The Kingdom of Heaven is Free,
and Therefore So Costly
by Rev. C. Bouwman
Order Of Worship (Liturgy)Text: Mark 10:21b "One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise" Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
It's a radical command our Lord gives. "Sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up your cross, and follow Me." Why would Jesus say this? Is this a command we need to follow also??
Yes, beloved, it is. Salvation is by grace alone, free. Exactly for that reason is the price so high. For this free gift is so wonderful that anything else is not worth possessing - and therefore may not receive the love of our hearts. But that last is so hard!
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS FREE, AND THEREFORE SO COSTLY.
The background to Jesus' instruction.
The meaning of Jesus' instruction.
The fulfillment of Jesus' instruction.
1. The background to Jesus' instruction.
Jesus' instruction in our text forms the climax of His conversation with somebody about eternal life. This somebody -from Matthew and Luke we learn he was a young man, a ruler- had come running up to Jesus as Jesus was about to set out down the road, had fallen on his knees in front of Jesus, and between gasps for air had asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life.
His was a good question, and a necessary one. This man was an Israelite, a child of the covenant, raised with the Old Testament, and so he knew of Paradise, knew of the fall into sin, knew of God's righteous anger against sin. How was this sinner, then, to be right with God?! It's the same question the church asks in Lord's Day 5 of the Heidelberg Catechism: "Since, according to God's righteous judgment we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, how can we escape this punishment and be again received into favor?" How can we inherit eternal life?!
Good question. We don't know how long this rich young ruler had been looking for an answer, but now he comes to Jesus to seek an answer from Him. He recognizes, no doubt on the basis of what he'd heard and seen from Jesus in the past, that this Rabbi was able to give a good answer to his pressing question. So he runs, he wants to get to Jesus before Jesus hits the road. He runs, and falls on his knees before Jesus; here's a sign of respect, a recognition that Jesus is a unique teacher, more than able to give the needed answer. His opening words give the same recognition; "Good Teacher," he pants, "what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?" His esteem for Jesus was certainly great.
"Good Teacher," he says. Jesus hooks in on that flattering title. This Israelite wants to inherit eternal life? That is: this man wants to find favor with God, wants to escape God's righteous anger, wants to be restored to Paradise? Obviously, you have to ask God the question, not people! You call me 'Good Teacher'? No one can teach you a good answer to that question except God alone, for eternal life is something only God can give. And you, being a Jew, a covenant child, "you know the commandments: do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and your mother." You want to inherit eternal life, want to escape God's anger and receive God's favor? Then listen to God's word, do what He commands, and you will live. To which this young man gave this surprising answer: "Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth."
It's at this point, congregation, that various commentators make things confusing. Take, for example, the explanatory notes in the Reformation Study Bible (or New Geneva Study Bible) so popular in our midst - notes that generally are very worthwhile and helpful for personal and family Bible study. On this passage the notes tell us that this young man had "a religious outlook based on works righteousness." That is, these notes tell us that this Israelite thought he could earn eternal life. And given what we know of the Pharisees of Jesus' day, such a mindset on the part of this young man sees plausible enough.
But is that in fact the case? Is Jesus addressing here a case of works righteousness, a case of earning salvation? There are a number of factors that indicate that that's not the case. I mention the following:
When the man first came to Jesus, he did not ask how he could 'earn' eternal life, but how he could 'inherit' eternal life (vs 17). There's a huge difference between those two words. I'll come back to that word 'inherit' in a moment.
In His reply Jesus did not correct the young man's question (as if it was built on wrong doctrine). Instead, Jesus answered the question exactly as it was asked. More: in His answer Jesus states that the man actually has to do something in order to inherit eternal life (vs 19).
In the third place, Jesus "loved" this man (vs 21). That's hardly the kind of response we would expect the Savior to give to someone who thought he could earn his own place in heaven!
These three points, congregation, tell us that the Jew of vss 17-22 did not think that he somehow had to earn his own place in heaven. I need to take each of these three points and expand on them.
The first point related to the man's question. I said: he did not ask how he could 'earn' eternal life, but how he could 'inherit' eternal life. What does the word 'inherit' mean?
Let your thoughts go back to Abram in the Old Testament. When God made His covenant with him in Gen 15, God said, "I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit it" (vs 7). So Abram could walk through the land and, though it was inhabited in his days by the Canaanites, he could know for sure that one day this land would be his; God had said so. So when the Israelites came out of Egypt, they left to go to the land of their inheritance, the land God had set aside for them (cf Ex 32:13).
