Tuesday 19 July 2011

Good enough for God (Matthew 19:16-30)

To be rich and young: That is the dream: To have the money; to have the opportunity to spend that money. Not wait till I’m old and jaded. Now. When I still have so many things to do; so many places to be. I want to be rich and successful. Now.

That’s this guy. He is the rich young man.

But notice... It’s only until verse 22 that we find out he is rich. Matthew doesn’t tell us that he is young until verse 20.

Because the first thing the bible wants us to see; the most important thing the gospel writer, Matthew, wants us to see about this man, is that he is good.

A good man

“Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”Matthew 19:16

This guy gets straight to the point. How do I get to Heaven?  He doesn’t turn up at Rock Fellowship one day to ask questions on evolution, predestination, “How can I know God really exists?” No, he says to Jesus, “I want to go to Heaven. What must I do?”

It is an amazing question. Jesus gives him an amazing answer.

“Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only One who is good.”Matthew 19:17

It’s not the kind of answer we would give. We would say, “Read John 3:16 – God so loved the world.” We would draw a stick man figure and explain Two Ways to Live.

Jesus says, “There can only be One,” (which sounds like a line from Highlander. Hmm, Jesus wielding a sword speaking in a Scottish accent. Cool!)

What Jesus is saying is this: Getting into heaven is not about doing good things. It is trusting in a good God.

You don’t do good things and along the way collect enough Tesco points to get a free entry ticket to Heaven. It’s not about something you do. It is about what God has done. Still many – including this young man – don’t see it that way. He thinks it is about doing enough, being sincere enough and trying your best. And Jesus knows that he isn’t getting through to this young man. Which is why Jesus goes on to say to him, “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” Everything you want to know about what God said about getting into heaven; it’s right here; It’s in the bible.

But the man replies – with the exact same reply just about everyone gives me whenever I point them to the bible: Where in the bible? “Which commands? There are so many – in Genesis, in Exodus, in Leviticus. Where do I begin? Or, perhaps what I think he means is, Which commands are the greatest?  Which one is the most important? Which one – if I kept fully and obeyed to the letter – would get me into heaven?

It is worth pointing out that this question comes up fairly frequently in Jesus’ ministry. Just round the corner, in Matthew 22, Jesus gets asked, “Which is the greatest commandment?” And the Jesus answers (1) Love God; (2) Love your neighbour. Both are quotes from the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 6:5 “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” And Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

Now what is so interesting about this encounter we are seeing here is: Jesus gets asked the same question, but he gives a different answer. He gives only the second half of the answer. Love your neighbour. Furthermore, he expands on this second half by quoting half of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do give false testimony. Honour your father and your mother. The half of the Ten Commandments which you do.

The young man replies to Jesus, “I have covered them. Every single one, I’ve done them all.” Notice that there’s nothing particularly religious about this list of commands. A Muslim could say, “I’ve done them all.” An atheist could say, “I’ve kept them all.”

The young man asks Jesus “What can I do?” Jesus says, “Do this, this, this, this and this.” To which the man replies, “I’ve done them all, Jesus”.

The conversation should have ended right there.

But this man knows it’s not enough. Something in him goes, “Hang on! That can’t be it.” He knows it isn’t enough: to have done all these moral things; to have all these material possessions; to have tried his best. Something is still missing.

He says to Jesus, “What do I still lack” (verse 20).

The perfect score

Now some of you would have been shrewd enough to note that Jesus has said something about these very commands in the past.Back in Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew Chapters 5 to 7, you would recall that Jesus said stuff like, hating your brother and cursing your brother is tantamount to breaking the commandment, “Do not murder.” You might also have recalled that according to Jesus, looking lustfully at another man’s wife is already breaking the commandment, “Do not commit adultery.” In effect, the Sermon on the Mount teaches us that it is very possible to obey all the rules on the outside; and still nurture hatred, anger, sin and lust in our hearts.

Even so, let’s suppose this man is really sincere. I think he is and I really like him. Here is a rich guy and a nice guy who loves his dad and mum, who is nice to the people around him and is genuinely concerned about getting to heaven. He says to Jesus, “What else need do I need to do to be a hundred per cent sure I will get to heaven?”

And Jesus gives yet another surprising answer. It is an answer so unexpected and so radical it got the whole gang riled up this week as we read these words of Jesus at Rock Fellowship:

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.”
Matthew 19:21

Some of us said, “Jesus is God. He owns everything. He has every right to ask for all that he has given us in the first place.”

But the rest of us simply went, “NOOOOOOOoooooooOOOOO!!!”

And if we’re honest that’s what all of us say inside our hearts. Give up my university degree? Give up my job? It is just too much, Jesus. Too much to ask.

The bigger they are...

