Is it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God? By Jack Kettler
“For 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.” (Luke 18:25 ESV)
From this passage, it would seem impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. Is this so? Being poor cannot put one in a superior spiritual position without doing violence to numerous texts on salvation, which teach salvation is by grace through faith. This study will attempt to find an answer to this question of Luke’s phraseology, which seemingly makes it impossible to be saved for a rich man.
The disciple’s reaction is a typical even today, of amazement, leading to questioning.
“When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” (Matthew 19:25 ESV)
The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges on Luke 18:25 interacts with some different attempts to soften the severity of Luke’s wording:
“25. for a camel to go through a needles eye] To soften the apparent harshness of this expression, some have conjectured Kamilon, ‘a rope;’ and some have explained ‘the needle’s eye’ of the small side gate for passengers (at the side of the large city gates), through which a camel might press its way, if it were first unladen. But (i) the conjecture Kamilon is wholly without authority, (ii) The name of ‘the needle’s eye’ applied to small gates is probably a modern one which has actually originated from an attempt to soften this verse:—at any rate there is no ancient trace of it. (iii) The Rabbinic parallels are decisive to prove that a camel is meant because the Babylonian Jews using the same proverb substitute ‘an elephant’ for ‘a camel.’ (iv) It is the object of the proverb to express human impossibility. In the human sphere—apart from the special grace of God—it would be certain that those who have riches would be led to trust in them, and so would fail to enter into the kingdom of God, which requires absolute humility, ungrudging liberality, and constant self-denial.” (1)
In light of the Cambridge commentator, it is reasonable to conclude that Luke’s phraseology is a teaching device. If so, Jesus may have been using hyperbole to shock His disciples, thus getting their attention.
Using this principle of hyperbole, Luke 18:25 would be similar to:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Matthew 5:29-30 ESV)
From Barnes' Notes on the Bible, there is evidence that the phraseology, as seen from the parallel passage in Matthew 19:24, was a teaching device:
“It is easier for a camel ... - This was a proverb in common use among the Jews, and is still common among the Arabians.
To denote that a thing was impossible or exceedingly difficult, they said that a camel or an elephant might as soon walk through a needle's eye. In the use of such proverbs, it is not necessary to understand them literally. They merely denote the extreme difficulty of the case.
A camel - A beast of burden much used in Eastern countries. It is about the size of the largest ox, with one or two bunches on his back, with long neck and legs, no horns, and with feet adapted to the hot and dry sand. They are capable of carrying heavy burdens, will travel sometimes faster than the fleetest horse, and are provided with a stomach which they fill with water, by means of which I they can live four or five days without drink. They are very mild and tame, and kneel down to receive and unload their burden. They are chiefly used in deserts and hot climates, where other beasts of burden are with difficulty kept alive.
A rich man - This rather means one who loves his riches and makes an idol of them, or one who supremely desires to be rich. Mark says Mark 10:24 "How hard is it for them that trust in riches." While a man has this feeling - relying on his wealth alone - it is literally impossible that he should be a Christian; for religion is a love of God rather than the world - the love of Jesus and his cause more than gold. Still a man may have much property, and not have this feeling. He may have great wealth, and love God more; as a poor man may have little, and love that little more than God. The difficulties in the way of the salvation of a rich man are:
1. that riches engross the affections.
2. that people consider wealth as the chief good, and when this is obtained they think they have gained all.
3. that they are proud of their wealth, and unwilling to be numbered with the poor and despised followers of Jesus.
4. that riches engross the time, and fill the mind with cares and anxieties, and leave little for God.
5. that they often produce luxury, dissipation, and vice. that it is difficult to obtain wealth without sin, without avarice, without covetousness, fraud, and oppression, 1 Timothy 6:9-10, 1 Timothy 6:17; James 5:1-5; Luke 12:16-21; Luke 16:19-31.
Still, Jesus says Matthew 19:26, all these may be overcome. God can give grace to do it. Though to people it may appear impossible, yet it is easy for God.” (2)
From the contemporary New Testament Commentary by William Hendriksen, on Luke:
“25. Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
It is, of course, entirely impossible for a camel, hump and all, to pass through the eye of a needle. Think of it: a camel, Palestine’s largest animal, passing through the very tiny opening of a needle! Ridiculous! It cannot be done.
The reason Jesus expressed himself in such a dramatic fashion was that he wanted the disciples to take notice. He wanted the truth of human total inability to sink in.
To explain what Jesus means it is useless and unwarranted to try to change “camel” into “cable”—see Matt. 23:24, where a real camel must have been meant—or to define the “needle’s eye” as the narrow gate in a city wall, a gate, so the reasoning goes, through which a camel can pass only on its knees and after its burden has been removed. Such “explanations” (?), aside from being objectionable from a linguistic point of view, strive to make possible what Jesus specifically declared to be impossible. The Lord means that for a rich man in his own power to try to work or worm his way into the kingdom of God is impossible. So powerful is the hold which wealth has on the heart of the natural man! He is held fast by its bewitching charm, and is thereby prevented from obtaining the attitude of heart and mind necessary for entrance into God’s kingdom. See Luke 16:13; cf. 1 Tim. 6:10. It should be noted that Jesus purposely speaks in absolute terms. A moment ago, we used the phrase in his own power. Though in view of verse 27 this qualification does not need to be retracted, yet it should be pointed out that here in verse 25 Jesus does not thus qualify his assertion. He speaks in absolute terms in order all the more to impress upon the minds of the disciples that salvation, from start to finish, is not a human “achievement.” The fact that “man’s extremity is God’s opportunity” is reserved for later (see verse 27).” (3)
“You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:24 ESV)
We should all be on guard not to be blind to Our Lord’s teaching.
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)
1. Canon Farrar, Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, Luke, (Cambridge, England, Cambridge University Press, 1891), p. 288.
2. Albert Barnes, THE AGES DIGITAL LIBRARYCOMMENTARY, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Matthew, Vol. 1 p. 319.
3. William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary, Luke, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House, 1984), pp. 835-836.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com