Then Who Can Be Saved? | Mark 10:17-31

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

Mark 10:17-31 ESV

“Have you noticed,” asks Tim Keller, “that some of Jesus’s sayings are like hard candy? They’re not like chocolate, which you can let melt in your mouth, swallow, and it’s gone–a momentary pleasure. With a hard candy, if you try to take it in too fast, you’re likely headed for the dentist’s chair or the Heimlich Maneuver. Many of Jesus’s sayings are like that. You work on them, you work into them, and you work through them, and only then are you rewarded with layer after layer of increasing sweetness.”[1]

In the passage before us, we encounter a number of such sayings from Jesus, sayings that challenge our default presuppositions. Here we are challenged to rethink how we understand goodness, righteousness, wealth, and salvation. May the Spirit give light to the eyes of our heart as we study this text.

YOU LACK ONE THING // VERSES 17-22

The verses before us can easily be divided into two main sections: Jesus’ encounter with the rich, young ruler and Jesus’ lesson for His disciples. The man whom we often call the rich, young ruler (from the paralleling accounts of Matthew and Luke) ran up to Jesus as He was setting out for His journey. The reverence that this man had for Jesus is immediately displayed, first, through his willingness to run, which was considered undignified at that time, and by his kneeling before Jesus. Right from the beginning, then, we know that this is not one of the antagonistic encounters that will become so normal for us to read in chapters 11-12. Here is a man with a genuine desire to speak with Jesus.

“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Here is the question that has been haunting the young man’s mind. We might rephrase it today as, “What must I do to be saved?” We can easily imagine him being in the spiritual place that so many are today in the West, living lives of relative comfort and success yet feeling the constant pull toward something more, something eternal. Believing themselves to be good and moral people, yet still lacking something.

Jesus’ response would fail a seminary class on evangelism because even though a sincere seeker of eternal life had literally run to Him and knelt down before Him asking how to be saved, He did not give the man a presentation of the gospel. Instead, Jesus pushed back against the man’s basic understanding of what goodness is: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

This response, of course, has been highjacked by secular scholars as evidence that Jesus did not consider Himself to be divine. Yet we would do well to notice that Jesus did not say that the man was wrong to call Him good. Indeed, the man was much more correct than he knew. Rather, Jesus was giving a subtle prod at the man’s broken notion of goodness. The man did not think that Jesus was God, only a spiritual guru, a miracle man. Thus, the man thought that goodness could be achieved, that men could become good, just as Jesus Himself had apparently done.

R. C. Sproul notes that such a definition of goodness is inherently relative; it is goodness in comparison to everyone else.[2] Biblically, however, goodness is an attribute of God, meaning that it is not some ethereal force that God meets. No, God Himself is goodness, its standard and source. Therefore, only God truly is good, and whatever we might call good is only properly good in relation to Him.

Yet knowing that the man considers himself to be good, Jesus gave him an answer similar to what he likely expected to hear: “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'” And sure enough the man answered as expected, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”

Here again I believe that we should read the man’s answer with the utmost sincerity. We know from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that he has not, in fact, kept them. He certainly never murdered anyone, but we can be sure that he did so in his heart because we all have done likewise. Even from the Old Testament, the man should have known that outward obedience is not enough to please the holiness of God. Notice, of course, that Jesus cited Commandments 5-9, not mentioning those that govern our worship of God nor the 10th Commandment, which is explicitly a heart-level law.

Yet the man had not been taught the true ways of God. Here is fruit of the Pharisees’ legalism: a man who both thought he had done enough to merit God’s favor and knew at same time that righteousness eluded him.

In verse 21, we read that Jesus loved this man. He had compassion on him, for he was truly lost, a sheep without a shepherd. This love led Jesus to issue a remarkable challenge to the man: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

Let us pause to note that while our world considers affirmation to be highest form of love Jesus displayed His love for the man precisely by not affirming him. Jesus offered no pat on the back to assuage the man’s lingering sense of insufficiency. He did not say, “I can clearly see that you are trying your best, and that’s what God really looks at. Go in peace.” Such a word would have doomed the man. It would have been as comforting as a doctor neglecting to tell a patient about their cancer, heart defect, or other such life-threatening condition.

Instead, Jesus confirmed what the young man always knew deep in his heart. The perpetual question of the legalist is: “Have I done enough?” And the answer is ever and always: “No.” The nagging voice that haunted him at night was affirmed. After all of his religious obedience something was still missing. He lacked one thing. And true love does not shy away from pointing out such lack. True love does not heal a wound lightly, as Jeremiah accused the false prophets of his day of doing.

Of course, we see this today with the transgender ideologues, whose answer to a hurting person who feels like the opposite sex is to sign on the dotted line, start taking some hormones, and get a plastic surgery scheduled to make them look somewhat like how they feel. How is that loving?

