Chapter 19 The Gospel According to Matthew

Watchman Nee


The Peril of Earthly Riches and the Reward of the Heavenly Kingdom, 19.16 – 20.16


This rather lengthy passage is quite difficult to explain.


v.16 “One” – In other Gospels we are told that he is a ruler of the Jews (Luke 18.18, for example).


“Teacher” – Such a way of addressing the Lord is certainly an exemplary trait. It shows that this young man has heard of the Lord and has sought him for a long time.


“What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” – He already possesses considerable knowledge concerning spiritual things: (1) that eternal life is a must, (2) that he does not have this eternal life, (3) that doing a good thing may gain for him this eternal life, but (4) that he does not know what this good thing is which he must do to obtain eternal life. Notice that he does not ask if there is eternal life, nor does he think only of obtaining the pleasures of this age and not those of the age to come.


vs.17 The Lord answers the young man according to the latter’s background and status. Neither does He tacitly acknowledge here that doing some good thing will obtain eternal life (for to one who believes that doing a good thing is the way of eternal life, the most natural answer would be to say, Why not do good? But this is not the reply given by the Lord.).


“One there is who is good” – The Lord helps the young man to know himself. Only one is good (God), and there is none else.


“Keep the commandments” – for “he that doeth them shall live in them” (Gal. 3.12). Unfortunately there is no one who keeps the commandments and thus may be justified before God. If one stumbles on the smallest point of the law, he is guilty of all the laws (James 2.10). Law was originally a ministration of the Lord God, yet in has become the ministration of death; so says Paul (2 Cor. 3.7-9). Just as the dumb cannot ask how to sing hymns to please God, nor can the cripple ask how to dance so as to be welcomed, even so, no man is able to ask how to do good so as to gain eternal life. Nevertheless, sinners today keep on asking this question.


vv.18-19 The young man asks which of the commandments, because he already understands that there are so many. Now what the Lord then mentions all belong to the second tablet of law, since the fifth through the tenth commandments define the duties before men while the first through the fourth in the first tablet deal with the responsibilities before God. The Jews considered themselves as having strictly kept the first tablet; consequently, the Lord asks the young man about the contents of the second one.


v.20 “All these things I have observed” – By raising these commandments the Lord hopes that the young man will come to know himself truly and thereby answer, No. yet he replies that he has kept all these things.


v.21 How audacious is the spirit of this young man! He accounts himself capable of doing all good things. And so the Lord now points out one good thing which he is incapable of doing – to sell all he has and give to the poor. He may not object to selling all that he has, but to give away all is impossible. And furthermore, to then follow the Lord – that is to say, to live a life of wandering without any permanent place of rest – is absolutely impossible.


v.22 “He went away sorrowful” – This proves that the young man is unable to do good. He can neither keep the Ten Commandments nor give to the poor, thus loving his neighbors as himself. When God gave the law He knew no man could keep it. It was given so that man (after he had sinned) might know himself as a sinner (see Rom. 3.20). How sad that this young man would rather forfeit eternal life and retain the pleasures of this world. He is therefore a perishing soul.


v.23 The Lord is now speaking to the disciples. He turns to another subject – the reward of the kingdom of heaven. The seed of this idea is actually sown in the Lord’s words of verse 21. Since “eternal life”, “the kingdom of heaven”, “the kingdom of God” and “be saved” are all bound up together, this parable appears difficult to explain. Yet if we are clear on two different lines it will not be hard to understand after all. The two distinct lines of thought are (1) the pursuit of the young man is toward eternal life, and (2) by using this incident of the young man as a teaching material, the Lord explains to His disciples the reward of the kingdom of heaven. Verse 21 actually contains a word pertaining to the kingdom. Going further than just dealing with the matter of initial salvation, the Lord points the young man to the truth of the kingdom: to “have treasure in heaven” denotes the abundance in the kingdom.


v.24 “Needle’s eye” – Some commentators interpret this to refer to the small door in a Jewish city gate: a camel loaded down with a wealth has great difficulty in getting through such a door. Hence the idea here is not that the rich man cannot enter the kingdom of God, but that it is difficult for him to enter because sometimes our Lord will require him to forsake his wealth. Not impossible, only difficult. The definition of “a rich man” is one who is unwilling to give up to God the things which he loves. Under this definition it is quite possible to behold “a rich man” of only five or ten dollars.


