Matthew 19(13–30)

Verses 13 to 15

Matthew tells us in verse 13 that little children were brought to the Lord Jesus so that he could place his hands on them and pray for them. Apparently it was the custom in those days for parents to bring their children to the scribes so that they would pray for the children. And it seems that these parents were now bringing their children to the Lord Jesus for the same purpose. However, the disciples rebuked the parents. We don’t know why the disciples rebuked them, but perhaps they thought the Lord Jesus had better things to do with his time. After all, in those days, while parents loved their children, children were not regarded as being very important.

However, the Lord rebuked the disciples for rebuking the parents: he wanted the children to come to him and he did not want anyone to hinder them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. Notice the words ‘such as these’. He’s saying that the kingdom is made up of those who are like little children. This matches what we read in the previous chapter where he warned his disciples — who were arguing over who was the greatest in the kingdom — that unless they change and become like little children, they will not even enter the kingdom. Membership of God’s kingdom is for those who are like little children. And in those days, children were lowly and unimportant and insignificant in society. They were not proud, but humble. They were not independent, but dependent on their parents. And so, membership of God’s kingdom belongs to the lowly and humble and those who depend on God’s grace and mercy to us in Christ Jesus. God’s people are not to exalt themselves, but to humble themselves. His people regard themselves, not as more important than everyone else, but as lowly and humble. And just as these little children came to the Lord Jesus, so we’re to come to the Lord Jesus and trust in him for eternal life.

And so, according to verse 15, the Lord Jesus placed his hands on the children. Presumably he also prayed for them. And then he went on his way.

Verses 16 to 22

And then we read about this rich young man who came up to the Lord Jesus with a question. We know he was young and rich because that’s what we’re told about him in verse 22. Luke, in his account of this story, tells us that he was a ruler. And Mark, in his account, tells us that he ran up to the Lord Jesus and knelt before him. Mark’s account suggests that he was very earnest and anxious for an answer. And his question was a very important one: ‘Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?’ So, he knows there’s this life and there’s the life to come. And he knows that not everyone will enter the life to come. And so, what must I do to have it?

Like a good rabbi, the Lord answered the man’s question with a question: ‘Why do you ask me about what is good?’ And then he added that there is only One who is good. He’s referring, of course, to God. The only One who is good is God. It’s not entirely clear why the Lord answered the man in this way, but it’s possible that he’s saying to the man that since God is the only one who is good, then he sets the standard for goodness. We might look on someone and say that person over there is good. But that person’s goodness falls far short of God’s goodness, which is a perfect goodness. So, when this man asked what good thing he must do, he needed to realise that what we might consider good does not come close to God’s standard for goodness. He needed to realise that even our best deeds are spoiled by sin. And if he understood that, then he would have realised that there’s no good thing he can do to have eternal life, but he must trust in the only Saviour of the world.

But since the man asked what he had to do, the Lord Jesus answered him in the same manner. If you’re thinking about what you have to do, then I’ll tell you what you have to do. Obey the commandments.

The Lord’s answer is surprising in one sense, because the Bible makes clear that we’re saved by grace and through faith and not by works of the law. That is, we’re saved by believing in Christ and not by obeying the law. However, in another sense, our salvation does depend on obedience. The first covenant which God made with us was the covenant of works in which life was promised to Adam and his descendants on condition of perfect and personal obedience to God’s moral law. So, the covenant of works was all about obedience. And though Adam broke that covenant when he ate the forbidden fruit, God did not abolish the covenant of works entirely, but he sent his Only-Begotten Son into the world as a second Adam to do what the first Adam failed to do, which was to obey God’s moral law perfectly. And by means of the covenant of grace, God graciously pardons his people for our sins and he accepts us as righteous in his sight for the sake of the perfect righteousness of Christ who obeyed God’s law perfectly on our behalf. And so, we are saved by obedience to God’s law. But we’re not saved by our obedience, but we’re saved by Christ’s obedience on our behalf.

But this man has not yet realised that we’re to rely on Christ and on Christ’s obedience on our behalf. He’s still thinking he must save himself by his own obedience. And so, he wants to know which commandments he must obey. He’s perhaps thinking that there are certain special or spiritual commandments which provide access to the kingdom of God. But the Lord pointed him to some of the Ten Commandments. He mentions the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth commandments first. Then he mentions the fifth commandment about honouring your parents. And he also refers to Leviticus 19:18 and the general command to love your neighbour as yourself. If you want to enter eternal life, obey those very ordinary and down-to-earth commandments. That’s what you have to do to have eternal life.

