Remember the Rich Young Man

A Message to Graduates

Bethlehem Baptist Church Baccalaureate Service


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

What I’m doing in these few minutes is what was done to me 38 years ago this month in Pasadena, California. One of my professors from Fuller Seminary stood up. We had about two hundred graduates, and he gave us all a dollar bill and he preached a sermon. I’m going to preach my own version of it.

And my point is going to be this: remember the rich young man. It’s all I want you to remember. I don’t care if you remember anything else I say. Just those words. Remember the rich young man. That’s all I want you to remember.

And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 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.” 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, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 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.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 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.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:16–26)

He was a young man, so it’s relevant for you. He came seeking eternal life. There isn’t anything more important for you to have than eternal life because you could be killed tonight. You could die tonight. What will become of you if you die tonight? Nothing is more important than eternal life for you now, while you’re young.

Life Through the Law?

He sought eternal life through works of the law

And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16)

He’s thinking the way to have eternal life is keeping the law. Jesus responds by directing him back to the law. “You want to go with the law? Let’s go with the law.”

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, Honor your father and mother.” (Matthew 19:18–19)

And then instead of finishing the list and adding all the others, he simply gave the one that sums them all up. He said,

You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

“There isn’t anything more important for you to have than eternal life because you could be killed tonight.”

The ruler didn’t get it. He said in verse 20: “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Something’s troubling this guy, because he came asking, How can I have eternal life? Which one do I have to do to have eternal life? And now he says he has kept those. Now Jesus is done dealing with this list business and here’s where Jesus goes.

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.” (Matthew 19:21)

Now, the key command there is: “Follow me.” You want to be perfect? There is one way for sinners to be perfect. Follow me. I think the picture in Jesus’s mind that the ruler’s got his money in his hand. He got his money in his hand and he’s holding on extremely tight. But Jesus is supposed to be in this hand, as his supreme treasures. And Jesus says, “Okay, you want to be perfect? You got to follow me and in order to follow me, have me you have to drop that money. And where it falls is on the poor. Just don’t let it fall on the ground. Divest onto the poor. Now your hand is free. Take me. The young man would not let go of his dollar.

When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19:22)

You’re supposed to have Jesus in your hand. You’re supposed to have Jesus as your treasure and Jesus says, “I will take you. I will be yours. Just let it go and have me.” He wouldn’t do it. He walked away from Jesus and he walked into what? To the rewards of money. He wants his money and what this can get. This can get a lot. It especially gets power, ego, pleasures, cool things, better things than others have. Good feelings come from this and that’s what he chose. He chose it. Just walked away from Jesus.

Salvation by Faith

You face a massive life choice. Most of you at this point have been governed in your lifestyle pretty much by your parents. Not entirely, but pretty much. And now probably pretty soon, you’re going to be calling all the shots. Jesus said when the man walked away, here’s what he said.

Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 19:23)

Why is it so hard to enter the kingdom of heaven or to enter life if you’re rich? Why is it so hard? I mean, isn’t salvation by faith? Salvation is by faith. Entering the kingdom is by faith, not divesting or having. Faith.

So, what’s the deal? Why can’t a rich man just do faith? And the reason is that faith is not just trusting Jesus as your Savior. How much rich people would love to paste a savior on their bank account and nothing changes. No lifestyle changes, no spending changes, no nothing. But I got a savior. Home free in my back pocket. Fire escape.

More Than a Savior

Who wouldn’t want that? That’s easy. Evidently that’s not what’s going on here because Jesus said it’s hard. And the reason it’s hard is because that’s not what faith is. Is it? No, it isn’t. Faith in Jesus is more than accepting him as Savior.

Trusting Jesus meanings seeing him as Treasure, Lord, Counselor, alternative to money. This is our treasure. Now he’s our treasure. That was the issue. Faith is faith in him as what? I hope you’ve been picking that up over the last eighteen years, if you’ve been around, that here at Bethlehem, we talk a lot about “treasuring Christ” and it’s a code name for believe.

It’s not like an addition, as in we got saved by faith and faith is some kind of other thing that lets you just live like the devil. And then there’s this added big thing that serious people get, which is “treasuring Christ.” That’s not what we’ve been teaching. Treasuring Christ is faith because faith is trusting him as infinitely valuable.

And so if you’ve got a lot of money, and you’re holding onto it and it’s supplying so many needs and it’s supplying so many comforts and so much ego affirmation, then how are you going to open your hand? It’s just harder. It’s harder. That’s why God is in the business of knocking props out from under us. We complain when life goes bad. Bad Times are not the problem. Good times are the problem. Money is the problem. And the more we have, the bigger the problem. So, that’s why it’s hard.

Impossible Journey

Well, Jesus made it worse. Didn’t he? He didn’t stop there. He didn’t say it was hard. He said it was impossible.

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.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” (Matthew 19:24–25)

This was a theological paradigm shift. They were astonished.

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

It’s amazing how many people will try to get a camel through a needle’s eye. This isn’t about a purported gate that camels could fit through if they got on their knees. That’s just a myth. It’s impossible for a camel to get through a needle’s eye. That’s the point. He uses the word impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Why? Because it’s impossible for everybody to enter the kingdom of heaven. That’s why.

