The Rich Young Ruler (Who Can Be Saved?) — Matthew 19:16–26

When the rich young ruler refused to give up his wealth to follow Jesus, his disciple asked, "Who can be saved?"

The Rich Young Ruler (Who Can Be Saved?)  — Matthew 19:16–26
Photo by Zac Durant / Unsplash
Sermon given to The Youth Group (TYG) at Grace Bible Church of Pleasant Hill on August 30, 2023. [6th–12th grade]


  • What are you willing to give up to follow Jesus?
  • What price are you willing to pay?
  • In this story we are about to read, we learn the cost to follow Jesus.
  • Eternal life costs us nothing, but it also costs us everything.


  • The gospel of Matthew is divided into five sections.
    • Each section contains a narrative section, and a discourse (or sermon) from Jesus.
  • We are in the middle of the fifth and final narrative section of the book of Matthew.
  • We will divide this passage into four sections: (1) the Question, (2) the Requirement, (3) the Response, and (4) the Lesson.

1. The Question (v.16)

  • "someone came to Him" (v.16a)
    • Matthew introduces the person as just "someone," "a man."
    • literally "one" (εἷς)
    • Matthew gives no initial description of this man.
  • Young (v.20)
    • "young man" suggests the man was between 20 and 40 years old [NIBBCNT]
    • It's good to be young. You are healthy and strong, You have potential. You have time.
  • Rich (v.22)
    • "one who owned much property"
    • "extremely rich" (Luke 18:23)
    • It's good to be rich. You can buy everything you need and want.
  • Power (Luke 18:18)
    • "And a ruler questioned Him."
    • "ruler" is a general term meaning someone from the upper class [RSB]
    • Perhaps a "ruler of a synagogue" (Luke 8:41) or "member of the Sanhedrin." (Luke 23:35) [ESVSB]
    • He is a part of the elite class, uniquely privileged.

  • The man asks the most important question in life.
    • "How can I have eternal life?"
    • "Eternal life" is a synonym for "entering the kingdom of heaven." [ESVSB]
    • Jesus said earlier in Matthew 5:20, "For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven."
    • The man is asking about salvation and how he can be saved.
  • But noticed how he asked this question.
    • "What good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?"
    • What good deed will entitle him to gain salvation?
    • What good work will earn God's favor and entrance into the kingdom of heaven?
    • This man assumed that there was something he could do that would merit salvation and eternal life.


  • Have you asked the question, "How can I have eternal life?" Have others asked you?
  • How would you answer this important question?
  • Well, Jesus answers the man in verses 17–21 and gives the requirement.

2. The Requirement (v.17–21)

  • Notice Jesus does not give a straightforward presentation of the gospel.
  • He answers the question with another question.
  • “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good.” (v.17a)

A. Definition of Good (v.17a)

  • Jesus understood that the man did not comprehend the definition of good.
  • In Mark and Luke’s accounts, the man called Jesus, “Good teacher.”
    • They recorded Jesus responding to the man, saying, “Why do you call Me good?”
  • The definition of good is dependent on what standard you use?

Illustration: Definition of One Meter

  • In 1791, a meter was defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole.
  • In 1799, a prototype metre bar was constructed.
    • 90 years later, they modified the metre bar.
  • Today, a meter is defined as the length of the path travelled by light in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 seconds with the second defined by a caesium clock frequency. [ 2023_08_19]

  • As it pertains to salvation and eternal life, there is only one unchanging standard for good.

  • Jesus declared, "There is only One who is good."

  • The only One who is good is God.

  • “There is no one who does good, not even one.” (Ps 14:3b)

  • Jesus said earlier, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48)

  • So Jesus corrects the man, saying, "How can you ask, 'what good thing shall I do to have eternal life?'" The only one who is truly good is God.

  • But since you asked, I'll tell you the requirement.

    • “If you wish to enter life, keep the commandments.” (v.17b)
    • "The commandments" refers to God's commandments as recorded in the Old Testament.

