Spiritual Poverty and Heavenly Treasure
Passage: Luke 18:18–18:30
Spiritual Poverty and Heavenly Treasure
Our passage today is the culmination of a theme that has been building for a few weeks. The theme concerns how sinners like us can come into the presence of God, and it has been building since the beginning of the chapter. In vv1-8, for example, the parable of the persistent widow taught us to approach God with persevering faith that looks to God’s character. The parable of the Pharisee and tax collector in vv9-14 reminded us that self-righteousness is sinking sand – the only solid rock to stand upon is the mercy of God. And then Jesus’ welcome to children in vv15-17 called us to humble, dependent faith. So, since the beginning of the chapter, this has been the theme. How can sinners like us come into the presence of God and find acceptance? The answer is only through humble, dependent faith that relies solely upon God’s work for us.
And in one sense, friends, that is exactly the point of today’s text. The rich ruler brings this theme to a climax. He is not like the tax collector, who relies only on God’s mercy. The rich ruler is like the Pharisee – he stands on his own performance, his own good works. What’s more, his life does not exemplify humble, child-like faith. He is boastful and proud, confident that he has done enough to inherit eternal life. In all these ways, then, the rich ruler brings together the teaching of Luke 18. And that is the value of this passage, friends. The truth of Jesus’ parables, you might say, is now displayed in flesh-and-blood.
But at the same time, this is also the challenge of our text. Like last week, much of this passage is straightforward in terms of interpretation. We read the verses, we see that the ruler loves his money more than God, and then we are quick to conclude, “Well, I’m glad that I am not like that. I don’t worship my money more than Jesus, so I don’t need to be concerned by this text.” And at that moment, friends – when we think that this passage is not talking to us – at that moment, we ought to recognize our error. Scripture is always speaking to us. Scripture is always exposing our hearts. And that is true here. Idolatry, like with the rich ruler, is common to every heart, including yours and mine. Trusting in other saviors, whether it be money or physical health, is a stumbling block to every sinner. And that means the rich ruler is an exhortation to all of us. Don’t dismiss this passage, friends, simply because the details don’t look like your life. Instead, let’s humble ourselves today and recognize that this real-life encounter is saying something about you and about me.
Of course, that raises the question, “What is this passage saying about you and me? What is the unchanging meaning of this text that intersects with our lives?” To answer that question, I’d like us to consider three encouragements present in this passage. Each of these points, in its own way, encourages us to embrace humble, dependent faith in Christ as the only means of entering the presence of God. So, let’s consider each of these encouragements in turn.
The Poverty of Self-Reliance
The first encouragement is the negative example, from the rich ruler himself. In vv18-23, we see the Poverty of Self-Reliance. The scene begins quickly, as the ruler approaches Jesus with a significant question. Notice v18 – “And a ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” Luke identifies the man as a ruler, so it may be that he is an official with the local synagogue. That is not entirely clear in the passage, but what is clear is that this is a man of influence. He is wealthy, as we’ll learn later, and he probably has a reputation for being very pious and devout. So, this isn’t some average joe approaching Jesus on the street. This is a man whose reputation commands a hearing.
But even more than the man’s reputation, his question ought to get our attention. He asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Now, eternal life, in this context, should be understood as entering the kingdom of God, experiencing God’s salvation, and being counted as God’s child. And that means this is the right question to ask. In fact, Jesus’ entire ministry has urged people to recognize that this is the question of life. Jesus’ preaching announces the arrival of the kingdom, his miracles reveal the presence of the kingdom, so the ruler is absolutely right in what he seeks. Eternal life is found only in the kingdom of God, and the ruler wants to know what he must do to inherit this life.
And yet, Jesus’ response reveals that the ruler is misguided. His aim is right, but his approach is wrong. This becomes clear in the ensuing dialogue, where Jesus exposes the true state of the ruler’s heart. Notice how the Lord Jesus does this. First of all, Jesus challenges the ruler to see the reality of God. Look again at v19, where Jesus asks his own question – “And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.’” Friends, this is a brilliant beginning on Jesus’ part. He shifts the ruler’s perspective from himself to God. You see, the ruler’s starting point is entirely wrong. He’s thinking about eternal life in relationship to himself – what he must do, how he can enter. But eternal life is found only with God, who alone is good.
And therefore, if the ruler truly seeks eternal life, he must reset his perspective. He must reckon with the reality of God and what that means for his life. Since God alone is good, there is no way the ruler can enter eternal life on his own, through his own performance. Since God alone is good, the only hope for any person is God’s mercy. Do you see the shift? The ruler thinks eternal life is a reward for a life well lived, but that’s because his view of God is too low. And that’s why Jesus starts where he does. Before this goes any further, the ruler needs to reckon with the reality of God.
