The case of the Rich Young Ruler stands as a tragic example of misplaced faith and wrong values. This zealous candidate for new life forfeited a wonderful opportunity for first-hand discipleship with the King of kings.
While this passage is usually used to exhort people to complete commitment, it requires careful interpretation to clarify the nature salvation by grace while retaining the intended warnings about the deceitfulness of material wealth. Why did Jesus answer this eager prospect the way He did? What lessons does this episode have for believers today?
Before exploring that story, let’s consider some important categories of New Testament discipleship that are useful to accurately discern the dynamics of this historic encounter. (These may overlap, but their distinction is important in this case.)
An inductive study reveals the following categories.
1. Positional Discipleship
Every person who has entered into a saving relationship to the Lord Jesus is automatically His disciple. This is the connotation of the Greek term “didaktos,” meaning “instructed one.” By virtue of Christ being the supreme Teacher, all who are in Him are positionally learners of Him. This is epitomized in His gracious invitation: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt.11:28-30).
2. Ideal Discipleship
The usual term for “disciple” is “mathetes”–a learner, pupil. Everyone who is spiritually reborn is saved by grace through faith (John 3:16,18; Eph. 2:8,9). However, Christ calls us to fully recognize His authority and wisdom as Teacher. He has a special claim on His people; His kingdom deserves nothing less than wholehearted commitment. Vivid Scriptures describe this high calling. Jesus announced in Luke 14:26, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.” (The parallel wording in Matthew 10:27 indicates that the meaning here is to love Him supremely, above all other relationships. In this context “hate” is a Hebrew idiom meaning “to love less than.”) Not every child of God has grown to this quality of love, even though it is deserved by God and provided by the Holy Spirit.
Christ repeatedly summoned people to ideal discipleship: “Then He [Jesus] said to them all, ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me'” (Luke 9:23). Then He gave this warning: ” … No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62; cf. Luke 9:57-61). As a plowman grasps the plow, so the disciple should commit him/herself fully to the Lord. As the plowman aims ahead at a point of reference to cut a straight furrow, so the disciple should stay focused on the priorities of his/her spiritual calling. However, do we always stay perfectly focused?
3. Special Discipleship
During the public ministry of Jesus some were personally invited to accompany Him for first hand learning and training. The Greek term, “martus,” means “witness” (Acts 1:22) and designates such eye witnesses of Christ. Many of these privileged ones died for their faith, hence the later meaning of the English transliteration “martyr.”
This “special discipleship” included the twelve (Luke 6:12-16) and, secondarily, the seventy (Luke 10:1). To some extent, those who could go to see Christ’s miracles and listen directly to His teaching enjoyed this immediate relationship (Luke 9:10-17).
The apostles had such privileges! Jesus explained the meaning of His parables to them and confided, “Blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matt. 13:16,17).
This category of being a disciple was limited to those who were with Jesus during His earthly ministry. It is not available to believers today, since Christ is exalted in heaven and “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7).
In part two of this study, we will examine the encounter of the rich young ruler (Matt. 19:16-22) in light of these discipleship categories.
Have you received Christ as Savior, Lord, and Teacher? (John 1;12,13). Will you respond to His truth with your whole heart?
 “Disciple” is used as a title of believers in texts such as Matthew 10:42; 27:57; Acts 9:10,26,36; 16:1; 21:16. “Teacher” is repeatedly used of Christ (Matt 23:8,10; 26:18) as is the transliteration of the Hebrew term, “Rabbi” (Mark 9:5;11:21; John 1:38).
 Hate as “to love less” occurs in verses such as Matthew 10:37; Genesis 29:31; Malachi 1:2; John 12:25.
 In Luke 9:62, “fit” is the translation of “euthetos” —
“well placed, useful.”
Distinguishing ideal discipleship from category one is not to imply that ideal discipleship is optional. Rather, it is distinct from salvation–as the marriage relationship distinct from the wedding.
Copyright 2007 by John Woodward. Permission is granted to reprint this article for non commercial use. Biblical quotations are from the NKJV, copyright by Thomas Nelson.