by Thomas W. Finley

Chapter Six


We now come to a great lesson in the story of the rich young ruler, a lesson which pertains to us all, not just the rich.

We have previously learned that the Lord Jesus was truly trying to show the young man how to have eternal life in the next age. In the case of the rich young ruler, the Lord was trying to point out a fundamental problem, which was keeping him from gaining entry into the coming Kingdom. It is this fundamental problem that will now be dealt with in this chapter.

Most believers think that if we could just conquer sin we would be pleasing to God. Of course, sin is a detriment to our relationship with God and can cause us to miss the Kingdom enjoyment (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21; Eph. 5:5). As respects moral matters that we normally classify as sin, however, the rich young ruler had kept these commandments (Matt. 19:17-20)![1]

Jesus was desirous, however, of touching another matter with this young man, something apart from the issue of sin and morality. According to the Biblical revelation, he still lacked something beyond the realm of "sin". After the man said he had kept the commandments from his youth, Jesus said to him, "One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess, and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven, and come, follow Me" (Lk. 18:22). After the young man went away grieved, the Lord stated this great lesson of discipleship: ". . . Truly, I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, 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" (Matt. 19:23-24). Though you may not be "rich", please do not start feeling comfortable. You will see how the problem the Lord was addressing is seen clearly in the rich man, but it is a problem that grips us all.

We must try to explore the depth of meaning of this lesson in light of the whole record of Scripture. Was the Lord simply saying that only "rich" people will have a hard time getting into the coming Kingdom? What is the problem with "riches" anyway? Put simply, the riches here represent man’s self-indulgent enjoyment and preoccupation with the things of this world. Such enjoyment so occupies and usurps man that man is unable to fully follow the Lord. The Lord Jesus’ requirement for the young man (beyond the moral commandments), was stated in an exceedingly simple way--just dispose of your possessions and "come, follow Me."

As believers, don’t we want to "follow the Lord" ? If we do, then we must learn the lesson presented here. We must come to grips with the issue of "selling all that we possess." In application, the Lord is not just dealing with rich people. Based upon this encounter, the Lord spoke of "everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake" (Matt. 19:29). Houses, family and farms do not necessarily equate with being rich, so this means the Lord broadened the principle of the "rich man" to include us all.

From the world’s perspective, a rich man has certain advantages. He seems to have a great security. "A rich man’s wealth is his strong city. And like a high wall in his own imagination" (Prov. 18:11). He can have a life of ease, comfort, and pleasure (see Lk. 12:16-19). The rich man is also accorded special recognition by others (Jas. 2:2-3). However, these very items (security, ease, comfort, pleasure, and recognition) are the ones that we must be willing to give up if we are to be His disciples.


Beyond sin, we believers face a problem that is related to what the Bible calls "the world". The world (kosmos, Greek), in the sense we are speaking of here, means the entire ordered arrangement of things in human society. Of course, sin is included within the expansive realm of the world, but the world encompasses many things that are not strictly "sin" in the moral sense. Note these words from the apostle John:

Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever. (1 Jn. 2:15-17)

This passage from First John tells us that the world system has some built-in lusts, or strong desires, that are common to men within the system. The lust of the flesh refers to the passionate desires of our bodies, and the lust of the eyes refers to the longings of the soul of man to possess and experience things seen through the eyes. The boastful pride of life is that sense of pride that springs up within man and may stem from a myriad of sources: success, talent, looks, wealth, position, family, accomplishment, nationality, etc.

Now, imagine yourself as the rich, young ruler that came to the Lord. Jesus has just told you that you need to sell all that you have and give the proceeds to the poor. What "losses" will flash through your mind? All of the opportunities to pamper and please yourself are suddenly gone. Your menu of steaks and rich foods is now replaced by beans, and you don’t even know how you will get them. All the pleasures that you enjoyed--the outings, the banquets given for friends, the sporting activities, the travel, the splendid flocks, the fine clothes--all of these are gone forever.

Finally, the recognition and attention you were accustomed to as an important person of wealth are destined to end abruptly. "The poor is hated even by his neighbor, but those who love the rich are many" (Prov. 14:20). So, we can understand that this cost was considered too great by the rich young ruler. He had wanted to inherit eternal life, but the price was too high. He went away sorrowful.


A comparison of two verses will demonstrate that what the Lord required of the rich man was just a specific application of the general requirement for all disciples.

