16 A man approached Jesus and said, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to have eternal life?”
17 Jesus said, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There’s only one who is good. If you want to enter eternal life, keep the commandments.”
18 The man said, “Which ones?”
Then Jesus said, “Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. 19 Honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
20 The young man replied, “I’ve kept all these. What am I still missing?”
(Matthew 19:16-22, Common English Bible, emphasis mine).
I have been stuck on the young man’s question: “What am I still missing?”
It seems to me that most people, when they’re told that they are doing everything right, would be satisfied with that answer and turn away before they manage to mess it up. Or perhaps walk away smugly, confident in their own perfection. And yet this young man does none of these things. Instead, he asks “What am I still missing?”
I applaud his question. May we all share in that question. That is the kind of question which guards against spiritual complacency. That is the kind of question that a person who is genuinely seeking to grow would ask. It’s the kind of question we ask when we recognize just how big God is, and how much more he can still do in us.
That question is worship! It says “You have done all of this in me already! What’s next?!” It’s a question which stands before a perfect, loving God and says “I want to reflect your perfect love even more!”
It can also be a question someone asks when they are unsatisfied. I happen to think that’s how the young man asks the question. “I’m keeping all the rules, but I don’t sense that I am growing in the way I expected I would. What is missing? What is preventing growth?”
Only the rich young man is talking about eternal life. Which is a bit puzzling. One of the common questions I am asked as a pastor is “How will I know that I am going to heaven when I die?” It is commonly asked by people who feel like they’re on the fence. They’re responding to the old evangelism technique which asks “If you were to die tonight, are you certain you would go to heaven?” And their answer is “I don’t know.”
I often respond to this question like this: “How are you making room for God’s salvation in your life right now?” Or, in other words – if you want to know if you’re saved, ask what God is saving you from right now. Because salvation isn’t for the dead, it is for the living. So what is God saving you from now?
Hatred of your enemy? A spirit of vengeance? Self-righteousness? Fear? Hostility? A crude mouth? An unkind tongue? Anxiety? A hot temper? What is God saving you from now? How is God transforming you today?
I have always been impressed that the young man recognized that he was lacking something. What we might miss, though, is that when the young man asks about eternal life, he isn’t asking about heaven.
The phrase he uses is “eternal life.” We’re prone to superimposing “heaven” over “eternal life.” But the young man did not have the concept of heaven that many hold today. For him, heaven was God’s realm. He did not anticipate dying and going to heaven. He anticipated living an “eternal life” now, and experiencing resurrection at the end of the age.
The Greek word that is translated as “eternal” is aiōnios (it looks like this: αἰώνιος). It is a compound word, joining aiōn with -ios. aiōn means “ages” and -ios means “pertaining to.” Aionios means “pertaining to the ages.”
So what the man is asking is “How can I experience [a full and meaningful] life in this age? And in a sense, he’s asking “How can I experience the kind of life we’ll enjoy in the age to come while I am still in this age?”
In Jewish understanding, there is life in this age (aiōn) and life in the age to come. In Christ, we recognize that the age to come is both now and not yet, and we call it the Kingdom of God. So the man’s question is “How do I experience life in the age to come? And how do I experience it today?”
Jesus tells him that he has kept the laws. But the man knows that his life lacks the fullness and meaning of life in the age to come.
And Jesus tells him, “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come follow me.”
Jesus is saying, “Pattern your life according to the ways of the Kingdom.” This world encourages us to stockpile wealth, as the young man had done. The Kingdom of God is structured according to generosity, self-giving, self-sacrifice, and purposeful relationships. There is not a hierarchy of people, but all look after one another. If you want to know what eternal life looks like, you have to start by living it.
The question for us becomes,
“What must we release in our lives in order that we might begin to live according to the age to come; the Kingdom of God?”“What must we release in our lives in order that we might begin to live according to the age to come; the Kingdom of God?”
The young man went away sad, finding himself unable to depart from his safety-net of wealth, his luxury, his protection, and his self-provision. He went away unable to experience how God provides when we surrender our safety-net, how he protects when we lay down arms and self-protection measures, and how he provides when we trust in him instead of ourselves to provide. Unless he makes a dramatic turn, he will never know the fullness of life we experience in Christ.