Is it your relationship with Jesus, or is it something else?
A rich young ruler came to Jesus with this question:
“Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Matthew 19:16 NLT
Is this a profound question?
It’s really a shallow and selfish question. The young man asking this question is only interested in his own prosperity. A more noble question would be, “How can I express my love for you, Jesus?” Or “How can I be a better member of my community?” But the young ruler is not interested in any of that. He just wants to know, “How do I make sure I get to live forever?”
“Why ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. But to answer your question—if you want to receive eternal life, keep the commandments.” Matthew 19:17 NLT
Jesus is looking for conviction. Only God is good. By calling Jesus good, was He also calling Him God? Jesus’ answer surprises some people that, even in the New Testament He refers to commandment keeping. In the New Testament, where we are learning about grace, Jesus is still talking about obedience. He told the man, if you want eternal life, keep the commandments. Later, Paul said,
In this way, God qualified him [Jesus] as a perfect High Priest, and he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him. Hebrews 5:9 NLT
By telling him, “Only God is good,” Jesus was looking for a response. Was the man willing to surrender himself and all that he had to God? Or were his riches his real gods? By telling the man to keep the commandments, Jesus meant more than just doing good deeds to receive eternal life. Jesus wanted a relationship with Him. When the man asked which commands to keep, Jesus quoted a few, all dealing directly with relationships.
You must not murder. [No murdering sounds pretty important to a relationship to me!] You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. Honor your father and mother. Love your neighbor as yourself. Matthew 19:18-19 NLT
Those are all important to relationships. But we see the rich young ruler is only interested in himself and his own eternal prosperity.
Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Matthew 19:21 NLT
When Jesus told him to sell everything and give to the poor, Jesus was asking the man to trust Him with his future. He wanted a relationship with this man. But the man was unwilling to give up his greatest treasure − his possessions − to have a relationship with Jesus
People who desire no relationship with me whatsoever do good deeds for me all the time. Just today, a stranger helped start my car with some jumper cables and then ran off. He was happy to do a good deed but did not desire a relationship with me. The rich young ruler was not interested in following Jesus, but he was interested in doing good deeds if it meant he could live forever. Sound familiar? Do we sometimes get so worked up performing good deeds that we forget to spend time with Jesus and enjoy His company?
The truth is that we can’t truly keep the commandments without a relationship with Jesus. Keeping the commandments to get to heaven is not really keeping them at all! Keeping the commandments in order to achieve an award is self-serving, and a self-serving spirit is totally contrary to the spirit of the law. Earlier the rich young ruler claimed to be a commandment keeper,
“I’ve obeyed all these commandments,” the young man replied. Matthew 19:20 NLT
But he was no commandment keeper at all. The first four commandments tell us how to serve Jesus in our relationship with Him, and the last six commandments tell us how to serve others in our relationship with them. You can’t keep the commandments without serving God and others, and the man was quite direct in revealing that his only purpose was to serve himself. Some may be able to keep the letter of the law and pretend to be serving others, but to keep the spirit of the law one must be involved in relationships, serving God and others.
“…he went away sad, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is very hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I’ll say it again—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 disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked.
Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” Matthew 19:22-26 NLT
The rich young ruler went away sad, because he found no joy in serving God and others. He may have been happy to give a large offering to help build a temple, but a continuously dependent relationship of serving God and others, day in and day out, was too much to ask of him.
Even the disciples were amazed that a rich man could not buy his way to heaven. This scared them, because if a rich man could not buy his way to heaven, how could a poor man possibly afford it? Peter reminds Jesus of the price they had paid.
“We’ve given up everything to follow you. What will we get?” Matthew 19:27 NLT
By asking the question, Peter puts himself in the same situation as the rich man. Both are asking about a reward, not realizing a relationship with Jesus is its own reward! Peter got to walk with Jesus for 3 1/2 years. What more could he want? If the Queen of England came to Florida to visit me for a couple days, at the end of two days I would not be asking her, “What do I get for spending time with you?” If she graced me with her presence that would be reward enough. How much more so with God!
You can read on in Matthew 19:28-30 NLT, where Jesus tells Peter He will be well taken care of temporally as well as spiritually, But Jesus adds in Matt 19:30 NLT,
But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.
Those who “seem” least important are those who are keeping the commandments, not with a self-serving agenda of becoming great, but rather keeping them simply because they love Jesus and consider their relationship with Him to be their greatest treasure.
He regards more the love and faithfulness with which we work than the amount we do. –Ellen White, Christ Object Lesson, p. 402
What Jesus said to the rich man and Peter, He says to all,
Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. Matthew 6:33 NLT
God does not require us to give up anything that it is for our best interest to retain. In all that He does, He has the well-being of His children in view. Would that all who have not chosen Christ might realize that He has something vastly better to offer them than they are seeking for themselves. Man is doing the greatest injury and injustice to his own soul when he thinks and acts contrary to the will of God. No real joy can be found in the path forbidden by Him who knows what is best and who plans for the good of His creatures. The path of transgression is the path of misery and destruction. -Ellen White, Steps to Christ, Page 46.
Matthew 19:22 NLT says the rich man walked away sad. There is no joy in walking away from Jesus. An obedient relationship with Jesus is what gives life joy and purpose.
We need to examine our own lives. Do we put a relationship with Jesus first in our lives? Or are there other things that we put first? Do we see obedience to the law as a way to enrich our relationships with Jesus and others, or just a “good deed” we can do to make sure we get to live forever? We cannot experience the joy Jesus promised to give us unless we put Him first. Each day we need to surrender all we are and all we have to Him. Then He will fill our lives with joy and purpose.