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WE CAN’T—BUT GOD CAN – Mark 10:23-27

Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on May 29, 2016 under 2016 |

Message preached Sunday, May 29, 2016 from Mark 10:23-27

Theme: When it comes to the salvation of the soul, what is impossible with man is possible with God.

(Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)

Last Sunday, we were introduced to a remarkable man. At that time, I suggested that he just might be one of the most remarkable individuals that Jesus ever met in all His earthly ministry. But it was precisely because of the remarkable nature of this man that the Lord was able to use their meeting to illustrate a very important lesson to us all.

This man’s encounter with Jesus occurred as our Lord was traveling up the road on His way to Jerusalem. Jesus was on His way to be arrested, tried, crucified, buried and raised from the dead three days later; and all in order to accomplish the great work of our redemption. The story of their meeting is told in Mark 10:17-22; and it’s there that we read;

Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’” And he answered and said to Him, “Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth.” Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.” But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions (Mark 10:17-22).

Now; what was it that made this man stand out? Well; for one thing, he was very wealthy. As we’re told here, he had “great possessions”; and the word that is translated “possessions” speaks of land and property. This man was most likely, then, a very successful land-owner with “great” property—and, of course, with all that those holdings of property contained. But in one of the other Gospels, we’re also told that he was a young man. He may have been in his late twenties or early thirties; and so, he was a highly accomplished and prosperous man at a relatively young age. And in yet another of the Gospels, we’re also told that he was a “ruler”. The word that is used may not necessarily mean that he was a political or religious ruler. It may simply mean that he was a man of high standing in the community—someone who was greatly respected and influential. So clearly this was a remarkably successful and powerful man at a young age—someone that the people of this world would naturally look up to.

But there’s more. As we also pointed out last week, this ‘rich young ruler’ was clearly a very moral and pious man. Whatever great wealth he had obtained, he had obtained honestly and with full integrity of character. When Jesus listed off the commandments from the law of Moses, this man was able to say—to the Son of God, no less—that he had kept them from his youth; and Jesus didn’t challenge his claim. Also, we took note of his humility. Many people who came running to Jesus along the way came with the intention of opposing Him, or discrediting Him, or to confront Him with an attitude of skepticism. This remarkable and outstanding man, however, came running to Jesus in order to fall down on his knees humbly before Him and plead with Him. He called Jesus “Good Teacher”, and believed that Jesus could answer the greatest of all questions: “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” And let’s not forget one of the most remarkable things of all. This man received an honorable mention in the Bible that very few people in the Bible received—that Jesus specifically “loved” him. Jesus, of course, loved many people; but here, we’re specifically told that Jesus looked upon this pleading man, and knew the sincerity of his heart, and had genuine affection for him and “loved” him.

What an outstanding man this was! I think you’d be very hard-pressed to find someone else who compared with him in the Gospels. And did you know that, from the standpoint of the Jewish Old Covenant, he would have seemed to be a recipient of great blessing and approval from God? The Jewish people would have remembered what King David said in prayer to God in 1 Chronicles 29:12–

Both riches and honor come from You,

And You reign over all.

In Your hand is power and might;

In Your hand it is to make great

And to give strength to all (1 Chronicles 29:12)

–and they would have thought that this good man was surely an example of the blessedness of those who reverence God and are under His good favor.

So what an utter shock it must have been to the disciples to see this man come to Jesus with an aching void in his heart, to ask Jesus, “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”, and to then see him walk away sadly—his riches and his prosperity seeming to be the very thing that stood in his way! The impact of it all would have impressed the question upon their minds: If this man—this very remarkable, outstanding, moral, seemingly God-blessed man—could not do enough to enter into the kingdom of heaven, then who ever could?

And that’s when we read the portion of this story that I’d like us to focus on this morning—the portion in which the disciples react to what they just saw, and in which the Lord Jesus explains its significance to them. In verses 23-27, we read;

Then Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were astonished at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were greatly astonished, saying among themselves, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible” (vv. 23-27).

* * * * * * * * * * *

I believe this ancient story is a very important one for modern people today—one that is far more relevant to people’s lives today than they may realize.

One of the things that makes it so powerfully relevant is that, if they stop and think about it, almost everyone can relate to this rich young ruler in one way or another. It might be that someone thinks of themselves as far less ‘moral’ and as ‘accomplished’ as he was. In fact, someone might think that they are the opposite of this man in every way—that they are not only unworthy of God’s blessing, but instead are very worthy of God’s judgment. Or it may be that the opposite is the case. It may be—and I suspect that this is true for most people today—that they think of themselves as something close to this man. They wouldn’t think of themselves as perfect of course; but overall, they would see themselves as a good person—someone who tries hard to do the right thing, and to follow the golden rule, and to do what is fair and just toward others. The thing that makes this story so relevant is that it shows us that, in either case, ‘eternal life’ cannot be earned by human effort. Whether someone is a ‘rich young ruler’ or a ‘poor old scoundrel’—however they might see themselves on the continuum in relation to this man—it ends up making no difference. In either case, no one can do enough to earn eternal life!

