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?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 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.’”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 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.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
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 someone who is rich 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.”
28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
29 “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 30 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.
Around age two or three, children get a terrible case of the “whys.” Why is the sky blue? Why do I have to take a nap? Why can’t you play with me now? Why? Why? Why?! Little children are constantly asking why. Have you ever stopped to think “why” they do that? There’s a good reason. Children learn more about the world around them by asking questions.
In our text for today a young man came to Jesus with a question. Not why, but what. He brought an urgent, earnest request to Jesus. In fact, his question was one of LIFE’S MOST IMPORTANT QUESTIONS. His question and the questions that follow are questions each person must answer. Thankfully, Jesus gives us those answers.
Jesus was leaving the Judean countryside to get to his final destination. Jerusalem. As he left, a man came running up. He had a question so important, it couldn’t wait. The man needed to know the answer. He fell on his knees, recognizing Jesus as a man of God. “Good teacher,” he says, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The man’s question was: what do I have to do to get to heaven?
How would you answer the man? Many might say: “Nothing—just believe in Jesus.” But not Jesus. He knew exactly what this man needed to hear.
First Jesus raises another issue. “Why do you call me good?” he asks. Few people doubt Jesus’ teaching credentials, even today. But in our times of things being either “the best” or “the worst,” we miss out on something. “No one is good except God alone,” Jesus says. In other words, Jesus asks his own question: what is good?
Do you ever stop to consider what “good” actually is? We use the word to slap approval on something. We often muddle it. “It’s pretty good,” we say. We mean it has room for improvement. It’s good, not great. But what is good? Good is the absence of evil. Good is when no flaw is present. Nothing bad. Complete and total excellence.
So when Jesus says no one is good except God, he’s saying no one is perfect. Only God is. But wait a second—don’t we say Jesus is God? So why doesn’t Jesus just accept “good” with his title and move on?
Jesus doesn’t ask questions for his own benefit. He already knows the answer. This question is for the man to ponder. Jesus moves on: Keep the commandments, he says. Don’t murder. Don’t make marriage dirty. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Honor your parents. Do you see what Jesus is saying here? Jesus tells the man: “be good.”
Most Americans today think that way. Many believe in heaven. But ask them how you get there, and they will give you mixed results. Perhaps the most common answer people give is that they are going to heaven because they are “good.” The problem with that? Jesus already said only God is good.
The man in our text thought the opposite, though. “I’ve been good. I’ve done all that since I was a kid.” Maybe he wanted something to do something great, not just good. This man’s confidence is like a child riding on a cross-country trip. Right at the start he asks, “Are we there yet?” confident they must be close. In reality, they’ve only just left town.
Jesus looked at this man with his urgent, earnest question. The most important question that has ever been asked. And Jesus loved him with a love that sacrifices personal needs for the good of another. With that love, Jesus reaches out to the man and…breaks his heart to pieces. “If you want to do something good enough to inherit eternal life, you only need to do one more thing. Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and leave your old life. Instead, follow me. Become my disciple. Share in my struggles; you’ll also gain everything I can give you.”
The man went away crushed. He had come confident he could do anything to make God happy. So Jesus gave him one thing. Just the one thing he wasn’t willing to do. The man’s problem was the commandment Jesus skipped, the very first: you shall have no other gods. The man’s trust wasn’t in God, but in his own ability to make God happy. It’s in his question: What must I do?
Some people think God should let everyone in to heaven. God is good, and if he’s good, won’t he just love everybody and give us all a free pass? Bothe Jesus and the Bible say the opposite. Jesus loved this man with the deepest kind of love the world could ever see. In love he showed the man his error. Love doesn’t just accept people for what they are. Love tells the truth. This time, the truth broke the man’s heart.
What does that mean for us? Maybe you don’t, like that man, have great wealth. But unless you know what it’s like to live out on the streets, or what it’s like to wonder if you’re going to eat today, I would say most of us are doing fairly well. Do you trust in your wealth? Here’s a test: If you gave up every dime you have today, would you survive? Have you left your money to follow Jesus?
Maybe you don’t trust in money. But the same Jesus who saw the idol in the rich man’s heart can see through you. Have you left everything to follow Jesus? Family? Friends? The comforts of home? Maybe your idol is your own reputation. Whether it’s success, screen, or self, the human heart is an idol factory. When Jesus unravels the ugly facade we’ve put on and points out how utterly incapable we are of doing good, we are forced to admit we aren’t good. We aren’t God. We are, like that man, hopeless,.