“The kingdom of God” – The preceding verse is worded “the kingdom of heaven”: How then is one to explain this? Well, the kingdom of heaven has three different meanings: (1) Christendom, (2) the church, and (3) the millennial kingdom. The kingdom of God also has three distinct interpretations, which are (1) a spiritual experience (see Luke 14.15), (2) the millennial kingdom, and (3) eternity. The kingdom of heaven in verse 23 has reference to the millennial kingdom and not the church because the condition for entering the church and the kingdom is different from each other. Lest people might misunderstand, verse 24 records the Lord as using the term the kingdom of God. Hence, both the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God share together this meaning of the millennial kingdom.


v.25 “Astonished exceedingly” – The disciples misunderstand the Lord, for He shifts from the question of eternal life to the matter of reward. If it is so difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom, how, they ask the Lord, can anyone be saved?


v.26 “And Jesus looked upon them” – The eyes too may speak.


“With God all things are possible” – To answer them the question asked by the disciples, the Lord returns to the matter of salvation which is possible with God. God alone can change the greedy heart of a person. He is able to raise up a Saul of Tarsus, a Barnabas, a Levi, a Zacchaeus, those of Caesar’s household (Phil. 4.22) and even the steward of Herod’s house. The rich young ruler had said he was able but actually he was not, for God alone is able.


v.27 The question of Peter has the flavor of (1) self-righteousness, and (2) a bargaining spirit. In answering him the Lord reveals two sentiments. First, He sympathizes with Peter’s understanding of good works as being the basis of the kingdom reward. But second, he disapproves of Peter’s strong self-righteousness and bargaining spirit. So that in verses 28-30 He is found encouraging Peter and building up his knowledge, whereas immediately following this in 20.1-16 He is found chiding Peter for his bargaining spirit.


v.28 “Ye who have followed me” – Those who emulate Christ in going the narrow way, taking up the cross with patience and humility.


“In the generation” – This word “regeneration” is used twice in the Bible: once in Titus 3.5 where it points to personal recovery – which is being born again, and here in this verse 28 where it refers to the recovery of the world – the consequence of which is the millennium (see also Rom. 8.19-23 and Is. 11.6-9). From Adam until Moses sin was in the world (Rom. 12.14), and from Moses until the Lord Jesus sin reigned (see Rom. 5.12-14, 21). All who are born again in this age are delivered from the power of sin. Likewise in the regeneration of the world, first comes the deliverance from the power of sin (for Satan is bound for a thousand years – the period of the millennial kingdom – which is done by the Lord and not through any social reform done by men), and then shall come the new heaven and the new earth with deliverance from the presence of sin.


v.29 Mark’s Gospel has “now in this time” and “in the world to come” (10.30). Matthew makes no such distinction in his account.


“Hundredfold” does not mean having a hundred fathers, rather it refers to a hundredfold joy as compared to the pain of leaving relatives and possessions behind.


“Eternal life” here points to eternal life in the kingdom. For eternal life is seen in three stages: (1) in this age – “hath eternal life” (see John 5.24); (2) in the millennium – that is, in the age to come (see Mark 10.30 and Luke 18.30); and (3) in eternity (see Rom. 2.5-7).


v.30 “Many . . . last” and “many . . . first” – These words refer to rewards of greater or lesser kind and degree, which can serve as a good warning to Peter for his self-righteousness.




