A Bible Lesson on Matthew 19:13-30

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Matthew 19:13 Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people,

14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”

15 And he laid his hands on them and went away.

The people were bringing children to Jesus, seeking His blessing of them.  One message in this narrative is that, contrary to what the disciples seem to have thought, it was important that little ones have access to the Master.  It seems like the attitude of the disciples in this thing is that what’s important is the adults.  The kids can wait.  Jesus doesn’t see it that way.  In fact, Mark says that He was “indignant” over the attitude of the disciples.  Every Christian children’s worker who has labored faithfully year after year with relatively little recognition can find encouragement in this passage–that work is important, and this is true whether there’s any obvious recognition passed out or not.

Jesus not only lets the disciples know that the little ones are important to Him, He uses the kids to give an object lesson about the nature of true faith and how one comes to God.  “Do not hinder them, for to such belong the kingdom of heaven.”  Let’s not make any sentimental, wrong-headed mistake about what is being said here.  We’ve all heard people babble, going on about the innocence of children, making them out to be the purest form of humanity, pure and uncorrupted, embodying everything we adults should be.  That’s unBiblical nonsense. Children are fallen human beings from conception.  They don’t have to be taught to sin, they are sinners by nature, naturally selfish and self-willed.  But Jesus says that there is, in the way that they will receive the truth, a model that we will either follow or not really enter the kingdom at all.

So, what is it about the way a child receives the kingdom that we all must imitate?  A kid’s acceptance of the Gospel is without reservation. There are no thoughts of holding out some areas of life from God’s control.  There is no reluctance on a kid’s part to be dependent, no insistence on saving oneself by one’s deeds.  Kids are receptive.  They don’t argue against the Gospel on the basis that they want things to be some other way.  They haven’t developed either a pride in their own righteousness or a callous indifference that keeps them from God’s way.  Their coming to God is frank, sincere and in full trust and complete dependence.

16 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”

What good deed must I do to have eternal life?  The guy thinks that God’s approval, and particularly life beyond death, is based on racking up sufficient good marks.  Every religion in the world outside of true Christianity is premised on this same wrong notion.  This guy wants to know more accurately what the requirements are, and probably not because he wants to do only the bare minimum.  I think he’s honorable and wants to know exactly what the good is … thinking of it in terms of a list to be followed.  He’s surely eager, he’s run and knelt.  But he’s wrong in head and heart.

J.C. Ryle nails this one.  He points out how terribly blind this fellow is to himself and his own condition.  He’s standing here in the presence of the only Son of God, the very definition of goodness, asking what he can do to complete his goodness portfolio and have enough invested at the end to purchase entrance to a pleasant afterlife.  It’s a far cry from Isaiah’s response to seeing God …

Isaiah 6:5 Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.

Looked at from this perspective, it is an obscene question this fellow has asked.  But Jesus treats him gently, as He treats the rest of us.

17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”

Jesus challenges the man’s concept of good as a list of rules to be followed.  Jesus isn’t denying that He, Jesus, is good.  He’s not denying that He, Jesus, does good things.  But He isn’t good because He’s followed the rules.  He is good by nature, because He is God.  God alone is completely good, and it’s not a list of rules that defines good, but rather the character and nature of God.  The guy displays an inadequate understanding of “goodness” when he addresses Jesus in this way.

There is a difference between being intrinsically good and intermittently doing some things that are good.

The man has asked for something beyond the Scripture that he might do in order to be accepted by God.  The truth is that real intrinsic goodness is required.  Jesus shows him that what is written is sufficient to teach him that doing isn’t going to get the job done.  The man believes that salvation is something to be earned.  But until he sees that there is no way that it can be so, that salvation can only be a gift freely received and undeserved, he’s not even got the right picture.

18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness,

19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

These are the Commandments 5 through 9.  The first 4 deal with man’s relationship to God.  These are ones that deal with his relationship to his fellow man. (See Exodus 20:12-15 and Deuteronomy 5:16-21.)  They are ones that can be more or less verified in the external.  They might be mistaken for a list that can be followed.  However, conspicuous by their absence are the first 4 and the 10th.  Those are not so easily checked off as rules that have been kept.

20 The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?”

I’ve kept the rules, and as far as I can see, that makes me good.  Jesus doesn’t leave the guy in his error.  He essentially brings him to the 1st, 2nd , and 10th commandments, shows him that the intent of the law is internal, and that we are thereby condemned.

21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

Mark says explicitly that Jesus loved this guy.  But He never wants an easy convert.  He wants the hearts of those who are to be His.

Mark 8:34 And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

This guy was not ready to unreservedly commit himself to Jesus.  Instead, his stuff was a matter of big importance to him … bigger than salvation and bigger than the honor of God.  The guy wanted some list beyond the Scripture that he could check off … and then revert to doing as he pleased?  Jesus has shown him the internal nature of the intent of the commandments, and that when that internal intent is translated into a specific thing to do, one close to his particular situation, he won’t follow through and obey.  This was, for him, a straight up choice of riches or the kingdom.  The call was to turn his back on his wealth and follow.  He chose wrongly.  His possessions were a snare and hindrance.

