I receive many questions. Most are very good. Most I’ve heard before. But at least once or twice a week I get a question I’ve never heard that is a good one.
Today I received a question via email that is both new and extremely challenging. Here is the question:
We know the Scriptures tell us eleven disciples were saved. But did the disciples know they were saved? It seems they themselves were confused over the issue of salvation (Jesus’ saving message) when they were greatly astonished at Jesus’ statement about it being easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matt 19:24). They asked, “Who then can be saved?” (Matt19:25; Mark 10:26; Luke 18:26).
The first question is what type of salvation they have in mind. In light of the context, it seems clear that they are asking about salvation from eternal condemnation, that is, regeneration.
The second question is what they mean. Are they wondering if there is a different condition for salvation for rich people? Or are they wondering if they have misunderstood the saving message. The context is about the rich (Matt 19:24). However, they do not say, “How can a rich man be saved?” It seems that they are genuinely confused about the saving message.
The third question, and I think the most important one, is who is meant by “His disciples.” The questioner assumes that this refers to the twelve.
It should be noted that in the parallel account in Luke, instead of “His disciples” we see “those who heard it said…” (Luke 18:26). Those who heard it does not sound like the twelve. Similarly, Mark 10:26 says, “And they were greatly astonished, saying among themselves, ‘Who then can be saved.’” The bolded word, they, probably looks back to “the disciples” in Mark 10:24. So Mark’s description is essentially the same as Matthew’s.
There is nothing in the context of Matthew 19 (or Mark 10 or Luke 18) that indicates that only the twelve are present. Indeed, the opposite is indicated. Compare Matt 20:17, where we learn that after this incident, “Jesus…took the twelve disciples aside on the road and said to them…” So, too, immediately after this account, Luke 18:31 says, “Then He took the twelve aside and said to them…” Mark 10:32 also says that after this incident, “Then He took the twelve aside again…” Those statements all show that the group that heard Jesus speak to the rich young ruler was not limited to the twelve. More were present.
We know that Jesus had at least seventy saved disciples (cf. Luke 10:20) who traveled with Him (cf. Luke 10:1).
We also know from John 6:64 that some of Jesus’ disciples were unbelievers. They followed Him. But they did not yet believe in Him for everlasting life.
So He had far more than seventy total disciples. He might have had double or triple that number. We know that some of them were unbelievers.
After Jesus said, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible,” then Peter said, evidently speaking specifically for the twelve, “See, we have left all and followed you. Therefore, what shall we have?” (Matt 19:27). Peter’s response suggests that he understood that the issue is rewards not salvation. After all, Jesus had promised the rich man “treasure in heaven,” not everlasting life, if he sold all and gave to the poor (Matt 19:21). Most likely the Lord knew the rich man would never give up his earthly treasure for treasure stored in heaven for the next life unless and until he was convinced that Jesus is Messiah and that He guarantees his eternal destiny.
Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question is about eternal rewards, sitting on twelve thrones and ruling with Christ (which is explained as inheriting eternal life). By the way, that shows that Jesus’ answer is to Peter and the twelve (with Matthias later taking Judas’ place), since He refers to rewards for twelve. The Lord is not saying that all of those following Him would rule, or even that all of those following Him were saved.
This suggests that at least Peter was not asking the question about who can be saved and he was not confused.
While believers can stray and lose their assurance, I think it most likely that the eleven are not the ones asking this question. I think it is most likely some of His unbelieving disciples who ask this. Let’s say that they thought like many Jews did, that if they were faithful to keep the commandments they would gain everlasting life (see John 5:39-40). In addition, most Jews of that time believed that “the rich were those whom God had blessed” (France, Matthew, p. 287; so also Morris, Matthew, p. 493-94). If the rich weren’t saved, then who could be saved? So what Jesus tells the rich young ruler confuses them.
If, however, it is born-again people who are asking, then they have lost assurance. They had known that they were saved by faith in Jesus, apart from works (John 3:16; Luke 10:20). Now they become confused and wonder aloud who can be saved.
While possible, I think it is unlikely that the eleven are confused about the promise of life and are asking this question. Compare Luke 10:20, which occurred before this incident (Matt 19:25 = Luke 18:26). There the Lord told the seventy disciples to rejoice that their names were written in heaven, that is, in the Book of Life.