By Michael Milton
Friday, September 01, 2006
Today I want to introduce you to two people you know well. I have heard the first man described like this:
He’s rich. Italian shoes. Tailored suit. His money is invested. His plastic is platinum. He lives like he flies — first class. He’s young. He pumps away fatigue at the gym and slam-dunks old age on the court. His belly is flat, his eyes sharp. Energy is his trademark, and death is an eternity away. He’s powerful. If you don’t think so, just ask him. You got questions? He’s got answers. You got problems? He’s got solutions. You got dilemmas? He’s got opinions. He knows where he’s going, and he’ll be there tomorrow. He’s the new generation. So the old had better pick up the pace or pack their bags.
He has mastered the three “Ps” of life today. Prosperity. Posterity. Power.1
Who is he? He is the top salesman in his district, making it up the career ladder. She is the rising lawyer who was just made a partner at her prestigious law firm. He’s the successful real estate broker who has more listings than he can handle — except he can handle them just fine. In the Bible, he is the rich young ruler. Until today, life for him has been hang gliding in a clear, blue sky — but he runs into Jesus. He has one question, What’s in it for me, and what do I have to do to get it?
Here is the second person. He is called. He is gifted. He serves as an elder and a Sunday school teacher. He knows his Bible. He is committed to the Great Commission. He shares his faith. He is a true man of prayer. He is raising his family in the faith. He is a disciple of Jesus Christ. That is what people think, and that is the truth. But he also struggles. He struggles with one question, What is in it for me? Since I have given You so much, what can I get in return? I want health. I could use more money. I just want You to make my kids turn out all right. I just want to retire early.
Who is he? He is every Christian who has come to think of a relationship with God as a deal — I will give You my life, but what do I get in return? To some degree he is probably all of us who have left all to follow Christ. In the Bible, he is Peter. Common to both the rich young man and Peter is the question that I am posing — What’s in it for me?
What’s in it for me is a major theme with some ministries that claim to be Christian. When I was finally able to do so, I turned on the TV in India and discovered a preacher who sounded like he was from Oklahoma (which is weird when you hear that accent on TV in Chennai, India). His message was that if you have faith in Christ, you will have wealth galore. I learned that if you just give more, God will heal more. If you give more to this minister from Oklahoma, God will give more to you. It all plays to the question on the heart of an unbeliever or a believer — What’s in it for me?
I often get stock tips via e-mail guaranteed to increase my wealth. But what I am giving you is not tips but truth that will set the record straight on wealth and reward in the kingdom of God.
There are four truths we learn about faith and wealth and reward in the teaching on Jesus, the rich young ruler, and the worried disciples,
The Way to Have Eternal and Temporal Security Is to Divest (
A man runs up to Jesus. We call him the rich young ruler because when we put Matthew, Mark, and Luke together, we get the whole picture. In Matthew, he is young. In Luke he is a ruler. In all three accounts, he is rich. In this now famous encounter with Jesus, we can put together a picture of what a man must divest himself of in order to have eternal life.Be divested of zeal without knowledge
There can be no mistake, this man had zeal. He ran to Jesus. He called Jesus Good Teacher. But did He really know who Jesus was? The Lord calmed him down with a strong dose of caution. “Only God is good.” Jesus was not denying the claim but was showing that this young man had zeal but lacked knowledge.
When I was ten, I wanted to drive my uncle John’s car. I had a great zeal when he came out to see us on a Sunday afternoon. But he would say, “Mike, if you had it, what would you do with it? You don’t know how to drive!”
The Bible speaks of those who have zeal without knowledge. Paul wrote of his countrymen in Romans: “For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge” (
Zeal, an enthusiasm that is not biblical, can actually stand in the way of our relationship with God. Being excited about religion is not the same as trusting in Christ as Savior.
When I was a young man, I read C.S. Lewis while I was on sales calls. When I began to see that I was a sinner, my response was that I wanted to prove my zeal for God by involvement in religion. I went to every church possible. I enrolled in religious classes, eventually becoming a lay preacher in the United Methodist Church after going to six Saturday morning sessions. I became zealous for religion but not for God.
