Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Ecclesiastes 5:10–20 | Hebrews 4:1–13 | Mark 10:23–31

Text: Mark 10:23-31

Covering points from Formula of Concord – Article II on Free Will

Last week, we heard the rich man go away from Jesus disheartened by His invitation, “Follow me.”  It was quite sad, and actually remarkable that this is the only time in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus’ invitation is refused.

There is good reason why the Holy Spirit included this in the Gospel.  Imagine if every time Jesus spoke to people, they believed, and every time He went to heal someone they were instantly made well [see Mark 8:22-26].  If this were the case, later generations of Jesus’ followers, like us, would get the idea something was wrong with us.  We share the Gospel with others today, don’t we?

(And we must share the Gospel, because we can’t assume that anyone will crack a Bible for themselves.  We also can’t even assume if they go to a church that claims to be Christian that they will hear the Gospel and not some Jesus-ified moralistic motivational speech.)

When we share the Gospel, the thing that causes us to wonder the most is why people don’t respond to God’s gracious invitation. 

This is a good occasion to review what God teaches us in His Word about the freedom of the human will and the power of sin over our will.  In other words, to answer questions like, “What powers in spiritual matters does a person have after the fall of our first parents and before regeneration? Can a person by his own powers—prior to and before his regeneration by God’s Spirit—get ready and prepare himself for God’s grace? Can a person accept and apprehend or reject the grace offered through the Holy Spirit in the Word?” (FC Epitome II 1)

23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

Listen to the three things Jesus is saying here: 1) It is exceedingly difficult for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God, 2) how difficult for anyone to enter the Kingdom of God, and 3) it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom.  Note these carefully, that in no case does Jesus say people will not enter the Kingdom.  Wealth in this life—“the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1 John 2:16)—is something that easily snares people and gives them an excuse to reject God’s call to repent and believe.  But in reality, the second thing Jesus says is the umbrella which covers the other two: “Children, how difficult it is to enter the Kingdom of God!”

So, let me get this right, Jesus.  You want us to go and preach the Gospel to the whole creation, and yet the task is difficult and even as likely as getting a camel to pass through the eye of a needle?!  That is to say, it’s not happening if it’s up to us.  Well, we’re not the first to balk at this:

26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”

This is the answer to those questions I mentioned earlier from the Formula of Concord, as to how “free” our will is to hear God’s call to repent and believe the Gospel.  And we need to get this right to understand what happens when we share our faith in Christ.

Our Lord Jesus, who has given us His Word of life, says, “As far as man is concerned, it is impossible; but not as far as God is concerned.” (alternate translation of verse 27)

The rich man ended up with his eyes downcast because he was approaching the kingdom on human terms.  Remember how he asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk. 10:17)  Dr. James Voelz explains it this way:

“As far as man is concerned, the key to entry into [the kingdom] of God lies with demands, and, as a result, everything is understood as demand, even Jesus’ kindly/gracious invitation. Furthermore, as far as man is concerned, these demands cannot be fulfilled. It is for this reason that the rich man reacts the way he does.

“As far as God is concerned, however, the key to people entering His [kingdom] lies in Himself. He understands, not only that He is the Creator of all things [Gen. 1:1], not only that He is the one who chooses people to be His own [Deut. 7:6], but also that He alone is the one who saves and brings deliverance [Isa. 63:5].”[1]

To our natural human ears, God’s Word rings with demands and requirements, with untenable burdens.  Surely you’ve heard someone comment how restrictive Christianity is, and often they’ll complain about all they would have to give up.  But we should also be careful to share our faith in such a way that it doesn’t sound like a “you have to do this to please God” life. 

Yet we do need to understand the natural condition of ourselves and the people we talk to.  Here’s an illustration from the Formula of Concord, which you can think of when you see the ghoulish Halloween décor:

“As little as a corpse can quicken itself to bodily, earthly life, so little can man who through sin is spiritually dead raise himself to spiritual life, as it is written, ‘When we were dead through our trespasses, he made us alive together with Christ.’ [Eph. 2:5]” (Epitome II 3)  It’s not a matter of convincing them, selling them on Jesus, or cajoling them to make the right choice.  This is something that is tragically missed in modern American Christianity, which turns Jesus into a commodity.  Smart people choose Jesus.  Come to our church because we have social activities, a cheap coffee stand, free babysitting during worship, and music that you like.  “As far as man is concerned, it is impossible.”  No human wisdom or cunning will actually bring anyone into the Kingdom of God.  It may get them to participate in the group for a while, but only God is able to actually save them.

And God does do what is impossible with man, when and where it pleases Him when people hear the Gospel.  “God the Holy Spirit, however, does not bring about conversion without means. For this purpose He uses the preaching and hearing of God’s Word, as it is written in Romans 1:16, the Gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Also Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” It is God’s will that His Word should be heard and that a person’s ears should not be closed (Psalm 95:8). With this Word the Holy Spirit is present and opens hearts, so that people (like Lydia in Acts 16:14) pay attention to it and are converted only through the Holy Spirit’s grace and power, who alone does the work of converting a person.” (Ep. II 4-5)

“The rich man failed because he looked only to the sacrifice he would have to make.” (Byrne, 164)  But what God the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see is the greatest sacrifice, which God made to win us helpless sinners.

Second only to the question of why some believe and others don’t is…why me?  Why was God’s call to follow Jesus effective for me?  Please rest assured that it was not because of anything in you.  This is why it is called grace, and why your faith is called “ a gift of God, not the result of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:9).

28 Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

Like us, Peter notices that they did follow him, and for the twelve in particular, they did leave everything without hesitation.  So what about them, and for that matter, what about us?  Jesus has already hinted at how precious faith in the grace of God is.  He calls them “Children” which reminds them and us to keep our eyes on our Heavenly Father for all these things.  And because God is our Father, He will certainly take care of us, no matter what may be lost for the sake of knowing Him.  Whether it means being cut off from our family because we belong to Christ, or losing our goods or job because we refuse to deny Him.  God our Father is readily able to give us our eternal family—brothers and sisters in Christ—houses if we have been forsaken, goods for what we’ve lost.  Yes, also persecutions, but those last for a time and then pass.  Whatever you may have had to leave in order to heed Jesus’ call, “Follow me,” your Father will provide, and forever you will have eternal life.  Confident of this, and by the Holy Spirit, we can say,  “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38-39)

The rich and popular may be honored and considered first now, but it actually depends on God who works all this, who makes the dead in sin alive in Christ, and who keeps His children through many trials. When Christ comes again in glory and for judgement, God will display them first of all as His priceless treasures—even His beloved children.  Amen.


[1] Voelz, James, “Concordia Commentary: Mark.” pp. 754-755

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