Peter Versus The Rich Young Ruler: Who Do You Say That I Am?
Posted by Job on March 2, 2011
In an incident recorded by all three of the synpotic gospels (Mark 10:17-18, Luke 18:18-19, Matthew 19:16-17) the unnamed rich young ruler says something to the effect of “Good Master, what good thing must I do to have/inherit eternal life?” Jesus Christ’s second and third answers to the man are well known: Christ first tells the man to follow the law – to which the man presumptuously proclaims that he has since his youth – and then Christ tells the wealthy man to sell all that he has and follow Him, at which the rich young ruler forbears.
While those responses of Jesus Christ – and the reactions from the rich young ruler that they provoked – are rightfully the focus of most of the emphasis, let us consider Jesus Christ’s first response, which unlike His second and third responses DID NOT provoke a reaction from the rich young ruler.
Jesus Christ stated “Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, God.” Of course, this is one of the verses that the arrogant “Jesus Christ never claimed to be God and centuries later Christianity invented His deity” blasphemers latches upon. While it appears superficially that Jesus Christ with this response is denying to be God, instead what is going on is that Jesus Christ is challenging the rich young ruler.
Jesus Christ was challenging the rich young ruler as to what according to the perspective of the young ruler was the source of His authority. Jesus Christ was asking the rich young ruler to come out and plainly say “Why do you suppose me to be good” and more to the point what gives in your eyes gives me the right to provide any authoritative word, judgment, teaching or advice on who gets into heaven or not and how?
That is why Jesus Christ initially gave the rich young ruler boilerplate, formulaic rudimentary response: follow the law of Moses. Of course, everyone knew this already: they were Jews to whom these oracles of God had long been given. Jesus Christ Himself told the samaritan woman “You Samaritans do not know Who you worship, but we Jews know Who we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.” The rich young ruler was seeking more than that, some form of extra, added or secret knowledge from this great teacher.
And there is the rub. Contrast the woman caught in adultery with this (externally) righteous ruler who (according to him) as zealously kept the law. The woman who was caught in adultery called Jesus Christ “Lord.” The rich young ruler calls Him “Master”, which essentially means “teacher” or “rabbi.” While the rich young ruler recognized the great truths in the things that Jesus Christ said and did, to the rich young ruler, Jesus Christ was still merely a great, wise religious teacher, or at the very most a prophet. So, when Jesus Christ was asked this man “Why are you calling me good”, He was actually saying to the rich young ruler “Is that all you see me me as? Don’t you see me as being anything more?”
And that is why Jesus Christ’s statement “There is none God but good” was not a denial of His deity. Rather, it was a subtle AFFIRMATION of deity. Jesus Christ was confronting the rich young ruler to associate the attributes of God that He was putting out in open display before all – His teachings, His works, and His sinlessness – and giving the rich young ruler an opportunity to respond. He was inviting the rich young ruler to put two and two together. “If only God is good, and this rabbi is doing such good works, giving such good teachings, and living such a good life, then maybe this man is more than a rabbi!” In other words, Jesus Christ invited this rich young ruler to make an intelligent, free will decision concerning His Lordship.
Alas, the rich young ruler, despite his great knowledge of and lifetime dedication to the law of Moses, failed the test, the same test that woman caught in adultery and the thief on the cross passed. Why? Because of the rich young ruler’s sinful state. Because of the total depravity of man, Jesus Christ used the rich young ruler’s own words to challenge, invite and even draw the rich young ruler into acknowledging the deity of Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ’s challenge went right over his head. Or should I say, Jesus Christ’s challenge failed to penetrate the rich young ruler’s cold, dead heart. Not intellect, not even emotion, can overpower the total depravity of man, and the rich young ruler demonstrates this fact.
Now while Jesus Christ did ask the rich young ruler implicitly “Who do you say that I am?”, He asked the same to His disciples explicitly in Mark 8:29 and Matthew 16:16. The difference is not that Jesus Christ asked the rich young ruler implicitly while asking His disciples explicitly. Quite the contrary, where Jesus Christ asked the apostles explicitly, it appears to have been on His own accord. Meanwhile, His challenge to the rich young ruler, though implicit, was in response to the rich young ruler’s own inquiry, and furthermore used the rich young ruler’s words in the challenge (thus convicting the rich young ruler with his own words … the rich young ruler called Jesus Christ good, the rich young ruler knew that only God was good, so either the rich young ruler was being a flattering liar in calling Jesus Christ good, or the rich young ruler had to acknowledge Jesus Christ’s deity based on the attribute that the rich young ruler himself identified).
