The Question of Eternal Life (Mark 10:13-31)Brian Morgan, 07/11/1999
Part of the Mark series, preached at a Sunday Morning service
Available Sermon Files:
THE QUESTION OF ETERNAL LIFE
Catalog No. 1129
July 11th, 1999
In the tenth chapter of the gospel of Mark, Jesus is teaching on the "way" of the kingdom of God. Miraculously, the eyes of the disciples have been opened to see that Jesus is the Messiah, but they have no idea as to what the way of the Messiah entails.
Modern-day Christians are often equally as blind. That is why this teaching that we will look at this morning is essential to discipleship. It is not an elective; it is basic to the foundation of the kingdom. When different parties disagreed over this issue, which they did vehemently, Jesus was anything but cordial in his response. These are not religious niceties. Jesus would not tolerate different points of view in the things that mattered. This is extremely helpful material for Christians to know where we must stand firm and refuse to compromise. In some issues we are given latitude, but others hold the very fabric of the kingdom together. If we attempt to pull out these threads, the whole fabric will unravel.
In our last study, Jesus was tested on his view of divorce. His answer left both enemies and disciples astonished. Having just finished his discourse on the sanctity of marriage, and God's commitment to a new creation, a number of parents now bring their children to Jesus, hoping that he might lay his hands on them. The result is that the children become essential teaching aids on the topic of eternal life and how we must enter into it.
I. Easy Access to the King (10:13-16)
And they began bringing children to Him so that He might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to them, "Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all." And He took them in His arms and began blessing them, laying His hands upon them. (NASB)
Picture the Messiah here, taking his first steps toward his destiny in Jerusalem. Breaking in on that scene of sacred pilgrimage now come a number of parents, their toddlers in tow, seeking his blessing for them. The disciples, eager to protect Jesus' pilgrimage from a children's invasion, respond like holy policemen: they voice a harsh rebuke for the whole operation. (Mark is ambiguous as to whether they rebuked the children or the parents who brought them.) The spontaneous parade is shut down, and Jesus' dignity is preserved. But to their surprise, Jesus becomes indignant, and he directly confronts and rebukes the traffic police. Jesus seldom displayed impatience or anger, but when something threatened the very fabric of the kingdom, he inserted himself with forceful emotion. In fact, the Greek term for indignation, eganaktesen, is so strong it is omitted by both Matthew and Luke. This indicates that the stakes are high, and that what follows should command our attention.
Not only does Jesus want the children to come to him, he even assigns God's kingdom to them, saying, "for the kingdom belongs to such as these." The clear intimation is, don't shuffle the children offstage to make way for the VIP class. There are two reasons for this. Children are not second class citizens. They are full recipients of the kingdom, and they are at the very center of God's rule. This is why I allow children to partake in communion, even before they are old enough to be baptized. Secondly, children play a significant role for the rest of us. Keeping children in our midst serves as a constant reminder of how one receives the kingdom. In fact, this is the sixth occasion1 in the gospel of Mark where children receive immediate access to Jesus, and get his full attention. They are given as examples to teach us about the kingdom of God. Children never bend to propriety or protocol when they approach someone whose attention they want to gain. They come empty handed, claiming life as a gift. How often has a child shattered the stuffy air of pomp and circumstance when properly inserted into a formal affair! Such delightful occurrences reduce us to our most basic human selves.
Keeping children in our midst serves to remind us that we humbly receive the kingdom of God as a gift, by faith. This is the sole entrance to the kingdom. In fact, David says that this is how he first learned to trust2 God--while nursing at his mother's breast (Ps 22:9). Children remind us that it is the weak and the poor, those "such as these," that are most likely to have such faith; thus we need to keep them at the center of our communities.
So, don't shut the children out. Be thankful for them, for they are central to life. Healthy communities welcome, integrate and rejoice in children. I sometimes wonder what possesses real estate developers to plan retirement communities and describe them as "paradise," when children are barred from them. Such environments often become cold and sterile, because they are bereft of life. Do not plan for a retirement separated from children. My wish for you is, may your tribe increase! I would exhort singles to attach themselves to a ministry or family that has children. It is vital for discipleship.