And another thing that makes it such a powerfully relevant story—a very wonderful thing indeed—is what it was that was about to happen afterward. Jesus was, after all, on the road to Jerusalem; and was on His way to accomplish for this man—and for every other human being on earth; each one of us included—what could never be accomplished by any earthly power. The man had asked the very specific question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And the answer that the Lord Jesus made this man face to his specific question was that there was ‘nothing’ that he himself could do; and that, of course, was the bad news. But the good news is that Jesus Christ—the Son of God—then went, a shot time later, to the cross and do for us what none of us can do for ourselves. The Lord Jesus, by His own atoning sacrifice, went to die on the cross for us, to take the guilt of our sin completely away, and to make it possible for any one of us who trusts in His sacrifice to inherit eternal life as a gift of God’s grace. This story,then, provides us with the good news that what man absolutely cannot do, God can do.

That, I believe, is the great lesson of Jesus’ words to His disciples in this passage. When it comes to the salvation of the soul, what is impossible with man is possible with God. And every one of us—whatever we might be, however much of a sinner we may or may not have been—all need to trust in God’s grace in order to enter into God’s kingdom, experience salvation, and to inherit eternal life.

This story completely takes away the idea that we can be “good enough” before God to earn salvation in our own power—because if this remarkable man could not do enough in his own power, then certainly none of us can; and it calls us to trust in the complete sufficiency of God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ instead.

* * * * * * * * * *

Let’s take a closer look at this portion of the story. And let’s begin by considering …


Look at verse 23. After this remarkable man had walked away sadly—convinced that he was unable to do enough to answer the cry of his own soul for salvation—we’re told, “Then Jesus looked around …” (v. 23a). The word that is used means that He was turning around, and looking carefully upon His disciples. He was catching them in the eye; and they were seeing His face gaze upon them. It’s a pretty dramatic picture; and it’s one that has convinced most Bible scholars that Mark was reporting this story from the standpoint of an eye-witness account. Early historians tell us that Mark received his details for this Gospel from Peter. And I’ll bet Peter recognized that look! He had seen it several times! It was the Lord’s way of catching the attention of His followers, and drawing them to the very important thing that He was about to tell them. We ought to imagine Him looking at us right now—calling our attention to His words, and wanting us to grasp the point He was about to make.

And look at what He then tells His disciples. As He looked around intensely at them—and having gained their complete attention—He then said to them, “’How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were astonished at His words” (vv. 23b-24a)

Why do you suppose they were astonished? I believe it was because they were suddenly and abruptly being shaken out of a misunderstanding about how someone gains eternal life. They thought it was gained by living a good moral life—one that was characterized by a faithful obedience to the letter of God’s law, and that was made evident by the manifest blessing of prosperity, and health, and strength, and honor. We shouldn’t blame those disciples from being astonished. Many of us also fall into the same misunderstanding today—and also need to be shaken out of it. Those who seek to follow God’s Ten Commandments and live a moral life are indeed blessed. But it’s not by doing so that anyone can ever gain eternal life.

Someone who might serve as a comparison to this ‘rich young ruler’s’ efforts would have been the apostle Paul. He describes his own biographical journey of faith in Philippians 3. He, at one time, counted on his own efforts to gain Him God’s favor; but he met the resurrected Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus; and it changed him completely. Paul wrote about how he counted himself among those who rejoiced in Jesus Christ, and who “have no confidence in the flesh”—that is, in his own human efforts;

though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless (Philippians 3:4-6).

In his early years, Paul might have been very much like that rich young ruler. He could have said that he had faithfully kept the law of God to the best of his own human ability. He also had a very high Jewish pedigree. He was kept true to the Jewish faith at a very early age; and grew in his devotion and zeal for the God of his fathers. Paul had “done” just about as much as a man could “do” to make himself worthy—through his own efforts—of eternal life.

But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead (vv. 7-11).

Paul, then, was a living example of how hard it is for even a ‘rich’ man—a man who, from the Jewish understanding of things, had all the outward blessings of God upon his life—to enter the kingdom of heaven in his own power. Not even Paul could do enough or be enough. Even he found that, in order to enter into eternal life, he had to turn away from his own ‘confidence in the flesh’, and depend utterly upon the grace of God through Jesus instead.

