A Crucial Question

Matthew 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-23
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” 
This is the question asked by the enquirer we have come to refer to as ‘the rich, young ruler’.

Who was he?

Mark just calls him ‘a man’. Matthew tells us he was a ‘young man’. Luke tells us he was a ruler. And all three gospels identify that he went away sad at Jesus’ answer ‘because he had great wealth’.

How did he address Jesus?

Mark, with his normal attention to important eye-witness details, tells us that he ‘ran up to Jesus’. Two gospels say that he addressed Jesus as ‘good teacher’. The third, that he asked about ‘what good thing must I do’.

What did he ask?

Two gospels say he asked what he must do to ‘inherit’ eternal life. Matthew just says ‘get eternal life’.

How did Jesus answer?


  1. Jesus questioned the question. He queried the young man’s use of the word ‘good’. Whether ‘good teacher’ was polite and respectful, or ‘good thing’ was a generalisation, Jesus evidently wanted to make plain that ‘goodness’ is not a relative thing – it is absolute. And only God Himself is ‘all good’. Everything and everyone else which or whom we might consider eligible for that description is flawed in some way. I think Jesus was getting the young man to think “Why am I asking this Jesus about this? Why do I think He is qualified to answer?”
  2. Thus the Lord turns the focus of the question from ‘the thing to do’ to ‘the person to ask’. Himself. And implicit in the consideration of this is the stunning conclusion that Jesus Himself is God!
  3. Jesus then points to what the man already knows (“You know the commandments”). Pleasing God, in the old covenant, was about keeping the commandments. Again, the gospel writers vary in which commandments they record Jesus as mentioning. All are from the ‘second tablet’ – to do with relationships between man and man (whereas, traditionally, the first four commandments in the Decalogue are to do with relationship between man and God, and were thought to have been written on the first stone tablet). But in addition to the quoted commandments from ‘the Ten’, Matthew adds that Jesus mentions ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ – which is not one of the Decalogue. “Do this”, Jesus says, “and you will live”.
  4. When the man responds that he has kept all of these “from my youth up”, Mark tells us something quite unique:
  5. “Jesus looked at him and loved him.”
  6. The Lord then proceeds to inform him of the ‘one thing’ he lacks – the most critical of all. He is to abandon his riches – distribute it to the poor – and become a follower of Jesus. The consequence is that he cannot see himself doing that because he has great wealth, and he departs crestfallen.There follows Jesus’ remarks on how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.

My Comments


  1. In consideration of this account, we need to take the story as a whole and look at it ‘in situ’, rather than extracts to which we apportion meaning which the Lord never intended. We have to bear in mind:
  2. That Jesus is dealing with a Jew, well versed in the Law, and meticulously observant of it. Thus He speaks to Him in his own terms.
  3. That Jesus ministers at the ‘junction’ of the covenants. He leads away from and out of the old, and into the new, for which he prepares the way. Consequently, it is a mistake to take what He says about commandment-keeping as a viable alternative to getting eternal life
  4. That there are things here that we do not and cannot know. Both about what Jesus says and about the young man. In my view, it isn’t legitimate to prejudge him and the thoroughness or otherwise of his law-observance.
  5. We must not over-interpret. When the young man says he has ‘kept all of these commandments from my youth up’, it is not necessary to think he is claiming perfect adherence. And Jesus does not castigate him for a false claim. Must we, then? Will we do more than Jesus does?

So, conclusions and lessons from the account:

  1. Quite evidently, law-observance has not been sufficient to give this earnest seeker assurance that he has eternal life. But he knows he wants it. 
  2. The Law, though, has done the job God intended in his life. It has brought him to Jesus.
  3. It is not a sin to be a ruler. It is not a sin to be young. And it is not a sin to be rich. Some take the last of these as an indication of covetousness – thus stating that he WAS breaking a commandment. But Jesus doesn’t even hint at this. Jesus elaborates later, and exposes how riches get in the way of discipleship. This is a 'new covenant' problem, not an old covenant one.
  4. The Lord displays and illustrates His ‘mission statement’ – that He did not come to condemn, but to save.
  5. We need to explore what it was that prompted (the also young) John Mark to comment that Jesus looked on him and loved him.
  6. This is very ‘NCT’, is it not? A clear demonstration that the Law brought condemnation, but was powerless to give life. Only the living Lord could do that, and nothing should get in the way of our following Him. 


To whom else should we go?

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About David White

Until recently David White served as a leader and preacher at a small village church in Lavendon, Buckinghamshire, England. At the present time he resides in Barton On Sea in the UK. He has been a Bible-soaked Christian for half a century, trained at London Bible College (now London School of Theology), but more importantly in God’s school of life.