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Matthew 19:22

Is Jesus asking too much? What would be that one thing – that most valuable thing – that if Jesus said to you, “You need to give that up,” you just wouldn’t be able to. Like the young man, it would cause you to be really sad. Like the young man it would cause you to walk away from Jesus.

Look again at verse 21. Jesus doesn’t say, Give up everything. He says, give it up in order to gain more - much, much more - In order to gain treasure in heaven. This man just wanted to know how to get in. Jesus says, This is how you get God. The man had lots of wealth and possessions. Jesus says there is a more permanent form of wealth. Treasure in heaven. This is not loss. Jesus is talking about tremendous gain!

But secondly and more importantly, Jesus says to the young man, “Follow me.” For the first time in this passage dealing with heaven, God, salvation, treasure and love – we get to the heart of what it means to gain eternal life. It means following Jesus.

The reason this young man is sad is because he is still thinking about what he has to do and what he has to give up. He does not get it. It’s about what God has done for him. And as we see next, even the disciples of Jesus don’t get this.

Eye of the needle

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. ”
Matthew 19:23

Is Jesus being anti-rich? Is that why he turns away the rich young man? Or is Jesus saying that if you are rich, you have to give away all your wealth before you can become a Christian?

Zacchaeus was rich. He was a tax collector. In fact, Luke 19 tells us he was the chief tax collector. His job was all about money and he had lots of it. He says to Jesus, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor” (Luke 19:8). But half means he still has 50%. Bill Gates is trying to give away 99% of his wealth. He is still Bill Gates.

Or later on in Matthew’s gospel we are introduced to Joseph of Arimathea, whom the bible calls “a rich man”. He uses his status and connections to get a hearing with Pilate in order to take Jesus’ body from the cross and bury it in his own newly-built tomb.

There were lots of rich people who followed Jesus, who were Christians in the New Testament, who were believers in the bible. Jesus constantly referred to Abraham who was tremendously rich and considered to be so because of God’s blessing over his life.

And yet Jesus does say that it is hard for a rich man to enter heaven. In fact, the point that Jesus is trying to make is, it is downright impossible.

Mission impossible

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.”
Matthew 19:24

I don’t know how many times I have heard the story told of this wall in Jerusalem where there is a hole called “the eye of the needle”. It is supposed to be this passageway that a camel can just about squeeze through, only if you unload all of its baggage. So, the moral of the story is: rich people need to let go of their wealth in order to squeeze their way into heaven.

It is a load of nonsense. There is no such place. It doesn’t exist. I can understand why people still tell that story (heard it again a couple of months ago). It’s a good story. But it isn’t true. And more seriously, it misses the point that Jesus is making. The point is not that it’s hard. The point is that it is impossible.

The camel was the biggest animal in the Middle East. The eye of the needle was the smallest entry point. No matter how hard you tried - tucking its head in and folding back its legs - that camel is not getting through. It is meant to be ridiculous picture of an utterly impossible situation.

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Matthew 19:25

In our Chinese culture we value hard work, intelligence, achievement, respectability, sincerity and status. And here in the Chinese Church, I have met some of the most amazing people I have ever had the privilege of calling a brother or sister in Christ - believers who have served God wholeheartedly with their lives, sacrificially given of their time and resources, in devotion to Jesus and out of love for the people of God.

And yet, we need to be reminded, it is not our goodness that saves us. Often times, our perceived goodness can keep us from recognising that we need to be saved.

My great fear is this: a Cambridge student can walk into the church, join us every Sunday, and for three years straight hear only of how good he is for getting a scholarship, honouring his parents, playing in the music group and helping out in the church picnic. My fear is that the rich young men and women in our church don’t hear the truth. They are sinners before a holy God. That they need to be forgiven through the death and sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

The disciples don’t get it. They are surprised that Jesus turned the rich young man away. “What are you doing, Jesus? He could have been such a valuable asset for the Kingdom of God. His experience, his skills, his connections - he could help fund a new ministry!”

And Jesus sees that the disciples don’t get it. In fact, right before this encounter with the young man, we find little kids coming up to Jesus - little, smelly, annoying, troublesome, noisy kids. And the disciples tell them to get lost! “Don’t you see Jesus has better things to do?” the disciples thought. But Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).

The disciples think some people deserve to be in heaven more than others. They are still thinking of salvation from a human perspective. Not from God’s.

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”Matthew 19:26

It is impossible. As long as we are thinking just from our perspective and our efforts and goodness, salvation is impossible.

As a church in Cambridge, people often say to me, “You guys at the Chinese Church should reach the students.” They’re right. 20,000 students in Cambridge, many of whom are Chinese - we should not ignore the fact that they are here and they need to hear the gospel. But sometimes what people say to me is, “We need to get the smart people, the talented people into our church. We need to evangelise the scholars and young professionals”. Why? Because we think church is like an episode of the Apprentice. We look for the best and brightest. That is still thinking from our own limited - and selfish - perspective; not God’s.

