“And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
“And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
“He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,
“Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
“The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?
“Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
“But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.
“Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.”—Matt. 19:16–23.
Seldom, if then, do we meet someone who appears to have everything. And if we should, it is likely we would never forget him. Three of the four Gospel writers tell us this story of the rich young ruler. All that the world holds dear was his. Many would find it difficult to name a single worthwhile thing he did not possess. The Gospel accounts tell us:
He Had Wealth. Economically, he was on top of the world. How he got his wealth, we are not told. We only know he had it in lavish abundance. Luke says he was “very rich.” All three of the Gospels emphasize the fact of his wealth in terms employed to describe no other. There is no doubt about it: he was one of the richest men in Christ’s day.
He Had Youth. True, we may not always think of youth as an asset, yet men in all walks of life would gladly give all they have to regain it. Life, with its possibilities and privileges, lay before him like a vast, untouched legacy.
He Had Position. As a “ruler,” he occupied a place of distinction and prestige. It is likely he received one of the highest ratings in the social register of his day.
He Had Interest in Life Beyond. A man may have everything else, but if his interest begins and ends with this world, at best he will live only a little above the animals. Interest in the life beyond is one of the attributes which distinguishes a man from, and exalts him above, all other creatures. Not only did this man have that interest, but he had it in such intensity that he came to Jesus, running!
He Had Reverence. Mark tells us the young man knelt at the feet of Christ and addressed Him with the words “Good Master”! Reverence is more than an admirable characteristic. Reverence is the mark of good breeding and the barometer of intelligence. Reverence is to a man what fragrance is to a flower or golden hues are to a sunset. The rich ruler had reverence.
He Had Morality. In clean, wholesome, noble, upright living, this youth was without peer. When Christ enumerated the six of the Ten Commandments which God ordained should govern the relationship of man to man, the lad could look Christ in the face and answer, “All these have I kept from my youth up.” That the youth made an honest reply, Mark indicates by saying Christ thereupon beheld him and loved him. And He who “looketh on the heart” was not deceived. Morally speaking, this youth was one man in a million!
Yes—wealth, youth, position, interest in the life beyond, reverence, morality—all were his. Should such a person come to us with the same request with which this man came to Christ, it is likely we would slap him on the back and venture to say, “Fellow, you don’t have a worry in the world. If anybody gets into Heaven, you will!”
A Nameless Longing
There is every reason why this young man’s life should have been a rich, rewarding experience. There is every indication that he was a normal, healthy, well-balanced personality. Even so, we may have everything this youth had and still die of an empty heart. Perhaps this youth could not have expressed his inner yearning in so many words, but he knew it was there. And he knew it because of a hunger and thirst deep within his soul which he had not been able to stifle. Try as he might, he could not silence its cry.
The very presence of this nameless longing must always be taken as evidence that God is working in the life. How do we know? Because each of us must say as Paul said, “In me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing.” Each aspiration to be better, each craving for good, each thirst for God, you should regard with awe and gratitude, for it is not of yourself but of Him!
A young man, Herb, home on leave, asked if he could speak with me alone. It was easy to see that he had a heavy heart.
“I hardly know where to begin,” he said, “but I am so miserable and unhappy I just can’t go on.”
As I waited, his story slowly unfolded: In his later teens he had accompanied some of his friends to a church where something was astir among the younger set. It was reported that any number of them had undergone strange and wonderful transformations. There, for the first time, he came face to face with Christ and yielded his life to Him.
“For the next two or two and a half years,” he continued, “I lived in a veritable heaven on earth. Such joy in living the Christian life I never dreamed possible.
“Along about then,” he recalled, “I joined the merchant marines. Deprived of Christian fellowship and nourishment of soul, I began to drift away from God. Later on I started to gamble, then to drink. More recently I have stopped at nothing. I determined to see life, but life has become no longer worthwhile. Misery dogs me even in my sleep. I just can’t go on. Something has got to happen.”
The young man’s words, although simple and quiet, vividly portrayed the sad disillusionment of one to whom the enchantments of the world had become unbearably sickening. As the man finished, we sat together.
“Herb,” I said presently, “in that dark picture there is one blessed ray of hope: right now God is working mightily in your life!”