That’s the right place to be. Twice Jesus says it’s hard for rich people to get into heaven. Fitting a camel through the eye of a needle is easier than getting wealthy people on God’s good side.
Like now, the rich were considered the “winners,” the influential, blessed by God. Shocked, the disciples ask another of LIFE’S GREATEST QUESTIONS. Who can be saved? If even the great people of the world can’t get into heaven, who can? Jesus answers, You can’t. People can’t. It’s impossible for man to get on God’s good side. I cannot, by my own reason or strength, come to Jesus Christ as Lord. We have nothing to offer him. If we give everything we have to him, it already belongs to God. We can do nothing to contribute to our salvation.
But Jesus’ answer still matters. How do you get to heaven? It’s impossible for people, but not for God. God can do all things. So where does that leave us?
Think through the account again. Jesus asked the rich man why he called him good. He looked at him and loved him. In a look, in a question, Jesus gave him—and us—what we need. “Come, follow me,” he said. Be my disciple. Follow my way. I will give you all the good that is coming to me.
Jesus didn’t deny he was good. He raised the issue so we would think. What man can’t do, God can. And God is good. The good teacher set out on his way to do it. Remember, Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. He had already come a long way. He had left everything behind—his Father in heaven, his earthly family, people’s admiration, much more—to follow God’s will. He moved on to certain death—to make the impossible possible.
On his way, he took time to answer the question of a self-righteous man. He looked at and loved a man who had all sorts of wrong ideas about who he was and what he could do. That same Savior looks on you and loves you. He loves you when you’ve got all the wrong ideas, and he loves you when you give up everything to follow him.
Children ask their parents how much they love them. It’s a game. Parents stretch out their arms to an extent the children can’t reach. “I love you this much,” they say. With that same love, Jesus stretched out his arms to say, “I love you more than life itself.” He gave up his life to save you. The good God made the unsaved saved, loved the unlovable, did the impossible. He died on a cross for mankind’s evil, because he is good. He defeated evil. He did one more impossible thing: he rose from the dead.
He did it to put you back on God’s good side. That’s the answer to LIFE’S MOST IMPORTANT QUESTIONS. How do you get to heaven? Only by the love of God through Jesus, who earned what we couldn’t. Who can go to heaven? Only those who have given up any notion of garnering favor with God. God will never turn away those who in desperation turn to him, begging he do the impossible: save you. By his grace, he did. He creates faith in you to trust his promise. Those who trust in Jesus as Savior can be sure. You have eternal life because it doesn’t depend on you, but on the good God who can do all things.
But what does that mean for us now? That’s what Peter, who had left everything to follow Christ, asked. What do I get for following Jesus?
Jesus doesn’t say, Come on, Peter, you’re already getting eternal life in paradise; what more could you want? No, Jesus says you’ll get more than you could imagine. Those who abandon their idols and cast away the things nearest to them because they trust in Jesus as Savior will receive more than they’ve asked for. You’ll gain more than you ever lost. Houses, fields, brothers, sisters. So is Jesus affirming our materialistic world that says the guy with the most stuff wins? Hardly. All those things, “along with persecutions,” he says. You good things and bad. But the good God will make the bad things good. He’s in the business of making impossible things possible. He will give you enough good things so you don’t become discouraged and lose your way. But he’ll also send you enough trouble to keep you from thinking you can handle everything yourself. He will make sure you cling to him, so you don’t forget that this world isn’t all there is. Even now, your salvation depends on God.
Children are always asking questions. Even if it annoys mom and dad, it’s good for them. That’s the way they learn. God never grows tired of our questions. So ask him. More importantly, make sure you know the answer to life’s most important questions. How do you get to heaven? Only through the work of Jesus, who loves us. Who gets to go to heaven? Those who trust in him as their Savior. What do we get for following him? Both good and bad, that God will use for our good. He will preserve you until the end.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3, EHV)
Therefore, to keep me from becoming arrogant due to the extraordinary nature of these revelations, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me, so that I would not become arrogant. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that he would take it away from me 9 And he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, because my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will be glad to boast all the more in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may shelter me. 10 That is why I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties, for the sake of Christ. For whenever I am weak, then am I strong. (EHV)
Now that Pastor Strutz has announced his decision to stay, you may be asking yourself, “Now what?” now? How do we move forward while using the gifts of this congregation as best we can? The world is asking similar questions. No, not about Pastor Strutz’s call decision or the gifts of our congregation. They’re asking how we as people can maximize our strengths. As people study teamwork, different teams try to play to the strengths of individual members. They also try to minimize their weaknesses to eliminate the negative impact they have on the group.
