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Order Of Worship (Liturgy)Psalm 108
Psalm 1 (after the law)
Reading: Jeremiah 22:11-23
Text: Mark 10:23-31 (begin reading at verse 17)
Beloved congregation of the Lord Jesus,
Our culture has one line when it comes to riches and wealth: more is better. You’ve probably seen the commercials for the lottery. The woman wakes up in bed to an alarm clock that has the telephone call she made to the lottery office when she won. She grabs her cup of coffee and steps out into a beautiful day on her sailboat in the middle of some tropical sea. We watch it and think, “Wow, that’s gotta be the life. I want that.” Especially when the temperatures get colder and snow is in the forecast. When it comes to money, more must be better. That’s what our culture typically preaches.
The Bible preaches a different message. Proverbs 11:28 said it well in the Old Testament, “He who trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will flourish like foliage.” And in the New Testament, the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 6:10, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” But notice that it is not money itself that is evil, but what people do with it. When they love it, it becomes a root of all kinds of evil. When they trust in riches, that becomes an idol. Money and wealth are not evil in themselves. And so also in the Bible we read about people who can be described as “the righteous rich.” Think of Abraham, a man so wealthy he had his own private army. Think of Joseph, a high ranking ruler in Egypt with a gold chain around his neck. Clearly it is possible to be wealthy and God-fearing.
Our text for this morning touches on this connection between riches and our life before God. It does that in connection with the kingdom of God. The Lord Jesus had just encountered that rich young ruler. The rich young ruler wanted to know what he could do to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ answer exposed the idol of this man’s life. His earthly treasure was really his god. He thought he was keeping the commandments, but Jesus revealed his prideful self-deception. That rich young ruler went away sad, because he had great wealth, or perhaps better: great wealth had him. Jesus seizes on this occasion and he teaches how hard it is to enter the kingdom and follow him.
The disciples were there when the rich young ruler had his conversation with Jesus. They heard it all and now they were trying to process what they just heard. Jesus looked at them and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” Notice that he doesn’t say “impossible,” at least not at this point yet. He says that it is very hard. Then he speaks about entering the kingdom of God. That means the same thing as inheriting eternal life. It means submitting to the reign of the heavenly King in faith. Basically, Jesus is saying, “It’s really hard for rich people to be saved.”
The disciples had a hard time with these words. They were astonished and their astonishment was readily evident to our Lord Jesus. So he told them again. This time he addresses them as “children.” This is the only time in Mark that he calls them that. It’s a term of affection and it shows Jesus’ patience with them. It also reveals Jesus as a sort of father-figure to them, kindly giving them instruction and helping them to get the lesson he wants to teach. He calls them children and then he repeats what he’d just said.
Now if you look at the bottom of the page in your NIV Bibles, there is a note with verse 24, note ‘h’ which says, “Some manuscripts is for those who trust in riches.” The truth is that most Greek New Testament manuscripts have those words. Not just “some,” but most, the vast majority. We’re going to regard them as part of the text. So, what verse 24 says then is: “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!” Again, the emphasis is on how difficult it is. But here the Lord Jesus adds that it is the trusting in riches which really brings on the challenge. The challenge is created by what our hearts do with riches. Like Calvin says, our hearts are idol factories, and wealth is another idol that easily we latch on to and trust instead of God.
Then comes those well known words in verse 25 about the camel and the eye of the needle. Apparently there have been some who thought that these words were a reference to a gate in Jerusalem. The gate was so narrow that a camel could only get through by kneeling and only by taking off all its burdens. In that case, Jesus was speaking about something that was very difficult, but not necessarily impossible. I’ve never heard anybody explain it that way. I’ve only read that explanation in commentaries and then only to refute it. So I’m not sure if there actually is anybody who explains it that way still today, or even if there ever was. But I’m mentioning it just in case. To be clear, Jesus wasn’t speaking about a gate. He was speaking about something impossible: putting a literal camel through the literal eye of a needle. He’s saying that it’s impossible for the rich man to submit to God’s rule in faith. It’s impossible for a rich man to inherit eternal life. The riches and the wealth are just too strong. No one who has cash in the bank can resist the temptation to turn it into an idol.
When our Lord Jesus says this, he leaves the disciples even more perplexed. They don’t get this. They started talking among themselves. They don’t seem to talk to Jesus about it, just among themselves. And they ask incredulously, “Who then can be saved?” Now loved ones notice that they equate entering into the kingdom of God with being saved. They get that much. They understand that entering into the kingdom = being saved = inheriting eternal life. They know that Jesus is talking about being rescued from the plight of sin and all that it entails. But it doesn’t fit with their expectations.
Look at the question again. It’s an odd question. “Who then can be saved?” Jesus says it’s impossible for rich people to be saved, and then they ask, “Who can be saved?” Do you see how odd this is? How do they go from it being impossible for rich people to be saved to it being impossible for anyone to be saved?