Along with this, Jesus also challenges the ruler to see the reality of his own supposed righteousness. Remember, this dialogue is designed to expose the ruler’s heart. So, notice the standard Jesus sets, v20 – “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” Now, Jesus is not saying that you can inherit eternal life by keeping the Law. Instead, Jesus is engaging the ruler on his terms in order to highlight the ruler’s error. What’s more, the ruler lives under the old covenant, and under that covenant, submission to God was demonstrated through obedience to God’s commandments. In other words, God’s will is not hidden from the ruler. If he wants to seek God, then obey his Word. Keep the commandments.
Now, you’ll notice, friends, that Jesus has only cited what is sometimes called the second table of the Law – the commandments explicitly related to loving one’s neighbor. Is this because Jesus ignores the first half of the Law, the commandments that focus on loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength? Hardly. Jesus will get to love for God soon enough. Again, he’s setting the ruler up to see his error.
And that error begins to reveal itself in the ruler’s answer. Notice his self-confidence, v21 – “And he said, ‘All these I have kept from my youth.’” Leon Morris, in his helpful commentary, says that the ruler’s answer is not outlandish. He may indeed have pursued a rigorous approach to righteousness. So, his answer is not outlandish. But, as Morris points out, his answer is superficial. It only focuses on outward performance. His answer neglects the heart. This is the ruler’s error. He is thinking of eternal life as a reward for what he has done. He has reduced obedience to the bare outward action, forgetting that true obedience must begin at the heart.
So, with this in mind, think back to the ruler’s question in v18. What was he really seeking from Jesus? He wasn’t seeking instruction. The ruler was seeking assurance that he had already done enough. He was seeking confirmation that his rigorous approach to righteousness already secured his entry to the kingdom. But that is the ruler’s problem, isn’t it? He doesn’t see the reality of his own supposed righteousness. His standard is too superficial. He stops at what he does, when he needs to press deeper to examine what he loves, who he trusts in, and what he depends upon.
And that’s where Jesus goes in his final word to the ruler. The situation has been set-up for precisely this moment. Notice Jesus’ incisive command, v22 – “When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’” Friends, this stunning demand from Jesus is essentially the call to discipleship. That’s the key for understanding this radical verse. The way to eternal life is found only in allegiance to Jesus, expressed through faith. Jesus calls the ruler to discipleship.
Now, you might ask, “How is this a call to discipleship? This just sounds like an extreme demand. Where’s the discipleship?” That’s a good question, friends, so think back to chapter 9, v24, where Jesus called his disciples to take up the cross. Do you remember Jesus’ call? He said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” Now ask yourself, “Where is the ruler’s life found?” In his possessions, in his riches. He trusts in his wealth. So, when Jesus says, “Sell everything and give to the poor,” he’s saying, “You have to lose your life to save it.” It’s the call of discipleship. V22 is a call to faith. There’s no salvation by works in v22. This is salvation by faith. The ruler must trust that Jesus – not his money, not his works – will bring him into eternal life.
But then comes the tragedy, v23 – “But when the ruler heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.” How rich, we ask? It doesn’t matter. The number in his bank account isn’t the point. The status of his heart is the point. The ruler trusts in his wealth, thinking that his money means he is righteous in God’s sight. And so, this is the grand reality that the ruler misses – he needs mercy, not merit. He does not love God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. His adherence to the Law is not nearly as perfect as he thinks. And that’s because no one can keep the Law perfectly enough to merit eternal with the God. Selling his possessions would demonstrate the ruler’s faith in God’s mercy, but that is tragically what the ruler refuses. He rejects the call of discipleship. He loves his treasure on earth more than treasure in heaven.
Friends, this is a picture of the human heart. By nature, we love to put our confidence in ourselves – what we do, how we perform, what we have achieved. We’re naturally drawn to self-reliance. But the call of the gospel begins not with self-reliance but self-denial. We must deny ourselves and take up the cross and follow Jesus. Brothers and Sisters, that call is nothing more than complete dependence upon God. The cross, remember, is an instrument of death, so to take up the cross is to die to every attempt to save oneself. To take up the cross is to repent of our self-reliance and confess that our only hope is Christ’s work for us.
This is why humility is such a prime virtue in the Christian life. Anything that pushes us away from self-reliance is good for our souls. Anything that causes us to see ourselves for who we truly are should deepen our love for the gospel. So, don’t begrudge those moments, friends, when God’s Word brings you low. Don’t rush past those quiet moments of the Spirit’s work when you realize that your best works are literally nothing compared to God. Listen, part of the danger of our therapeutic culture is that we are very quick to mute so much of the Spirit’s work in our lives. Conviction over sin doesn’t feel good. Being humbled under the mighty hand of God is not always enjoyable, at least in the moment. But if we instantly reject those moments out of hand because they feel uncomfortable to us, then what are we left with? Foolish self-reliance. We’re left with nothing more than the tropes of a therapeutic age that is leading many people further and further away from God. Listen, we are not strong enough, friends. We are not fierce enough or brave enough or good enough. We are not the people we have been waiting for. We are nothing in ourselves, and we live by mercy and grace alone.