Yet let us bring the application closer to home. Whenever a friend is discouraged and downcast, the typical answer is to affirm them and tell them they are doing great. And maybe they are. But maybe they also need to be reminded to look away from themselves and to do their work through the strength of the Spirit. Maybe the encouragement they need looks more like saying, “Well, I see that your one social media a lot. Maybe you need to take a break from it for a while and focus on what’s at hand.” True love is willing to tell others what they lack, just as Jesus did with this man.

It is comforting to think that this man only lacked one thing. Again, Jesus did not spell out this one thing directly; instead, he gave the man a command to follow. He gave him a test. Abraham had to bring his only son to the mountain of sacrifice, and this man was commanded to bring his wealth, to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor. Jesus commanded him to let go of everything and follow Him.

The picture that we have of this man does not lead me to believe that he was greedy, as we often think of it. I imagine that he was quite generous with his giving and alms, and I do not think that the man would have ever dreamed that his possessions had become his deity. Indeed, notice that Jesus threw in the command not to defraud, and the man was quick to affirm that he had not. We can assume then that the man’s wealth was not gained by dishonest means.

Yet his faith and dependence were upon his wealth rather than in God. This idolatry is much subtler than overt greed, yet it is no less damning. Just like narcissist can just as easily be a pouty, recluse who says that no one understands them as the loudmouth who proudly wants to be the center of the universe, so too can love of wealth be displayed in forms that do not resemble Scrooge McDuck diving into his vault filled with gold. The man’s security was rooted in his possessions rather than in the LORD as his shepherd. He was so confident that he had fulfilled the commandments, yet Jesus’ choice exposed his defiance to the 1st Commandment.

Speaking of the 1st Commandment, we must not miss what Jesus’ command implies. G. Campbell Morgan explains:

Jesus called that young man to an abandonment so complete, that obedience must be equivalent of worship. We so often quote these tender and gracious words of Jesus and what wonder that we do! Yet we are in danger of quoting them as though they were simple and gentle; whereas they are imperial, kingly, absolute, autocratic. If Jesus Christ were not a good man, and were not more than man, when He asked the young ruler to do that, He asked him to break the second commandment of the first four. If He be not a good man, and if He be not more than man, then when He asks any man to submit himself so completely to His authority, and to His will, He is asking that man to break the law of God.[3]

Yet Jesus was much more than a mere human. He is God made flesh. Therefore, His command for the man to leave everything to follow Him was a loving and compassionate command. He was turning the man’s eyes toward Himself as the pearl of great price. Indeed, Jesus’ declaration that he was lacking one thing recalls Jesus’ words to Martha about her sister, Mary: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42). Only Jesus Himself is necessary, and He is precisely what the man lacked.

Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. Like Herod was grieved by the request for John’s head, this man knew the right choice to make, but he could not make it. He could not abandon his great wealth, though it grieved him. Keller speaks about this man’s grief saying:

There’s a place where the same Greek word is applied to Jesus. Matthew records in his Gospel that in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus started to sweat blood as he grieved in deep distress. Why? He knew he was about to experience the ultimate dislocation, the ultimate disorientation. He was about to lose the joy of his life, the core of his identity. He was going to lose his Father. Jesus was losing his spiritual center, his very self. When Jesus called this young man to give up his money, the man started to grieve, because money was for him what the Father was for Jesus.[4]

We do not need to be obsessive hoarders of gold or oppressive company owners to worship money as our God. It only needs to usurp God’s place as our hope and security.

THE FIRST WILL BE LAST // VERSES 23-31

I am most thankful that the Spirit inspired the Gospel writers to include this dialogue between Jesus and His disciples, for it helps us to unpack the scene that we just witnessed. Indeed, after the man left, Jesus used this circumstance to instruct His followers, saying, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

For us today who continuously smell the Marxist breeze in the air, this sounds good and right and true. Indeed, many today would likely shout their agreement that the wealthy should not enter the kingdom at all! The poor, after all, are unjustly oppressed, while the rich are unjust oppressors. The disciples were speechless at Jesus’ words because they had a very different view. They saw wealth as a sign of God’s favor and blessing; therefore, their lament in verse 26 was essentially saying, “If not even the rich cannot enter the kingdom of God, then no one can!” And notice that Jesus does not disagree with their conclusion.

Of course, both their view of wealth’s goodness and our view of wealth’s sinfulness are wrong. The reality is more nuanced. Scripture affirms that there are indeed those who are poor due to oppression and those who are rich though that very oppression. Yet there are also those who are poor because they are fools who rightly deserve to have nothing, and there are those who are wealthy because of their wisdom and hard work. Thus, both the rich and the poor can be wicked or godly, foolish or wise.