Instead, rather than claiming that Jesus Christ gave His apostles a superior challenge – which is not the case – the issue is that Peter gave Jesus Christ a superior response. Peter said that Jesus Christ was not merely a rabbi, a moral/religious teacher, or a prophet but instead the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Matthew 16:16). Please note that where Jesus Christ challenged the rich young ruler’s calling him “good”, attributing to Him the divine attribute of goodness, Jesus Christ did not challenge Peter’s calling Him the Son of God, which – as John 10:31-36 reminds us – makes Him equal to God and therefore God. Instead, Jesus Christ confirmed and affirmed it!
So, why was the rich young ruler’s lesser testimony – attributing to Jesus Christ a divine attribute based on what he knew of Jesus Christ – challenged while Peter’s greater testimony – an explicit declaration that Jesus Christ is God – embraced? Or consider the rich young ruler to be Cain and Peter to be Abel. Why did not Jesus Christ have respect for the lesser offering of Peter (Cain), but had respect for and accepted the greater offering of Peter (Abel)? The Bible tells us that through faith, Abel made a more acceptable offering (Hebrews 11:4), and that is why it was accepted. Well, faith does not come from man. Faith is not self-generated, the human product or fruit of a free will decision arrived at either by rationality or emotion. Instead, faith, believing faith, saving faith, the faith that is the mark of righteousness, comes from God. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
So, the words of Peter were accepted because they were not his own words, but rather the words of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ said so Himself in Matthew 16:17 – “And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed [it] unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.” The rich young ruler offered to Jesus Christ his own words, the product of his own free will, his own reasoning, and his own rationality.
Like Cain, the words of the rich young ruler were insufficient, for a sinful man cannot please God with the works of his own sinful hands and sinful heart. It was a faithless offering, and without faith it is impossible to please God. His words were true, but truth without faith is insufficient. God the Father does not accept man coming presumptuously of his own, but only those whom God the Holy Spirit makes acceptable through His presence. God cannot accept man because of man’s sin. But God does accept His sinless Holy Spirit and the works of the sinless Holy Spirit, and one of the works of the sinless Holy Spirit is to regenerate sinful man. God will not accept the work of a sinful man’s hand, but God will accept a regenerated man only because such a man is a work of the sinless Holy Spirit! God will not accept the work of your hands, but he will accept you as the work of the sinless Holy Spirit’s hands! Consider creation in Genesis 1:2, when the Holy Spirit moved upon the face of the waters! Recall that God accepted creation and said that it was “good” in verses appearing from Genesis 1:4 to Genesis 1:31.
In a similar fashion, consider the words of Thomas, the one who doubted. Thomas declared Jesus Christ “my Lord and my God!” and received no challenge, rebuke or correction. The reason is because in John 20:27, Jesus Christ instructed Thomas not to be faithless, not to continue to resist the Holy Spirit. So, in John 20:28, Thomas spoke the word of faith that came to him through the Holy Spirit. For it was not merely being confronted with the resurrected Jesus Christ that caused Thomas to bear witness of Jesus Christ’s deity.
The reason is that the chief priests knew that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, as did the Roman soldiers who stood at guard. While it is a common device of apologetics to use the resurrection of Jesus Christ as proof of His deity, the truth is that the Bible states in Matthew 28:17 that some of the people who witnessed the resurrection doubted! Moreover, the chief priests knew of the resurrection, as did the Roman soldiers who stood guard. These men, with first hand knowledge of the truth, had all that they needed to make an intelligent, free will decision to acknowledge the deity of Jesus Christ. Like the rich young ruler, they failed? Why? Because they did not have faith, because this faith was not given to them by the Holy Spirit. They could not speak the word of faith concerning Jesus Christ’s deity as did Peter and Thomas because as they were not so gifted by the Holy Spirit, neither word of faith or the object of faith was in them!