But what did Israel have to do to inherit that land? It's clear: they did not have to earn it. Neither in Egypt nor in the desert did the people have to meet certain standards in order to earn the Promised Land. That's obvious to us: an inheritance by definition is unearned. A father has property and before he dies he indicates who of his children is to get what. There's no element of earning in the matter; it's a question of inheriting.
Yet we know from our Bibles that this doesn't mean Israel had nothing to do in inheriting the Promised Land. That God in heaven wrote the land of Canaan to Israel's account in His will (if I may say it that way) involved no activity on Israel's part; that was simply His good pleasure. But once Israel crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land, the people most certainly had to do something to inherit their inheritance. What they had to do? They had to fight. Yet not fight willy-nilly; they had to fight specifically as God commanded - even if the commands made no sense to their human minds. So God told them to march around Jericho once a day for six days and seven times the seventh day and then shout. Make sense to a military leader? Let America try it in Baghdad; it won't work. But this was God's command to Israel at that time, and for Israel to inherit they had to obey. And see: God crowned their obedience with the gift of the city of Jericho; the walls fell flat before them.
The rich young ruler of Mk 10 asks now what he has to "do" to "inherit" eternal life. Implicit in his use of the word 'inherit' is his awareness that God has promised eternal life to him. And that's again very Scriptural. When God made His covenant with Abram and his descendents after him (and that includes this young man!), God said that He would be their God and they His people (Gen 17:7f). As God is the living God, the people He claimed for Himself would live also, would have life with Him, eternal life. The sacrifices God instructed His people to bring in the tabernacle demonstrated how life with God would be possible, viz, through the shedding of blood for the forgiveness of sins, specifically through the death of the coming Savior.
This young man knows these Old Testament promises, knows he's an heir to eternal life. But now his question is: given that this is my inheritance, what do I have to do to inherit that inheritance? God gives it to me in grace, without me earning it; what do I now have to do to make it my own?
Let it be fixed in our minds, brothers and sisters: this is a critical question! You and I are also children of God by covenant and therefore heirs of all God's promises in Jesus Christ, including eternal life. But there is nothing automatic in the covenant! You do not inherit God's promises in the covenant, including forgiveness of sins and life eternal, without doing something yourself - no more than Israel could inherit the Promised Land without walking around Jericho. What this young man asked of Jesus is a question that every last one of us needs to ask also. That's also why Jesus' answer is so vitally important for us.
Just as critical is Jesus' response. For, as I said before, Jesus does not correct the young man's question, does not indicate that there's faulty theology caught up somehow in this question. Rather, Jesus gives a straight out answer, an answer that dictates that the young man indeed has to do something to inherit eternal life.
What Jesus says? Vs 19: "You know the commandments." That is: just as Israel could inherit the Promised Land only by obeying God's commands (in that case by marching around the city), so the heir to life eternal can inherit that life only by obeying God's commands.
Which commands? Says Jesus: "Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and your mother." These are the last six commandments of the ten God gave when He renewed His covenant with His redeemed people at Mt Sinai, known as the Second Table of the Law. These six commandments spell out specifically what the life God gives is supposed to look like in one's daily activities. Where the Lord gives life, the heart is renewed through the working of the Holy Spirit, and the result is that one has no pleasure in adultery; in fact, the person who is alive to God desires to be faithful, fully faithful, to his spouse. Where the Lord gives life, where the heart is renewed through the working of the Holy Spirit, one does not murder nor permit murderous thoughts in one's heart; one instead loves the neighbor with all he has. Where the Lord gives life, where the Holy Spirit has renewed one's heart, you do not steal, do not hog for yourself, but instead seek to do good to those around you, share what you have - whether they deserve it or not. You see, where a person is alive to God, has life with God (and that's eternal life), you get a particular lifestyle. That lifestyle is described in the commandments God gave, and it is the responsibility of the covenant child to live the lifestyle God desires. No, you do not live this lifestyle to earn life; rather, you live this lifestyle to make your inheritance your own. The man of our chapter is heir to life eternal, to life with God, and wants to know what he must do to inherit his inheritance. What he must do? He must obey God's commands, must make a point of living the kind of life that God promised to him in the covenant. Such a lifestyle will demonstrate that he has what God has promised, that he has his inheritance.
We need to listen carefully here, beloved, for the truth is precise. Jesus states that there is a link between obedience and life, between life and obedience. What is the link: that obedience leads to life, that obedience is the road to life? It has been so said. But that's Phariseeism, that's Arminianism, that's saying that obedience earns you eternal life, that you have to make a contribution. That's not Biblical. Obedience to God's law is not the way to life; obedience is the way of life. That is: those who have life make a point of obeying God's law, for those who are alive show their alive-ness through their obedience. Israel had an inheritance, the Promised Land. They could show that they believed it was theirs only by obeying God's commands - and the result of their obedience was that the land fell into their lap. So too this young man. He was heir to God's rich promises, including forgiveness of sins and life eternal. He could show that he embraced these riches by living according to God's commandments, could make his inheritance his own only through obedience.