Jesus seals his rebuke by modeling the right response to children: He takes them in his arms and hugs them "and thereby dramatizes his approval" (Gundry, 545). Then he lays his hands on them, giving each one a blessing, yoking them to the God of Israel--a dramatic way to say that little ones have full status in the kingdom of God. So, let the children come. Stop hindering them.
The text now moves from children who, although coming empty handed, have immediate access to Jesus, to a young man who finds troubling barriers in his approach to the Lord.
II. Access Denied (10:17-31)
A. All Things Good (10:17-19)
And as He was setting out on the way, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and began asking Him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" (10:17)
In contrast to the children, the one who now enters the scene approaches Jesus in what we would call a politically correct way. This one is eager, so he runs; he is humble, so he bows; he is respectful, granting Jesus the highest accolade of "Good Teacher"; and he asks the right question: "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?"
It is important to understand that to the Jews, eternal life did not mean living forever after passing from this world. Rather, as Tom Wright suggests, it meant, "What must I do to have a share in the age to come, to be among those who are vindicated when YHWH acts decisively and becomes king?" All Jews were awaiting the coming of YHWH to end Israel's exile, bring vindication over her enemies and establish God's rule worldwide. That was when the age to come would be born. The question was, who would have a share in that age?
Jesus responds to the man:
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.'" (10:18-19)
Before directing the man back to the normal Jewish starting place, i.e., the ten commandments, Jesus confronts him with the blunt enquiry, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone." The question had set the tone for his answer, which backs the man into a corner. Now he will be forced to rethink everything about his life, the commandments, God and the Messiah. This one, who before this meeting had his life neatly arranged, is about to have it all unravel before his eyes. With that question probing his heart, Jesus quotes six of the ten commandments, all of which address the man's responsibility to his neighbor, to preserve his life, home, possessions and reputation--commandments he well knows.
B. One Thing Lacking (10:20-22)
And he said to Him, "Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up." (10:20)
The man appears relieved with Jesus' answer. Carefully removing the word "good" from his address, he confesses that he has kept all these commands since his youth. Like the student who has just "aced" an exam, he awaits his grade with confidence.
And looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him, and said to him, "One thing you lack go and sell all you possess, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." But at these words his face fell, and he went away grieved, for he was one who owned much property. (10:21-22)
Having heard his confident answer, Jesus looks at him with a penetrating gaze that bores deep into his soul. While we might be turned off by the man's quick reply and naive confidence, Jesus is not. He loves him deeply, and wants him for a disciple. But before he can be a disciple, he has to know the truth about himself: he is an absolute failure! Jesus explains that he lacks just one thing, yet that one thing is everything: "Sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven."
Jesus identifies his one weakness. He was a man of means, but sadly, his money had stolen away his affections from God. The man was guilty of violating the second commandment; other gods had replaced his love for YHWH. And though he might have had an upright reputation in the community and synagogue, at heart he was an idolater. In order to deal with that idolatry and have a share in the age to come, Jesus tells him to sell everything and give it to the poor, and then, "come follow Me." How different is Jesus' answer from that which we hear from modern day preachers. "Give to the church," they cry. Then, unfortunately, no one disciples the "rich." Whatever happened to discipleship? This was a radical invitation to discipleship, the identical one that was given to the twelve. And notice that it demanded the same loyalty to Jesus that the Law gave to God in the first commandment: "You shall have no other gods in preference to me" (Deut 5:7).
But rather than brightening the man's face and enlivening his heart, this invitation causes his face to fall and his heart to grieve. It is only after his response that we learn from Mark that he was a man of means. Instead of heeding the call, like Peter, Andrew, James, John and Matthew, this young man went away grieved, bound up by his many possessions which possessed him.
