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God’s Word for You

Luke 18:18-19 to inherit eternal life

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, December 11, 2018

18 A certain ruler asked him a question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  19 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

The man was a kind of ruler, an archon (ἄρχων), which might mean the master of a synagogue (Mark 5;22), a prince or some other nobleman (Acts 4:26), a member of the Sanhedrin, or some other ruler. Matthew 19:16 tells us that he was grown but still young (between 25 and 40). His question gets to the heart of all religion and theology. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s the right question to ask. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, this incident is the first time that “eternal life” is mentioned by anyone at all. In Luke, we already encountered this question asked by a lawyer, which prompted Jesus to tell the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

Jesus’ immediate answer seems sarcastic to some people; one of my confirmation students called his words “snarky,” that is, biting and disrespectful. Jesus says this because he wants the young ruler to really think about his question:

  1. Can you “do” something to inherit eternal life?
  2. What do you mean by “good”?
  3. Have you considered what you say when you call Jesus “good”?

First, a person cannot do anything by his own thinking, choosing, or doing, to save himself and gain eternal life. We are saved through faith (Ephesians 2:8; Habakkuk 2:4), and faith comes through hearing the message of the gospel (Romans 10:17). This is why Luther explained the Third Article with the words, “I believe that I cannot by my own thinking or choosing believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel….”

Second, what did the young ruler mean by “good”? Before God, “good” isn’t just a throwaway word, as if to mean “pretty good” or “okay.” This is the word that contains God’s judgment of his creation, when after each of the six days he saw that it was “good” (Genesis 1:4,10,12,18,21,25), and after the seventh day, he judged the whole creation to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31). This means that the creation before the fall was good in the sense of perfect, holy, and without flaw. This is how Jesus uses the word “good” with this young ruler—and that leads us to the third point.

Have you considered what you say when you call Jesus “good”? Jesus is asking the man to reconsider what he thinks of Jesus. The Lord does not deny that he is good. Lenski (Luke p. 913) says that the Unitarians use this passage as a proof text that Jesus himself says he is not God. But Jesus doesn’t say he is not God. He says that only God is good, and he invites this young ruler to consider that Jesus truly is good, and therefore truly God. This is a syllogism:

    A, Only God is truly good.
    B, Jesus is truly good.
    C, Therefore Jesus is truly God.

Since the young ruler came to Jesus to ask about salvation, he was already on the path to acknowledging who Jesus is. He mistook how salvation is achieved, thinking it could be gotten through a deed, but something made him come to Jesus for his answer. Was he only after Jesus’ opinion? Jesus’ view? Whatever his flawed thinking, he had come to the right source.

If this young man was indeed a synagogue ruler, then he should have known his Psalms. If we consider the question of everlasting life in the Psalms, we will be drawn, among others, to Psalm 119. In the Great Psalm, the word “life” (nephesh) occurs many times, sometimes translated “soul” (Psalm 119:20, etc.), sometimes merely as “I” (Psalm 119:129), and as “life” twelve times. Eleven of these are in phrases like “you preserved my life” (119:50,93) or the prayer, “preserve my life” (Psalm 119:25,37,40,88, 107,149, 154, 156, 159). The other is the confession, “I constantly take my life in my hands” (Psalm 119:109). The prayer to preserve “my life” is not just about life in this world, but about everlasting life. How is my life preserved? “According to your word” (Psalm 119:25,37) and through “your promise” (Psalm 119:50). These things point to the gospel, the good promise of God to rescue us from our sins and to carry us into heaven. This is eternal life. This is the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.

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