To come to Christ, to know eternal life, we need to be hit right in the old cognitive smacker with this word in Mark. Do you really know what you are doing? Having a zeal, running to Jesus but not trusting in Christ alone for eternal life is a hindrance. You and I must divest ourselves of such zeal without knowledge.
Jesus probes deeper into the heart of this man, just as Christ may be doing with you today. By the way, He does this because He loves you. I know that because this text will tell us that Jesus loved this man who eventually went away sad and would not accept Him. The Holy Spirit woos us, and though we may give up on God, my beloved, He will not give up on us.
It was here that Jesus told him, “You lack one thing.”Be divested of self righteousness
Based on what he had done, this rich young ruler thought he had it all. Jesus challenged this man about the law. Jesus perceived that he was proud of his accomplishments, so the Lord said, “You know the law.” Jesus listed six laws dealing with the outward commandments associated with our fellow man. This man said, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”
No doubt this young man was probably right. He had kept the law outwardly. He hadn’t murdered, committed adultery, stolen anything, lied, defrauded anyone. I have every confidence that he was the perfect, obedient child. What we are dealing with here, my friends, is a “goody, goody two shoes.” He prides himself on a careful attention to the outward things of life. This young man was relying on his own righteousness — What must I do to be saved. But what about the inner man?
In His sermon on the mount, Jesus showed that a man can keep the law outwardly and still be a sinner. Paul said that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Jesus said that He had come to convict the world of sin and righteousness. What did he mean? He meant that, as in this account, Jesus shows us the folly of our supposed righteousness and our need of His righteousness. Either you can keep the law and earn God’s favor or else you are a sinner and need a Savior. Jesus came, in fact, because you and I are sinners.
Someone has said: “Religion has always been with us. Without it there would have been no reason for the coming of the Messiah to put a stop to it.”2
Whether it is “creed, cult, or conduct” (terms from Robert Capon 3), man is always seeking to promote himself before God. But Paul said that we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And Jesus said that He had come to convict the world of sin and righteousness. What did he mean? He meant that, as in this account, Jesus shows us the folly of our supposed righteousness and our need of His righteousness. Either you can keep the law and earn God’s favor or else you are a sinner and need a Savior. Jesus came, in fact, because you and I are sinners.
I will never forget June Day. June Day was a girl in our class in Junior High School who was always called upon to stand at the board and take names in case any of us acted up while the teacher went out to that strange, mysterious place called the faculty lounge. Basically, she couldn’t take any more and needed a break. And June Day was called upon to police the room. I must admit that during those days I did not like June Day because June invariably wrote my name on the board. But one day when the teacher went out and June stood, with chalk in hand, eyes scanning the class for any signs of misbehavior, the class could take no more of June. The class erupted into a giant spitball arena. It was absolute anarchy. Suddenly, June got hit — right in the face. There was silence. We wondered what would happen.
June put down her chalk, bent over, got the spitball, and threw it back. She was a part of the anarchy! June Day was not perfect! She could not keep up her veneer of perfection. She was a party to the crime. It was then, as June’s arm was cocked back ready to sail another projectile through the class, that our teacher returned. “June! What are you doing?” I forgot to tell you that the teacher was her mother. But poor old June Day met her match, and she just couldn’t keep up her image of being perfect.
And you know what? Neither can you. None of us can. We cannot come to God based on our righteousness. Do you know what God calls it? He says our righteousness before Him is like filthy rags. So what do we do? We divest ourselves of such an idea. It is unbelief and it is a sin against Christ and His blood shed for sinners. We come to Jesus, just as we are, without one plea and cry out to Him. It’s called repentance.Be divested of the “one thing”
We must also divest ourselves, of what Jesus called “one thing.” Jesus looked at the young man and loved him and said to him, “You lack one thing.” The thing keeping him from God was his wealth.
Jesus went on to teach His disciples that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. We read in
My beloved, what is the “one thing” that keeps you from Jesus Christ? What is the “one thing” that keeps you from giving your life to Him today?