And the man replied that he had kept all of these commandments. We might wonder how he could say that about himself, but in Philippians 3, when Paul was describing his life before he trusted in Christ, he said that in those days he regarded himself as faultless. And I’m sure you’ve met people who say that they have never done anything wrong. And that’s how this man regarded himself: he had kept the commandments.

However, this man still does not have any assurance. He feels that there’s something more he needs to do. He hasn’t done enough. So, what do I still lack? He’s trying to climb up to God by his good deeds. But while he’s got so far, he feels that there are still some more rungs to go. And so, what does he need to do to climb those final rungs to secure eternal life?

And the Lord’s next statement reveals the idol in this man’s heart. An idol, you see, is not so much a statue which people bow down to and worship. And idol is anything in this world which is more important to us than God. And this man’s idol was his possessions. The Lord Jesus told him to go and sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor; then come and follow me. So, if you want to know what you must do to get eternal life in the presence of God, that’s what you must do. Get rid of your idol.

And you see, when people are trying to climb up to God by their good deeds, they can never climb all the way, because there’s always an idol which is pulling them down. Different people have different idols: things which are more important to them than God. And this man’s idol was his possessions and all his money. Those things were more important to him than eternal life in the presence of God. And he wasn’t willing to give up those things. And so, we read that he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Verse 23 to 30

And in verse 23 the Lord said to his disciples that it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. In fact, it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Can a camel go through the eye of a needle? Of course it can’t. The camel is far too big and the eye of a needle is far too small. And the Lord is using this little image to make clear just how difficult it is for a rich man or woman to enter his kingdom.

The disciples are astonished at this saying. You see, in Bible times, people regarded wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. If someone was rich, then that was a sign that God was pleased with that person. But the Lord Jesus is now saying that, when it comes to eternal life, the rich are no better off than anyone else. In fact, the Lord Jesus is saying that, when it comes to eternal life, the rich are worse off than everyone else, because their attitude to their wealth may prevent them from receiving life in God’s presence. And so, the disciples are astonished, because this is not what people believed in those days. And if those who have been blessed with riches cannot be saved, then who can be saved?

And, of course, the answer is that salvation is impossible for us. No one is able to save himself or herself. No one is able to climb up to God by their own good deeds, because even our best deeds are spoiled by sin and the idols in our heart are pulling us down. No one is able to save himself or herself. But what is impossible for us is possible for God, because he’s the One who sent his Only Begotten Son into the world as one of us to keep God’s law on our behalf and to give up his life to pay for our sins. And God has promised that whoever believes in his Son will be saved. And he gives his Spirit to us to enable us to believe. What is impossible for us is possible for God.

And perhaps Peter was thinking about the rich young man who was not prepared to give up his possessions in order to follow the Saviour. Perhaps he was thinking about him, because he said to the Lord in verse 27 that he and his fellow disciples had left everything to follow the Lord Jesus. We’ve left everything! What will there be for us? And I wonder: Was he thinking that they deserved something from God in return? Was he thinking that God was in their debt and owed them something for their sacrifice?

Whether that’s what he was thinking or not, the Lord made clear that God is no one’s debtor and at the renewal of all things — and he’s referring to the time when Christ comes again to make all things new — he will sit on his glorious throne and his disciples will sit with him on twelve thrones to judge the twelve tribes of Israel. It’s not clear what that means exactly, since elsewhere we’re told that the Lord Jesus will be the judge. But perhaps the disciples will be given responsibility for judging the people of Israel in particular. But in any case, he goes on to say that whoever has left anything in this world for Christ’s sake will receive a hundred times as much; and, on top of that, they’ll receive eternal life in his presence. God is no one’s debtor and he graciously and freely promises to bless his people in this life and in the next. And we know that the glory of the life to come will far surpass any loss which we might suffer in this life.

And in the final verse of today’s passage, the Lord says that many who are first will be last; and many who are last will be first. Many of those who are regarded as first and foremost in this life — the rich, for instance — will end up being in the worst possible position in the life to come. And many of those who are regarded as being last in this life — believers for instance — may end up being in the best possible position in the life to come. I should add, of course, that there were many rich believers in the Bible. And we know that money itself is not the root of all kinds of evil, but it’s the love of money which is the root of all kinds of evil. But the Lord’s point is that the way things will be in the life to come will be very different from the way things are in this life. And the most important thing is not that we have money or any other created thing that we might idolise, but that we have Christ, because whoever has Christ has forgiveness and the sure and certain hope of the resurrection and eternal life in the presence of God where we will enjoy him forever.