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Evangelism lessons from the Savior: Part 3

Account of the rich young man

A time and place for sad reflection

James F. Borgwardt

Jedidiah Davidson lived an extraordinary life. He was acclaimed as a scholar and songwriter, statesman and orator, a king of international commerce. He lectured expertly on so many topics that people traveled from great distances just to hear him speak.

Yet, at the end of his life, the successes that astounded others no longer satisfied him. His world-renowned achievements had become hollow trinkets of a restless life apart from God.

I sat down to listen to him the other day. He introduced himself simply as Teacher. This was King David’s son Jedidiah, better known as Solomon. Reading his contemplative book of Ecclesiastes didn’t take long. His hard-won wisdom was no memoir. His message is unsettling, even jarring: Life under the sun—apart from God—is ultimately meaningless.

Why would Solomon devote 12 chapters of Scripture in order to make his readers uncomfortable? Because he wanted people to contemplate the serious reality of life here without God.

In our love for others’ souls, we sometimes need to help them ponder the same reality. That will make them uncomfortable.

Solomon did so through writing wisdom literature. Jesus did so in conversations.

“One greater than Solomon is here”

What Solomon did in 12 chapters, Jesus masterfully accomplished in a few verses.

The young man entered the conversation with Jesus, expecting the Teacher to point him to the one piece missing from his carefully constructed life. Jesus intended to blow it up. Lovingly.

“Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, ‘Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?’

“ ‘Why do you ask me about what is good?’ Jesus replied. ‘There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments’ ” (Matthew 19:16,17).

The young man’s opening question exposed two fallacies in his thinking. He underestimated who Jesus was in merely calling him “Teacher,” and he overestimated himself in assuming he was one special work away from making his good life complete.

Jesus wanted him to do some deep thinking and question his assumptions. Then he answered the question with the Ten Commandments. The man clearly needed the affliction of the law rather than the comfort of the gospel.

But notice a second purpose for Jesus’ answer: Jesus first found common ground on Mt. Sinai with this Jewish man. The commandments drew the man deeper into a genuine conversation.

“ ‘Which ones?’ he inquired.

“Jesus replied, ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (vv 18-19).

The man wanted specifics. Jesus chose to list the love-your-neighbor commandments because they are easy to keep in a superficial way. They were probably the man’s favorites. More common ground. Many people today genuinely feel the same way. “I’m a faithful spouse. I put in an honest day’s work. I’m not a gossip-monger.” Check. Check. Check.

“ ‘All these I have kept,’ the young man said. ‘What do I still lack?’

“Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’ ” (vv. 20,21).

The man was betting his eternity on superficial keeping of the commandments! Jesus challenged him: If he truly loved his neighbor as he claimed, he would use his wealth to help them in their need. And if he loved God more than wealth, he’d be willing to part with all of it.

The One who is good did a good thing for this man. Jesus dropped both tablets of the Law on him to break the hold that money had on his heart.

“When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth” (v. 22).

We hope the man soon came to the same conclusion as Solomon: “Whoever loves money never has enough; . . . As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owners except to feast their eyes on them?”(Ecclesiastes 5:10,11).

It’s been said, “Your world will wobble when it orbits the wrong sun.” That’s true for any unbeliever. But coming to that realization may take some time for serious reflection.

Our work as evangelists includes leading people to wrestle with views of the world that are wrong. They need to recognize the futile end to their faulty reasoning.

Solomon says this is a good thing: “Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:3). Sadness wasn’t the end goal for Solomon or Jesus, of course. Bringing people to contrition prepares them for the gospel. As Solomon’s father wrote, “A broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).

How do we do this? When we don’t have the wisdom of either Solomon or Jesus, how can we possibly go about the same task that they did so well?

A time for everything

In an age of instant this and that, we need to remember that witnessing is sometimes a matter of timing. Here too we can take a page from both Jesus and Solomon.  Ecclesiastes chapter 3 begins “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens . . .”

  • “A time to tear down and a time to build”(v.3). The worldview of unbelievers must be torn down before their lives can be built on the foundation of grace in Christ. Allow them to do most of the demolition themselves. But you can get the project started by asking a good clarification question, such as “How did you come to that conclusion?”
  • “A time to be silent and a time to speak” (v. 7). Though we love to tell the story of God’s grace in Christ, you may hold it back for a season. Let them wrestle with themselves rather than with you. Jesus didn’t run after the sad young man. And Solomon leaves the reader with an unsettled feeling.
  • “[God] has also set eternity in the human heart” (v. 11). God has set a conscience in there too. All people have an innate understanding that there is more than this life under the sun, but they may need to think on it more deeply. That sleeping conscience might just need a little nudge from you.

But unless the situation calls for it, don’t feel the need to drop both tablets of the Law on their heads. One Christian apologist said: It’s enough to put a stone in their shoe.

Plant a thought that challenges their worldview. Then pray for them as they go on their restless way, searching for truth and satisfaction. “There is a time to search and a time to give up” (v. 6).

And when they give up, they’ll hear Jesus calling them, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened . . . and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28,29).

This is the final article in a three-part series on evangelism lessons from the account of the rich young man in Matthew chapter 19.

Author: James F. Borgwardt
Volume 106, Number 1
Issue: January 2019

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