This rich young ruler was zealous but without a knowledge of God and man. His question — What must I do to inherit eternal life? — was the wrong question. He should have asked, Lord, how could a sinner like me ever stand before a holy God? It is not what I can do, but what God will do. He kept that law because you could not keep it, and when you come to Him by faith, He will lay your sins on His Son and impute His Son’s righteousness to your life.
The Way to Eternal and Temporal Security Is to Invest (
This issue of wealth and reward and faith is not something that just poor self-righteous Pharisees struggle with. Material security is something that well-meaning, earnest disciples of Jesus struggle with. And what is Jesus saying? To follow Me may involve the loss of relationships, for your loved ones may not follow Me. But I will give you a family, a family of people who follow Me and love Me and you will become part of them. To follow Me could cost you, not only relationships, but real estate. You could lose everything if there is persecution.
But what Peter was talking about was what many of us face today. If I follow Jesus, what will happen to me? It is an issue of security. Jesus responds that when you invest your life in Him, you will receive rewards from Him, a hundredfold in this life and the next. But to the list of relationships and real estate, He adds persecution. It is a poignant introduction of a word that brings sober stillness, no matter how beautiful the other promises.
The promise is for rewards, but it is clearly not a health and wealth deal we have here. It is a giving away of our lives to Christ and a promise that He will never leave us and will provide what we need in return. How He does it is another story. But I am here to tell you that He does it.
I faced my own insecurities when God called me to preach because I was afraid that I could never regain what I thought I had earned, I was reluctant to give it up, even to follow Jesus. I kept holding on to my job as a manager of a chemical company even though He was calling me to preach. And it worked . . . for a while. Since I had gone to a Kansas undergraduate school and graduated with good grades, a seminary in Kansas City gave me a full scholarship. I didn’t have to pay one single dime to go there. I could keep my job, keep my home, not upset my Aunt Eva who was living in a nice home in Olathe, and life could just go on as normal.
But the seminary was liberal, and keeping my job and trying to go to seminary at night and in the morning and still traveling with the company was becoming a juggling act I couldn’t handle. It began to come tumbling down. One night after I came home from yet another seminary class were I was disappointed in unbiblical teaching and tired from it all, Mae said, “Honey, if God is calling us, let’s just go to a seminary where you can get the best preparation for ministry. Your job here is finished.” She was right. But it took me some time to process it.
When I finally did, I knew one thing: I could never stand in front of a congregation and tell them to trust God and follow Christ if I didn’t trust God and follow Christ at this point in my life. So, I went before the Lord on a Sunday night and it seemed like I was sweating bullets. I told God that I felt like I was walking off a ledge. I reminded God that I was a poor boy from a poor area, that I had been an orphan and now I had a great job, a secure future, a nice home.
Have you ever seen that commercial where this happy suburbanite fellow says, “Hi I’m Stanley Johnson. I’ve got a great house; like my new car? I even belong to the local country club. How do I do it? I’m in debt up to my eyeballs!”
Well, I was in debt up to my eyeballs, not with banks and credit cards, but in debt to fear. I was in the shackles of a fear of losing security. My security was in status and possessions. And do you know what? Those can all go just like that.
But in that time with God, I finally saw that He was Lord of all — my past, my present and my future. With trembling voice, I cried out to Him, “Lord I am going to follow You. You are calling me to follow You to seminary where I can be taught under other pastor-teachers and be prepared to give my life to You and to the people You call me to. I am scared and You know all of my baggage. But my life is not my own, and I must trust You. There is no other way to follow You but to go.”
My beloved, I am here to tell you that God met every need as we packed up and went to seminary. I gave up that job, that home, that beautiful community that I loved so much, but God gave back more than a hundredfold. He has given us freedom, beautiful family members in the body of Christ. He has also given us trials that come from following Him, but the greater the wound, the richer the grace. The promise is for this life and the life to come.
Some of you are hanging on to what will not last. Some of you who are dear disciples of Jesus are in debt up to your eyeballs with things that are keeping you from following Him. This morning, trust Him. Take His hand. Let Him lead you. This is hard, but all I know is that Jesus promises that in this life and in the next, He will take care of you.