So, that is the difference between the rich young ruler and Peter. It is the same as the difference between Cain and Abel; between Isaac and Ishmael. Romans 9:13 says “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” Blessed is the man that God bestows His favor of saving grace upon. It is those that have been chosen by God the Father from the foundation of the world that Jesus Christ died for, and it is those that the Holy Spirit give the gift of faith in this same Jesus Christ to. Based on the prerogative of the God the Father, this gift was not given to the rich young ruler. That is why when being asked of Jesus Christ “Why do you call me good when none is good but God?” the rich young ruler had no choice but to forbear and ultimately fall away upon being tried, because the rich young ruler was one in whom the Holy Spirit had not spoken the word of faith to concerning the identity of Jesus Christ.
The rich young ruler had all the information that he needed to make a free will decision to follow Jesus Christ. He knew that Jesus Christ was at minimum a great religious teacher, and he received a specific command from this good teacher: sell all that you have and follow me. But the rich young ruler did not choose Jesus Christ. Why? Because he could not. Such is total depravity. We do not choose God. Instead, God chooses us. Some of us, because of emotion or intellect or a Christian tradition in our family and culture, may choose to try to follow God for a time. But those are the people who, according to the parable of the sower, either do not have root in themselves and dry up in the sun, or get choked by the weeds.
They may know the truth intellectually. They may believe the truth earnestly out of sincere, deep emotions. They may live some form of the truth morally. But without the root in themselves that is only present when the Holy Spirit gives those chosen by God actual living faith, they will fall away. Those are the ones who do not endure until the end. They are the ones who are akin to the virgins who did not have oil in their lamps, and were hence left without when the bridegroom came. Oil is a common metaphor for the Holy Spirit in the Bible.
So yes, while it is useful to consider the second and third words of Jesus Christ to the rich young ruler, let us not forget that those words were only necessary because of the first. Or, it should be said, those subsequent words of Jesus Christ were because of the failed, fallen state of the rich young ruler as exposed by the first. It was “you do not even know who I am, and you cannot know who I am because the Holy Spirit has not told you.” And that is the opposite of what Jesus Christ told Peter, which is that you are ONLY able to know who I am BECAUSE the Holy Spirit tells you. This is because faith does not come from man. Revelation does not come from man.
No, the faith and the revelation required to know who Jesus Christ is comes from God, and without such faith and revelation, none can know who the Son is. And none can come to the Father except through the Son. God the Father chooses His sheep. The Holy Spirit reveals Jesus Christ to the sheep. Then Jesus Christ receives God the Father to the sheep. That is the plan of salvation laid down by God from before the creation of the universe, and the same plan of salvation is the one plainly and meticulously laid forth and explained in the Bible.
And make no mistake, it was no different in the Old Testament times. Consider not just the chosen versus the non-chosen with respect to Abel, Isaac and Jacob versus Abel, Ishmael and Esau. Also, consider Jesus Christ in His parable of Lazarus and the rich man. When the rich man stated asked if he could return to warn his brethren, he was told that his brethren had the law and the prophets, and that if they did not believe them, then they would not believe the testimony of their brother come back from the dead either. Either his brothers had faith given to them by the Holy Spirit or they did not. If they had faith given to them by the Holy Spirit, they would believe what was given to them already. If they lacked this faith, what had been given to them already plus more besides would be of no use. That reminds us of what Jesus Christ said in Matthew 13:12, “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”
This also recalls what Jesus Christ told His accusers in the Gospel of John: that if they truly believed in Moses and the prophets, they’d believe in Him to because He was the one whom Moses and the prophets wrote of. They did not believe in either Jesus Christ or in the law of Moses because though the covenants were different, the gift of faith by the Holy Spirit is the same. That Lazarus-rich man parable shows that even in the different covenants, one is saved by grace through faith according to the election and predestination of God the Father, and that therefore both the Old Testament saints and the New Testament church are redeemed by the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, whose atonement is limited to this same elect.
So, in effect, Jesus Christ asked both Peter and the rich young ruler “Who do you say that I am?” Only one of them gave an acceptable answer, because only one answer was by faith and revelation provided by the Holy Spirit. So the question that I ask of you is this: what is your response? Who do you say that Jesus Christ is? I urge you to pray to God the Father for the revelation of His Son by the Holy Spirit so that your answer might be acceptable also.