Now how do we look at this? I would like to look at it on the basis of three questions that are asked. The first question is the question the young man asked, and we find it in verse 16. He said to him, “Teacher,” addressing Jesus, “what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Well that question is very similar to a question we find in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. There Jesus had just fed the multitude with the five small loaves and fish. He had gone around the Sea of Galilee. And those who had been fed, thinking that he would be a great kind of person to have in power, came around to try and make him king. He refused to do it because he was talking to them about the bread of life and what that meant spiritually. They didn’t understand those things very much and so they asked this similar question.
They asked him, “Master, what must we do to do the work of God” (John 6:28)? It’s interesting that on that occasion our Lord responded to them with a clear declaration of the gospel. He said, “This is the work of God, that you believe on him whom he hath sent.” You see, we look at that and we respond to that quite well because we say, “Of course, that’s it. That is justification by faith. That’s saying that in order to become acceptable by God we don’t have to do anything.” Master, what must we do? Jesus says don’t do anything. You can’t do anything. You’ve done quite enough. You’ve gotten yourself into trouble by your doing. What you have to do is turn from that and trust me. “Believe on him whom the Father has sent.”
That’s the kind of answer we would have expected Jesus to also give to the rich young man. However, instead of saying that the Lord replies to him by referring to his need to obey God’s commandments. But when he says, “Which ones?” The Lord makes very clear what he’s talking about. He’s talking about the Ten Commandments, and he begins at the second half of the list.
Now what’s the difference? Does the Lord have two different messages? Are there two different gospels? Is he telling the rich young man that he’s to be saved by his works and he’s telling the masses in John 6 that they’re to be saved by faith? Is that the case? Is it the case that at one stage in his life Jesus believed in works and later when he came to see the people couldn’t be saved by works, he changed it and said you have to be saved by faith? Well, that’s not it at all. The problem, you see, is that this young man was captivated by his riches. Until he could see that and that he had to abandon his riches because in his case they were a barrier to faith, it wasn’t possible for him to come to faith in Jesus.
You say, “Well, why didn’t Jesus say that to the masses that are described in John 6?” The answer is obvious, isn’t it? The masses were not rich. The masses were poor. Money was not a barrier for them. Oh, they had their own barriers. They wanted a political savior who was going to give them bread, just the way masses in any culture will think. They will elect anybody who will take care of them and provide what they need and they don’t have to work very hard for it. That is what the masses in Jesus’ day thought as well. That was their problem, and he had to get across to them that they had to believe on him as the one whom the Father has sent to die for sin. But in the case of the rich young man, you see, riches really are a problem.
Now we ask the question, “How would we deal with this rich young man if he were coming to us today?” Suppose he observed you coming out of church, and he asked about it. He wanted to know what the service was like, and that he heard someone preaching and wanted to know about that. He noticed all the people coming out and was somehow curious about what you believe. And then he asks this question: “What good thing must I do to have eternal life?” What would you say to him?
Suppose further that, just like the rich young man, as you talk with the man outside your church you notice that he is earnest. It was not just a matter of intellectual interest. Nor is he being sarcastic or taking it lightly, but really means it. You also observe in talking with this man that he is a moral person. You would take this kind of person seriously, and try to answer his questions as best you can and point him to the way of salvation.
Jesus also took it seriously and dealt with his question. Afterwards when the rich young man found himself unable to respond on Christ’s terms he went away sad. It’s a proof of the fact that he was serious. And we know too that he was also a moral person. When Jesus said to him, “Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not give false testimony. Honor your father and mother. Love your neighbor as yourself,” the man replied, “All these things I have kept.” Now certainly he didn’t have Christ’s understanding of that. In the Sermon on the Mount the Lord Jesus explained what it really means not to murder and not to commit adultery and not to steal and all of those things. But so far as he knew and in terms of the culture and expectations of his day he had kept them. How would you reply to someone like that