The Secret to Eternal Life: You Must Die!

July 3, 2016

A reminder to readers: We’re in the thick of a Sunday Voice Series by Dr. Timothy C. Tennent, a close friend, mentor and colleague of mine. He serves as the President of Asbury Theological Seminary among other posts he holds across the global church. This Sunday Voice Series will continue to cover the Gospel of Mark over the next few months.

Mark 10:17-31

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?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “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.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “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 someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”

“Truly I tell you,” 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 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”


When the Jesuits sent out their missionaries to the Far East in the 17th century, the journey was so perilous that they gathered all these new missionaries on the deck prior to leaving port and gave them the famous Jesuit missionary charge which included the ominous fact that 30% of them would die at sea before they even reached the mission field, and that 20% more would die in the first year on the field due to disease. So it was the custom of the Jesuits to line up their missionaries on deck while it was still in the home harbor and charge them to look around and recognize that half of their number would be dead in a year. They were then given a final opportunity to get off the ship. How about that for a commissioning liturgy?

The audaciousness of this shocking, even startling liturgy goes against much of what we cherish in contemporary evangelical circles where we have become so accustomed to a domesticated gospel with all the prophetic edges sanded down, resulting in a kind of gospel-lite, or a negotiated discipleship where we have haggled with God on the terms and finally reached a convenient settlement. We have come perilously close to losing all sense of the cost of discipleship.

However, the text that is before us in Mark’s gospel shatters all of this and crashes in upon us with the bold, unvarnished words of Jesus to all would-be disciples who want to follow him in the world. We will explore this text today and next Sunday as well to really bring out its power for us today.

A Zealous Man with an Honest Question

In our text, we meet a very earnest and, indeed, by all measurements, a godly man who approaches Jesus, bows down before him in a genuine act of honoring Jesus, and asks in verse 17, “good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” We meet no duplicity in this man and we should not read into this question any kind of hidden false pretense or a subtle attempt toward self-justification. The question is an honest one. It is almost without precedent in first century Judaism to address a rabbi as “good teacher.” Jesus instantly picks up on this formal address “good teacher” and finds in it a crack through which to shine the light of God’s probing truth into this man’s heart. Jesus replies in verse 18, “Why do you call me good, no one is good, but God alone.” We must be careful not to read into Jesus’ reply all the force of Chalcedonian Christology.

Jesus is not distancing himself from being the second person of the Triune God. Indeed, he alone embodies goodness—he is goodness incarnate. He is goodness “in the flesh.” There has never been a teacher in the world that could bear the title “good teacher” in the highest sense that Jesus Christ, the eternal God in human flesh did. This is not a discussion about the nature of Jesus, but the perception of the young man that—from his perspective—could call any earthly rabbi “good.” Surely, he was familiar with Psalm 14/53: “there is no one who does good.” Indeed, it is precisely the gap between human perceptions of goodness and the reality that only God is good which is the point of Jesus’ reply.

Jesus goes on to elucidate the second table of the Ten Commandments. You will remember, of course, that the Ten Commandments falls roughly into two parts. The first table (commandments 1 to 4) is about loving God with your heart, soul, mind and strength; the second table (commandments 5 to 10) is about loving your neighbor as yourself. The first table is about our relationship with God: You shall have no other gods before me; you shall not make for yourself an idol; you shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God; remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. In this first round of the conversation, Jesus does not mention the first table at all, he goes right to the second table which is about our relationship with our neighbors. Verse 19: You shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness or defraud; and you shall honor your father and mother. The second table is set forth. The man responds in verse 20, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” In other words, I am, biblically speaking, forensically speaking, a righteous man. The world and even the people of God would render this man a “good man.” His horizontal relationships were not broken. In fact, the sincere angst of this young man which brought him to the feet of Jesus is driven by the very fact that he had, by all accounts, fulfilled the Law, and yet he still sensed that something was wrong. Notice the precise way he framed the question to Jesus, “what must I DO to inherit eternal life” (vs. 13). It is stated even more emphatically in Matthew’s account: “What good thing must I do to get eternal life.

Is eternal life the reward of a lifetime of doing good things? This is not a small question; it is a big question. It is a fundamental gospel question. This young man stands in a long line of angst about the nature of righteousness. Is it earned? Is it a gift from God? It is only meant to be everlastingly alien to us? Are we not to embody it? If so, how? The whole 16th C. Reformation hinged on this question, and the whole 18th C. Wesleyan revival hinged on this as well. This young man stands in the same place as the pre-tower experience of Martin Luther in the confessional booth who calls himself a “blameless monk” and yet living with a “troubled conscience” before a righteous God.

Indeed, the whole 16th century Reformation which began with what Pope Leo X called a “mere squabble among monks” and who assessed Luther as a monk who “when sober will change his mind.” Even the church—then and now—failed to see the explosive implications of this question. The church failed to see that it was not enough to obey the outward commands of God before your neighbor. You see the entire second table—on a certain level—are all outwardly measurable, whereas the first table is largely humanly immeasurable. It is in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus integrates the two in a deeper way, showing how the second table is not merely about outward conformity to certain actions we do or fail to do, like murder or refraining from adultery, but about the deeper realities of anger and lust in our hearts.

Jesus shows the connection between the two tables of the Ten Commandments, because if the first table is truly “kept,” then it automatically deepens the second table. There was a whole undiscovered country of one’s life before God which eluded the young man. There was an entirely new, deeper orientation which cannot be so easily “kept from my youth,” because it is beyond human keeping. It is about divine intervention. It is about divine re-orientation. It is about grace. It is about God’s gift.


1. Have you trusted in the grace of Jesus Christ as the sole basis for your salvation?
2. Are your good deeds built on the foundation of the work of Christ, or are they expressions of your faith and gratitude to God for His divine intervention in your life?


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The Sunday Daily Text through Mark’s Gospel is written by Timothy Tennent. Visit his blog here.

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