A Rich Man, a Camel, and a Needle

  • Text: Mark 10:17-27, CSB
  • Series: The Kingdom (2019), Pt. 4
  • Date: Sunday, September 8, 2019 – AM service
  • Venue: Trinity Baptist Church – Seminole, Oklahoma
  • Speaker: Jared Byrns
  • Download Audio: mp3

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The story we’re going to look at this morning comes from Mark 10, though the same story is also recorded in Matthew 19 and Luke 18. Each of these accounts gives us important details that help us to understand the story. In all three accounts, a man came to visit Jesus. All three writers portrayed him as a rich man. Matthew described him as being a young man, while Luke identified him as a Jewish leader. Combining all of these details, we know him as the rich young ruler.

If you’ll look with me at Mark 10, it provides us with one of the accounts of his visit, as he came to ask Jesus a question. We’ll start in verse 17, which says, “As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” The way he approached Jesus was unusual in a few different ways. 

First of all, it was undignified for someone in a position of authority to run after someone. That’s why it was so surprising in the story of the Prodigal Son that the father saw him from far away and ran to him. For this ruler to run to Jesus showed his humility toward Jesus.

In addition to running, he also knelt before Jesus. Maybe we could dismiss the running as him being in a hurry, but his kneeling was a definite sign of humility before Jesus. We know, right from the first verse, that this was not the typical Jewish leader interrogating Jesus to try to trip Him up. He was someone who genuinely respected Jesus and sought to learn from Him.

So, he came to ask Jesus a question about the things of God—which was also unusual. As a Jewish authority, he was familiar with the teachings of the rabbis. He knew how the wise teachers said one could find eternal life—by learning and following the Law. But the fact that he approached Jesus tells us that this answer was unsatisfactory to him. He had followed the Law, but he didn’t find himself any closer to God.

And, finally, it was unusual for him to address Jesus as “good teacher.” In their culture, good didn’t have quite the same meaning it has in our everyday language. We use the word “good” as a kind of blanket that can apply to everyone and everything from God to a hamburger. But for them, the word agathos was more specific. It applied to things that were genuinely good—many times in a moral sense. In its proper sense, it was a term that was applied to God, not to a mere teacher—because the rabbis knew they didn’t deserve to be described with a word that was used to describe God. So, before Jesus answered the ruler’s question about eternal life, He paused to deal with this issue of goodness first.

Let’s look at verse 18. It says, “‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus asked him. ‘No one is good except God alone.’” Before answering the question, Jesus called on the young man to think about the implications of what he had just said. Occasionally, skeptics and liberal theologians will cite this verse or its parallels in Matthew and Luke as though Jesus denied that He was God. But that’s not what was happening. Even as a ruler, this man had already humbled himself before Jesus as someone of higher stature than him. He had approached Jesus, recognizing that Jesus had an understanding of the things of God that exceeded the collective wisdom of the rabbis. Now, he was applying descriptions to Jesus that he wouldn’t apply to an ordinary human teacher. 

He was right on the verge of realizing who Jesus was, so Jesus asked this question to nudge him a little and to call him to think about what he had just said. Jesus wasn’t telling the man not to call Him good because He wasn’t God; Jesus was telling the man he wouldn’t be calling Him good unless He were God. This question was not Jesus’ way of denying His deity; it was Jesus’ way of gently calling the man to acknowledge Him as God.

While the rich young ruler thought about that, Jesus moved on to address his question. Matthew 19:17 says that Jesus told him, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” The rich young ruler asked Jesus which commandments he needed to keep. Then Mark continued the story. According to verse 19, Jesus said, “You know the commandments: Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; do not defraud; honor your father and mother.”

At first, these verses might sound like we can get to Heaven by being good and keeping the commandments. But we’ll see that Jesus was showing the man that he was incapable of keeping allthe commandments well enough to earn his way to Heaven.

Look at verse 20. It says, “He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these from my youth.’” Matthew adds that the rich young ruler then asked Jesus, “What do I still lack?” (Matthew 19:20, CSB). It was difficult to live in such a way that his outward behavior conformed to the letter of the Law, but he had done it. He had never had an affair; he had never stabbed someone in a fit of anger; it appears that he had indeed lived a life free from scandal. If he had done one of these things, Jesus would have known and could have easily corrected his claims right here. But He didn’t. It appears that the man had kept the Law—at least outwardly—but he recognized that something was still missing; that was the whole reason why he sought out Jesus in the first place.

In his confusion, Jesus had compassion on him. Verse 21 starts by saying, “Looking at him, Jesus loved him.” So Jesus did the most loving thing He could do at the moment: reveal the man’s spiritual need.

Our culture says it’s hateful to warn people of the consequences of sin and show them their need for God, but it’s not. It needs to be done, and we should be gentle and compassionate like Jesus was here. Verse 21 doesn’t just tell us that Jesus loved the man; it shows that He was motivated by that love to help that man see his spiritual need. It says, “Looking at him, Jesus loved him and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: Go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven. Then come, follow me.’”

Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all of his possessions, give all the money to the poor, focus his heart on the Kingdom, and follow Him. Now, this is not the plan of salvation. Jesus’ point was not that selling everything and becoming homeless automatically gets us into Heaven, nor was it that possessions automatically keep us out. Even Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus shows both a wealthy man—Abraham—and a destitute man—Lazarus—in Heaven. Hoarding wealth and being greedy are incompatible with Christianity, but this command was given specifically for this rich young ruler, to hold up a mirror and help him see the sin in his own heart. His problem was not that he hadstuff; it was that he lovedhis stuff. I Timothy says, “Those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (I Timothy 6:9-10, CSB). 

No matter how sinless he appeared to be on the outside, there was sin festering beneath the surface, and he was separated from God by it. This rich young man thought that he was acceptable to God because he was living a life that looked righteous on the outside, but Jesus revealed that his heart was filled with idols. He loved his possessions more than he loved God, and that made them idols. How do we know that he loved them more than he loved God? His reaction in the next verse tells us.

Verse 22 says, “But he was dismayed by this demand, and he went away grieving, because he had many possessions.” This description of his reaction uses words that also apply to the weather. He was so sad and disappointed that it was as if a storm cloud had broken across his face. And he walked away. Jesus had essentially shown the man that there was no room for his possessions and God to share first place in his heart, and the man walked away sad. Although he loved God, he loved his stuff more. With one question, Jesus had revealed the sin of idolatry running rampant within him. The man had asked Him how to inherit eternal life, and Jesus showed him that he was filled with sin and incapable of entering into eternal life in the Kingdom.

After the man walked away, verse 23 tells us, “Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’” He told the disciples that it would be hard for someone like the rich young ruler to get to the Kingdom. That would have been shocking to the disciples. In their society, they interpreted wealth as a sign of God’s favor. They believed that God blessed the righteous with wealth. So when Jesus said that people like that would have trouble getting to the Kingdom, they were shocked. 

Verse 24 says, “The disciples were astonished at his words.” They couldn’t believe it. They thought God favored people like the rich young ruler, but Jesus said otherwise. But then Jesus went a step further. It’s not just hard for rich people; it’s hard in general. The remainder of verse 24 says, “Again Jesus said to them, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!’”

They were probably going to ask Him, ‘Just how hard is it?’ so in verse 25, Jesus explained how hard it is. He said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Now people will try to explain this verse away. They’ll claim there must be some deeper, hidden meaning because it’s crazy to imagine that a camel could walk through the eye of a needle. They think Jesus couldn’t have meant that because it’s impossible. Bingo! That’s precisely what He was telling the disciples.

Still, people will say that Jesus was talking about a gate in Jerusalem called the Needle’s Eye Gate. They say it was a gate that was open at night when all the other gates were secured. They say the only way to get your camel through the gate was to offload everything and send the camel through on its knees. It sounds good; it seems reasonable; unfortunately, I’ve never seen any compelling historical or archaeological evidence that a gate like that existed by that name in Jesus’ day. We may see pictures of a gate called by that name today, but there’s no evidence they called it the Needle’s Eye in Jesus’ day. 

Others will say that there’s a spelling error in the text. The Greek word for camel is kamelos, which is only one letter off from kamilos, which is a kind of rope that can be threaded through the eye of a needle only with great difficulty. That sounds reasonable until we realize that it would have required three writers all to make the same error in the same place when writing separately. I don’t buy that.

The biggest problem with these alternative explanations is that they try to take the shock out of Jesus’ teaching when it clearly shocked the disciples. Leading a camel through a gate on its knees is hard, but possible. Threading a cord through the eye of a needle is hard, but possible. But based on the rest of the conversation, we know that Jesus was describing something that would be so hard that it’s impossible. The Bible scholar Robert Picirilli explained Jesus’ choice of phrasing. He wrote: “In Jewish literature, a needle’s eye was proverbial for the smallest possible opening. Something impossible was proverbialized as an elephant’s passing through a needle’s eye, and in Palestine the camel was the largest of animals. A camel cannot go through a needle’s eye, and this was Jesus’ point.”1Picirilli, Robert E. The Gospel of Mark. Edited by Robert E. Picirilli. First Edition. The Randall House Bible Commentary. Nashville, TN: Randall House Publications, 2003. So, He was teaching that it would be impossiblefor someone—even for someone as upstanding as the rich young ruler—to reach the Kingdom of Heaven on his own merits. When Jesus says it’s so hard that it’s impossible, then it’s wrong for us to walk it back to being hard, but doable.