For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. (Romans 8:17)

That’s another word for impossible — cannot please God. You can’t make yourself enjoy what you don’t enjoy. You high school graduates know this to the core of your being. You can’t make yourself enjoy what you don’t enjoy. Church, God, Bible reading, prayer, classical music, whatever. You can’t.

“Treasuring Christ is faith because faith is trusting him as infinitely valuable.”

Now we’re back to the way that the rich young ruler understands reality. You can do what you don’t like to do. You have a few more weeks of that maybe, and then it’s your shot. It’s your call. You can do what you don’t like to do, but you can’t like what you don’t like. You can’t believe what you don’t believe. You can’t believe something is true if you think it’s not true. Believing is not an act of willpower. “I think this is really false, but I will now believe it.” That’s totally impossible.

Believing is not like that. Believing is seeing something that is true and putting your faith in it. If you see it is false, you can’t believe it. You can’t. Impossible! You can’t see anything as beautiful if you think it’s ugly. You can’t. Your will can control your actions, but your will does not control your will. A loving heart can produce loving deeds, but an unloving heart cannot produce a loving heart. You love this. You can’t love that. You hold to this. You can’t hold to that. That’s what he’s saying. This is an impossibility.

New Birth Is Necessary

And the answer of course, as you know, if you’re at Bethlehem, is Jesus said, “You must be born again.” The wind blows where it wills. One night, church is boring. Christians are boring. Pornography is compelling. Money is really attractive. And in the morning, I’m trembling with fear of hell and Jesus is looking sweet and everything about him is changed. It’s called the new birth. What happened to the rich young man?

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:9–10)

The rich young ruler committed suicide. That’s what he did. He prospered his whole life long with material wealth and left Jesus and perished. So remember the rich young man and don’t desire to be rich.

Wartime Living

What’s the alternative? How should you feel about money? What if riches come? Probably most of you are bright enough that you’re going to make a lot of money. Remembering the rich young man, resolve: “I will live a wartime lifestyle and give away the rest.” You got it? “I will live a wartime lifestyle. And give away the rest.”

We’re not into rules at Bethlehem about what kind of car you can drive, how many of this you can own and that, but I’m pushing people the other direction than where most are going. Because the world is pushing you that way 24/7, and my voice is very small, saying, “Come on! Reel this thing in, parents.” Here’s what I mean by wartime lifestyle. Ralph Winter described visiting the Queen Mary, which is parked in Long Beach, California and is a museum today.

During World War II it was conscripted and was turned into a troop carrier. So, they have it set up today with half as a luxury liner and half as a troop carrier so that you can see the difference between a wartime use of a boat and a luxurious use of a boat. And I’ll read you the description.

The Queen Mary, lying in repose in the harbor at Long Beach, California is a fascinating museum. In the past, used both as a luxury liner in peacetime and a troop transport during World War II. It’s present status is a museum. The length of three football fields affords us stunning contrast between the lifestyle appropriate for peace and war.

On one side of a partition you see a dining room reconstructed to depict peacetime table settings that were appropriate to the wealthy patrons of high culture for whom a dazzling array of knives and forks and spoons held no mysteries.

On the other side of the partition, the evidences of wartime austerities are in sharp contrast. One metal tray with indentations split replaces fifteen plates and saucers. Bunks not just double, but eight tiers high explain why the peacetime compliment of three thousand gave way to fifteen thousand soldiers on board in wartime.

How repugnant to the peace time masters this transformation must have been. To do it took a national emergency. Of course, the survival of the nation depended on it. The essence of the Great Commission today is that the survival of millions of people depends on its fulfillment. I’ll tell you, young people, there are countless joys in letting money flow through your hands.

Overwhelming Opulence

I flew in at five o’clock today from Raleigh, North Carolina. I always do my little culture study on the plane. I hate these magazines and I look at them to get myself really mad. I’ll read you this one. Here’s what money does, and here’s the way people draw you in, away from a wartime lifestyle to a luxurious lifestyle. Always moving up, up, up more cars, more houses, more stuff, more and more and more, better, better, better. Watching the Joneses on either side. This is right out of a magazine on the airplane.

His suits are custom tailored. His watch is solid gold. His office chair is a Laz-E-Boy.

Below the man’s picture was this quote:

I’ve worked hard and had my share of luck. My business is a success. I wanted my office to reflect this and I think it does. For my chair, I choose Laz-E-Boy. It fits the image I wanted. If you can’t say this about your office chair, isn’t it about time you sat in a Laz-E-Boy? After all, haven’t you been without one long enough?

What is that? That is sheer ego. It says, “You have made it, man. You’re pulling down $200,000, $300,000, and your office looks like you make $90,000. Come on. Upgrade! Mahogany. Laz-E-Boy. Big gold watch. New car. Show it!” That’s what drives this country and too many Christians and I’m saying go the other direction! Make $300,000! Amen, praise God! And then live on $60–70,000. What you can do with the rest.