It's exactly the same for us today. God has established His covenant of grace with us, made us heirs of all His riches, life eternal and glory. But we can make this inheritance our own only by obeying God's commands, and that means specifically that we believe what He says and therefore live as heirs of the kingdom of God - in careful obedience to all His commandments. There's no such thing as covenant automatism; we have to do something to inherit our inheritance.
I mentioned three arguments to show that this man was not seeking to earn salvation. I've commented on the first too; now I need to comment on the last.
The young man says in vs 20 that he's kept all these commands from his youth. We read that, and it strikes us as arrogant. But it's not. We have said exactly the same thing in our singing this morning already, when we took David's words in Pss 17 & 26 on our lips. Said David in Ps 17: "You have tried me and have found nothing.. I have kept away from the paths of the destroyer" (vss 3f). And Ps 26: "I have walked in Your truth. I have not sat with idolatrous mortals., I have hated the assembly of the evildoers" (vss 2-4). Was David haughty when he said these things? Surely not; the Psalms are inspired by the Holy Spirit! How could the Spirit, then, lay these words on David's lips? That's only, brothers and sisters, because the renewing work of the Holy Spirit produces effects in this life. No, the renewed person does not become perfect. But the renewed person does develop a new lifestyle, a lifestyle in conformity with God's revealed will. That's to say: the person who God makes heir to His promises -including life eternal- is enabled through the Spirit to live according to the wealth of his inheritance. The young man before Jesus says that he lives according to the commands of his God, and so he testifies to the work of the Holy Spirit in his heart - just as David did. That's why Jesus "loved him," vs 21. For if the Spirit of God works in a heart, shall the Son of God not love that person?
No, beloved, the young man of whom the Holy Spirit tells us in Mark 10 did not embrace a theology of salvation-by-works. Here is good Biblical theology of salvation-by-grace alone. Eternal life is not earned; eternal life is inherited. And that means that Yes, we need to do something to receive what is ours; we can't sit on our hands and expect eternal life to fall into our lap.
Jesus loves this man because He recognizes that God is at work in him. That's also why Jesus now encourages this young man, encourages further growth. Jesus observed that though this man's theology was correct there remained room for development, growth in God's service. Hence the instruction of our text: "Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up your cross, and follow Me."
What might Jesus mean with these words? That's our second point:
2. The meaning of Jesus' instruction.
Two things need to be said here. In the first place, God's Old Testament command had been that there were to be no poor in Israel. As God had shown mercy to Israel in their poverty in Egypt and given them a land flowing with milk and honey, so God's people-by-covenant -heirs as they were of life eternal!- were to share of the abundance each received with his neighbor who had little. In Jesus' day there were many beggars in Israel, and that showed a failure on the part of the well to do. That includes this young ruler was rich; he had great possessions. No, he did not steal, and no, he did not defraud; he did well to his neighbor, helping in need - thanks to the renewing work of the Holy Spirit. But he had but a small beginning of the obedience God required. He could do more, could show in his conduct that he was not at all attached to the things of this life, that he'd inherited a treasure so great and wonderful that all earthly possessions are as nothing in light of that great wealth. He could sell all he had and give to the poor, and so through his deeds show the poor something of the love that God had given him in granting him eternal life. Such works on his part would also assure him the more of his salvation - and his pressing question wouldn't press on him so much anymore; he'd "be assured of [his] faith by its fruits" (Lord's Day 32).
The second thing to be said here is this. Jesus speaks this word at a specific point in the history of salvation. He was "on the road," says vs 17, and that's the road from Galilee to Jerusalem - where Jesus would be arrested, crucified, killed. Already Jesus had told His disciples that soon He would be betrayed, killed., and raised (Mk 8:31; cf 9:31). Here is a young man in whom the Spirit works, a young Israelite whom God loves and therefore Jesus does too, and so Jesus invites this young man to come along on the road, to follow Jesus to His sacrifice on Calvary, to witness what is going to happen on Good Friday and Easter Sunday - how Jesus would pay for sins and prepare a rich inheritance for a poor people. Things are happening in the kingdom of God, and this man-who-loves-God should come and see it. So: give what you have to the poor, don't let your wealth be a burden in any way, and come, follow Me.
