“As [Jesus] was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’”
I want to begin by saying, I like this guy. I really like this guy. Here’s a guy who’s interested in ‘eternal life.’ ‘What must I do to be saved?’ How refreshing to hear is that? I wish more people were interested in this question than seem to be.
On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached a wonderful sermon. And many who heard it were “cut to the heart and cried out, ‘what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37) A jailer in the city of Philippi asked Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30) These are questions of ‘eternal life’ and ‘eternal death.’ These are ‘ultimate’ questions that deal with ‘ultimate’ issues. I wish there were a lot more people ‘running and kneeling before Jesus’ with questions like this.
Seems like a lot of people come to Jesus and kneel down before him as this man did, but their question is not the same. The questions that gnaw at them and that they hunger for answers to are things like, ‘What must I do to be happy’? What must I do to be successful? What must I do to find a good spouse, a good friend, a good job?
Seems like those are the kinds of questions that nag at a lot of folks these days. And a lot of folks come to Jesus for His guidance and direction. And that’s okay. In fact, that’s good. There’s no question that isn’t a good question to bring to Jesus. It’s just that for so many, me included, it rarely goes beyond that to say, ‘eternal life.’ “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
So, just what is this thing called ‘eternal life’ that this man is so eager to attain and so unsure of how to attain? It is, quite simply, what it says it is.
First of all, it’s ‘life.’ ‘Life’ is what God gave to man when He formed him from the dust of the ground and “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a LIVING BEING.” (Gen.2:7) God Himself IS LIFE, who breathes Himself into men and women. And then and only then, are we truly alive with ‘life.’
Apart from this ‘breath of God’ there is no ‘life’ in us. We may have lungs that breathe and a brain that works and a heart that beats. We may have all the outward signs of being ‘alive,’ but apart from the ‘breath of God’ in us, we’re really ‘dead.’
Second, it’s ‘eternal.’ ‘Eternal’ is what has no end. ‘Eternal’ goes on forever and ever – which means that the death of body is not the ‘end’ of ‘life’ at all. Even when lungs stop breathing and brain stops working, and we have all the outward signs of being dead, this ‘life’ that God has breathed into us does not die, and we’re really very much alive.
This is what Jesus meant when He said to Martha regarding her brother Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, THOUGH HE DIE, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me SHALL NEVER DIE.” (John 11:25-26)
That’s “eternal life” or “life eternal.” It’s life ‘from’ God and life ‘with’ God and life ‘in’ God that has a beginning but no ending. It begins when the Holy Spirit breathes God’s breath into you. And just like the first Adam, you become, not just a physical body, but a ‘living being.’
Which means that ‘eternal life’ DOES NOT BEGIN when the body dies. It begins in your baptism and in the hearing of the gospel, where God breathed His ‘life giving’ breath into your physical body and irregardless of how old you were, you, for the first time, had ‘eternal life.’
The conclusive and final proof that this “life” that God breathes into us does not end at death but is ‘eternal’ is demonstrated before our eyes in Jesus Christ – ‘who was crucified, died and was buried, and on the third day, rose again from the dead,’ who lives and reigns to ALL ETERNITY.
And so the great question about ‘eternal life’, the question that this man came running to Jesus with, is already answered when you believe this. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16). Jesus declares, “Truly, truly I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me HAS ETERNAL LIFE.” (John 5:24)
As Luther says, this is not ‘future tense,’ ‘will have eternal life,’ but ‘present tense,’ “has eternal life.” “As soon as you believe you have it already.”
As He kneels before His Father in prayer, we hear the Son of God pray, “THIS IS ETERNAL LIFE, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3-4)
So, “eternal life” is not reserved for a ‘future’ time in another world after we die. “Eternal life” is lived in this world and in the ‘present.’ “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts…” (Heb. 3:15).
Maybe this is why, Jesus’ first response to this man, is to point him to Himself. Jesus answers this man’s question with a question. “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” It is as though Jesus were asking this man His own ‘ultimate question’ – the one that every one of us will ultimately have to give an answer to, “Who do you say I am?”
Writing to the church that is being bombarded with ‘death threats,’ the apostle John says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 John 5:13) This is the ‘life’ that no attack on your body or health or wealth or anything else in this world can take away from you. It is ‘eternal.’
When that which is ‘temporal’ or ‘temporary’ runs out of the limited time it has been allotted, “eternal life” is all that is left. “Eternal life” never gets more ‘real’ than it is ‘today.’ But it is never fully realized by us, until the all that is ‘perishable’ has ‘perished’ – which is to say, when we die.
This is the good news that we hear St. Paul preach at almost every Christian funeral. “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death where is your victory? O death where is your sting?’ (1 Cor. 15:53-57)
In death, that which has for all our life has gotten in the way and interfered with the ‘full realization’ of our ‘eternal life’ – is finally separated from us – and all that we know is all that we have longed for – the fullness of the joy and the peace and the life that God breathed into me when He made me a ‘living being.’ “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Cor. 13:12).
I suspect that this is why Jesus responds to this man as He does. “Jesus, looking at him, love 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.’
How cluttered are our lives with all the ‘temporal’ and ‘perishable’ things that interfere with our ‘realizing’ the ‘eternal life’ that we have in Jesus Christ? Jesus’ loving word to this man is no different than His loving word to us when He says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19–21)
In no way does Jesus mean that “IF” this man were to sell all he has and give to the poor, “THEN” he will have the eternal life his is seeking. The man had it exactly right when he called “eternal life” an “inheritance,” which is never something you get by ‘doing’ something, but only because someone else, who loves you, has died and given it to you.
Peter reminds us that, “According to his great mercy, [God] has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:3–5)
The great danger in all things ‘temporal,’ is that they have the deadly power of interfering with all things ‘eternal’ – even to the point that they can cause us to lose sight of the inheritance we have. And so the Psalmist led us in prayer today, saying, “teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Ps.90:1)
Our days of living among the ‘temporal things’ – the ‘treasures on earth’ are all numbered. And when that number is up, there are no more. Your ‘time’ is over. If you put all of those days that we are allotted together, they amount to nothing but the tiniest speck of dust compared to that ‘eternal day’ that never ends. And so we pray, “teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
Knowing that we have these “treasure in heaven,” sets us free to be outrageously generous with our ‘earthly treasures.’ Because Jesus Christ has looked at us and loved us and sold all that He had for our ‘eternal life,’ we can look at our neighbor, and loving him, sell all that we have and give to the poor.
Sadly, this man with his burning question about his ‘eternal life’ does not end well. He was “disheartened by the saying, and he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
Which of us cannot see ourselves in this man? Which of us has not let the riches and the ‘things’ of this ‘temporary’ world which are all perishing, stand between us and Jesus’ gracious and loving call to “come follow Me”?
“Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart.” Repent! “Take care, brothers and sisters, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living, and life giving God.’
Come and kneel before Him at this railing with your most urgent question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Looking at you and loving you,” He places His eternal body and eternal blood into your temporal hands and temporal lips, forgiving you all of your sins and giving you His eternal life.
And with His eternal life in you, “you lack nothing.” You are free to “come, follow Jesus.”