Chapter 20 The Gospel According to Matthew


The Peril of Earthly Riches and the Reward of the Heavenly Kingdom, 19.16-20.16 (Concl’d)


By reading the context carefully we can easily see that 19.30 has a vital connection with this chapter (as we have said before, the division of the Bible text into chapters is not Spirit-given but made arbitrary by man): for please notice that verse 30 of chapter 19 is similar to verse 16 of this present chapter. As regards Peter’s earlier question, we mentioned that the Lord has two things to concern himself with: (1) to sympathize and encourage Peter and the other disciples by saying that everyone who leaves all for the Lord shall be rewarded; and (2) to correct in Peter an improper attitude which manifested itself as self-righteousness and a bargaining spirit, whereby one labors for the sake of reward and not because of his loving the Lord. As we already indicated in the previous chapter, 19.28-30 deals with the first item, and again 19.30, together with 20.1-16 deals with the second – namely Peter’s attitude. God is sovereign, and He is not bound by any law. So that this parable stresses the sovereignty of God, with the implication, therefore that reward is according to grace. Now some view this parable as having reference to the matter of salvation. But this is impossible since salvation is accomplished by the Lord and not obtained through our works.


vv.1-16 “A man that was a householder” – This parable together with the one at the end of chapter 18 dealing with the unmerciful servant are most difficult to explain. We can only seek for their teachings but cannot expound on their details. For instance, in the present parable we can explain the man that was the householder as God, yet God never hires anybody. And what is the meaning of a shilling a day? And who as laborers dare to murmur before God?


The householder, as we have said, is God. As to the first group in the morning, God comes to an agreement with them on their wages. With respect to the second group hired about the third hour, God says that “whatsoever is right I will give you” (v.4) – here there is no settled upon agreement. To the third and fourth groups, at about the sixth and the nineth hours respectively, He again does the same thing – there is no agreement. But to the fifth group who came at about the eleventh hour, He has not even mentioned any reward. Just here is the key – that there is no legal discussion. “Early in the morning” may represent the days of youth. “A day” means a lifetime. “About the third hour” has reference to those people who have stood idly by since earning morning but are not called until then; that is to say, people who begin to do God’s work at thirty year’s of age. And the additional laborers who come into the vineyard at later hours can refer to such who are forty or more and begin to serve God.


“And when even was com, . . . pay them their hire” – The householder instructs his steward to begin with the latecomers, those who came in about the eleventh hour; otherwise, had it been the reverse order, those who worked earlier would neither have known the wages of the last laborers hired nor murmured about it. Nor would the Lord have been able to teach us this parable that at the time of rewarding there will yet be grace. Let us see that if He gives less than what is right, that would be unrighteous. But if He rewards the latecomers with the same amount as the earlier ones, that is His sovereignty. (It is as though He is saying to Peter: Do not be self-important and self-righteous, for you want to be ahead of everybody. In rewarding I will not owe you anything. In rewarding I will not owe you anything. Yes, you will be given the throne, but God has the prerogative to give the same reward to those who work less and sacrifice less.) By this the Lord destroys the legalistic and commercial concept of Peter, who seems to have forgotten completely God’s grace and sovereignty. Even though God will not use His sovereign power to do an unrighteous thing, He certainly can use this prerogative to dispense grace. He who overstresses reward tends to forget the Lord’s love. And because of this characteristic in Peter, after His resurrection the Lord asked this disciple three times, “Lovest though me?” – which was then followed by the command to work: “Lovest though me?” which was then followed by the command to work: “Feed thy sheep” (see John 21.15-17).


In some versions (for example, the Authorized), verse 16 has “for many be called, but few chosen”; if so, then the connotations of 19.30 and 20.16 are slightly different. The “many” in 19.30 is broader and more general, and perhaps Peter is included there. “The last” in 20.16 is more specific, since it must refer to those who were called to the vineyard about the eleventh hour. The laborers who would complain evidently forget the word which is found in Romans 9.14-24. Yet how grateful must be those who begin working about the eleventh hour and receive a shilling each.


Hence the teaching of the Lord here is: a person should always think of himself as having commenced working at about the eleventh hour, forgetting what he has left behind for the Lord’s sake; and thus shall he receive the one shilling with contentment and gratitude. Or else he will only think about the sacrifice he has made so that when he receives his reward of one shilling he will be discontented and will fall backward.