As radical as this demand to "sell all" sounds to us, it would have had an even sharper edge to Jews, due to its profound theological implications. Tom Wright explains:
For most people in the ancient world the most basic possession was land; for Jews, the land was of course the holy land, promised by YHWH to his people. It was because of the Roman registration of the holy land that Judas the Galilean had started his revolution in AD 6. Just as Israel had "inherited" the land in the first place, land would be the most basic inheritance that a father could leave to his children.3
No one parted with ancestral land in Israel. Even when property rights were lost through incurred debt, in the Year of Jubilee they reverted back to the original heirs. Maintaining land meant securing their rights to their inheritance and continuity as the people of God. Now, just when Israel has returned to their land after exile, Jesus tells this young man to sell his share and follow him. This would not be possible were it not for the fact that Jesus was indeed creating a "new land," of which the original "holy land" was a mere shadow. And this new, heavenly land would fill the whole creation in the age to come.4
III. Breaking the Barriers (10:23-31)
A. The Impossibility of Access (10:23-25)
And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, "How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!" And the disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, "Children, how hard 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 man to enter the kingdom of God."
The man came running to Jesus seeking eternal life, but he cannot pay the price, so he departs. As a cloud of sadness settles on the scene, Jesus turns to his disciples and says that the man was not an isolated case; he represented all who are wealthy. It was extremely difficult for people of means to enter the kingdom of God. This statement shocked the disciples. Most Jews assumed from the teaching of Deuteronomy and many of the Psalms that wealth was a symbol of God's blessing--and if anyone had a share in the age to come, it was the wealthy. "The real question was, who else? But Jesus was saying that the rich were not only not automatically in the covenant, but most likely outside it" (Tom Wright).
Seeing the amazement of the disciples, Jesus draws out a metaphor that pushes the boundaries even further. Addressing them with the affectionate, children,5 he draws them into the imaginative world of impossibility:
"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
For his metaphor, Jesus chooses a camel, whose height, awkward gait and heavy burden were a source of humor, even as it tried to negotiate the narrow openings around Jerusalem. Now, by means of hyperbole, consider that same camel passing through the eye of a needle.6 Jesus has made his point. What is impossible for the camel is more than impossible for the rich.
B. The Miracle of Access (10:26-27)
And they were even more astonished and said to Him, "Then who can be saved?" Looking upon them, Jesus said, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God."
Now the disciples are even more astonished. If this is true, "Then who can be saved?" they ask. "If a pious person whose wealth is a sign of God's favor will not be saved, then what hope of deliverance from hellfire does someone without that sign have?"7
For a third time in our text (vv 21, 23, 27) Jesus casts his gaze upon his students and announces that with men it is impossible, but not with God. God can do all things. Reflecting on this image of the camel and all things being possible, C. S. Lewis penned these lines:
All things are possible, it's true.
But picture how the camel feels, squeezed out
In one bloody thread from tail to snout.
Yes, for God all things are possible. God can take a rich, self-assured, proud individual and cause him to have the faith of a child. God can take the rich, who are obsessed with stock options, public offerings and venture capital, and make them live with abandon because of their love for little ones.
As the disciples see Jesus' eyes fixed upon them and hear his amazing words, the light begins to dawn on them. God had already worked that very miracle on their hearts. Peter and Andrew had left their fishing nets to follow Jesus. James and John had left their father and the family business. Matthew had walked away from his profitable tax collector's booth. They had given up families, children, careers, landholdings, reputations--all to follow Jesus.
As Peter's illumined heart becomes aware of the mystery, he blurts out his sense of excitement as only he can do.
IV. Inheriting True Riches (10:28-31)
A. Entering In
Peter began to say to Him, "Behold, we have left everything and followed You." (10:28)
Yes, these twelve had left everything to follow Jesus, and Peter is rather enthusiastic about that. Can they therefore confidently expect to receive their share of eternal life in the age to come? Upon hearing Peter's enthusiasm, Jesus further clarifies their understanding of eternal life and the age to come.
B. Experiencing the Future Now
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 farms, for My sake and for the gospel's sake, but that he shall receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life." (10:29-30)
Jesus carefully points out that they won't have to wait until they die to enjoy their inheritance. The future is invading the "now" present. So whatever they left to follow him they shall receive back, not when they get to heaven, but now, and not just in full measure, but exponentially more--a hundred times more!8 Notice two things here. First, to experience eternal life there must be a leaving of every blood relationship, with the exception of marriage,9 for the sake of the kingdom. (Paul says that Peter took his wife along on his apostolic journeys, 1 Cor 9:5). This indicates that all our family relationships are but temporary places of nurture.
