Matthew’s Messiah: His Confrontation
That’s exactly what happened to me one day when a fellow preacher and I were walking down the seemingly endless concourse at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Suddenly, a young man with long hair and a bright smile, carrying a Bible under his arm, walked up to us and said: “When were you converted?” My friend’s reply to him was quite remarkable. Without missing a beat, he said to the young man: “I was converted 2000 years ago, 20 years ago, and 20 minutes ago.” Confusion swept over the young man’s face as he sputtered out a response: “What do you mean by that? You can only be converted once. Give me the day, the hour, the month, the year.” My friend then said, very gently, but very firmly: “Listen to what I am saying. I was first converted when Jesus died on the cross to take my sins away. And I was converted about twenty years ago when I publicly surrendered my life to Jesus Christ and offered myself for the ministry. And then about twenty minutes ago, before we headed to the airport, my friend here (he pointed to me) and I were praying for each other’s ministries, and I realized that my relationship with one of the elders in my church is not good, and I have just now realized that Christ is calling me to change that, so I am on my way home to Ohio determined now to love that man with the love of Jesus Christ.” The young man didn’t say anything more—he just shook his head in bewilderment and turned and walked away.
It was just a brief, seemingly insignificant incident, but the more I thought about it, the more significant it became. I began to realize that my friend had put his finger on a profound Biblical truth. You see, so many people think of conversion as a once-in-a-lifetime experience which comes only to a select few, but that is not altogether true. To be sure, the New Testament does speak of that kind of conversion experience, the conversion of one who turns dramatically from having no belief in God to having a deep, life-changing relationship with God. But the New Testament also uses the word “conversion” to refer to those who are within the church, but who through growth in Christ, discover the life-changing power of the beliefs they profess. Conversion in that sense is not once in a lifetime, it is a constantly, reoccurring experience in the life of growing Christians. It may even happen every day. That’s what my friend was trying to say to the young evangelist in the Chicago airport—that the true Christian is being constantly changed and converted, constantly reshaped and remolded, by the power of faith in Jesus Christ.
Therefore today I want to call your attention to the need we all have—the need to turn our lives around and start them off in a new direction, the need to constantly be opening our lives to the transforming power of Jesus Christ, the need to move out of self-centered living to Christ-centered living, the need to be converted anew and afresh every day. To help us catch hold of that truth from the Scriptures, I want to hold up before you the story of the Messiah’s confrontation with the young man we call “the rich young ruler”. The story is told in Matthew 19.
Focus first on the man in the story.
We do call him “the rich young ruler”, but I think it’s important for us to remember that only Matthew calls him “young”. Only Mark calls him “rich”. Only Luke calls him “ruler”. So what we have done is to combine the Gospel accounts of the story to give him a title—“the rich young ruler”. But the fact is that in all three Gospel accounts it is quite clear that he was successful and respected, that he had things going his way in life. In all accounts and by all appearances, he had it made.
Notice the word “appearances”. He did appear to have it made. When you looked at his life from the outside, you could see so much that was right with him. However, when you looked at his life from the inside, the picture was quite different. Even he knew in his own heart that something in his life was missing. That’s why he came to Jesus in the first place.
Now get the picture clearly. Jesus was talking with a group of people when suddenly, this good-looking, well-dressed, young man interrupted the proceedings with a question: “Teacher”, the young man said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” You might think that Jesus would be instantly impressed with that. Here was a brilliant, powerful, successful young man seeking the guidance of Jesus. You might think that Jesus would be overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude and accomplishment that at last He was beginning to attract the attention of at least one of the prominent people of His day. But Jesus had no such thoughts. Instead He quickly responded to the young man’s question by saying: “Obey the Commandments and you will find God. Take God seriously in your life and you will know Him.” Then Jesus proceeded to list some of the Commandments. This must have been a shock to the rich young ruler. After all, he had come with a deep theological question and Jesus was offering him nothing more than a kindergarten lesson in the law. But the young man quickly concealed his dismay and said: “I have obeyed the law of God.”
