“The Possible Impossibiltiy”

  MESSAGE FOR AUGUST 19, 2007 FROM MARK 10:17-27


          This week we conclude this short series of messages on financial giving in connection with our distribution of Randy Alcorn’s wonderful little book, “The Treasure Principle.”  If you have yet to secure one of these books, please pick up a copy as a gift from us at the Welcome Center.  Lately, we have been looking at Second Corinthians chapter eight and have centered in on Paul’s theme of financial giving that manifests the grace of God.  Last week, we saw two more marks of God’s grace in giving.  As we consider these, they can help us determine whether our giving clearly expresses God’s inexplicable grace, or whether we are giving out of our abundance and therefore require no special grace from God.  We saw that giving that is by God’s grace is an expression of the comprehensive giving of ourselves.  Paul says the Macedonians’ giving was a result of God’s grace because it flowed from a larger, more comprehensive commitment to give themselves. We saw that even though this giving is by grace, Paul calls us to “excel” or exert effort in this grace of giving.    Second, we saw that grace giving is marked by giving that reflects the selflessness of Christ.  Paul points to Christ as the ultimate example of giving from grace.  He says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”  

          We said that the gospel, from a material standpoint has often had a significantly impoverishing impact on faithful saints as it did on Jesus.  We must not be confused at this point.  The Bible clearly teaches that God is generous to those who are generous.  Jesus says in Luke 6:38 says, “give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you."  That truth however does give us license to use the fruit of God’s generosity for piling us treasures for ourselves and for the pleasures of this world.  God’s generosity does not negate the larger Biblical truth that we as God’s people are called to spend and give his money in ways that clearly convey that our treasure is in him and not in the things of this world.  We saw that the New Testament pointedly teaches that our treasure, our inheritance, our riches are in Christ in heaven.  Jesus calls us to live in a manner that reflects that kingdom value system.  This week, we take one final look at another important text on giving. 

          In the story we will be studying this morning, Jesus uses an encounter with a rich man to continue his teaching on the kingdom of God and how it is entered.  Mark tells us of Jesus beginning with verse 17, “And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  18And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.  19You 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.' "  20And he said to him, "Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth."  21And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, "You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."  22Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. 23And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!"  24And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!  25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God."  26And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, "Then who can be saved?"  27Jesus looked at them and said, "With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God." 

          This is one of the so called “hard saying of Jesus.”  It’s all the more difficult for us to hear because most of us would unquestionably be considered wealthy according to Biblical standards.  The person in this story we most closely relate to is not Jesus and the disciples, who had impoverished themselves for the kingdom, but the rich young ruler.  We would be less troubled by this story if this rich young man had been a haughty Pharisee trying to trap Jesus with his question about the kingdom.  The details of the story Mark records for us here won’t let us do that, however. 

He runs up to Jesus, indicating how anxious he was to see him—that’s not at all Pharisaic.  When he gets to him, he gets down on one knee out of reverence for Jesus’ recognized calling as a teacher of the law.  He calls him, “good.”  There is nothing in the story to indicate that this was intended to be anything other than a sincere compliment.  Jesus corrects him on it because he wants to assert that God alone is truly good.  Although Jesus knew he was God and worthy of the description “good,” this man certainly didn’t know that.  This man was in fact being overzealous in voicing his respect for Jesus.  We also know that on a human level, Jesus had a “soft spot” for this man.  It says in verse 21, before he calls him to this radical discipleship commitment he says, “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him…”  Again, although Jesus clearly loved the Pharisees on some level, you will not find this special mention of his love for them as you do here in the story of the rich young ruler.  Jesus’ rebuke of this man was a comparatively tender response when held up against his responses to the Pharisees.