Matt. 16:24 Matt. 19:21
Then Jesus said to His disciples, Jesus said to him,
"If anyone wishes to come after Me, "If you wish to be complete,
let him deny himself, and take up his cross, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven;
and follow Me." and come, follow Me."

Jesus was calling the rich man to discipleship, to follow Him and learn of Him. To understand what this discipleship involves, we need to look carefully at Matthew 16:24-28 to see how relevant were Christ’s words to the rich man.

24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. 25 For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it. 26 For what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and will then recompense every man according to his deeds. 28 Truly, I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom. (Matt. 16:24-28)

Please notice several key words in this portion of God’s word. One key word is soul (psuche) in verse 26. In the Greek, this same word appears in verse 25 translated as "life". So the life in verse 25 refers to the same thing as the soul in verse 26. Further, the term "himself" in verse 24, although not the word psuche, refers to the soul also. This is proven by the parallel passage in Luke, where Luke 9:25 speaks of forfeiting "himself" but Matthew 16:26 speaks of forfeiting his "soul".

So the three terms "himself", "life", and "soul" all refer to the same thing here in Matthew 16. Remember that the soul is that part of man that contains the mind, the emotion and the will of man. Thus the soul is really the very life (the inner, non-physical life) of man. One writer has stated that "the word ‘soul’ signifies, as we have said, the natural or personal life of the individual man, in the broadest sense, including all the experiences, sensations, and emotions pertaining thereto."[2]

Further, this passage speaks of one denying himself and taking up his cross (v. 24). Then, since verse 25 starts with an explanatory "for", we naturally must consider such self-denial as equivalent to "losing one’s soul." The contrast to losing one’s soul is to save it. Remember that the word for "to save," sozo, means "to save, make whole, preserve from danger, loss, destruction."[3]

Now, let’s put these thoughts together and begin to understand this passage. Jesus is teaching concerning saving one’s soul, that is, keeping it from loss or destruction, versus losing one’s soul, that is, allowing it to suffer loss. Look at the verses that just precede this section (read Matt. 16:21-23). Here Jesus was telling His disciples that "He must go to Jerusalem and suffer" (v. 21). Peter, inspired by Satan, immediately tried to stop this! He did not want Jesus to suffer! Jesus rebuked him, declaring that Peter’s mind-set was completely wrong: "Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men" (v. 23, NKJV).

Fallen man wishes only to please his soul, doing what keeps it whole and happy, preserving it from any suffering or loss. Jesus immediately gave the needed teaching after Peter expressed the natural thought of man. Jesus taught His disciples that if anyone wished to come after Him (to really follow Him), that person must be willing to deny himself and take up his cross. That person must be willing to lose his soul. This could mean to the point of physical death, martyrdom, if need be, although that is not the explicit point here. Jesus is not teaching that every disciple must so prove himself by being a martyr. Only God’s sovereign will decides who will be martyred; it is not our decision. But God wants us to be willing to deny ourselves so completely.

In our experience, what does it really mean to "deny ourselves", "take up the cross", and "lose our soul"? A few quotes from some insightful teachers will help us here. Watchman Nee comments:

"Let him deny himself"--Denying the self means disregarding one’s self or renouncing one’s privileges. To deny oneself denotes a setting aside of the self in seeking the mind of God, so that in all things he may not follow his own mind nor be self-centered. . . . "And take up his cross, and follow Me"--this is even deeper than denying the self. For self-denying is only the disregarding of self whereas taking up the cross is obeying God. To take up the cross means to accept whatever God has decided for the person and to be willing to suffer according to the will of God. By denying the self and taking up the cross we may truly follow the Lord.[4]

In commenting on a parallel passage in John 12:25, Philip Mauro observes:

Loving the soul signifies indulging it in the things it craves; and hating the soul signifies depriving it of those gratifications. . . . From the above passage (John 12:25) and from other Scriptures, it clearly appears, as we have already said, that the soul of man is that part of his being which is capable of experiencing sensations arising from relations with created things--"the world". The actual functions of seeing, hearing, tasting, etc., are performed by the organs of the body; but the experiences and emotions resulting therefrom are realized in the soul.[5]

Watchman Nee also comments that, "To save the soul denotes gaining for oneself happiness and joy to his heart’s fullest satisfaction. To lose the soul, on the other hand, speaks of losing one’s joy, desire and satisfaction."[6] Additionally, he writes the following concerning the salvation of the soul:

