The Gospels recount an episode (Mark 1:17-22) in which a certain man came to Jesus, reverent and seeking. This young man knelt before Jesus most respectfully, calling Him “good Teacher,” before asking that so-important question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The man knew what was important, and he knew who he should ask. He came to Jesus in faith and reverence, and for this he should be commended.
Likewise, as we continue through the account, we find more to like about the young man. Jesus replied to him that what was needed was to obey the Law of God, stating specifically, “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 (vs. 19; ESV).’” The man could happily respond that he had kept these things.
Without knowing and obeying the word of God, there is no eternal life, for it is the word of God which imparts life (cf. Psalm 119:93) and apart from obedience to God there is no salvation. Jesus taught elsewhen that it was not just a matter of calling Him Lord which would allow one into the Kingdom, but doing the will of the Father (cf. Matthew 7:21).
The young man was truly trying to be a good and obedient soul to God, which is no doubt a part of why Mark records, “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him (Mark 1:21a).” Here was a young man with potential: he had faith, he had reverence, he had obedience. Here was a young man who could do great things for God. But one thing was holding him back and Jesus’ next words brought sadness to the eager young man. “One thing you lack,” said Jesus, “go sell all that you have, give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me (vs. 21b).”
The young man’s sorrow came because he had much wealth and many possessions. What Jesus was asking him do to was going to be hard for him. It would require genuine sacrifice on his part, and he left Jesus, not rejoicing to have found life, but dejected to learn that the road ahead of him, if he wanted life, was going to be different than what he had once imagined it would be.
Let us notice that while Jesus said the man lacked only one thing, He then told him to do three separate things: sell, give and follow. The three actions were therefore all part and parcel of filling the single hole in the man’s spiritual condition. What was the man lacking? We might deduce that the physical goods were holding the man back from his true potential, dividing his attention between the material and the spiritual. The giving away of the goods would fix that, but then what of the other two commands. We might assume that the man was lacking in love, and giving the to the poor would be a way to fix that, but then we are left again with only a third of an answer. At the end of it all, the man needed to be a follower of Jesus and here we see the theme that ties the other two actions together.
Obedience, faith and reverence are all necessary to be pleasing to God, but in the end, eternal life will come through following Christ. The man needed to fully dedicate himself to being a disciple of Christ. And where Christ was going to lead, there was no room for dual loyalties, trying to serve both God and money (cf. Matthew 6:24). Where Christ would lead, there would be love and compassion, shown through generous giving and service to others (cf. John 13:34-35; Acts 2:45, 4:32-37).
Still today, Christ is calling men to a sacrificial discipleship. “Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow me. (cf. Mark 8:34)” If you desire to gain life, you must first lose the life that you have (cf. Mark 8:35). If we hold back, clinging to our earthly treasures, we might have some claim to faith, reverence and obedience, but when Jesus looks at us, He will still see a spiritual hole, keeping us from reaching our true spiritual potential, and the words He spoke to the rich young man will be ours as well: “One thing you lack.”
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Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.