It was the impossibility of any person—by their own efforts—to enter into heaven that the Lord Jesus was setting before His disciples. And it was such an astonishing thing for them to hear that it seems Jesus had to say it to them twice. Look again at verse 24. We read; “But Jesus answered again and said to them, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!” There are two things that you need to know about those words. First, the oldest and best Greek manuscripts of the New Testament do not contain the words “for those who trust in riches”. Obviously, in the context of this passage, He would be speaking of the experience of that rich young ruler. But the words that He actually spoke may have been far more broadly applicable—saying simply “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” It would be something like what He said in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).

And second, in examining the original language of these words, I found that it is possible to understand this not merely as an affirmation but as a rhetorical question: as if H were saying, “Children, you may be asking yourselves, ‘How hard is it to enter the kingdom of God?’” And if that’s the case, then in verse 25, He then goes on to give this shocking answer: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

What a picture! It’s one of Jesus’ most famous expressions. And you have probably heard some teach that, in ancient times in the city of Jerusalem somewhere, there was a hole in the city wall—just small enough for a camel to fit through after it had been stripped of all its load. But there isn’t any historical evidence for that. It’s a suggestion about this verse that seemed to have first made its appearance sometime in the 15th Century. It seems best, instead, to simply take Jesus’ words at their clear, face-value meaning.

A camel, in Jesus’ teaching, is often used as an illustration of a big ‘thing’. Do you remember how He once told the Pharisees that they were “blind guides’, because they were careful about the tiny details and yet ignore great sins in their lives?—that they “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24)? That’s how He’s using the idea of a camel here. He’s making us think of a big, awkward thing. And think of it. Is it really possible to make a camel go through the eye of a sewing needle? It’d only be even remotely ‘possible’ if you made it into very finely shredded camel-jerky and used a pair tweezers—and even then, only if you had a magnifying glass and several decades of time on your hands! You might as well just say, “No! It’s not possible!” Well; Jesus is saying that, as impossible as it is to squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle, it’d still be easier than it would be to try to squeeze one’s self into eternal life on the terms that the rich young ruler was seeking.

It can’t be done. The greatest people in the world have not been able to do it. You and I certainly wouldn’t be able to do it either. We wouldn’t have a camel’s chance.

* * * * * * * * * *

That’s when the impact of Jesus’ words really began to hit the disciples. In verse 26, Mark tells us, “And they were greatly astonished …” Mark uses a great word to describe their state of mind, by the way. It’s a word that means “to be struck out of” something. It’s the idea that they were ‘knocked out of their wits’ by this. And he tells us that they were saying among themselves, “Who then can be saved?” If if would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for even that rich young ruler to enter the kingdom of heaven, then who ever could?

And by the way; that’s something that we should be saying too. The rich young ruler had faithfully kept the commandments that Jesus mentioned his youth. But when Jesus told him that he lacked one thing—that he should go his way, sell whatever of his great possessions that he had, give to the proceeds to the poor, and come follow after him—then the young man turned away sadly. He couldn’t do it. The high demands of the law showed that—no matter how much he may have kept them in other ways—he still couldn’t do enough. And that’s the same conclusion you and I should come to. We can’t do enough. Who could ever do it? Who could—on their own power—be saved?

And that’s when Jesus shows us …


We’re told in verse 27 “But Jesus looked at them …” There’s a lot of looks from Jesus in this passage by the way, aren’t there? I think that, once again, Jesus is gazing upon them so that they’ll snap out of their sense of bewilderment and amazement for a moment and hear the important thing that He is about to tell them.

And what does He tell them? “With men it is impossible …” He is affirming to them that they are right in what they’re thinking—that no one, in their own power or ability, can be saved. We will only fail if we try. We are born of our fallen father and mother Adam and Eve; and we have inherited the guilt of their sin and their sinful inclinations. We can never be good enough—no matter how hard we may try. Jesus said that with men, it is “impossible …” That’s the bad news.

And then comes the good news. He went on to say, “but not with God; for with God all things are possible.” And as we read on in the story, the very next thing that will happen is that they will make their way to Jerusalem, where Jesus would then accomplish for us on the cross what we could not do in our own power. Like it says in Isaiah 53:6;

All we like sheep have gone astray;

We have turned, every one, to his own way;

And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6).

Or as it says in 2 Corinthians 5:21 concerning God our Father toward Jesus His Son;

For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Or as it says in Romans 4:25; Jesus was

delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification (Romans 4:25).

Or as it says so wonderfully clearly in Romans 10:9-13;

that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. For “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:9-13).

* * * * * * * * * *

So; now that Jesus has died on the cross for our sins, and paid the debt for us—and now that He has risen from the dead to prove that God has accepted His sacrifice—what’s the answer to the rich young ruler’s question? What shall we do to inherit eternal life? It’s simply that we believe on Jesus and receive what He has done for us. With man, it is impossible for a fallen human being inherit eternal life. But it’s not impossible with God; “for with God all things are possible”—even our salvation.

We can’t—but God can.

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