Nevertheless, notice that Jesus does specifically target the great difficulty that comes with wealth: “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.” The sometimes-popular thought that there was a little used gate in Jerusalem called the eye of the needle that camels could shimmy through with great difficulty does not have any claim of validity. Indeed, if that were the case, then we would expect the disciples to exclaim, “Wow! That difficult!” Instead, they take the claim as the impossibility that it is, very similar to our expression “when pigs fly” or “when hell freezes over.” A pig cannot fly, hell will never freeze, and camels cannot pass through the eye of a needle. It cannot be done, and the disciples rightly cried out, “Then who can be saved?”

The disciples asked a universal question, a question about how anyone can be saved at all, if it is impossible for even the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus, therefore, gave a universal answer: “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible to God.” It is not just impossible for a rich man to be saved, to enter God’s kingdom; it is impossible for anyone to saved. As Jesus said at the beginning, no one is good; no one deserves to enter God’s kingdom. Salvation is an impossibility. But God is the worker of the impossible.

As Jesus’ miracles testified, man cannot cleanse leprosy, but God can.

Man cannot heal deaf ears and loose mute tongues, but God can.

Man cannot open blind eyes, but God can.

Man cannot command the demonic, but God can.

Man cannot raise the dead, but God can.

Neither can man please, love, or obey God as His holiness demands, but God has not left us to the eternal fires that He made for Satan and his fallen. God has dealt with our sin by placing it upon Jesus, by transferring our sin to Christ and Christ’s righteousness to us. Upon the cross, Jesus received the Father’s wrath without any ounce of mercy, so that in Him we may receive the Father’s mercy without any ounce of wrath. This is the ransom that Christ came to pay. This is the salvation that God has worked on our behalf.

Clearly, Peter was still shaken by Jesus’ words as he said: “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Given how Jesus has been rebuking His disciples lately, we might expect Jesus to reprimand Peter again, saying something like, “Peter, do you not understand what I’m saying? Salvation isn’t about what you do at all; it’s about what only God can do for you!” But Jesus did not say any such thing. Instead, he comforted Peter.

Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

Notice back in verse 24 how Jesus had already comforted His disciples, though I do not think they yet had ears to hear: “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!” Peter pointed out that he and the others had done precisely what the rich, young ruler did not do, not out to boast but as a child reluctantly brings a good work before his father, not knowing whether his father will be pleased or not. They left everything to follow Jesus, but would even that be enough?

And in response to this fear, Jesus calls them children, affirming that they are indeed living in child-like dependence upon Him. As those whom God has enabled to enter the kingdom, Jesus comforts His disciples with the promise of blessings within this life. All who lose wealth and even family for Christ’s sake and for the gospel will receive hundredfold more than they lost.

Of course, this is not the promise of material wealth that many in the Word of Faith movement would claim, for Jesus specifically adds that these blessings will come with persecutions. If the rich, young ruler had become a disciple, the loss of his wealth would not have been the end of his earthly tribulations; rather, he would have likely received a brutal death of martyrdom just like the apostles did. Yet he would have received so much more! Eternally more!

The apostles suffered greatly in their spreading of the gospel, yet their names are inscribed upon the foundations of the walls of the New Jerusalem. They were nothing more than fishermen, would-be revolutionaries, and petty bureaucrats until they left everything to follow Jesus. They were nobodies whom God used as the foundation for His church. The rich, young ruler thought he was somebody, and what good are his great possessions to him now? The blind beggar at the end of this chapter had his name forever etched into God’s Word, but the young ruler’s name is omitted just as Moses did with Pharoah. Being first, he became last; whereas the disciples were last and became first.

Such is the kingdom of God. It is for the little children and all who would become like them. It is for those who hold their possessions as if they had none, who do not trust in the fleeting hope of riches, who know that if the Lord has given He may also take away and His name will still be blessed.

As we come to the Table of our King, may we come like poor and needy children to our good and loving Father. Let us forsake any self-righteousness within our souls, and cling only to Christ, for grace, for mercy, for compassion, for comfort, for discipline. Let us hold only to our Savior, knowing that we cannot be saved apart from Him and that in His arms we are held fast as dearly loved children.


[1] Timothy Keller, King’s Cross, 126.

[2] Interestingly, this is why many sociologists have suggested that reality TV is inherently corrupting. In order to make fascinating television, much drama is needed; therefore, the greatest of gossips and backstabbers are actively sought in order to give the viewers the trainwreck that they crave so dearly. The subconscious comfort that then creeps into our minds is, “Well, at least I’m not like that.”

[3] G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to Mark, 235.

[4] Keller, King’s Cross, 132.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s