As one would expect, no little surprise marked his sin-worn countenance. I went on to explain, “Man has been so utterly marred by sin that apart from God, he no longer yearns for purity and holiness. His warped, depraved nature loves sin and grovels in it. The faintest cry of dissatisfaction, the weakest pangs of remorse, the slightest sigh to be better—all are conclusive evidence that God Himself is at work within that heart.
“The very fact that you want again to live the Christian life, that you are unhappy in your sin, even the fact that you came here to talk with someone else about your need, must be interpreted as unquestionable proof that God is working in your life.”
And so it was with the rich young ruler. For let us never forget, the same tender love prompts Him to send restlessness to the lost in order that their discontent will lead them to seek Him.
A Tragic Misconception
Observe the youth’s misconception of man’s role in the plan of salvation. “What good thing shall I do?” he asked.
This has been the universal misconception since the Fall of man. This misconception, still shared by millions today, is the natural reaction of the carnal heart to the consciousness of need. It is the mistaken belief upon which all the religions of the world have been built, the belief that man, whose nature is sinful, must perform some work or attain some merit which will entitle him to Heaven.
All the man-conceived religions of the world, without a single exception, show the sinner striving, struggling, sacrificing, suffering and trying in his own strength to reach up to God. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ tells of a God of infinite love who reaches down to man! Man-made religions are based upon the belief that the sinner can be saved provided he attains enough goodness. The Gospel of Christ tells us that God seeks to save us in spite of our evil!
Why is it, then, that Christ did not immediately expose the youth’s ignorance? He had asked, “What shall I do?” Why not at that very point tell him he was on the wrong track, that salvation is a gift, “not of works, lest any man should boast”? The answer is given in the story itself. Christ was leading the youth on, drawing him out and helping him to see for himself that if eternal life were the reward for works, no one, not even he, could measure up.
See how intense the youthful seeker becomes! For the time being, at least, he sees life in its true perspective. And seen in that light, only one thing matters!
Christ or Riches?
Christ begins by speaking in terms the young man can grasp. ‘Keep the commandments: Don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t bear false witness, honor your father and mother….’
But no one could convince the youth that was all there was to it. Was he not innocent of such transgression? Had he not kept all these from his youth up? We can almost hear a wail in his voice as he cries, “What lack I yet?”
Like a spontaneous outburst from within, the agonizing cry laid bare the need of his life. Words can be such shallow things! Often they form on the surface of life like wind-swept dust on a desert. But these words were rent from the depths of the soul, like molten lava from the bowels of the earth.
“Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” eternally thunders the commandment of the Almighty! Whatever we elevate above God becomes an idol which must be torn down. Often that which takes the place of God is perfectly harmless in itself.
It may be a choice association, a worthy cause, a noble ambition, a prized possession or an innocent pastime. But whatever it is, however desirable it may seem, when once it receives the affection meant for God, it becomes a false deity which wields the power to dwarf and blight and damn.
Wealth is one of those things which in themselves are neither good nor bad. Sure, in the hands of some it is “filthy lucre,” but it is also true that in the hands of others it is golden opportunity. It all depends upon who has it.
To the rich young ruler, perhaps without his ever realizing it, wealth had become an idol. He loved it more than anything else in the world. Christ’s demand to forfeit his material possessions in their entirety fell upon the youth as a sudden, unexpected blow. It left him stunned and uncertain.
A terrible price, it was more than he had expected to pay. Billows of agony broke upon his soul. In deep deliberation, he became oblivious to those about him, to the passing of time, to the wild pounding of his heart within. He had thought of himself as righteous—yet he was breaking the First Commandment of all!
A friend of mine, the son of a preacher, told me about an experience his father had while holding services in one of the Southern states. After the meeting one night, a well-dressed man walked up front to shake his father’s hand. As he did so, the man handed him a folded check. “It’s yours,” he said, “no strings attached. Do with it just as you like.” The stranger then turned to leave. Inquisitive, the preacher unfolded the check and saw that it was written in the amount of one thousand dollars.
“Just a minute!” the preacher summoned the departing donor. “Before you go, I’d like to know more about you. After all, it’s not every day of the week a preacher meets a man who shows such interest in his work. First, tell me, are you a Christian?”
“No,” replied the man, “I am not. You are surprised, I am sure, and it will only take a minute to tell you why I am not.”
As the preacher waited, the man related his tragic story.