To answer that, we need to consider their cultural context. To be rich in the world of Jesus and his disciples was to be blessed by God for your obedience and faithfulness to him. If you were a wealthy Jew, obviously you were doing something right and God took notice. Moreover, many of the religious leaders and priests were wealthy people. These were the rich men – they not only had money, they also had religiosity. They had things together, not only financially, but also spiritually. They measured up before men and before God. Or so it was thought. It’s that way of thinking that drives the disciples’ question. You see, if it’s impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, to be saved, than the rest of us are hooped too. The rich are the ones who’ve got it all together, also in terms of religion, and they’re on the outside. If they’re on the outside, so is everybody else. Who can be saved if they can’t? You see, the question emerges from a particular way of looking at how one can be right with God. It’s exactly the same perspective as that of the rich young ruler in verse 17, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He thought that he could do something to measure up for God. With their question, the disciples reveal that their thinking is no different. They still don’t get the way of the kingdom of God.
Jesus knows what they’re thinking and saying. He understands that they’re still not getting it. And look what he does. He doesn’t send them away. He doesn’t reject them. Rather he teaches them and tries to get them further on the road to understanding the kingdom. The patience he has for his disciples should encourage us too. After all, how often don’t we fail to get things even after they’ve been repeated to us numerous times? Sometimes we don’t even realize that we’re not getting something. We can be so dull. Yet there is patience in heaven for us. Jesus’ patience here reflects his ongoing patience with us and the patience of our Father too. There is grace for slow disciples like me and you.
The reply of our Lord Jesus lays it out: “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” This isn’t some kind of positive thinking mantra. Rather, Christ is saying that humanly speaking, for anyone to be saved, for anyone to come under God’s rule – it’s impossible. Why? Because of ourselves we are dead in sin. By ourselves, apart from the Holy Spirit, we’re the pile of dead bones in Ezekiel 37. Human beings can’t lift a finger to save themselves. We believe in that teaching of the Bible called total depravity. That doesn’t mean that people are as bad as they can be, but it does mean that we are so under the control of sin that we are unable to do anything that pleases God, we are unable to take any steps towards God, we are unable to contribute anything positive to our salvation. Looking on the horizontal level then, all we see is a big sign that says “IMPOSSIBLE!” A vault of cash doesn’t change that.
But adding the vertical dimension does. Grace changes the equation. When God comes into the picture, life appears. The Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, breathes life into the dead bones in Ezekiel 37 – he breathes life into us. Working with the Word, the Spirit gives us hearts of flesh so that we may believe in God, that we may rest and trust in Christ and his perfect work for us. People, no matter how much cash they have in the bank, they need God to do this work in them if they are to be saved from the wrath which is to come. God has done in this work in our hearts too, and when we recognize that, we grow in two ways: first, we become more humble. We take none of the credit for ourselves. Second, we grow in giving all the glory to God. “All things are possible with God” is meant to lead us to “all the glory to God,” or as the old Latin had it, “Soli Deo Gloria!”
These things are illustrated in what we read from Jeremiah 22. There’s a contrast there between Josiah and his sons. Kings were not the ultimate authority – they served under the supreme King, God. Kings were to submit to God and his reign. Good king Josiah did that very thing. With him, we see the possible with God. God did the work of grace in his life. Consequently, Josiah used his position and his wealth for the good of the people he ruled. Jeremiah tells us that he defended the poor and needy and did what was right and just. Because of God’s work in his life, Josiah was an example of the righteous rich. But then there were his sons Shallum and Jehoiakim. They didn’t submit to God and his reign. With them we see the impossible with man. They shed innocent blood and oppressed the people and practiced extortion. Jeremiah prophesied about Jehoiakim’s death. He said that this mafia king would have the burial of a donkey. You see, three kings, but only one lived under the true King. From a human perspective, it’s impossible. It should have been all three going their own way and doing their own thing. But all things are possible with God, and so by God’s grace one king did live under the reign of the Almighty.
The grace of God had been evident among the twelve too. That results in Peter’s comment in verse 28: “We have left everything to follow you!” He’s saying, “Look at us, Lord. We’ve done it.” At first glance this comment too seems to come out of nowhere. But loved ones remember the verses right before about the rich young ruler. He was unable and unwilling to sell everything and follow Jesus. It’s easy to forget that that happened just a couple of minutes before these words were spoken by Peter. So that’s the background, the context. The rich young ruler says no, the disciples have said yes. Though God’s grace brought them to this point, Peter doesn’t acknowledge it. Instead, his words smell of the old nature. This comes across as a boast. There’s no humility here, no recognition of grace, no sense that God has done the impossible in them. In fact, in the original Greek, it’s even more emphatic, “Look, we, we have left everything and we have followed you!” In our translation, there’s only one “we,” but in Greek there’s three. Who is in the center there? Peter comes across as being proud of himself and the other disciples.