So, let’s not be too quick to mute the Spirit’s work. Anything that pushes us away from self-reliance is actually a really good thing. Why is that? Because as the rich ruler shows us, self-reliance is a poor substitute for humble, dependent faith.
The Power of God Alone to Save
Friends, the second encouragement to faith comes in the aftermath of Jesus’ conversation with the rich ruler. In vv24-27, we see the Power of God Alone to Save. As the ruler is confined to his sadness, Jesus makes a general remark to the crowd. Notice v24 – “Jesus, seeing that he had become said, said, ‘How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’” Friends, this is a core message in Jesus’ preaching. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. And the reality is that earthly treasure – material wealth – can be a powerful hindrance to humble, dependent faith.
And to emphasize this difficulty, Jesus employs some hyperbole in v25. Listen again to the Lord’s statement – “For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Now, there have been numerous attempts to explain what appears to be an absurd statement from Jesus. A camel can’t go through the eye of a needle, so Jesus must mean something else. One popular suggestion is that the eye of a needle refers to a small city gate that camels struggled to get through. That’s doubtful. Rather, the absurdity is the point. It’s impossible for a camel to go through a needle – Jesus knows that – and that is exactly what he wants the crowd to understand. If you trust in your wealth, it is impossible for you to enter the kingdom of God.
Again, this has been a consistent theme throughout Luke’s Gospel. Jesus wants us to think biblically about our possessions. Luke 6.24 – “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” Luke 12.15 – “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Luke 16.13 – “You cannot serve God and money.”
So, before we go any further, we ought to pause here for a just a moment. I don’t want us to dismiss vv24 & 25 out of hand. There is a sense in which these verses apply directly to all of us. We live in a wealthy country, and while we may not have the wealth of others around us, we are incredibly wealthy compared to the rest of the globe, as well as the vast majority of people down through human history. This prosperity is a blessing from God, to be sure, but it also comes with a note of caution. Of all the things that can rival Christ for our allegiance, wealth is at the top of the list. As we see with the rich ruler, wealth is a powerful idol. Prosperity is a pervasive false savior that lures us into thinking our ultimate security is found in our purchasing power or our portfolio. That’s the world each of us lives in, to some degree.
So, when Jesus says it is difficult for the wealthy to enter the kingdom, we ought to pause and examine our hearts. “Am I trusting in my material prosperity? Is my confidence in my wealth, or in my Savior? Am I hopeful for the future because of what I own, or is my hope rooted in the One to whom I belong?” I’ll be honest with you, friends – I have recently added materialism and consumerism to the list of sins I regularly pray against in my life. I see it in my own heart. It’s the air we breathe, and according to Jesus, it is a danger to our souls. So, examine your heart – where is your confidence? Examine your life – what do you treasure?
Back to our exposition. The crowd understands Jesus’ point. They understand the impossibility of his statement, so they ask the right question. Look at v26 – “Those who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved?’” In Jesus’ day, wealth was considered a sign of God’s favor. But now Jesus is saying it is impossible for the wealthy to be saved. If that’s true for the wealthy, then what about everyone else? Who in the world can possibly be saved? It’s the right question.
And Jesus answers. It’s such a powerful truth. Look at v27 – “But he said, ‘What is impossible with men is possible with God.’” No matter your status, friends, salvation is always God’s work, not yours. Whether you are wealthy or destitute, salvation is always a miracle of grace, not an achievement of merit. If anyone is saved, it is always and only God who does it.
And I want to be clear on this point. When Jesus says salvation is ‘possible’ with God, he is not saying that God make salvation generally possible, but the real final outcome remains up in the air. There’s no note of contingency in v27. That’s not what possible means here. Rather, possible in v27 has to do with power, not contingency. Jesus says that salvation is impossible with man because we are powerless to save ourselves. On the contrary, salvation is possible only with God because only God has the power to bring the dead to life. Only God has the power to overcome the idolatry of the human heart.
So, think of the apostle Paul’s declaration in Romans 1 – “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes.” Friends, Jesus is making the same point here in v27. Salvation is possible only because of God’s work, and never because of ours.
This is a great encouragement, brothers and sisters. If you are a Christian this morning, your salvation rests on God, not on you. You did not get yourself into the faith, you do not keep yourself in the faith, and you will not bring your faith to completion on the last day. God does those things, brothers and sisters, because salvation is God’s work, not yours.