"Whoever shall lose his life for My sake"--This is the self-denial and cross-bearing spoken of in the preceding verse. Losing the soul is the same as denying the self. The Lord concedes that if for His sake anyone is willing to forsake all the pleasures of the soul and to suffer according to the will of God, he will find the soul. It simply means that whoever is willing for the sake of the Lord to deny his own thoughts and desires so as not to be satisfied with the things of the world but instead to undergo much suffering, he will at another time be given by the Lord his heart desire with full blessing and joy.[7]

Finally, Philip Mauro states: "Manifestly, the expression ‘losing one’s soul’ is a strong figure of speech for voluntary parting with those things which delight or gratify the soul."[8]

Now we can return again for a moment to the rich ruler. What was the problem that Jesus was addressing? This rich man was not willing to "lose his soul" in order to follow the Lord. He enjoyed the pleasures of this world. The pleasures he indulged himself in were not immoral things, as has already been noted. The pleasures were just "the good things of life." His refusal to give up his riches simply unveils his refusal to give up the enjoyment of this world. He was unwilling to suffer such a loss to his soul.

Let us look again at Chapter Sixteen of Matthew. "For what will a man be profited if he gains the whole world" (v. 26). "Gaining the world" is linked to ‘saving the life [soul]" (v. 25). The fallen soul of man seeks its gratification in the things of this world. In this world, the earthly realm of human society, there are many attractions for man’s soul. Indeed, the Bible tells us that the world itself is "outfitted", in a sense, with man’s desires for gratification; these desires are built into the world system and feed upon it for satisfaction. "For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away, and also its lusts" (1 Jn. 2:16-17).

Jesus has spoken here that a man will not "be profited if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul" (Matt. 16:26). In other words, even if a person could somehow gain all the benefit and pleasure that could be derived from the entire world, this "income" of pleasure could not produce a profit for him when it is offset by the forfeiture (or loss) of his soul! Dear Christian, here is a statement we must seriously think about. What does it mean? Consider that the next verse explains it, because the next verse again starts with a connective or explanatory "for". "For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and will THEN RECOMPENSE every man ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS" (v. 27).

What the Lord Jesus is telling us here in these verses (Matt. 16:24-27) is that if a believer decides to save his soul now, in this life, "he shall [future tense] lose it" (v. 25), or forfeit it, when Christ returns and renders judgment upon us according to our deeds. To lose your soul, therefore, means that your soul will suffer loss at that time. And the loss to your soul at that time will be so great that it will more than offset the pleasure your soul could have gained during your lifetime if it had been possible for you to "gain the whole world"! We are talking about the potential here of a very significant future loss to the believer. Dear Christian, we must take this word of our Lord very seriously.

The future gain for the believer ("shall find it"--future tense, v. 25), or the future loss ("shall lose it"--future tense, v. 25), according to the context, involves the Lord’s recompense at His return and the coming Kingdom. A believer who denies the self (loses the soul) in this age will be rewarded with "finding his soul", that is, having his soul experience joy, pleasure and satisfaction in the coming Kingdom age. Conversely, a believer who does not allow his soul to suffer loss in this age, will receive a recompense from the Lord that will cause his soul to suffer loss in the Kingdom age.

The recompense in verse 27 is tied to the Kingdom in verse 28, and the glory of the Kingdom is depicted in the verses that follow. Matthew 17:1-8 (cf. 2 Pet. 1:16-18) is a preview of the coming Kingdom. Notice that only the closest disciples were chosen to go with the Lord onto the Mount of Transfiguration. The transfiguration is a foreshadow of Christ in His glory during the coming age. Participation in the glories of that age is a reward, dependent upon self-denial. This is also in view in the story of the rich young ruler (see Lk. 18:24-30).

Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13, NASB)

[1] The Old Testament commandments take on a higher meaning and requirement than the scribes and the Pharisees taught (Matt. 5:20-48), but Jesus is not addressing that issue here with the rich young ruler.

[2] Philip Mauro, God’s Pilgrims (Reprinted ed., Harrisburg: Christian Publishers, Inc., 1969), p. 176.

[3] Spiros Zodhiates, ed., The Complete Word Study Dictionary--New Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 1992), p. 1353.

[4] Watchman Nee, The Salvation of the Soul (New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, Inc., 1978), p.5.

[5] Mauro, pp. 177-178.

[6] Nee, p. 7.

[7] Nee, pp. 6-7.

[8] Mauro, p. 175.