Let me make a brief comment about International Ministry. Reaching internationals seems to be the “in” thing now among churches in the UK. But sometimes I get the impression the reason why it is so tempting to jump on the bandwagon is because we think that international ministry means “easy” ministry. We water down the gospel. We leave out the hard bits - especially anything to do with sacrifice or hell. We focus on starting up cafes and only ever do bible studies on the prodigal son.

It is one thing to think strategically and lovingly when reaching internationals - using clearer English, starting from scratch with the bible and making an effort to understand different cultures and languages. It is quite another thing to be condescending: to think that foreigners don’t need to know what sin is. To think that the reason why so many people from China are coming to Christ is because it is easier for God to reach them compared to the ‘hardened’ locals; comparing Asian students to “low-hanging fruit”. We insult God when we think of salvation as something we do through our own efforts in ministry.

Friends, the reason - and the only reason - why anyone turns to Jesus is because God has done the impossible: He has forgiven a sinner.

Going all in

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
Matthew 19:29-30

Most of us were there at S and Z’s wedding on Saturday. What was the highlight for you? Was it the bride walking in dressed radiantly in white? It certainly was a stunning sight! (Though how she got into the car with that long train I have no clue - perhaps she could squeeze the camel into a needle!) Or maybe it was when S and Z exchanged vows - promising to love and care for one another for the rest of their lives - I noticed a few trying to hold back the tears at this touching scene.
For me, it was near the end when our brother, S took the microphone and declared his love for Z. Those of us who are friends of S, know he is shy and introverted. But out of overflowing love for his bride, S stood up in front of the whole crowd and said to Z, “Everything I have is yours.”

S, - who has worked all his life to get to Cambridge; he holds a PhD, he is doing well in his career - he essentially said, none of those possessions compared to how valuable Z was in his eyes. Everything he had he willingly gave up all for her.

In a relationship, we often look for the kind of guy; the kind of girl who has everything - looks, youth, energy, personality, chemistry. But you know as well as I do: Often times, the person with everything, finds it hard to give up anything.

As you go through life - collecting your degrees; climbing the corporate ladder, adding letters to the back of your name - is it going to get easier or harder for you to one day say to someone else; someone you truly love, “Everything I have is yours.”

Jesus says that to us. He left heaven, came as a man, took our sin and died on the cross. On the cross he takes our punishment of death and he transfers unto us his righteousness. It is an unfair exchange. The 16th Century reformer, Martin Luther, calls it the great exchange.

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:21

Furthermore, each sacrifice you make in Jesus’ name, he promises you will receive one hundred times more in return. Ten thousand per cent interest gain! God is no one’s debtor. He is much more generous than you could ever be.

But the point is not that we will get more money and more wealth - though heaven will hold more treasure and blessing we could ever imagine. The point is anyone who comes to Jesus offers their life willingly. Becoming a Christian is hard but it is tremendously worthwhile. You may have to sacrifice your job, your health, your relationships, your very life. But we do it for Jesus sake, out of love for him. And he rewards us out of his great love for us.

A loving demand

There is a verse from Mark's gospel I can't help by turn to just to make this point crystal clear. This encounter with the young man is recorded in all three synoptic gospels - Matthew, Mark and Luke, but it's in Mark's gospel that we find this intriguing comment, just before Jesus tells the young man to sell all he has. Mark writes, "Jesus looked at him and loved him." (Mark 10:21)

How on earth can it be loving to tell someone to sacrifice everything he owns? It says right there, Jesus loved him. That's why he told him to give all his money away.

Now I want you to consider this because we don't tell people to do this. We are embarrassed and hesitant and afraid to read passages like to this in front of our non-Christian friends for fear of offending them. But what the bible is saying is: one of the most loving things we could do for our friends is to present them with this sacrificial demand of Jesus. The question is: in what way is this demand about love?

Friends, it has everything to do with love. Jesus loved this man enough to expose what this young rich successful moral man truly valued in his life. As much as the man wanted to go to heaven, he loved his life on earth more than heaven. And if he carried on with this present course in life, there would come an inevitable point in time when the rich man would lose both his wealth and his life.

Like the world, this young man wants to be rich today. And he only wants salvation tomorrow.

Jesus offers us salvation today. The cross means we can receive the offer of eternal life right here and right now. Altogether with the certain promise of infinite reward in the age to come when Jesus returns.

What is the greatest command? To love God and to love our neighbour. That's the answer Jesus gives to everyone else. To the Pharisees, to the theologians.

But to this young man, Jesus loves him enough to make the answer even clearer, than quoting a couple of verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Jesus points to this man's earthly wealth and tells this him, "It is about loving me. More than your wealth. More than your life."

Eternal life is knowing and loving Jesus.

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