In his reply our Lord Jesus speaks of those who have left everything: family, property, everything – for his sake, and for the sake of the gospel. People can only do that because “all things are possible with God.” This is evidence of the gracious work of his Spirit in their lives. Then Christ adds that such people will receive back a hundredfold now in this age. They’ll receive back a hundred fold in terms of homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields. This is another potentially perplexing statement in our text. Did Jesus mean to say that leaving everything and following him will find us blessed with material goods? Does this verse support the prosperity gospel teachers, the people who say that God’s will for you is to be rich? That the gospel is not just about the hereafter in heaven, but also a big home, a fancy car, and a business jet? Well, let’s think about this for just a moment before we rush to that kind of conclusion. Think about this: a hundredfold. How are you going to get back a hundredfold in terms of mothers? Or children? Would you even want a hundred or more children? They are a blessing and everything, but there is a limit. No, asking those sorts of questions leads us to see that Jesus has something else in mind here. Scripture must interpret Scripture. Elsewhere Scripture tells us that Christians are received into a spiritual family. In Christ, they have brothers, sisters, mothers. The church is described in 1 Corinthians 3 as God’s field. The same chapter describes the church as God’s house, his home, his temple. Those who follow Christ may lose a lot, but they also stand to gain, not in worldly terms, but in spiritual ones. In Christ, we will be blessed, but not in the way that the world thinks about blessings and good things.
This becomes even more clear when he adds those words “— and with them persecutions.” In this life, united to Christ, we can be expect to be treated as Christ was. Because people hated him, they will also hate those who are his. Because people sought to shut him up, they will seek to shut up those who are united to him. Our Lord Jesus was disarming his disciples of any expectations of earthly glory. He was teaching what Martin Luther and others have called a theology of the cross. The Puritans often spoke of “losses and crosses.” Indeed, that’s what we can expect in this world: losses and crosses. We are to be realistic about life united to our Saviour. It won’t be easy. In this age we often travel through the valley of the shadow of death. We live in the shadowlands.
In the age to come, however, we receive the fullness of eternal life. Eternal life is a reality already for all who are resting and trusting in Christ. But it is not yet here in the fullness of its glory. In this age, there is still suffering and struggle with sin. The fullness of eternal life is something for the age that’s still over the horizon.
Loved ones, notice how our Saviour speaks here of two ages. This is a biblical way of considering history and the last things (eschatology). In the broader Christian context, there is a way of looking at the last things called dispensationalism. This is the most common view of eschatology. It’s the view found in the popular Left Behind series. That whole series of books is based on a dispensational understanding of the Bible. Dispensationalism is the view of popular radio preachers like David Jeremiah, John MacArthur and many others. And it’s wrong. There are different varieties of dispensationalism, but most see history divided into several ages or dispensations. In contrast with that, Jesus speaks of two ages: the present age and the age to come. These are two successive periods, distinct from one another. The line between these two ages is the return of our Saviour. When he comes back – once, not twice as the dispensationalists say – then the age to come begins, an age characterized by resurrection life and immortality. That’s when we finally receive the fullness of eternal life.
We’ve come to the last verse of our text. These are familiar words because Jesus said something similar in Mark 9:35. Here he’s addressing the disciples’ upside down view of things. He’s reorienting them to kingdom priorities. They thought that the wealthy and the religiously respectable would have an easy time being saved. Jesus says, no, actually their wealth and status could very well put them at the end of the line. Not necessarily out of the line, but certainly in a place where you wouldn’t expect them. And he’s addressing their (and our) pride too: the attitude of “Look at me! Look at all I’ve done for you, Lord,” will put you at the back of the line. Conversely, the way of humility acknowledges God’s grace and kindness. The way of humility is the way of Christ and the way of those united to him. The way of the kingdom is to say, “We are unworthy servants. Thank you Lord for calling us to serve you. Thank you for your grace. We give all the praise and glory to you.”
Tradition has it that Mark’s gospel is based on Peter’s report. If that tradition is correct, then it’s evidence of Peter’s Spirit-worked humility that we even have this account. Certainly when we read through Peter’s letters in the New Testament we find an emphasis on that central Christian virtue: humility. He does it in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s explicit and it’s that way in 1 Peter 5. But there are also other ways that he commends humility to believers. For instance, in chapter 2 of 1 Peter 1, he speaks about the reason why we are a people who belong to God: “that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Not to declare our praises, but his. Peter learned it from the Master.
So, yes, entering the kingdom and following the Master is hard, from a human perspective you might even say it’s impossible. But through God’s grace the “im” drops off of impossible. It’s not only “possible” then, it also becomes reality. God’s grace just doesn’t make salvation possible, in the sense that he has made it available for us if he want it. God’s grace actually brings that salvation all the way home to us. That’s how we’re truly rich in this age and in the age to come. We’re truly rich because of God’s lavish grace towards us. AMEN.
We thank you for doing the impossible for us. We praise you for your grace in Jesus Christ. Thank you for the riches we have in his blood. Thank you for his righteous life. Father, we’re also grateful for your patience with us when we’re so dull and slow to get things. We pray for the continuing work of your Holy Spirit in us. Please work in our hearts so that we praise and glorify the one who deserves it: you alone. Help us to be a humble, thankful people, a people who love you and want to see your Name exalted in the earth. Father, we also pray that you would shape and guide our hearts so that we’d forsake all idols, whether wealth or anything else. We’re committed to you, we love you, and we want to serve you alone. Help us so that those are not just words that we say on Sunday, but also what we live on Monday and every day of the week, and every moment. Please give us more of your abundant grace.
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service. Thank-you.
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