This man has wealth, he’s young and he has authority.  His wealth would have caused the disciples to see him as a person specially blessed by God—clearly bearing the stamp of God’s pleasure.  One reason the apostles are so astonished and amazed at Jesus’ warnings about wealth is because he was turning the conventional wisdom of the day about wealth absolutely on its head.  With their belief system about wealth as a sign of God’s blessing, the message these disciples heard was something like, “those blessed by God will not enter his kingdom.”  We said last week that in the Old Testament material wealth was strongly related to God’s blessing.   

          We know that this man lived a very moral life—claiming to keep several of the commandments.  On a superficial level, that was probably true.  For those of us who have been attending the class on the Ten Commandments on Wednesday nights, we know Jesus quotes the six commandments from the second tablet that are addressed primarily to how we relate to other people.  Jesus could have corrected the young ruler’s claim about law-keeping by explaining the deeper meaning of the law as he does in the Sermon on the Mount.  He could have pointed out that lying implies things like flattery and killing includes hatred for others, but he doesn’t.  Instead, he goes to the heart of all the law and in so doing teaches us an important truth about the accumulation and possession of wealth. 

          Before we get into the central tenet of this teaching, which concerns the relationship of material wealth to our spiritual lives, I want to make two points of clarification.  First, notice how out of step Jesus’ teaching on salvation is with much of modern evangelicalism.  In verse 23 he says, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!"  In verse 24 he says, “"Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!”  This sentiment is not a new one for Jesus.  In Matthew 7:14 he says, “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”  Those statements have had very little impact on much of evangelicalism, which places far too much stress on the initial praying of a salvation prayer.  Jesus is not dismantling salvation by grace with these statements.  He is simply pointing to the reality that people who are born from above, but who must live in this fallen, God-hating world, will encounter much opposition on their way to heaven and they will ultimately only triumph by the miraculous grace of God.

          Jesus is not speaking of salvation as a one time event as we so often hear today.  He is speaking of the process of living out our salvation in a fallen world and that is hard—it’s impossible.  If you are a genuine, born-from-above person, indwelt by the Holy Spirit—this life is a fight.  We are regularly being assailed by powers and principalities in high places and more pertinent to Mark 10, we are regularly confronting the sinful idols within our own hearts to which we must die.  Parting with our idols is death to self and a life filled with death to self is hard—it’s impossible apart from God.  That’s Jesus’ point.

          Another point of clarification involves how to understand verse 25.  Jesus says, “25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God."   Some claim that when Jesus speaks about a camel passing though the eye of a needle, he does not expect us to take him literally.  It has been wrongly taught that the gate a traveler entered at night in Ancient Near Eastern cities was called the “Needle Gate” because it was tall and thin like a needle.  Because it was allegedly a small gate, in order for a loaded camel to pass through it, he must get down on his knees and shuffle through that way.  The alleged application is that Jesus is not saying it’s impossible for rich people to go to heaven, they simply must, like the camel; humble themselves before Jesus with respect to their wealth.  That understanding is rooted in poor scholarship.  There is no record of any “Needle Gate” and the context of the story renders that interpretation invalid anyway.  It’s an attempt to soften a hard saying of Jesus and it badly misses the point.  Another attempt to soften this verse actually made its way into some of the early manuscripts of Mark.  The King James Version wrongly includes this watering down of the truth.  That translation says, “And the disciples were astonished at his words. But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!”  The best ancient manuscripts do not include the phrase “for them that trust in riches.”  This is almost certainly the work of some misguided scribe who thought Jesus couldn’t have possibly intended to say that the mere possession of wealth itself made it difficult to enter the kingdom of God.  In fact, that is precisely what he is saying.

          The main point Jesus is making in this narrative is:  We must live and give in response to the truth that possessing wealth poses unique challenges to an already impossible pursuit of heaven.  In this story, first Jesus relates the impossibility of entering the kingdom directly to the possession of wealth.  How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!"  In the next such statement, he makes a blanket statement to include everyone.  "Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!”  