22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

The real implications of the commandments go way beyond a list to be kept.  When faced with one of them in his own circumstances, the man finds that he doesn’t really want to please God that much after all.  He is not intrinsically good, in harmony with the I AM.  He was disheartened/sorrowful.  He was “shocked.”  This has caught him completely by surprise.  He’s stunned.  Jesus says “You are interested in the age to come and the next world?  Good, then give up your preoccupation with the present one.”  And the guy balks.

His reaction is like many of our own, but totally crazy.  What is wealth against eternity?  What is wealth in comparison to the glory of the God of the universe?  Unless, of course, we don’t really reckon that eternity is real or care that much for the glory of God.  Unless, of course, that contrary to the real truth that good that is a nature/state (that produces good actions but is not the sum of them), we hold that good is a commodity to be stored up or collected through meritorious actions.

23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven.

This needs to be heard against the backdrop of the popular understanding of the day.  That was that wealth was God’s reward for right living. Jesus turns this understanding on its ear.  Instead of being a sign of right living and God’s approval, He says that in fact, wealth is a very serious impediment to real righteousness.  The people of this time and place (and us with them) would say “Wealth is no problem in and of itself.  People get into trouble when they do evil, and that’s completely independent of wealth.  A wealthy person is in no special danger.”  But Jesus says that thinking is wrong.  Wealth is in and of itself a serious danger to one’s soul, a real hindrance.

We must soberly ask ourselves if we really believe this.  Or does it just apply to those out there who have more than we do?  After all, no human being is willing to admit that he is wealthy.  It’s the other guy who has more that needs to look out for the warning here, not me.  I can go after more and more wealth, and it won’t affect me, because, after all, I’m not rich.  In this regard, it may be of interest to realize that a more literal translation of what Jesus said is “How difficult it will be for those who have things.”  It’s not “wealth” or “riches” but “things.”  The issue here is Jesus and His call.  This episode has demonstrated with crystal clarity that “stuff” can get in the way and prevent people from answering that call and finding eternal life.  This is no glorifying of socialist redistribution of wealth.  It is far more serious.  This is dire warning.

24 Again I tell you, 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 camel was the largest beast in Palestine.  The eye of a needle was the smallest opening.  This is as strong a statement that Jesus could possibly make.  The language He uses was common language of the time, indicating impossibility.  Regarding the popular interpretation regarding some gate into Jerusalem being called the eye of the needle and being only big enough for a camel kneeling and unloaded, there is absolutely no evidence that such a gate existed in Jesus’ time.  It seems to be more something having to do with modern tourists to Jerusalem than anything authentic to Scripture.  Jesus is saying that it’s an impossibility.  If your material standing is going to be important to you, if you’re not willing to gladly give it up in the service of Christ, you have no place in the kingdom.  Serious words, but true.  It is our covetousness that doesn’t want this to be so.  It is our idolatry that doesn’t want it to be so.  It is our failure to begin where the commandments begin, with God as in the center. In our fallenness, we hope to be rich someday, and don’t want this to be true when we finally make it.

25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?”

The disciples too are shocked.  Remember, they considered material possessions a mark of God’s approval for right living.  So indeed, if not even the ones that look to us humans like they have met with God’s approval, what about everybody else?

26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

The fact is that no man can merit God’s favor.  No man can argue that he is good and deserving of God’s approval.  Salvation is impossible if the route to “goodness” is perfect behavior.  But it is possible that God will provide a way to righteousness through faith, trust, reliance on Christ and His sacrifice on our behalf.

Hurtado said, “There is no happy ending to this story, and the stark reality of the warning is the greater for it.”

27 Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”

Peter chimes in and reveals that he too has missed the point.  He essentially says, “Look Jesus, we have done what you asked the other guy to do. Is that good enough to merit God’s favor?”  Jesus returns to His “You may try to have it here, or you may have it there” theme from the Sermon on the Plain.

28 Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.

Chances are there is a bit of humor and irony intended here.  Those who were here with Jesus and were to give up a settled existence to carry the Gospel through the known world, would find themselves going from house to house, living here and living there, with all sorts of families, whoever would take them in for the sake of the message.  This is indeed what they get in this life, and with persecutions! The good that replaces what is forgone for the sake of Christ isn’t necessarily entirely pleasant in this life.  But there is “the new world” and that is what this episode is about, whole-hearted putting first of Jesus and His “Follow me!”

30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

The naïve expectation that the rich and mighty have the inside track for the kingdom is just wrong.  What seems to be first is last.  Those that to the natural mind have the advantage in fact face bigger obstacles in terms of what ultimately matters.  Matthew and Mark follow the promise of eternal life with this statement that nevertheless, the first shall be last and the last first.  (Matthew then follows up with the parable of the man who hires workers for the day and pays all equally, despite the fact that some have worked longer than others.)  It is not right to think of serving God in terms of some kind of heavenly bank account where chits here are exchanged one-to-one for chits there.  That simply isn’t the point of life in the kingdom of God, and things in that kingdom don’t operate according to our worldly expectations.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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