“When I was a youth, I was consumed with the ambition to become wealthy. I wanted money more than anything else.
“Then one night I happened to attend a service very much the same as that which you conducted tonight. There, for the first time, I came face to face with Christ and recognized His claim on my life.
“But there was my burning ambition! Intuitively, I knew it must be one or the other. I could not yield to Christ and at the same time travel the pathway of my own selfish pursuits. The preacher’s invitation came to an end, and I left the church.
“But even as I departed, the conflict of soul became more intense, and I promised myself, one way or the other, for time and eternity, I would make the decision before I closed my eyes in sleep that night. All the way home I weighed the matter.
“As I approached my dwelling, I stopped in the gateway. I determined to settle the issue then and there. So I placed one hand on one gatepost and the other hand on the other gatepost. Turning to the left, I said, ‘Now, if you take your lifelong ambition, that means your love of wealth.’ Turning to the right, I said, ‘If you take this, that means you will have Christ; that means you will share the love of God. Which will it be? Take your choice!’
“Once more I weighed the matter. Then, believe it or not [here he lifted his left hand], I took this! From that day to this,” said the stranger, “wealth has come my way. But from that day to this, I have never again heard the call of Christ.”
In much the same way, this young man faced the eternal issues. Still kneeling at the feet of Christ, he weighed the cost. Forces of good and evil locked in deadly combat upon the battleground of his soul. Time and space became lost. How long he knelt, how long he struggled, we do not know. We only know that all the while above him in compassionate concern stood the loving Son of God who came to earth to seek and save such as he. Stopping at nothing, He would soon go to the cross and die that they might have life. Yet He stood there, motionless, silent, as though His hands were tied and His lips were sealed.
If this breathtaking scene means anything, it means not even God can force a soul to choose the right. There comes a time in every experience when God has made His last move, when He has spoken His last word. From there on, He must wait in silence upon the soul’s decision. The next move is up to the sinner. Life or death, joy or sorrow, through time and eternity, will depend upon that choice.
While the Son of Man waits, an almost unbelievable catastrophe takes place. The vibrant, virile young man whose countenance was lighted with a quest for life, slowly bows his head. As though awakening from a blissful dream to cruel realities, hard lines crease his brow. The glow of color leaves his cheeks. His lips are tightly drawn. Then, as one whose heart has at last become insensitive to Infinite Love, resolute and determined, he rises from his knees, turns his back upon Christ and walks away!
The end has come. The die is cast. It takes but a line for the inspired writer to conclude the picture. In that one tragic move, the promising young man penned his life’s story for all eternity. His biography is summed up in a single, futile, hopeless word: “sorrowful”!
Yes, this is the story of the man who had everything! The story of the man who had everything—but God!
“Come and follow me,” had been Christ’s invitation. He could have had life! He could have had the eternal satisfaction of living and walking with God. And joy of a life so lived would have outweighed a million times the temporal satisfaction of material things. Today, somewhere in the awful darkness of everlasting doom, he writhes at the memory of opportunity lost forever! Hour after hour, day after day, year after year—on and on until time shall be no more, then for all eternity, this soul will suffer endless anguish because this day he closed the door of his heart in the face of God.
Like one depressed by the sight of some heartrending tragedy, we turn to leave. But wait! Something bids us linger. What we see when we look again makes hope leap within our hearts. Can it be? The rich young ruler returns once more to kneel at the feet of Christ! We get a better view. No, it isn’t the rich ruler as at first we thought. It is someone else. Behold, my friend, that someone is you!
You are now kneeling in the very same place, under the very same conditions, as the wealthy seeker of old. Once more Christ in compassion and love stands silent over a soul for whom He died. Once again those about Him are tense with expectation. The very air is charged. Angels are hovering near.
Forgiveness of sin, fellowship with God, fulfillment in His service, life here, life beyond—all can be yours! God loves you! God has a place for you. To you, as to the rich ruler of old, He has said, “Come and follow me”! What a plan! What an opportunity! What a destiny!
The decision you make will determine your fate forever! It’s up to you. Don’t wait. Brush aside all foolish barriers. Say “yes” to Him. Open your heart to Christ, and you too will pen your life’s story for all eternity! Only this time let the biography be summed up in one splendid, magnificent, thrilling word: J-O-Y-F-U-L.