Now if we are honest with ourselves, what happened next is nothing less than shattering. You see, all too often we are like the rich young ruler, fooling ourselves into thinking that we are serious about God. We come to church and worship as if God were the top priority in our lives, but all the while, our minds wander over subjects like: “What’s for Sunday dinner?” or “What are we going to do this afternoon?” or “What do I have to do this coming week?” Yet Jesus sees right through us just the way He saw through the polished veneer of the rich young ruler. Jesus said to the young man: “You lack one thing. Sell what you have, give the money to the poor and come and follow Me.” WHAM! That did it. That was too much. The young man slammed the door in the Messiah’s face. He wanted no part of that. He thought he was serious about God, but he was not ready to hear and obey what Jesus said. He would have been willing to do almost anything—to pray for hours, to lose himself in the study of the Scriptures, to undertake a pilgrimage—anything, but to give up all that he had earned? No way. That was asking way too much. You see, he wanted God as an “extra”, not the “whole of life”. He wanted to reserve certain areas of his life for his own control. He did not want to surrender them to the Lord. He regarded God as a kind of “good luck charm”—handy to have around in time of need, but that is all. And so when Jesus confronted him with God’s total claim upon his life, he turned and walked away.
Now focus on the message of the story.
Here it is, as simply as I know how to state it: There is no cheap, easy, painless way to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. That’s tough for us to hear, isn’t it? We are so stuck on our selfish interests that we tend to bridle at any suggestion of sacrificing anything. We come to church talking about how serious we are about God, but when God calls for total commitment, well, like the rich young ruler, we turn and walk away. We don’t like those kinds of ultimatums. And so we begin to twist the meaning of the story. We try to blunt its cutting edge. We attempt to dismiss it by saying things like: “Well, suppose everyone gave everything away?” Of course that wasn’t Jesus’ intent at all. Jesus knew that it was the rich young ruler’s money that kept him from being completely committed to God. And Jesus knows what it is that keeps us from being completely committed as well. Maybe it’s our money or maybe not. Maybe it’s our prejudices. Or maybe it’s a cherished hobby or an immoral habit or an improper relationship. Maybe it’s our job. Maybe it’s our family. Maybe it’s even our religious beliefs, for heaven’s sake. Does that sound strange? Perhaps. But the fact is that many of us attend worship and casually repeat the words of the faith or sing the verses of the hymns, and yet, what we say and sing never really pierces our hearts. The great truths of our faith never move our spirits or set our hearts to pounding and our lips to singing. We never have tears leap into our eyes because of the sheer magnificence of our Messiah and what He has done for us.
Yes, at its bottom line, the message of the confrontation between the Messiah and the rich young ruler is: You can’t hold out on God. If you try to hold something back, if you try to hide something from Him, if you let anything at all stand between you and your full commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ, then sooner or later, God is going to back you into a corner and demand that you give it up. There is no escape. There is no hiding place. Sooner or later God’s spirit is going to come flowing into our hearts and lives, and when that happens, we shall have to decide whether to yield to God’s will and God’s way, or to turn and go our own way.
The rich young ruler got the message. Did he ever! Jesus said to him: “You’ve got to give up the one thing that keeps you from being totally committed to God. In your case, it’s your money.” Yes, the rich young ruler got the message, it’s just that he didn’t want to hear it. And therefore, when confronted with that decision, the Bible says of him: “He went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
Today in the name of the Messiah, I want to confront you with a question: When were you last converted? When did you last feel the mighty power of God surging into your life? When did you last come to the end of your own resources and die to yourself through Christ so that you might be raised up to new life in Christ? When did you last say to God: “Take me, Lord, all that I have and all that I am. Take me and use me as You wish.” When were you last converted?
I pray to God that the last time you were converted is right now!