Jesus is not intending to communicate, “Yes, entering the kingdom of God is difficult for those who have wealth, but then again it’s difficult for everyone—it’s all impossible except for God--so the wealth issue is really irrelevant.”  That would completely neutralize what he says about the relationship between possessing wealth and entering the kingdom.  Although it is true that it requires miracle after miracle of God’s grace to bring a sinner to heaven, we should not allow that truth to soften the impact of Jesus’ application of it to the possession of wealth.  Don’t forget the context. This whole discussion about the difficulty of entering the kingdom was occasioned by this wealthy man’s refusal to sell all he had and give it to the poor.  Jesus then directly relates his wealth to his difficulty in entering the kingdom of God—we mustn’t forget that.

          A valid question in this context is—“why does Jesus, in the first instance relate wealth to the difficulty of entering the kingdom when a moment later, he includes everyone?”  If it’s impossible to enter the kingdom of God, can it be MORE impossible when you have wealth?  No.  Something is either impossible, or its not—it cannot be more impossible.  Jesus’ point is simply this—it is impossible for everyone to enter the kingdom of God—only by grace are we saved—a gift of God.  Being a member of God’s kingdom implies a willingness by God’s grace to leave everything in this world to follow Jesus.  Luke 14:27 says, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”  To be a follower of Christ implies that you are willing to leave every other rival behind including any possession.  We must die to the things that would hold us back from following Jesus.

We also know from several places in Scripture that wealth can stir our idolatrous hearts to love the things of this world more than Jesus.  We see that here in this story of the rich young ruler.  Jesus also says in Matthew 13:22, “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”  Wealth can do that.  It doesn’t have to do that—when Job lost everything including his seven sons and three daughters, the Bible says, “Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped.  21And he said, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." 

          So wealth is not universally corrupting—if you have a heart like Job, if your first impulse is to worship God when you discover you have lost all your children and everything you have worked years to own, I hope you become a billionaire.  However, think about this young man in contrast to Job.  He was doubtless a pious man on several levels and yet, unbeknownst to him, he is a flagrant idolater.  He is totally self-deceived about his spiritual condition.  He thinks he is a righteous, obedient servant of God, when in fact he has lived a life that completely splintered the first commandment, which means he had shattered them all.  Jesus calls him to sell all he has and give it to the poor and then come follow him.  That request exposes this man and shows him and us where his heart had been all along.  He is not the genuinely holy, first century Jew who is hungering after righteousness even though that is who he and doubtless others thought he was.  He was in fact, an idolater who, if he did not repent, went to hell.  When he was confronted with the choice between keeping his treasure on earth and accumulating treasure in heaven, he chose this world.  You cannot serve both God and mammon.”

          Jesus’ point is not to say that the possession of wealth makes it uniquely impossible to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Nothing is uniquely impossible.  As we said, something is either impossible or its not.  The main application to this story for us seems to be:  there are so many things that make entering the kingdom impossible that we have no control over—the opposition from our family and friends, the offense of the gospel itself, opposition from the world and the devil, the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes that daily war against our souls.  All of those and many other enemies of the cross are in our face irrespective of our net worth.  The dirt poor believers in the Sudan by God’s grace must fight against those in order to get to heaven.  But the possession of wealth—another potential stumbling block is a matter of choice.  No matter how much money you have, you can give it away.  No one is forcing us to buy bigger houses and better cars and maintain heftier investment portfolios.  No one is holding a gun to our heads to acquire more and more stuff for us and our families.  We have those because we want them, we can afford them and so we buy them.

          Jesus still speaks to the rich young rulers of our day—those who are pious and sincere--those who reverence the Master and who, like the man in this story may be thoroughly deceived about the state of his/her soul.  He says, “With all the other threats to your soul to keep you out of the kingdom of God, why do you want to keep one more that for so many people including this rich young ruler has proven to be spiritually lethal?”  What good will the gadgets and possessions and acquisitions of this world be to you if you are in hell?  Think about all those pious, rich young ruler types in torment right now who in the eternal anguish of their souls are asking that very question.  O, how could I have been such a fool to sell my soul for pleasures and possessions that lasted a few short years, but which have long since been swallowed up by the tortures of eternal punishment?”