Through the body of Christ, God will provide the relationships you need. And in the age to come He will give you real estate like you never imagined — a new heaven and a new earth.The Way to Eternal and Temporal Security Is to Leave the Rest
I have told you many stories about Pastor Bob (The Rev. Robert E. Baxter). He is a brilliant Hebrew scholar, an engaging preacher, but he is also an extraordinary investor! The secret to his success is (promise not to tell anyone) he is a contrarian. It works like this. When he reads in the paper that Coca Cola stock is soaring, he will not buy Coke because others will. He buys Coke when the news is bad and holds it. He is a true contrarian investor. He doesn’t follow the crowd. He leaves them and goes to the back of the line where the investing is good.
Peter and the disciples need to learn about contrarian investing and how it works with the Lord. You see, Peter was upset. Jesus had told the rich young ruler to give it all away and follow Him. The disciples had done that. Peter was asking, What’s in it for me? Jesus told him that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. This is the Christian contrarian way to wealth and reward in the kingdom of God. Jesus was teaching that following Christ is not subtraction. It is multiplication. Not just tenfold. Jesus promises a hundredfold.
What does it mean, “the first shall be last and the last first?” The man who has invested in temporary things and looks to be on top of the world, but who has not humbled himself before Jesus Christ, will be bankrupt on the day of judgment, which will happen first when he dies. His priorities can’t help him deal with his sin before a Holy God. On the other hand, the man who is poor in spirit, who may or may not have vast financial holdings, that man who quietly gave his all to Christ and to His work, who placed God first in his life and, thereby, made himself last in the world’s eyes, will receive great reward here, even through persecution, and eternal reward in heaven.
So how do we gain eternal security if we are seeking God? Divest ourselves of what hinders us from finding true security in Christ. Invest in the kingdom of God, which is the only thing that will last, and leave the rest. The first will be last and the last first. Follow Christ. He will take care of all of our needs. What this world counts as wealth and what God counts as wealth are two different things.
Recently, Jack Welch, the retired CEO of General Electric, went through a very messy and very public divorce. During that time, his vast holdings, the luxurious lifestyle afforded to him by people like my son who owns five shares of GE, were all made public. Sadly, Mr. Welch had also suffered a heart attack. Sometime after it was over, he was asked what he learned from his brush with death. And do you know what this business genius said?
“I learned I didn’t spend enough money.” When pressed — they thought he was joking — he added that, after his bypass surgery, he vowed never again to drink wine that cost less than one hundred dollars a bottle — and he was completely serious.4
In other words, life is too short not to blow every bit of money I have and live it up. These are the words of a fool. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you shall die. That is Epicureanism at its finest. That is the philosophy of a fool who believes that since there is no God, no life after this one, no judgment of sin, chance is all there is, then why not be first in line?
Someone told this story to Chuck Colson, the former top-level legal counsel to President Nixon, who served prison time for his part in the scandal.
“. . . what a bankrupt and hopeless way to live. Christians know that chance doesn’t govern the universe — that there’s much more to our existence than this transitory life. Because of this, we never lack purpose. I get up every day excited that I’ve got something I can do that day to serve God, to help make a difference in the lives of others.”5
This morning God is calling you to a new life that begins, not with the question, What’s in it for me? but with the confession, “I divest my life of all pretensions of holiness. I turn from seeking to please you through my righteousness. I want to invest my life and my all, because I am overwhelmed that you would do that for me. And I follow you no matter what. And I trust you no matter what comes. You are my only security. You are my treasure.”
Michael Milton is Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church, Chattanooga, TN.
1. Rev. Robert G. Herring, Bethel Lutheran Church, Fort Smith, AR, in his sermon, “The Affluent Poor” preached on September 10, 2000 (http://bethelfortsmith.org/pages/sermons/2000/sept1000.html accessed October 19, 2005).
2. Anonymous, found in many sources.
3. Robert Farrar Capon, The Foolishness of Preaching : Proclaiming the Gospel against the Wisdom of the World (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998).
4. Taken from “What is the Source of the Good Life?” from http://www.preaching.com/newsletter/archive_2002/12_03.htm (accessed on October 19, 2005).