“There is only One who is good ...” (Matthew 19:17)

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" "Why do you ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments." (Matthew 19:16-17)

What does Jesus mean by 'good'?

The word "good" is not exactly conveying what Jesus was trying to say. 

Actually, "good" is not the correct translation in this context. The word "good" here is being translated from the Greek word ἀγαθός (agathos). Yes, this Greek word can mean "good." But it can also mean "excellent, distinguished" and "upright, honorable" according to Thayer's lexicon.

Consider the context. A man who comes up to Jesus with a special question would not be asking what "good" thing they could do. Such a person would ask what excellent thing they could do to get "eternal life." 

The man is speaking of doing something special. Everyone can easily do "good" things. And everyone around Jesus was doing "good" things. Rather, the man was asking what he could do that would distinguish himself from others. Something special that would get him into heaven.

Furthermore, Jesus would never say that he was not "good." Certainly, Jesus would accept that he was good.

Did the man call Jesus "good teacher"?

The King James Version and the New King James Version, along with a few others, write that the man said to Jesus:
Now behold, one came and said to Him, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16 NKJV)
Yet many other versions, including NIV, drop the "good" from "good teacher."

But leaving this out would make Jesus' response to the man nonsensical. Why would Jesus say that only God is "good" (if indeed "good" is the correct translation) if the man wasn't saying this about Jesus?

The term, "good teacher" is being translated from the Greek phrase, Διδάσκαλε ἀγαθε. The first word means "teacher" or "master." The second word means, as detailed above, "excellent, distinguished, honorable" and so on. Greek grammar typically places the adjective after the noun, unlike English.

Indeed, there are two instances of this word in the question by the man. The first was when the man addressed Jesus. And the second was when the man referred to doing something to get "eternal life."

This would make Jesus' response certainly is answering to the man saying something about Jesus, since Jesus says there is "only one is good."

However, this does not necessarily mean that the man actually said "good" twice. As mentioned above, in context, the second use of the word would be "excellent" or "upright."

But the first use would likely be the man was addressing Jesus as "distinguished teacher," "honorable teacher" or "excellent teacher."

And it is to this that Jesus replies that  "There is only One who is honorable" or "There is only One who is distinguished." Or, "There is only One who is excellent."

Certainly, using the word "good" is a nonstarter. Jesus would never suggest that he wasn't even "good." Nor would he praise God by saying God is merely "good." 

But this all changes when the right words are used. The closest translation would probably be something like:

“Distinguished Teacher, what special thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?”

This might more practically be translated to:

“Excellent Teacher, what service shall I do that I may have eternal life?”

This would now make sense if Jesus responded in kind:
""Why do you ask me about what is excellent?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is excellent."
Other Biblical versions translate Jesus' statement to something to the effect of:

"Why do you call me good?"

or in practical terms:

"Why do you call me excellent?"

If we prefer, we can replace excellent with distinguished or honorable. Each provides a similar result. These words describe greatness.

The result is that Jesus was taking a humble role, and giving praise to the Supreme Being.

Jesus was essentially praising God. He felt that greatness belongs solely to the Supreme Being.

If a person denies they are not good it means something different than if a person denies that they are not excellent or distinguished.

By someone saying they are not good, it often has another meaning - the person feels they are dishonest or not kind to people.

Jesus was not saying that he was not a good person.

Why is God excellent?

The Supreme Being is not just "good." He is excellent. He is full of love, mercy, and kindness. He is understanding and forgiving. He is beautiful yet available to each of us.

Why do some deny the existence of the Supreme Being - or otherwise see Him as impersonal or far away in some other world? Because we want to be supreme. We want to be the center of the universe.

We simply have a hard time accepting that someone other than ourselves can be the center of the universe.

Even though it is clear we are not the center of the universe. We can simply look around us - at the more than seven billion other humans on this planet - and figure this out. We can simply consider the weather - which we cannot control. And we can look at our own lives - full of pain, disease, and eventually death - to understand that we have no control over things.

We aren't, in other words, the center of the universe, nor are we the controller of the universe.

But most of us refuse to accept this. This is why so many of us fight with each other over the control of property. This is why government leaders and their armies are fighting others for control over certain lands and populations. This is why there is crime. This is why there is no peace.

Because we are trying to gain control over things we do not own.

Only the Supreme Being owns this world and the things in it. Only the person who is in control over something can own that something. The Supreme Being controls everything, and thus owns everything.

Thus only the Supreme Being is distinguished. He maintains every distinguishing quality that exists. How could any quality exist unless it had an origin? The Supreme Being is the origin of excellence.

And God is the center of the universe.

What does Jesus mean by 'enter life'?

The word "life" is being translated from ζωή (zōē) - which means "the state of one who is possessed of vitality or is animate;" or "every living soul."

In other words, Jesus is speaking of spiritual life. The soul is our spiritual self. It lies on another dimension - the spiritual dimension. The soul is not simply a part of us - we are the soul. This is why Jesus also said:
"Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul." (Matt. 10:28)
Jesus was teaching his students that we are not these physical bodies. We are the living spirit - the soul - who is temporarily operating this physical body.

So instead of the man becoming great in the eyes of others - becoming distinguished or excellent - Jesus is stating that he needs to become a follower. Someone who is devoted to following the instructions of the Supreme Being.

This is the opposite of the desire to be excellent or distinguished in the eyes of others. Following the instructions of the Supreme Being means becoming God's servant.

This is our natural position. The Supreme Being created each of us to be His loving servant and friend. But because He wanted us to truly love Him, He also gave each of us the freedom to love Him or not.

Those who are residing in the physical world searching for self-centered happiness are here because we decided we didn't want to love God. We wanted to love ourselves.

Accommodating our desire, the Supreme Being gave us these temporary physical bodies in which to play out our self-centered desires.

But we also have the choice to return to our innate loving relationship with the Supreme Being.  

Making such a choice would allow us to "enter life" according to Jesus. 

"Entering life" is the basis for the most important instruction according to Jesus:
" 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment." (Matthew 22:37-38)