What is the Deal With The Camel and The Eye of the Needle? Can Rich People Be Saved, or Not? #194
Hello friends, and happy Thursday to you! How is everybody doing out there? Me? I’m a bit sore, thanks for asking. I actually tore my hamstring climbing around on boulders yesterday and am now feeling my age. I should stick to more age appropriate activities such as doing a daily Bible podcast…so let’s get on with that!
Today’s Bible readings are Joshua 11, Psalms 144, Jeremiah 5, Gerontologists 4, and Matthew 19. Our focus question comes from the end of Matthew 19 – one of the more debated and discussed teachings of Jesus. Unfortunately, many of the explanations that you have heard about this teaching of Jesus are grade A horse-pucky. For instance, as we will soon learn, there was no ‘camel gate’ in Jerusalem that camels had to stoop down to get through. As for the other explanations, let’s read the passage and then discuss it.
Some people have struggled with this teaching of Jesus, and sought to clarify it for Him. Here is an example of speculation on this passage that you can easily find online:
The interpretation that seems to make sense is this. The “Eye of the Needle” was indeed a narrow gateway into Jerusalem. Since camels were heavily loaded with goods and riders, they would need to be unloaded in order to pass through. Therefore, the analogy is that a rich man would have to similarly unload his material possessions in order to enter heaven.
The only issue, of course, is that there is no record whatsoever of a Needle gate or an Eye of the Needle gate in Jerusalem. The very first time that this was even mentioned as a possibility was in the 800s AD. No contemporary record exists pointing to the possibility of a ‘Needle gate,’ which seems to indicate that this explanation was invented out of whole cloth.
There is another option as well that some have mentioned, and that is that the Greek word for camel is very similar to the Aramaic word for ‘thick rope.’ Two things on this: #1 – The New Testament was not written in Aramaic, but Greek, so this isn’t a very important consideration and #2 It is just as impossible for a thick rope to go through the eye on a needle as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle – neither fit, and it’s nowhere even close…which is exactly the point that Jesus is making. It is IMPOSSIBLE for the rich to be saved by their riches or efforts. It is also impossible for the rest of us to be saved by our riches or efforts. I like how Michael Houdmann at Got Questions explains the situation:
The most likely explanation is that Jesus was using hyperbole, a figure of speech that exaggerates for emphasis. Jesus used this technique at other times, referring to a “plank” in one’s eye (Matthew 7:3-5) and swallowing a camel (Matthew 23:24).
Jesus’ message is clear—it is impossible for anyone to be saved on his own merits. Since wealth was seen as proof of God’s approval, it was commonly taught by the rabbis that rich people were blessed by God and were, therefore, the most likely candidates for heaven. Jesus destroyed that notion, and along with it, the idea that anyone can earn eternal life. The disciples had the appropriate response to this startling statement. They were utterly amazed and asked, “Who then can be saved?” in the next verse. If the wealthy among them, which included the super-spiritual Pharisees and scribes, were unworthy of heaven, what hope was there for a poor man?
Jesus’ answer is the basis of the gospel: “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God” (Matthew 19:26). Men are saved through God’s gifts of grace, mercy, and faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Nothing we do earns salvation for us. It is the poor in spirit who inherit the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:3), those who recognize their spiritual poverty and their utter inability to do anything to justify themselves to a holy God. The rich man so often is blind to his spiritual poverty because he is proud of his accomplishments and has contented himself with his wealth. He is as likely to humble himself before God as a camel is to crawl through the eye of a needle.
Riches can be an advantage in many areas of life, but in terms of admitting your need of salvation and your need of a savior, it can be a decided disadvantage…this is, I believe, at least a part of what Jesus is teaching us here with this illustration. Let’s close with a choice morsel of Spurgeon’s wisdom:
Into this statement our Lord throws the full weight of his personality. He uses an expressive proverb, which means precisely what the words convey to the common reader. There is no sense in hunting up abstruse metaphors where the proverbial teaching is as plain as possible. He would show that wealth is far more a hindrance than a help to those who would enter into the kingdom of God: in fact, such a hindrance as to render the matter practically impossible without divine interposition. A camel is not only large, but it has humps, and how can it go through so small an opening as the eye of a needle? It could not make such a passage except by a strange miracle; nor can a rich man enter into the kingdom of God except by a marvel of grace. How few of the rich even hear the gospel! They are too great, too fine, too busy, too proud to regard the lowly preacher of the gospel of the poor. If, perchance, they do hear the heavenly message, they have not the necessities and tribulations which drive men from the present world to seek consolation in the world to come, and so they feel no need to accept Christ. “Gold and the gospel seldom do agree.” Those who are rich in this world, in the vast majority of instances, scorn to become subjects of the kingdom in which faith is riches, and holiness is honour.
Should the rich begin the divine life, how hard it is for them to persevere amid the cares, the luxuries, the temptations of a wealthy position! The difficulties are enormous when we think of the pride of life, the flattery of rank, the danger of power, the risk of carnal security. Yet, blessed be God, we have seen rich men become poor in spirit! We have seen camels go through this needle’s eye, humps and all! We hope to see many more such miracles of almighty grace.
C. H. Spurgeon, The Gospel of the Kingdom: A Commentary on the Book of Matthew (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1893), 163–164.