B. Requirement: Keep the Commandments Perfectly (v.17b–20)

  • Jesus was not saying it is possible for us to earn eternal life by our good works.

    • What Jesus is stating is the requirement for eternal life is perfect adherence to God’s commandments.
  • So the man asked which commandments since there are many commandments in Scripture, and there are other commandments written by Jewish teachers outside of Scripture.

  • Jesus lists five of the ten commandments (Ex 20; Deut 5) and the command to love your neighbor as yourself. (Lev 19:18)

    • Notice that Jesus lists the easier commandments.
    • He does not mention the first four of the Ten Commandments nor the tenth commandments on coveteousness, which is the commandment the apostle Paul struggled with in Romans 7.
    • He doesn’t name the greatest commandment but the second greatest commandment. (Matt 22:36–40)
  • Yet, confidently, the man affirmed, “All these things I have kept.”

    • When the man says “all things,” he is testifying that he has kept the entire law.
  • Pause for a moment. Is this man’s statement true. “All these things I have kept.” Absolutely not.

  • But Jesus does not correct the man’s false assertion.

  • And notice that even though the man believed he had kept the whole law, he sensed that something was still missing.

  • So the man asked Jesus, “What am I still lacking?”

  • Jesus tells the man that to complete what is lacking, you must do four things.

C. Jesus’ Test (v.21)

  1. Go. (present imperative)
  2. Sell your possessions. (aorist imp.)
  3. Give to the poor. (aorist imp.)
  4. Follow me. (present imp.)
  • Jesus was not setting the terms for salvation.

  • Instead, Jesus is exposing the man's heart and revealing the man's idol.

    • The man's god and prized possession was his possessions and money.
  • These four imperatives were a test of obedience to God's commandments:

    • Jesus tests the man's obedience to the tenth commandment which forbids the sin of covetousness.
    • Jesus evaluates the man's obedience to the commandment to love his neighbor and not neglect the poor.
    • Jesus demands the man's obedience to the first commandment,“You shall have no other gods before me.” (Ex 20:3)
  • Jesus invites the man to exchange his god (wealth) for Christ's gift (eternal life).

  • Jesus commands the man to sell all his possessions to give to the poor as an act of supreme devotion to Him.

Implication: Salvation Costs Everything

  • Salvation is a free gift. It costs us nothing because it costs Christ Jesus everything to the point of death on the cross.
  • But salvation also costs us everything. True salvation involves giving our entire self to follow Jesus.
  • Jesus said, "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field." (Mt 13:44)
  • "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it." (Mt 13:45–46)
  • Jesus says, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt 16:24–26)

  • What is the question? "How can I have eternal life?"
  • What is the requirement? "Salvation costs us nothing, but it also costs us everything."
  • What was the man's response?

3. The Response (v.22)

  • “He went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.” (v.22)
  • The man approached the right person: Jesus Christ.
  • He asked the right question: “How can I have eternal life?”
  • He heard the right answer: He must "deny himself and follow Jesus.”
  • But the answer the man received was not the answer he wanted.
  • This man chose his personal wealth over Christ’s eternal riches.
    • He wanted eternal life, but he set his heart more on his earthly possessions.
    • What a tragedy! And the man knew.
      • Matthew wrote, "He went away grieving."
    • What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? (Mt 16:26a)
  • "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matt 6:19–21)

Implication: The Gospel Summarized

  • You just heard Jesus' answer to the question, "How can I have eternal life?"
    • The requirement is perfect keeping of all of God's commandments.
    • And because we could not do so, Jesus came in the form of man, lived the perfect life, and fulfilled and kept all the commandments perfectly.
    • Jesus died on the cross as a substitute to pay for the sinner's penalty.
    • Jesus rose again on the third day and proved there is victory over sin, and God's wrath has been satisfied.
  • Jesus now extends a general invitation to all of us.
    • We did nothing, but Jesus did everything to fulfill the requirement for salvation.
    • But the kingdom of heaven, though it costs us nothing, it also costs us everything.
    • You must deny yourself and follow Jesus as your Lord and master.
    • You are not your own. Jesus gets everything. He demands your supreme devotion.