Secondly, notice what drives the process of entering into eternal life. Ironically, it is persecution: fleeing your pursuers. Following Jesus meant that the disciples might have to live like David, who spent his early years in a wilderness escaping the demon-tipped spear of King Saul. But even if they have to "flee from their pursuers to as many as a hundred different places, they will find [refuge] through the hospitality of fellow believers."10 So, eternal life is experienced in a new community, one that is bonded in love, through hospitality.
I cannot over-emphasize how important hospitality is to the kingdom of God. I experienced the sweetest joys of eternal life when I was forced to flee persecutors in a foreign country and became totally dependent on the hospitality of Christians. The holy love outweighed the danger, forging lifetime relationships in the process.
So Jesus says we don't have to wait to experience eternal life; it is mysteriously invading the present, until it culminates on that great day. And the greater the pain, the greater the life.
To this good news, Jesus adds one final word.
C. Remaining Faithful
"But many who are first, will be last; and the last, first." (10:31)
Here is a warning to Peter and the others to not become complacent. The final judgment will be filled with many surprises. Don't assume that those who start well will finish well. As Cranfield states: "One who is at present a refuser may in the future by God's mercy accept the call and even in the age to come be preferred to them, while their having left all is not in itself a guarantee that they will continue to remain faithful. (Judas was one of the twelve, Paul was not.)"11
As I get older, I find these last words of Jesus especially probing. I began the Christian life well. I forsook possible riches for poverty, faced painful rejection, endured hardship, and lost children. Yet my wife Emily and I have found the words of Christ to be absolutely true. In the years since we have been showered with eternal life. Everything we lost has been returned a hundredfold. A great many homes are the sweetest places of refuge for us, foreign cities a happy home, and fields of corn a sanctuary. I have lost children but now possess a nation of children. Never having had brothers, I now possess scores of brothers who are as dear to me as David's one Jonathan.
Now I am comfortable, having been well established in the same church for 25 years. I have a wonderful family: a wife to die for, three daughters who give me infinite joy, a godly son-in-law, a granddaughter, and a home I love. Yet, I find this text probing me. Am I willing to let go of my children, to allow God to mature them his way, not my way? Will I rejoice if God calls them to serve somewhere else, or to embrace poverty like I did? Am I available if God calls me to leave PBCC after 25 years to serve in another city, state, or country? I must confess that would be hard for me.
My spiritual father, David Roper, serves as a fine model for me. After serving faithfully as a pastor in two churches, he had the opportunity to retire. Many in his position might choose to homestead their wealth and play golf, or at the minimum seek fame on the conference circuit. Instead, David embraced poverty and started over again. He and his wife began a new ministry, serving unknown pastors in the back roads of Idaho. When from a distance I watch David and Carolyn caring for these "little people," I see a couple swimming in a sea of eternal life, as young in spirit as the day I met them. So pray for me, because when I grow up, I want to be like David.
2. The Hebrew word "trust" (batach) means to be "stretched out", "taut" like a bow, to "rely on"; in relation to God it means to give God one's full weight. There is no better image of this than that of a nursing infant lying totally limp on its mother's breast (Ps 22:9).
5. Robert Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 556, says that this "implies that in his amplification Jesus takes the authoritative role of a father to explain something which his disciples, childish in their failure to understand, have not grasped." It also links this text with the previous one regarding the importance of children and the necessity for the humility of faith.
6. C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel according to St Mark (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959), 332, remarks, "Procrustean attempts to reduce the camel to a rope (reading kamilon for kamelon) or to enlarge the needle's eye into a postern gate need not be taken seriously."
8. Gundry, Mark, 558, suggests that "the order of the list reflects increasing value in a rural society: brothers being of least value to a man because they compete for the family inheritance; sisters of more value because they can be married off for a profit...; the mother of even greater value because of her labors on behalf of the family; the father of truly great value, because from him comes the inheritance; and farms of most value because they constitute the land that makes possible the family's existence from one generation to the next."
© 1999 Peninsula Bible Church Cupertino