Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ ”And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich. -Luke 18:18-23
Let's look at a couple of examples of how this passage is usually interpreted. First, let us see how "the prince of preachers," Charles Spurgeon, handles it.
All which appears to be simple enough, if you only look on the surface but when you come to recollect that there is an inward, spiritual meaning to all this, that a licentious look breaks the command about adultery, that a covetous desire is stealing, that the utterance of a slander is bearing false witness, and so on, who is he that shall enter into life upon such terms as these? Yet they cannot be lowered, for they are, spiritually, just and right. [Spurgeon's Verse Expositions of the Bible]
Spurgeon, in my humble opinion, makes a key interpretation mistake: he unnecessarily complicates the text ("there is an inward, spiritual meaning"). The Lord's answer, pointing to the commandments, is simple and should be understood this way. Yes, the Lord does expand elsewhere in his ministry on the full depth and implications of the commandments, but that in no way robs from this passage nor does it make the Lord a liar.
The key lies in what the meaning of "eternal life" is in the passage. When we finally rise above the saved/lost dichotomy which plagues Christendom, we realize that this phrase has contextual applications. It refers to the hope that is before the listener/reader. The hope of Israel is in sight here. The hope of entering the promised kingdom. In our age, Paul tells the rich to "lay hold of eternal life." Is he implying that these must strive to get or maintain the free gift of life? Certainly not. What he is saying is that these must walk in light of the age to come. For the Jew during the Lord's earthly ministry, this was the hope of the kingdom.
The basic requirement of that hope was to keep the commandments. We have looked at the "gospel of the kingdom" in recent studies and we again note that this cannot be the same gospel which preaches the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord. The disciples were sent out to peach the gospel of the kingdom, but when the Lord later reveals that he must go to Jerusalem to die they refuse to believe it. We saw that they were preaching the presence of the King (Gk: parousia) and the imminence of the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6).
Faith is at the base of every hope and reward. In our passage in Luke, the Lord starts out focusing on the statement that he is "good." Does the inquirer truly understand the implication? If that is the case (which is necessary), the next step is obedience. We see in the parables that those "servants" and "stewards" who act lazily or wickedly will be cast out of the kingdom and into "outer darkness." This is all based on a judgment of works. Do they lose the free gift of Life? Of course not, but they do lose something. The kingdom is not life.
In the Revelation we see the overcomers who qualify by faith and works for rewards and a "better resurrection" (cp Rev 2:15-17). Hebrews 11 speaks of this "better resurrection." Paul speaks of resurrection "according to rank" (1 Cor 15). Resurrection is a free gift by faith, but reward and rank are achieved.
We know from the passage concerning the Judgment Seat of Christ (which is for believers and not for unbelievers as the hymn falsely teaches) that some will have nothing to show for their lives while others will have great reward. In our age, we are warned we may be found "disapproved."
Here is another interpretation from a popular website which essentially accuses the Lord of being obtuse. Now, in the case of the Pharisees, he did speak in parables so they would not understand, but this young man is not out to trick the Lord. We know because he went away sad. he honestly sought an answer to his question.
In telling the young man to keep the commandments, Jesus was not saying that he could be saved by obeying the commandments; rather, Jesus was emphasizing the Law as God’s perfect standard. If you can keep the Law perfectly, then you can escape sin’s penalty—but that’s a big if. When the man responded that he met the Law’s standard, Jesus simply touched on one issue that proved the man did not measure up to God’s holiness. [Got Questions]The first error assumes the Lord was speaking about resurrection life. The word "saved" is again used and assumed to have only one meaning. Well, no, no one can have life by keeping the commandments, but access to rewards and positions can be attained via obedience. The second error here is connecting the second half of the passage with the first. That is, they argue that the Lord's follow up regarding "perfection" is just a rewording of his answer. On the contrary, it assumes the young man was asking in honesty. He had a different problem about which he was unaware: he was not mature.
The Lord is not exposing some lie about obedience, he is exposing the lack of maturity (holiness) in the man's heart. This young man was still very worldly, even if he had faith and sought to be obedient. These are sobering thoughts even for our age.
As we have seen in many other studies, the believer is either headed towards "perfection" (maturity) or "perdition" (waste and loss). One can be obedient, but that is not the fullness of perfection.
And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For 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.” And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?” But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.” Then Peter said, “See, we have left all and followed You.” So He said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or parents or brothers or wife or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who shall not receive many times more in this present time, and in the age to come eternal life.”Is the Lord saying that retaining riches will lead to death? If we see this passage as a whole, we see it is about reward. "I say to you, there is no one who has left house or parents or brothers or wife or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who shall not receive many times more in this present time, and in the age to come eternal life." Clearly, the Lord is not teaching that the way to a free gift is by giving up things. The Lord is saying that the one who seeks the things of God in this life, while forsaking the things of the world, will find a harvest of rewards in the end.
These rewards differ based on the hope before the believer. What a Jew may gain in the kingdom, or an Acts age Jew or Gentile in the New Jerusalem, differs from the rewards, crowns, and prize we seek in this age. In Philippians 3, Paul writes that he "has not yet attained" the special "out-resurrection" spoken of there. Does that mean Paul is teachings a works salvation? Is Paul making some weird point like the Lord is accused of making in Luke 18 by some expositors? No, he is speaking of a "better resurrection" available to us.
Let's revisit our original passage with this understanding and the second half of the conversation becomes clear:
Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.Is that "treasure" life? Salvation by poverty or charity? A hope of living in heaven? No to all. If we read from Adam through the Acts (and Revelation), the hope of believers is found on the earth (or the New Jerusalem which comes down to earth). So what happens to this treasure in heaven?
And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be. - Rev 22:12The Lord brings the reward from the heavenlies when he returns to earth; and these rewards are based on "works." This cannot be the free gift of life (which excludes works, Rom 11, etc.). This is reward which is beyond decay and beyond the reach of men.
Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal... - Matt 6:20We again note that this is part of the Sermon on the Mount as part of the Gospel of the Kingdom which does not involve faith in the Lord's death, burial, or resurrection (nor could it), but rather applies to the promise of the restoration of the Kingdom in Israel.
The rich young ruler had faith. What he did not have is a mature faith. Because he was married to the things of the world, he had no rewards in heaven. He decided to keep his "treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal."
If we want to experience the fullness of the gift of eternal life and its rewards, we have similar instructions:
And having food and raiment let us be therewith content. But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition [loss, waste]. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness. Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses. -1 Tim 6:8-12Do we flee these things in order to gain a free gift? No, we flee these things to fully experience eternal life now and in the ages to come. It is possible for the believer to experience "perdition" (waste, loss) if he he does not "go on to perfection."
Paul goes on in 1 Timothy:
Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not high-minded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; that they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate; laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life. -1 Tim 6:17-19Not again two things addressed to the rich believer:
- Good works to lay up things in store for an age to come
- Laying hold of eternal life
How do we experience the spiritual blessings of this age? Through good works and obedience.
How do we lay up in store for the age to come? Through forsaking this things of this world.
The teaching is the same all through scripture, but the hope, rewards, commands differ. This is why we must rightly divide the Word of Truth lest we find ourselves striving in vain for another's reward. We will also find ourselves, and many expositors commenting on Luke 18 have, making the plain words of the Lord meaningless and the true meaning to be lost.