But this self-emptying was more than the young man could muster. Vs 22: "he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions." The word Mark uses here to describe the young man is used elsewhere in Scripture to describe an overcast and stormy sky (Mt 16:3). That's his reaction: his face turned overcast, dark, gloomy. And away he went, away from Jesus, away from the Good Teacher, away from Him who was about to lay down His life to obtain an inheritance for . this young man..
I come to our last point:
3. The fulfillment of Jesus' instruction.
Jesus saw the young man go, go with his stormy face.. He wanted so much to inherit God's free gift of eternal life. But what he had to do to inherit it - it was so costly! Israel obeyed God's command to march around the city (though it made no sense), but giving away his earthly security and comforts - that was asking too much of this young man.. That's why Jesus turned to His disciples in vs 23 and told them it was so hard for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God. To give up everything, to sell all in order to inherit that one precious pearl - it takes so much self-denial!
So concentrate with me for a moment, brothers and sisters, on our Lord Himself. Jesus loved this young man, loved him because He saw evidence of the Spirit's renewing work in his life. But see: when it came to emptying himself in order to follow Jesus, this man says the price is too high; he went away., wasn't going to follow Jesus to the cross..
What now: shall Jesus still die for this young man? Shall He still lay down His life to obtain the inheritance God promised this young man in the covenant of grace? Or shall the Savior of the world take offence at the young man's response, and decline to go to the cross?
The question is important, for you and I fail just as this young man did! We also are not keen to give up all we have in order to follow Jesus to the sufferings of the cross! How does Jesus respond to us: also turn His back on us, decline us a part in the eternal inheritance He obtained on the cross?
Here, beloved, is the glorious gospel of Christ's mercy: though this man with his feet told Jesus that the price of God's free grace was too high, Jesus carried on to the cross anyway! Vs 32: they were back on the road to Jerusalem, and Jesus told the twelve again that He would be delivered to the Gentiles, would be mocked and scourged and killed. In other words: the response of the young man did not discourage Jesus! Though He certainly suffered through the young man's response, He carried on resolutely to Jerusalem and its cross anyway!
On that cross He did what no mortal can accomplish. As a camel cannot crawl through the eye of a needle, so a rich man cannot find his own way into the kingdom of heaven - and a poor man cannot either. But Christ opened the way! Through the shedding of His blood He paid for sin and so obtained the favor of God for those who were bankrupt before God in their sins. As Peter writes: He obtained for us an "inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away" (I Peter 1:4). That inheritance makes us rich already, and that's in turn why in vs 30 of Mark 10 that the people of God will receive "a hundredfold now in this time - houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands." It's what happened on the day of Pentecost: those redeemed in Jesus' blood, those who came to faith in Jesus Christ and treasured His inheritance, shared all they had with the brethren, even to the point of selling their possessions and goods and distributing them to all who had need. Here's the command of Jesus to the young man fulfilled! It's fulfilled on the day of Pentecost because with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit the redeemed of God tasted how rich they were in the promises of the covenant, tasted the wealth of the eternal life Christ obtained for them, and so the riches of this earth were as nothing to them; cheerfully they gave of their wealth as Christ had given of His. So they showed what was important to them, and so they also made clear to the broader community that earthly treasures were not so important after all; Christ and the inheritance He obtained were much, much more important. And the public understood the message of their actions and stood in awe of God for His saving work in Christ.
And when persecution arose on account of other's envy at the inheritance Christ had given His people, the Christians didn't pull their heads in at all. They treasured God's gifts in Jesus Christ so much that they were content to leave houses and lands and bank accounts and superannuation funds, and go elsewhere wherever the Lord gave them a place (cf Acts 8:1ff). They demonstrated through their deeds that the inheritance of God was worthy more than any earthly treasure. So they obeyed their God, they trusted and obeyed, and let the pieces fall where they would; evidence of the Spirit's renewing work in them!
Salvation is free, brothers and sisters; it's an inheritance Christ obtained with His blood. Because it's such a treasure, the cost is high, so very high; the Lord would have us give up all to follow Christ. At the same time we're assured: the price is not too high. Christ went to the cross even for rich people who feel so bound to their wealth. On the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit caused the rich to give, caused them to treasure their heavenly inheritance so much that they gave their earthly inheritance away.
The price of free grace is high. But, by God's grace, not too high!
Rev. Clarence Bouwman is the minister of the Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott, Western Australia. He has also been the pastor of churches in Byford, Western Australia, and Chilliwack, B.C. As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. C. Bouwman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service. The source for this sermon is: http://members.iinet.net.au/~jvd/
(c) Copyright 2003, Rev. C. Bouwman