  • Each of you in this room is like this man.
    • You are young, full of health, vitality, and the nonrenewable resource we call time.
    • You are rich, for you live in one of the wealthiest, most privileged country in the world.
    • You have power as you choose your future.
  • You’ve read this man’s response? What is your response?
  • Jesus said, "If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple." (Luke 14:26–27)
  • "None of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions." (Luke 14:33)

  • Well, let’s look at the fourth part of this passage. We saw the question, the requirement, the response, and here we see the lesson.

4. The Lesson (v.23–26)

  • Apparently, the disciples saw firsthand this interaction between Jesus and this rich, young ruler.
  • So Jesus turns to his disciples and says, "Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven...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." (v.23–24)
    • The camel was the largest land animal in Palestine (ESVSB)
    • The eye of a needle is the smallest opening found in the home.
    • Jesus declares explicitly and illustrates vividly that it is impossible for a rich man to be saved.
  • And the disciples were astonished
    • Their response was not, "Great. All of us are poor. Let's remain poor."
    • No, they realized that if the requirement was perfection and supreme devotion to God, then "Who can be saved?"
    • No man can be saved. No rich man. Not even a poor man. No one can save himself.
    • It is impossible. This is impossible!
  • Then Jesus succinctly summarizes the lesson, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." (v.26 ESV)
    • For the wealthy to shift their primary allegiance to God is humanly impossible. [ESVSB]
    • But with God, all things are possible.

Illustration: Joseph of Arimethea

  • "And [Herod] sent and had John [the Baptist] beheaded in the prison...And his disciples came and took away the body and buried it. (Matt 14:10, 12)
  • But where were Jesus' disciples when Jesus breathed his last on the cross. They were nowhere to be found.
  • "Now when it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who himself had also become a disciple of Jesus. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock; and he rolled a large stone against the entrance of the tomb and went away." (Matt 27:57–60)

Illustration: Zaccheus

There was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. And Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. So he ran on before and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way. And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”...[Zaccheus said], “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor, and if I have extorted anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:2–10)

Implication: Total Depravity

  • Not only is it not humanly possible for the rich to be saved.
  • It's impossible for any of us, rich or poor, to be saved.
  • "Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good."


  • That's why Jesus came. Jesus is truly God, and Jesus is good.
  • Jesus fulfilled the commandments completely and perfectly.
  • Jesus voluntarily accepted sin's punishment from God the Father, and He rose from the dead on the third day to prove God's wrath had been satisfied.


  • The Question: "Who can be saved?"
  • The Requirement: God's law must be kept perfectly.
  • The Response: To follow Christ costs you nothing, but it also costs you everything.
  • The Lesson: "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."

Illustration: The Story of William Borden

  • Born in 1887, William Borden was an heir to one of the wealthiest family estates in the United States.
  • Before starting college, William felt a burden and desire to spend the rest of his life as a missionary.
  • So he decided to walk away from his family fortune to go to missions, and he wrote in his Bible, "No Reserve."
  • When it was apparent he could not change his mind, William’s father forbade him ever to work again in the family business. It was then that William wrote in his Bible a second time, "No Retreat."
  • After graduating from Yale University and Princeton Theological Seminary, to prepare for his final destination of China to serve as a missionary to the unreached Chinese Muslims, he goes to Egypt to learn Arabic.
  • After three months, something happened that shocked the world.
  • William Borden contracts spinal meningitis, and a few weeks later, he writes in his Bible a third time, "No regrets." Shortly thereafter, William Borden dies.
  • His former professor who wrote that no student impacted him like Borden, Charles Erdman said afterward, "Apart from Christ, there is no explanation for such a life."
  • Who Then Can Be Saved? With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.