If you were to die tonight, how certain are you that you would get to heaven? And what do you think you need to do to get there? That's the question that's posed in our passage today.
I couldn't find data for the UK, but a poll in the US found that Americans are pretty confident when it comes to heaven. For every one American who thinks they're going to hell, there are 120 who think they're going to heaven!
But that American optimism contrasts sharply with what Jesus said. He said this:
"Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way that leads to life [i.e. eternal life – heaven], and those who find it are few." Matthew 7.14
That should make us stop and think. And it should make us listen up, when we hear, someone coming up to Jesus and asking him the question, 'so what do I need to do to go to heaven?'
Jesus tells us that there is a heaven. We're told that nobody has ever seen or even imagined how amazing it is. The Bible pictures it in various ways. It's described as an amazing banquet. True riches that continue forever. A place, where there's no suffering, no sickness, no sadness, no death and separation. And the best thing; friendship with God, seeing him face to face and enjoying his presence for eternity.
And so, the big question is, what do we need to do to get there? It's got to be one of the most important questions we can ask.
So let's pray before we look at how Jesus answers it.
Father God, thank you that your word is living and active. Please speak to each one of us through it today. We pray that it wouldn't just go in one ear and out the other. But that you shape us and change us by your Spirit to be more like you. In Jesus name, Amen
In our passage today, we meet a rich, young ruler. Probably some sort of local official. He's done well for himself. He's successful in his career. He's got plenty of money. We see later on in the passage that he thinks he's generally a pretty good person. And so he comes up to Jesus and asks him the question that is on his mind. Look at Luke 18.18:
"Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Or 'how do I get to heaven?' It seems like a genuine question. He's not just testing Jesus with it like the Pharisees earlier in Luke. He seems to respect Jesus. But, he does seem to come with a certain amount of pride, as if he's saying 'are there two or three more things that I need to do? You see, I've always been able to pay my way in life - name the price and I'll do it.'
This guy thinks he can make it. But there's also some uncertainty too, isn't there (from the fact he asks the question)? Which isn't a surprise – because, if we're relying on ourselves to get to heaven, then we can never be certain we'll make it.
And so, whilst Jesus answers very graciously, he actually goes on to show the ruler that he has a completely wrong view of himself, and of God and of how to get to heaven. Jesus replies with three things. He says 1. Only God is Good. 2. Only God Can Do the Impossible. 3. Only Those Who See That It's Worth Everything Have Really Understood. We're going to look at each of those in turn.
1. Only God is Good
So let's dive into the story. When Jesus replies, he doesn't even let the man get away with the first word of his question does he? The rich ruler says "good teacher", and Jesus says "Why do you call me good?" Jesus isn't saying that he himself isn't good. He's saying 'don't elevate a man, which is what you see me as, higher than you should'. No man (or woman), is truly good. Only God can truly be described as good! No man can claim that.
You see, Jesus has seen straight into this man's heart. And he sees that, deep down, like most of us probably, this man has the wrong understanding of what it means to be 'good'. So when Jesus asks him why do you call me good, he is trying to challenge his understanding of 'being good'
But the man doesn't get it. And so Jesus tests him to show where his heart really is. Have a look how Jesus continues in Luke 18.20:
"You know the commandments: 'Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour your father and mother.'"
And the rich ruler replies, 'yeah, yeah I know them.' "All these I have kept from my youth". I guess it's how a lot of us would reply. I'm one of the good guys. I don't spend my day going around murdering, stealing, committing adultery! I'm a good person. But tragically the rich ruler had totally missed the whole point. He thought he'd kept the commandments. But really, he'd missed the heart of what they were about. In the reading we heard earlier, Deuteronomy 6.1-9 the commandments are summed up as:
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." Deuteronomy 6.5
What are the first two commandments, which Jesus seems to have purposefully not mentioned? "You shall have no other Gods before me (Exodus 20.3)" and "You shall not serve idols (Exodus 20.4)". But there was one thing this man loved more than God. Jesus knows his heart and he goes straight after it. Look at Luke 18.22:
"…One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."
Jesus puts his finger on the man's problem. He had made an idol of money and possessions. He loves them more than he loves God. He worships them in a sense. And so we read next that "when he [the rich ruler] heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich (Luke 18.23)."
You see, when it comes down to it, this man loves money and possessions more than he loves God. And so he can't bring himself to give those things up. All he's really tried to do is tick the boxes on the commandments. But he's ignored the heart of them, which is to love God and to have no other God before him.
At this point it's worth saying that Jesus isn't encouraging us to always give up all wealth here. There are godly rich men in the Bible and its right for us to enjoy the blessings and the wonderful world that God has given us. But there are regular warnings about wealth in the Bible and we'll look at that a bit later.
The key thing here is that this man thought he had ticked all the boxes, but in reality, he was nowhere near. No man can claim to be truly good. Only God is truly good.
And so the question for us is - do we think we're one of the good guys? Or do we try to measure our goodness on our own terms rather than God's terms? We so easily think like this man don't we? I haven't murdered anyone, I don't steal, I don't commit adultery. There are a whole heap of things which can lead us into pride and make us think that maybe we're not that far off. Wealth is probably the biggest one. The Bible warns that riches incline people towards pride, self-indulgence, and love of the world. But it could just as easily be our education, our sporting ability, our morality, our Christian service every week. In fact, any advantage that God has given us by his grace, can so easily make us feel like we're more valuable or acceptable to God. And so we even come to God with a sense of entitlement. I wonder what makes you feel like that?