“The leprosy that clings to you when you are in love with money is deadly.”

My books pull down hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in royalties. I saw that coming twenty years ago. What did we do? I don’t take a dime of royalties. I am scared stiff of getting rich. Do you know what that would do to us on the staff if all of us started pulling in all of our honorariums and all of our royalties and we’d built bigger houses, moved to nicer suburbs, drove nicer cars, and you know what the world would say? “That’s their God. Of course, they have church. Look what it gets them.”

Got to go the other direction. I’m pleading with you. Go the other direction so that people wonder: “What’s your treasure if it’s not what mine is?” And then you can tell them, “His name is Jesus.”

This same magazine also has a $2,190 pair of shoes. That’s just a pair of shoes. God, save the church from imitating America. And save America.

The Leprosy of Greed

I close with pointing you to another rich young man in the Old Testament and just tell the story briefly and then somebody you can admire. Do you remember the story of Gehazi? Do you remember the story of Elisha and Naaman in 2 Kings 5? He’s got leprosy. The girl says, “Go to Elisha and he’ll heal you.”

So, this strong, big military figure goes from Syria to Israel and approaches Elisha and says, “There’s a girl that says you might be able to help me.” And Elisha says, “Go dip yourself in the Jordan seven times and you’ll be all right.” And this guy is furious. “Dip myself in the Jordan seven times? Elisha’s supposed to do something significant. I’m a big shot.” And he leaves and his sidekick is like, “He just said, dip in a river. Come on. It can’t hurt if you go down and dip in the river.”

And he goes, and he dips in the river seven times and he come up and skin is like a baby’s skin. It’s beautiful. He’s totally well. He’s so thrilled, he goes back, he falls on his face. He’s lost all of his pride. Grace has humbled him. He didn’t just lose leprosy. He lost pride. He lost false religion, and he said, “I’m going to serve the living God. What can I give you? I have brought two talents of silver.” Now a talent is a lot. They’re big and heavy. Elisha says, “Take your money. I don’t want anything from you. I don’t do this kind of thing for money. I don’t pedal God. So, love your healing and be gone.”

Now, Gehazi’s listening to this. He’s the servant of Elijah. He’s listening. He just offered you lot of money. It’s not wrong. You know, the workman is worthy of his wages and so on. And so he follows him as he leaves and he lies through his teeth. And he says, “Two servants just arrived from a far country, and my master told me to come after you and ask for two sets of clothing and some money.” And Naaman says, “Oh yes, yes!” And he gives them two talents of silver. This is thousands and thousands of dollars and lots of clothes and Gehazi takes them and goes and hides them, then goes back to Elisha.

Now, this is really stupid. Elisha is a prophet. He stands and Elisha says, “Where did you go?” “I didn’t go anywhere.” Stealing leads to lying. Greed leads to other sins. And he said, “I didn’t go anywhere.” And Elisha says, “Yes you did.” Let me read you the last phrases here of this text.

“Did not my heart go when the man turned from his chariot to meet you? Was it a time to accept money and garments, olive orchards and vineyards, sheep and oxen, male servants and female servants? Therefore the leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you and to your descendants forever.” So he went out from his presence a leper, like snow. (2 Kings 5:26–27)

Graduates, remember the rich young man. The leprosy that clings to you when you are in love with money is deadly. It looked beautiful to the world. Oh, look at those beautiful sores.

Remember True Riches

I want to give you somebody you can admire. You can’t pronounce his name, but you can admire him. His name is Mephibosheth. Mephibosheth was lame in his legs. Ziba was his master. David was king and David was driven out of the city by Absalom, remember. Ziba followed David and abandoned the crippled Mephibosheth, who loved David with all of his heart. It’s the picture of us loving Jesus. He loved David and Ziba follows him and David says, “Ziba, where’s Mephibosheth?” And he said, “He wouldn’t come because he abandoned us to Absalom’s side.

“I have Jesus. He won’t ever leave me or forsake me. I don’t need this payoff here.”

He’s lying through his teeth to describe a man and David said, “You will get his inheritance.” So he gave, through the lie, Ziba the inheritance. Absalom is killed — a tragic story in itself. David comes back to the city, meets Mephibosheth. Mephibosheth hasn’t washed or shaved the whole time he’s gone. He looks at him and says, “Why didn’t you go with me?” “He lied about me. He abandoned me. I couldn’t. I’m crippled. I love you.” And David didn’t know what to believe.

What could he do? He’s got to run a kingdom. He can’t pause to do some research here. And so he says, “I’ve decided what to do. Ziba gets half, you get half. And here is what Mephibosheth said.

And Mephibosheth said to the king, “Oh, let him take it all, since my lord the king has come safely home.”

That’s what I want for you graduates so much. Somebody comes along and says, “You can have this! You can have this!” And you say, “I’ve got Jesus! He’s coming to me every day. He won’t ever leave me or forsake me. I don’t need this payoff here.”

Remember the rich young man. Laminate the dollar bill I gave you to remind you of Gehazi. Be like Mephibosheth.