          Does this mean that we shouldn’t earn a lot of money?  Absolutely not!  It simply means that we should be very careful about keeping a lot of money.  Earn millions and millions and give away millions and millions.  Don’t allow the IRS to tell you how much to give.  Be wise, but in the end don’t allow the IRS’ ceiling on tax deductible giving to limit you.  If you choose to give away only what the IRS says is deductible in the name of “good stewardship” but you end up an idolater like the rich young ruler, you’ve been a lousy steward of your most valuable possession—your eternal soul.

          This story reminds us that it is impossible to inherit eternal life—it must ultimately be God’s work, not ours.  It also implies that living in a prosperous country like America presents some additional challenges that others in less prosperous places do not have to contend with. So what do we do in response to this story and other Biblical truths that teach the same lesson?  Let me make some suggestions.  First, if you don’t currently tithe—give a tenth of your income to the Lord; make the adjustments in your budget to do that.  If you have not been doing this, it may take some time to reduce your spending, but the process—but the process is liberating.  Although as we said the Bible teaches that giving that honors God is not ultimately measured in large amounts or percentages, the tithe is a good place to start.  If you are not tithing or working to be able to tithe, then you are probably not serious about making Christ your treasure.  For some of us who have been especially blessed financially, giving a tithe or even several times more than that could still be done without God’s grace if you are giving out of your abundance, but if you are not tithing, that is a good place to start.

          Second, enter into a season of Bible study on this topic.  Read the “Treasure Principle” to help you know pertinent Biblical texts to study.  There is a reason why Jesus talks about money and wealth more than heaven, hell and even prayer.  It’s crucial for the health of our souls and we must know what the Bible’s teaches about it.  Third, prayerfully think about how you can plainly express with your life that God is your treasure by determining how little you can live on while giving the rest away.  That’s clearly an implication from the Macedonians’ grace giving and the widow’s copper coins we saw last week.  Work to increasingly simplify your life—give away a whole lot of your non-essential stuff—the things you don’t use regularly and which you could easily do without.  Start by cleaning out your sheds and garages and drawers and closets.  That stuff is fairly easy to give away and you can know the joy of giving in that. Be prayerful—seek God and the opinion of other believers you trust in this area when you’re in doubt.  Pray through—go to the cross, die to your selfish desires and expect the joy of Jesus, to more than fill the void as you surrender your things to Christ.  When you purchase some new thing, do so prayerfully and try to give something away when you buy something new so that you are not experiencing a net gain in your possessions.

          Ask God to show you what you need and allow that to be the guide for your living instead of what you can afford.  This is so counter cultural—people will think you are a nut if you do this, but we’ve seen how twisted the culture is in the past two weeks on Wall Street.  In view of the trouble in the banking industry because of all the bad mortgages, we don’t anymore live in a culture that says simply—“if you can afford something, it’s ok to buy it.”  That was never Biblical.  Just because we can afford something, doesn’t mean its God’s will for us.  We live in a culture that increasingly says, “It doesn’t matter if you can afford it--if you WANT something, it’s ok to buy it.”  Just buy that big house…with zero money down.  There are some lending institutions that are learning the hard way that that is not even good business, much less Biblical stewardship.  That’s the world we live in and we are foolish if we don’t think we have been influenced by that reckless, spendthrift mentality.  “I want it, I can afford it, I’m gonna get it.”

          As we look at the rich young ruler as a tragic, negative example of how to make God your treasure and the Macedonians of Second Corinthians chapter eight and the poor widow of Mark chapter 12 as joyous positive examples, may God give us the grace to have his heart and mind on our financial giving so that we may know the joy of the Lord now and for all eternity as we live lives that cry out that our treasure is in heaven.

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