It's Impossible!

"Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." (Mat 19:23-24 )

You probably know the story here already. A rich man comes to Jesus and asks, "what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?" In the end, Jesus says that the man should give away everything and follow Him. Then the famous statement about the camel and needle follows. Obviously, putting a camel through the eye of a needle is impossible, so it doesn't look good for the rich, does it? There are a variety of commentaries and sermons I have seen that try to make this something other than impossibility. There's the claim that a camel refers to a thread of camel hair and the idea that the needle is a very narrow gate into Jerusalem. But, I think it means just what it says, more or less. John Gill's commentary explains it well.

"[T]hus, when the Jews would express anything that was rare and unusual, difficult and impossible, they used a like saying with this: All which show, that there is no need to suppose, that by a camel is meant, not the creature so called, but a cable rope, as some have thought; since these common proverbs manifestly make it appear, that a creature is intended, and which aggravates the difficulty."

Gill, and other commentators, explains that a saying like this was common in the rabbinic tradition. It is the use of extreme exaggeration to make a point, much like we would say today that someone should take a leap at the moon. So there is no getting around it. Jesus said, "It's impossible." But before anyone gets all upset about wealth and poverty, read the end of the passage.

"Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life." (Mat 19:27-29 )

It's a little confusing I'll admit. First Jesus says wealth is a problem, then He tells the disciples that they will have "an hundredfold" in return. If you want to promote poverty as a means of righteousness, you can quote the first verse. If you want to promote wealth as a sign of righteousness, you can just quote the last verse. Unfortunately, you can't just take one or the other but must take both of them together. Some will try and "spiritualize" the statement to the disciples, but that should not be done here. Jesus meant it literally and it happened just as He prophesied.

"Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need." (Act 4:34-35 )

So there you have it. The disciples did indeed receive one-hundred fold. Of course, they used the money to provide for others as well, but the point is that a great deal of wealth came into their hands. It wasn't just spiritual outpouring, in other words, and there is no reason to claim that poverty is a prerequisite to righteousness. There were, in fact, other wealthy followers of Jesus, such as Joseph of Arimathaea (Matt. 27:57) and Nicodemus, and there is no indication Jesus ever told them to give all their money to the poor. Thus, this passage isn't really about money, exactly. There is something else far more important.

"When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible." (Matt. 19:25-26 )

In the mind of the disciples, it seems, what Jesus was saying was such an impossibility that no one could ever meet the demand. That is the point here. We are often just like the rich man, thinking that our salvation is just a matter of finding out what we need to do. Once we have that knowledge, we assume, we can then go off and do it. The problem is there will always be that "one thing you lack" no matter how much we have done. That one thing will always be something that is a practical impossibility for us due to our weaknesses. The word translated "impossible" has a root meaning of "weakness." Jesus isn't saying that it is an absolute impossibility. He is saying that, because of the weakness of the flesh, there will always be something that we cannot accomplish by our own strength. The word translated "possible" has a root meaning of "power" and that is the distinction that needs to be made. Our weakness is overcome by God's power.

If we are required to pull ourselves up to a level of righteousness that God would accept, we can never do it because of our weak condition. It would be like trying to lift yourself by your own shoelaces. You can't do that no matter how strong you are. Man's fallen condition is such that the only way out is for God to reach down and pull us up. That's what Jesus is getting at. If my salvation is dependent on what I can do, I might as well give up now because I can never do it. But, because of what God has promised to do for me, I can have hope. That hope then gives me the encouragement I need to step forward in faith, even though my efforts are weak and insufficient, knowing that God will reach down and give me the strength that I need. Those things that we cannot overcome because of our weakness can be overcome by faith. I no longer have to say, "It's impossible." With God, nothing is impossible.


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