I love the way Jesus taught. He met His learners right where they were: the woman at the well, the blind, the lame, the lepers, the woman caught in adultery, the demon-possessed and even the experts in the law and the rich rulers. He took into account all their prior knowledge about Him and the Scriptures, factored in their past experiences and provided answers tailored to meet their individual needs.
Luke, the master historian, gives us some insight on how to answer the most important question we will ever be asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” After the law expert, bent on testing Jesus, asked that question he demonstrated his knowledge of the Scriptures by admitting he should love the Lord with all his heart, soul, mind and strength and love his neighbor as himself. (Luke 10) Jesus agreed. But then, the expert in the law tipped his arrogant hand just slightly by asking, “Well, who is my neighbor?” Jesus then told the story of the Good Samaritan and instructed the man to go and do what seemed hardest for him – to go and be merciful.
The rich government official in chapter 18 asked Jesus the very same question, but got a very different response. To this wealthy man, Jesus said, “Go and sell everything you have and give the money to the poor.” Luke tells us the man went away sad because he had great wealth.
Luke continues to provide insight to this question in the book of Acts. In chapter 2, the Holy Spirit had just been poured out to the believers gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost when Peter addresses the amazed and confused Jewish onlookers. He boldly states, “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” His audience is cut to the heart and asks, “What shall we do?” That’s when Peter gives them yet another answer to the question, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Later, in chapter 16 Paul and Silas have been beaten and are in jail for upsetting the Roman’s law-and-order apple cart. Though wounded they continued to pray and sing through the night as the other prisoners listened. A violent earthquake threw open the jail gates and loosened everyone’s chains. The jailer, thinking all the prisoners surely escaped, drew his sword to kill himself in an act of desperation. Paul stopped him by shouting, “Stop! We’re all here!” Shocked and utterly appalled, the jailer falls before Paul and Silas and asks that all important question, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” The trembling man hears, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household.”
Four different responses to the same question. Hmmm. Does that mean we should just pick one? I don’t think so. Maybe we should all follow a checklist approach to getting to heaven. I don’t think that’s what God intended either. Perhaps… and here’s what I want you to chew on. Perhaps, when trying to answer that question, we need to listen to the heart of the asker as they discover what hinders them from totally surrendering to Jesus. Then we can make THAT our starting place.
The law expert needed to humble himself enough to realize he needed mercy. The rich man needed to get a grip on his materialism and look to Jesus for true riches. The Jews whom Peter addressed were part of the generation that was held responsible for the blood of all the prophets from Abel to Zechariah (Luke 11:50-1). They desperately needed to repent and demonstrate their faith in Jesus by reenacting His death, burial and resurrection through baptism . The Philippian jailer lacked faith and stood at a life or death crossroads. He needed to believe. Each one was given an individual starting place. Each one was provided instruction from the Scriptures and, most importantly for those who chose total surrender, each one placed their own footprints into those of Jesus.
Answering “what must I do to be saved?” takes prayer, study and time with the one asking. Salvation has to be personal. Yes, it involves belief, trust, turning one’s life around, baptism, commitment, service, fellowship and relationship. But Jesus never answered “What must I do to be saved?” with a checklist of steps and I don’t think I should either. He met people where they were, listened to their hearts and trusted the Word to lead them deeper and now, with the help of the Spirit, that’s good enough for me.