Our text today also treats strengths and weaknesses, but not in the way you might expect. The question remains, how can we maximize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses? Or can we do even better, MAXIMIZE OUR WEAKNESSES? God’s Word has the answer for us.
The apostle Paul had been given an extraordinary gift. In the verses leading up to our text, Paul spoke of visions that took a man up to heaven. As an apostle, Paul had visions much like that. He saw the risen Christ. He received his pastoral training from Jesus in these visions. Jesus called him to be an apostle in these visions. It very easily could have gone to his head. Don’t we think that way, after all?
Who is the most important person in a business? I would imagine that many of us would think of the CEO or the owner, the person who comes up with the plan. They have the power; they make the decisions. They’re the heroes we all aspire to be like.
Don’t we, in the same way, put Paul up on a pedestal? He models our Christian faith, so we think of him as someone truly great? The greatest missionary ever, an incredible scholar of the Scriptures, a lover of people and God’s Word, a prominent teacher in the early church, the apostle of the Lord who wrote nearly half the books of our New Testament? He has an impressive résumé! But then we idolize a hero and forget the rest of Paul: idolater, persecutor of Christ and his Church, murderer, worst of sinners. Have we whitewashed Paul to make him larger than life?
That’s what we see everywhere these days. You see it in movies. You see it in politics, depending on which side of the aisle you sympathize with. Everyone is either a hero or a villain. Just like the superheroes people see on the screens, they expect their own lives will be…larger than life. We all have a deep-seated desire to be special, to be needed, to be important. Don’t we love our heroes and hate our villains because then there’s some hope we can turn things around make our lives better? Can we truly MAXIMIZE OUR WEAKNESSES?
God’s answer came to Paul in an unexpected way. Paul, whose life had been turned from sinner to saint, was given a gift. He calls it a “thorn” or a “messenger of Satan.” It was given “to torment” him. It’s painful. Just think of when you get a splinter in your finger: every time you move that finger, you have a sharp reminder that splinter has embedded itself under your skin. It hurts. So also Paul’s thorn hurt. It tormented him.
Naturally, we all want to know what Paul’s thorn was. Throughout the years, hundreds of people have made dozens of guesses about what impairment might have affected Paul. But Scripture never gives us a direct answer. Any guess we make is only a guess. So instead of going beyond what Scripture says, content yourself with what Scripture says: not what Paul’s thorn was,but why Paul’s thorn was. “So that I would not become arrogant,” Paul says.
That may seem like a harsh lesson. Sure, Paul was still a sinner after he came to faith. His writings demonstrate that. But Paul trusted in Jesus as his Savior. Why would a loving God allow Paul to suffer such constant pain that even Paul calls it “torment?” Why would God willingly afflict one of his own, one of the greatest missionaries of all time? Surely Paul knew this already!
Or did he? And perhaps we don’t like it because of what it says about you and me. We are at least as weak as Paul. If Paul had to be kept from arrogance, what does that mean for me? Like Paul or any other Christian, we are susceptible to the attacks of Satan. All too often he convinces us that we are strong enough. And then he maximizes our weaknesses to take advantage of us. At this point, you may be too familiar with the devil’s tactics. He tells us what God wants for us is not good. This thorn God has put in my life—whether it’s cancer or abuse of alcohol or a struggle with same-sex attraction or a giant ego—it’s not good. There’s a grain of truth to that. Wouldn’t life be so much better without that struggle? If God were really good, would he want me to suffer? And the devil exploits our weaknesses. His attacks and wins. Sometimes he may even trick you into thinking he was right. It often seems to us that what God wants isn’t good. What I want is good. And then our own sinful nature agrees with the devil and joins in this attack against God. We are hopelessly and helplessly weak in this struggle.
Paul recognized his own weakness. He turned to the Lord in prayer. Three times he asked the Lord Jesus to take away his thorn. It’s only natural. What do you do when you get a splinter? You remove it. Then the pain goes away. Paul asked for his pain, his thorn, to be removed. He asked for a good thing, and God promises always to give good gifts to his children.