You’ll see that He was saying it’s impossibleif you look at what comes next. Verse 26 says, “They were even more astonished, saying to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’” The disciples realized that if people like the rich young ruler, who seemed to be so righteous and so favored by God, weren’t getting into the Kingdom, there was no hope for them. They were asking Jesus, ‘If hecan’t get in, how can anyone?’ If the best people around us aren’t good enough to get into Heaven, we certainly don’t have a shot. They wanted to know then how anyone could possibly be saved. 

In verse 27, it says, “Looking at them, Jesus said, ‘With man it is impossible, but not with God, because all things are possible with God.’“ The disciples wanted to know if anyone could possibly be good enough, and Jesus said, clearly and unmistakably, that it’s impossible to make it into the Kingdom of God based on our human effort.

He said, “With man it is impossible.” We can’t be holy enough to be acceptable to God: not even if we tried our best to keep all of the commandments. Not even if we look like we have it all together. Not even if we sold all of our possessions and gave the money to the poor. Jesus was clear. It’s impossible; we can’t get there ourselves. 

The rich young ruler was a great example of this. Here was someone who had behaved himself his whole life. He had kept the commandments. He followed the rules, washed behind his ears, said his prayers, and ate his vegetables. He walked by, and all the little old ladies said, ‘What a nice young man.’ He was deeply religious and did all the right things. But on the inside, even he was not right with God because the sin of idolatry consumed his heart. There’s a lesson there for us; no matter how much our outward conduct may convince the world that we’re good people, even then, the sin in our hearts separates us from a holy God.

And just in case anyone there missed the point, Jesus drove it home with His illustration of the camel. Imagine trying to thread a camel through the eye of a needle. Start at the tail, and you might get a hair or two through the eye of the needle, but you won’t further than that. It would be easier to stick the needle through the camel than the other way around. How long would it take before you gave up on threading a camel through the eye of a needle and admitted it’s impossible? Jesus was calling us to give up on the idea that we can get ourselves into the Kingdom of Heaven and acknowledge that it’s impossible too. 

The disciples picked up on that right away. They realized the hopelessness of their situation. If the rich young ruler couldn’t make it, no one has any hope of getting themselves to the Kingdom. We need to realize that too.

Recently, I was talking to a gentleman who lives not too far from here, and we were talking about his salvation. He just kept telling me that he’s working on it. I told him there was nothing for him to work on; he can’t save himself, and he needs to trust in Jesus instead. And then he said he’ll come to Jesus when he gets his life cleaned up a little bit. I just wanted to shake him and to plead with him to stop! Listen! You can’t ever be good enough! You can’t ever clean up your life enough! You can’t ever work on it enough! You will keep trying to get into the Kingdom of Heaven on your own merit, and you will end up in Hell instead because it’s impossible! Your only hope is that God would rescue you!

Jesus said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God, because all things are possible with God.” We can’t inherit eternal life, enter the Kingdom of God, or be saved—regardless of what we call it—on our own merits. Our only hope is that God would rescue us.

And God has rescued us. Jesus Christ—God the Son—came to Earth so He could take responsibility for the sin that separates us from God, so He could be nailed to the cross, so that He could shed His blood, and so that He could die for us and rise again. God rescued us because God the Son made the necessary provision for our salvation.

All the good things we could ever do would never change the fact that we’re sinners. Even if we were as righteous as the rich young ruler on the outside, our hearts would still be filled with sin. We can’t erase the stain of our sin, and the Father can’t ignore it. It has to be punished. So Jesus took all the punishment we deserved. He paid for our sins in full, cleansed us, and clothed us in His righteousness.

When we receive the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ, the Father no longer sees our sin that has been washed away; He chooses instead to see the righteousness of Christ in us. And because of Jesus, we are welcomed into the Kingdom and given full fellowship with God.

You can’t enter the Kingdom based on anything that you can do. It’s only possible with God, and you need God to rescue you through Jesus Christ. If you still think you can just be good enough, I can’t stress it enough that Jesus said it’s impossible. That’s not Jared’s opinion; Jared’s opinion isn’t worth much anyway. That’s not Trinity’s opinion; Trinity doesn’t get to decide things like that. Jesus is the one who said that getting into Heaven based on your own goodness is as impossible as threading a camel through the eye of a needle.

Today, instead of trying to save yourself, you can receive Jesus Christ as your Savior. First, admit that you’ve sinned against God and that your sin has separated you from Him.

Then, believe with all your heart that Jesus died on the cross to pay for your sins in full and that He rose again from the dead.

Finally, ask God for forgiveness, trusting fully in Jesus Christ as your one and only Savior.On your own, salvation is impossible; but nothing is impossible with God.

The preceding sermon text formed the basis for the message preached but may differ in places from the resulting audio recording. Sermon audio and text, © 2019, Jared Byrns. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, Biblical references are taken from The Christian Standard Bible. Copyright © 2017 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Christian Standard Bible®, and CSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers, all rights reserved.