus instructs him: do the Commandments, what you already know to be the good that God has commanded all Israel to do!

The follow-up question alerts us to a possible fear of inadequacy in this man. Because he asks: ‘Which ones?’ Did he score himself better on some, than on others? Or was he mindful that obedience is easier to measure in some cases than in others: E.g. ‘Do not bear false testimony’ – compared with – ‘you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.’

In response to ‘which commandments,’ Jesus starts with these:

`Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honour your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’

The man seems relieved. By his assessment, he is clearly satisfied that he has done enough to satisfy what these commandments require.

‘But one thing you lack,’ Jesus adds, before your obedience is complete, ‘go sell your possessions and give to the poor. Then, come, follow me.’

This burst his bubble. But why should it?

The laws and commandments were given so that ‘the man who obeys them may live by them’ (Leviticus 18:5). For this, the Law is surely sufficient in and of itself! And Jesus would have known the instruction: ‘do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it’ (Deut. 4:2), and he would not have transgressed it.

Surely this man cannot be required to do anything ‘in addition’ to the Law to gain eternal life?

We have misunderstood Jesus’ teaching if we think that he was moving the goal posts, setting a standard of righteousness for this man beyond the requirements of the Law. He was not. He was simply expounding the precise requirements of the Law, i.e. demanding from the young man what the Law itself demands – the Law as God intended it, not as man interprets and defines it.

The rich young man would not have ‘gone away sad’ unless he was convinced that the Law required more than he was willing to give. He knew of no other standard, no criteria other than the Law of Moses, by which to obtain life. And Jesus had revealed to his conscience that he fell short of the Law’s requirements.

‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Leviticus 19:18)

The rich young man once thought that he had observed this commandment. Never had he deliberately harmed a neighbour – in fact he had always been kind and courteous.

‘But you live in great wealth, and most of your neighbours are extremely poor. Surely, if you loved your neighbours as yourself, it would cause you to give to them as much as you are willing to keep for yourself.’

Thus, ‘if you want to be perfect,’ (meaning, if you really want to obey this Law as God intended it), ‘go sell … and give to the poor.’

‘And follow me.’ Is this also necessary to fulfil the requirements of the Law? Did the Law of Moses require the Jews to follow Jesus? Or is this perhaps an extra requirement?

It is not. For YHVH spoke to Moses in Deuteronomy 18:

I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to My words that the prophet speaks in My name, I myself will call him to account (verses 18 & 19).

Once ‘the prophet like Moses’ appeared, the Law of Moses could no longer be kept without following him. Thus, even in making this further demand on the young man, Jesus adds nothing to the requirements of the Law. The only standard to which he holds him accountable is the one he professed to believe in and live by. And if the young man could truly fulfil its requirements, he would obtain eternal life by doing it.

Jesus does not by this teaching make ‘selling one’s possessions and giving to the poor,’ the critical test for perfect obedience to the Law (see 1 Cor 13:3). Jesus was making an example of the commandment to love ones neighbour as yourself – expounding it so as to demonstrate the spirit of the Law. He wanted the rich young man to understand that the true worshippers of God, and those that He desires, are those who worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24). While the Law came through Moses, grace and truth come through Jesus Messiah (John 1:17).

On another occasion, when others asked him, ‘what must we do to do the works that God requires,’ Jesus answered: ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent’ (John 6:29). Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). His life and teachings are the epitomy of the Law and he gives the Holy Spirit to all who believe – moving us to live by its ultimate requirements.

There was a second lesson to the young man, namely this: We cannot accept God’s good and at the same time hold on to our own good (or ‘goods’). God cannot accommodate our good in tandem with His own (as Eve discovered when she ate of the tree). God requires: Go and sell your goods and hold to My good as the exclusive good! For this reason it is difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God, for he has too many goods of his own. This is what Jesus explains in verses 23 to 24:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell 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.”

‘Who then can be saved?’

The disciples’ question in verse 25 must be read in relation to this passage as a whole: I.e. if this is what the Law of Moses requires, who can live up to it?

The answer: No one! For this reason none would ever obtain righteousness through the Law. BUT with God all things are possible – for salvation belongs to our God (Rev 7:10). It is He who causes His spirit to work in and through us, for us to will and to act according to His good pleasure (Phil 2:13). What is impossible for Man, is not impossible for God!

What is required of us is to surrender our good. For whoever tries to hold on to his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for His sake, will gain eternal life (Mat 16:25).

Are all I am and all I have at God’s disposal?