This is one of the most difficult passages in Scripture to understand and deal with, especially for those who are wealthy in this life. Possessing material wealth leads to privileges enjoyed in this life which we are loathe to give up for “pie in the sky.” But there is an interesting twist at the end of this account which can help us grapple with the condition that Jesus set before the young rich man for him to inherit eternal life.
Mark 10:17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
This young man apparently had a strong desire to inherit eternal life. He honored Jesus and knelt before him. He believed that Jesus had the answers.
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” 21 Jesus looked at him and loved him.
This young man was likely rare among his peers. He feared God and had kept the commandments Jesus cited since he was a boy. Jesus appreciated this and loved the young man. But there remained one thing he still lacked.
Sell everything you have and give to the poor
“One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
At this point the young rich man withdrew and abandoned his quest for eternal life. He simply could not pay the price that Jesus demanded of him. Perhaps most wealthy people would draw the line here as well. It is certainly understandable. Astonishingly, however, Jesus set similar conditions for whomever was considering following him, not only those with earthly wealth. Look what Jesus said to large crowds of assorted people who were traveling with him.
Luke 14:25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. 27 And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? 29 For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’
…33 In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.
Jesus spoke these words not simply to the wealthy, but to large crowds of all kinds of people, both rich and poor. He did not single out the wealthy and make it more difficult for them to inherit eternal life. Similarly, look what Jesus said to a crowd in Luke’s gospel.
Luke 12:33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
The problem for the wealthy, of course, is that they have so much more to give up. That’s the rub. Humanly speaking, a life of comfort and privilege in the world can certainly be difficult to give up, treasure in heaven or not.
It is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God
Let’s now resume the account of the young rich man who went away sad because he had great wealth.
Mark 10:23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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.”
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
Jesus finally reveals that human beings indeed cannot save themselves, nor can they normally give up everything to follow Jesus Christ as his disciples. But these things are indeed possible with God.
The promise: a harvest even in this life
28 Peter said to him, “We have left everything to follow you!”
29 “I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.
Jesus finally reveals that those who leave everything for him and the gospel will by no means be left poor, destitute, and homeless. No, they will receive back a hundred times as much in this life. If they have given up or left home or field—meaning their possessions, their business or their livelihood—they will receive back on earth one hundred times as much. (Mark’s gospel includes persecutions as well.)
The more they have given up in this life for Jesus and the gospel, they more they will receive back in this life as well. And their eternal reward in the age to come can be commensurate. (For understanding of eternal rewards, please see The Parable of the Shrewd Manager and Is it Right to Focus our Attention on our Heavenly Reward?)
The testimony of a wealthy Australian couple
There is a wealthy Australian couple whose lives have demonstrated the truth of Jesus’ words. For years they have been traveling around the world using their wealth liberally to obey Christ’s commands to help the poor and the destitute. But then came the recent economic crisis in which they lost considerable wealth. Nevertheless, they made the very difficult decision not to decrease their support of the gospel by even a single penny.
What happened next was the hand of God. He miraculously restored their income to far greater levels than before they decided to “give up everything” by continuing to give to the poor at a very generous level.
Our personal testimony
In 1977 I had begun preliminary work on my Ph.D. thesis for my doctoral degree in Experimental Psychology at the University of California. My undergraduate degree was in Physics. A year earlier in 1976 I had come to know Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior at a Billy Graham Crusade in San Diego, California. I had a beautiful wife and the American Dream was laid out alluringly before me. Like the young rich man who came up to Jesus, I had everything going for me humanly speaking.
But Jesus Christ called me to follow him as his disciple. In obedience to His word, we gave up everything, including the American Dream. In 1978, two years after I accepted Jesus Christ, my wife and I left our lives and worldly possessions in beautiful Southern California to follow him to the ends of the earth. By faith, without financial support from any church or a mission board to send us, we made our way to the jungles of Indonesian Borneo where we preached the gospel to those who had never heard. The Lord was most gracious to us, using us over nine years to make disciples and plant churches in unreached areas dominated by witchcraft, idolatry, and Isl–m. Our testimony, Dancing on the Edge of the Earth, is available for downloading from the internet.
It is now the year 2010, thirty-two years since we left everything in America to follow Jesus Christ by taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. He is now beginning to fulfill to us his promise of a “hundred times as much in this present age” what we left to follow him at that time. In his own way he has provided wonderfully for our earthly needs. He has taken us to six continents of the world to train his servants. What will we do with the harvest of the “hundred times” in this life? No, we will refuse to raise our standard of living. Instead, we will store it in heaven by using it to equip more of God’s servants around the world to fulfill the Great Commission. In this way, we will use it to maximize our eternal reward in the age to come.
What do we learn from this?
The more you have in order to give up for the Lord and the gospel, the more you will receive back from him. But, as Jesus taught, you must first count the cost of following him. If you have genuine faith in God and you truly trust him—and admittedly this will stretch you painfully—you will give up everything. Following Jesus in this way can be downright scary. But He is faithful to keep his word to you. He will reward you.
You will reap a harvest of a “hundred times” in this life what you have given up. What will you do with it? As a faithful disciple of Jesus you will again store it in heaven to reap an even greater harvest for yourself in the age to come.
Those who are rich in this life therefore have great opportunities for repeated investment set before them. Like the wealthy Australian couple in the testimony above, they can re-invest their wealth in heaven. In this way they will eventually reap a great harvest for themselves in the age to come. They will hear the Lord say to them: ”Well done, my good servant! Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.”
Perhaps there are few among the wealthy who will be able to do this. As Jesus told his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” But there will be some rich people who will be able to do the impossible with God.
This, then, is the true prosperity gospel.