Isn’t that what you would do? If your son had a thorn under his skin, wouldn’t you remove it? Or if your daughter breaks her leg, don’t you take her to the doctor to fix it? Our suffering is bad. So why doesn’t our God remove our suffering? Sometimes his love seems distant and cold. What do you do when you ask God for a good thing and he says, “No”? How do you MAXIMIZE YOUR WEAKNESS?
The Lord came back to Paul with an answer. It’s also an answer for us. He didn’t just say, “No.” He said you have enough. “My grace is sufficient for you.” God’s grace, his undeserved love that takes action to save mankind, is enough. That’s all we need to get through our present struggles. Why? Because Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness. That’s where our weaknesses find their completion. In Christ’s power.
God’s grace is sufficient. That’s the beating heart of this section of God’s Word. God’s grace is enough. God’s grace didn’t remain cold and distant with him in heaven. Instead, our Lord was born in weakness. He took on the frailness of human flesh. He set aside full and frequent use of his divine power and instead came to be one of us, a man. Jesus preached, not to the strong and powerful, but to the hopeless and helpless. Instead of maximizing his strength and minimizing his weakness, he showed weakness all the way through. Jesus suffered at the hands of people who rightly belonged under his authority. And like Paul, he too pleaded with his Father three times that his suffering be taken away. Yet he insisted on doing the will of his Father. In his weakness, he never succumbed to the attacks of Satan. Instead, his friend betrayed him, and he answered with love. His friend denied him, and Jesus forgave. Our weaknesses, the sins we commit, led him to the cross. He suffered death to MAXIMIZE YOUR WEAKNESS and give you his own strength. And when he was at his weakest, when he poured out his life into death, his strength reached completion. His power was “made perfect.” On the cross he cried, “It is finished.” That’s where his strength and weakness worked together to accomplish his goal.
And that’s what it means when it says, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” This word, “made perfect” means to reach a goal or fulfill a duty. It means to pay the full price. It means to bring something to completion. Your salvation was brought to completion in the weakness of human flesh. God’s power was on display in the weakness of the cross. There he defeated the devil. There sin’s accusation lost its power, was nailed and buried with Jesus. All so you would know God’s all-sufficient grace is enough in your time of need.
God also called Paul to suffer with Christ. Paul’s weakness, his thorn, found its goal in the weakness of Christ. Christ, who gave his life for Paul, never stopped giving his grace to him. Just like Jesus suffered for Paul, Jesus suffered for you. He gave his life in weakness so that you would be joined to his strength.
Paul was able to delight in his suffering. No, Paul didn’t take pleasure in pain. We don’t have to like punishment. Suffering is still unpleasant. But the new man in Paul, who trusted in Christ’s grace, now saw new purpose in this thorn. God had taught him through this. Paul was able to boast in his weaknesses because he understood Christ’s strength—his grace—dwelled in him and sheltered him from the future attacks of Satan. Christ was with him throughout his life. That’s how Paul could say, “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” It’s not like Paul thought weakness was good. He learned to MAXIMIZE HIS WEAKNESS. When Paul was weak, he learned to rely all he more on Jesus. And Jesus, even at his weakest, is stronger than you and I could ever dream of being.
You may wonder why God would allow you to undergo the evils you go through in your life. Learn from Paul. You don’t have to think your “thorns” are pleasant. But learn to rely on God’s grace which is the strongest force in the universe. When he created faith to trust him, he began to rule in your heart. Learn from your weaknesses, because they teach you to go to God. True strength is found in him.
If you knew that all the evil that happened to you was serving for the good of another, would that fact help you cope with it better? Paul understood that. His thorn has provided comfort to believers for centuries. Who knows you may be able to touch through your own weaknesses as Christ works powerfully in you? You can point others to the comfort Christ provides with his grace. Take delight in your weaknesses. They are opportunities to reach out to others with the Lord’s own strength, his grace.
How do we MAXIMIZE OUR STRENGTHS AND MINIMIZE OUR WEAKNESSES in this congregation? That may require more work and careful planning, but God’s grace is enough. How will we continue to utilize our gifts in service to Jesus? By keeping ourselves in the strength of God’s grace, as you go back to it in Word and sacrament. As long as the Lord Jesus remains with us, his strength will work powerfully in us. His strength MAXIMIZES YOUR WEAKNESS. Amen.
“Now to him who is able to strengthen you— according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, . . . to God, who alone is wise, be glory forever through Jesus Christ. Amen.” (Romans 16:25a, 27, EHV)