On the other hand, maybe you don't think you're one of the good guys, maybe your natural inclination is to think you're not worth much. Or maybe you've actually done some really bad things. Well Jesus levels the playing field here. He says look, no one is good enough to inherit eternal life. On our own, we always love other things more than we love God. It's impossible for us to get into heaven.
Which would be a sad place to end this sermon. But thankfully what we see next in our story, is that
2. Only God Can Do The Impossible
Only God can. That's my second point. So let's dive back into the story and see what happens. Look at Luke 18.24:
"Jesus seeing that he (the rich ruler) had become very sad, said, 'How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For 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'."
It's a strong statement, isn't it? "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle." And the crowd around react to it.
"Those who heard it said, 'Then who then can be saved?' But he [Jesus] replied, 'What is impossible with man is possible with God.'" Luke 18.26
Those around were shocked, because they thought in their mind, if the rich can't be saved then no one can. At the time, they saw riches as a sign of God's blessing. And so if a rich person couldn't get in, then who can? But Jesus says, "What is impossible with man is possible with God…"
Now this passage has been misunderstood so many times! In fact, when I look back now, I can see that my RE teacher at school totally missed the point here. You might have heard it misunderstood yourself, so let me quickly address it without spending too long.
Some people have said, 'it sounds like a camel couldn't get through the eye of a needle, but actually this is talking about a gate in Jerusalem that was called the Eye of the Needle, and camels could get through, they just had to get down on their knees.' And so what it is saying is that rich men can get into heaven, the man just needs to get down on his knees and offload his baggage. That's the meaning of this.
Well firstly, there's no evidence that there is such a gate. And secondly, the point Jesus is making is clear in the context here. In fact, whenever we're unsure about something in the Bible, context is nearly always the answer. You see, camels can't get through the eye of a needle. And the context is the next verse, where Jesus says, "What is impossible with man, is possible with God". What's impossible?
The way that anyone gets saved – rich or poor. The way that anyone can go to heaven, is because "What's impossible with man, is possible with God".
It's not impossible in the sense that this rich man can't have it. No, he can. But he doesn't want it. He doesn't want Jesus. Jesus says, "Sell all you have and… follow me (Luke 18.22)". But the man doesn't love Jesus more than he loves his money. You see, you can't love Jesus most if you love money more. You just can't. This man is enslaved by his money. He can't love Jesus more. And the reason any of us are saved is because God can overcome that slavery to other things. He does the impossible, if we ask him into our hearts.
What did we look at last week (the 'context' before this passage), we saw that the only way to get to heaven is to receive it like a little child – with arms outstretched and doing nothing to deserve it.
And so my final point is, have we really understood how amazing that gift is? The way we know we have is when we see that it's worth everything.
3. Only Those Who See That's It's Worth Everything Have Really Understood
Back in 2009, an unemployed 55-year-old man called Terry Herbert (up there on the screen – he looks like a bit of a character doesn't he?!), he was slogging through the mud in a large field in Staffordshire with a metal detector (as some people do). But he had the last laugh. His metal detector started beeping (or whatever they do?!) and so he dug down. And over five days he unearthed over 1000 gold and silver Anglo-Saxon pieces worth, in total, more than £1 million. Imagine finding that in the mud.
Now Jesus actually told a parable about a man who found treasure in a field (Mathew 13.44-46). The man realised that he needed to own the field to own the treasure and so in his joy he went and sold all he had and bought the field. And Jesus says that heaven, that gift of eternal life, is like treasure in a field. It is worth selling everything we have to get it.
And that's what this final bit of this story about the rich ruler is about. Take a look at Luke 18.29. Peter, one of the disciples, having heard the whole conversation between Jesus and the rich ruler, says this:
"'…we have left our homes and followed you!' And he [Jesus] said to them, 'Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times as much in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.'" Luke 18.28-30
Jesus says this gift of eternal life, this treasure, is worth everything! It's totally worth it!
But it also points to the fact that there's always a cost, in this life, to follow Jesus. There's always a cost.
But it is worth it.
Maybe like this rich ruler, you are someone who has seen what Jesus offers, and yet you're holding back because you know there's a cost to following him. It might be him calling you to a change in lifestyle, it might be the scorn of friends or family, it might be giving time and money to serve him. Jesus says, it is worth it! Don't hold back like the rich ruler.
Recognise that you are not good. You don't deserve to have eternal life. And yet if you choose to follow Jesus, God will make the impossible possible and give you eternal life. Going back to our question at the start, that's how we get to heaven! And it's worth it!
Or maybe you are someone who is following Jesus and you are feeling the cost. It was certainly on Peter's mind, wasn't it. We've had some of our wider family be quite unpleasant to us this year because we're Christians. And it is hard. Maybe there are things that you are finding hard. Jesus says to you 'it's worth it.'
How can we be sure? Well the very next thing that Jesus tells his disciples, in the chunk of Luke that we'll look at next Sunday, is that he will be killed, and then three days later he'll rise from the dead. This is how God does it! This is how he does what's impossible! How he brings people who are not good, into heaven.
You see, because Jesus died and rose from the dead, we who are in Jesus can be totally sure that we will one day rise. Jesus said:
…"I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall her live". Luke 11.25
How do we get to heaven? We get to heaven because Jesus died and rose again. So follow him. It's worth it!