Now, does that mean you just sit back and do nothing? No! Because God’s power is at work in your salvation, you can take up God’s Word and read. You can labor in prayer. You can fellowship with the saints. You can confess your sin and pursue the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. God’s work, in other words, is the foundation of your response. You strive because God is working. You trust because God has promised. Far from being a discouragement to faith, this emphasis on the sovereignty of God’s power is actually the key to perseverance.
So, what should do tomorrow in order to not rely on yourself but rely solely on the power of God? What should you do? You should read God’s Word. You should believe the gospel. You should confess your sin. You should love your neighbor, and do your work heartily, as unto the Lord. Are you doing those things in order to save yourself? No, a thousand times no. You do those things because you trust that God’s power is at work, even today, to keep you in the salvation he has accomplished.
The Promise of Greater Treasure
At the same time, this life of depending on God’s power can be difficult. The cost of discipleship can often seem high. Where, then, is the strength to press on in faith at those points? Where is the encouragement when the cost of discipleship weighs on us? Friends, the answer is in our third encouragement, from vv28-30. Here we see the Promise of Greater Treasure. Peter, as he often does, speaks up on behalf of the disciples. Peter asserts that the disciples are not like the rich ruler. They have counted the cost. Notice v28 – “And Peter said, ‘See, we have left our homes and followed you.’” Now, Peter puts his foot in his mouth at times, but this is not one of those instances. At this point, Peter is right. The disciples have made the costly decision to follow Jesus. Peter left his business. James and John left their father and their business. Matthew left his profession. The disciples, at least at this point, are counting the cost.
So, perhaps Peter’s question is seeking assurance. If salvation is impossible with man, what does that mean for the disciples? Is there something lacking in their discipleship, something that will keep them from receiving the blessing of eternal life with God? That’s what Peter is asking.
And Jesus’ answer is a stunning promise. Listen again to the Lord, v29 – “And he said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.’” Friends, notice how eternal life bookends the passage – v18 and now v30. Those who lose their lives to follow Christ will find eternal life with the Lord. To say it another way, the cost of discipleship is worth it. That is what Jesus is teaching us here. The cost of discipleship is worth it. Treasure in heaven far outweighs the loss of any earthly treasure.
But what does Jesus mean when he says that those who leave behind family connections will receive much more in this time? What is that about? Well, remember that earlier Jesus said no one can be his disciples unless he hates his family and follows the Lord – Luke 14. The point was that Jesus must be your highest allegiance. So, v29 is simply repeating that discipleship principle.
But still, what does it mean about receiving many times more in this life? Well, think about the family of God in the church. How do we address one another? As brothers and sisters. To whom do we pray? To our Father in heaven. Are those relationships the same as our blood relationships on earth? No, but Jesus’ shocking point is that those relationships are, in some sense, better.
So, yes, to follow Christ may cost you earthly relationships, but the gain far outweighs the loss. The gain is the family of God in the church. The gain is Christ our Older Brother. The gain is God our Father. I don’t mean to make this sound glib. I hope I never sound glib when I’m preaching to you. The cost of discipleship is high, and it is truly costly. And yet, hear the words of the Savior, friends. The cost is little compared to the eternal weight of glory.
In that sense, we can think of the Christian life this way. Losing is the prelude to gaining. Death is the precursor to life. Suffering paves the way to glory. Every cost is met with a much greater treasure. That’s the tragedy of the rich ruler, friends. He preferred the treasure of this world at the expense of treasure in heaven. He preferred what moth and rust can destroy at the expense of every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.
If you are not a Christian this morning, I want to impress upon you that the gospel is an unthinkably rich promise of life and treasure with God. Eternal life comes to those who trust in Christ. Treasure that cannot be corrupted is given to those who come to Jesus in humble, dependent faith. If you are not a Christian today, then God’s Word is calling you, right now, to see the greatness of this heavenly treasure in Christ. Lay down the foolish pursuit of this world. Turn away from the lackluster attempt to save yourself. Confess your sin, and do what the rich ruler would not – Trust in Christ alone to save you.
Friends, this is what Jesus been driving at for the entire chapter. The only way for sinners like us to come into God’s presence is through humble, dependent faith in Christ. We cannot come through our works – self-reliance is a poor way to live. We cannot depend on our effort – salvation is impossible for us, and only possible with God. But at the same time, this life of humble, dependent faith is not a fool’s errand. It comes with a promise from the Lord – the losing is prelude to great gain. Embrace your dependence, brothers and sisters. Confess your inability to uphold yourself. And find in Christ the strength you need to hold fast to his Word. Amen, let’s pray.