It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. – Jesus (Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25)
Camel through eye of a needle? That’s an interesting illustration that Jesus uses.
The story of the rich young ruler is one of the most well-known passages in the Bible. But this illustration that Jesus uses saying (camel through eye of a needle) is a confusing one. Is Jesus really saying that the rich cannot make it into heaven?
In this blog post I want to break down the meaning of this strange illustration that Jesus gives and look at what lessons we can learn from the rich young ruler.
It’s an incredible passage of scripture that I would encourage you to read all the way through because it has a powerful message for us today.
You can read the full story here: The Rich Young Ruler Story
The Context Of The Rich Young Ruler
Before we can look at what the story of the rich young ruler means for us today we first need to look at this story in context. Let’s start by looking at what this phrase, “camel through eye of a needle,” means in context.
Jesus And The Rich Young Ruler
In Mark 10:17-31 Jesus is approached by a man only identified as a rich young ruler. On the outside it would appear this man had it all together. He was young, rich, had power, and was probably good looking. He had it all. Or so it appears. But his question reveals he senses he’s missing something.
“Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)
It looks like this guy had it all. But he didn’t. Otherwise why would he come to Jesus asking for something? Especially asking about eternal life. Every good Jew already knew that answer. To get eternal life you obey the commands of God and avoid sin. So why’s he asking this?
The rich young ruler has done it all right. Even Jesus seems to confirm that (Mark 10:21). But still he senses something is lacking. So he goes to Jesus to help him see what he’s overlooking.
I love how Tim Keller in Jesus The King describes the rich young ruler: “Of course he was missing something. Because anyone who counts on what they are doing to get eternal life will find that, in spite of everything they’ve accomplished, there’s an emptiness, an insecurity, a doubt. Something is bound to be missing. How can anyone ever know whether they are good enough?”
The rich young ruler thought he had it all. He had worked hard and had a lot of money. He’s kept all God’s laws faithfully. In essence what he’s doing is trying to earn his way into heaven. Jesus is saying to the rich young ruler, you have put your faith and trust in your wealth and accomplishments. But the effort is actually pushing you from God. You can’t earn your way into heaven.
The Rich Young Ruler Leaves Sad
This story ends with the rich young ruler going away sad (Mark 10:22)… but really that’s a bad translation. The word that’s used here is lupeó which translates better as “grieved.”
That’s the same word used when Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:38). Jesus was grieved in great distress. Why? Because he knew what he was about to face. He knew he was about to experience separation from his father for the first time in eternity. He was losing his core, his identity, his very self.
Don’t miss this. Tim Keller in Jesus The King says this, “When Jesus called this young man to give up his money, the man started to grieve, because money was for him what the Father was for Jesus. It was the center of his identity.”
The problem with the rich young ruler is not his wealth. It’s where he placed his identity. He thought he didn’t need the grace of God because he could provide for himself. What Jesus was doing was revealing to him where he had placed his identity. And he left sad.
What ‘Camel through Eye of a Needle’ Means
After the rich young ruler leaves, Jesus turns to his disciples and says this interesting, and confusing, phrase about the Camel through eye of a needle (Mark 10:25).
Many people try to justify this verse by explaining that it’s not a literal needle. Jesus is just talking about the gates that were common in his day. They had small openings and to get a camel to go through it you had to take the load off and coax it through. It was hard, but not impossible. But I think that’s an overreach. There’s little historical proof of that claim.
It seems clear that what Jesus is doing is using a metaphor. Every culture has vivid metaphors that point to a larger truth.
It’s kind of like saying this: a snowball’s chance in hell. That’s a metaphor. There’s no way a snowball can survive hot temperatures, it would melt. No way. Similarly, there’s not a way that a camel can go through an eye of a needle. It’s just not possible.
Jesus is using a metaphor to drive home his point. There’s no way this rich young ruler, or anyone, can save themselves. When he asked what must I do to inherit eternal life? The answer is nothing. You can’t. It’s impossible. Just like a snowball can’t survive the heat and a camel can’t go through a needle neither can anyone save themselves.
Some take this verse to mean you having great wealth is an injustice to others. Therefore you cannot be rich if you want to follow Jesus. If that were the case you’d expect the disciples to respond much differently.
The disciples ask, “If he can’t be saved, who can?” (Mark 10:26).
They came from a culture that saw wealth as a reward for good and moral behavior. Prosperity was a sign that you were following God and doing as he said and that He was pleased.
Also we should note, that no where in this passage does Jesus say wealth is bad. He doesn’t rebuke the rich young ruler for being rich. Rather, for placing his identity in his wealth.
It’s not a sin to be rich. Jesus never said that. All rich people aren’t bad and all poor people aren’t good. Nor did he say, just be careful. Just be generous. Give a few dollars to charity. No, Jesus is saying there is something radically wrong with us. He is pointing out that money can have a powerful hold on us. It has a power to blind us and lead us astray. He’s saying that without a miracle it’s impossible for us to find salvation.
When Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle” he was pointing to our desperate condition, our dire need of a savior.
Christians are people who understand it’s impossible for them to be saved. There’s nothing, not a single thing they can do. Just as a snowball cannot survive in hell and a camel cannot pass through a needle. There is simply nothing they can do to be saved… outside a miracle.
It’s our purpose of personal merit and moral worth that keeps us from understanding the cross. A Christian recognizes that the only way to salvation is to place their hope, their identity, in the only one who can save: Jesus.
The rich young ruler missed that. And so often we do too.
3 Lessons The Rich Young Ruler Teaches Us Today
I want to end by giving you 3 quick lessons that we can learn from this parable.
1. No One Can Inherit Heaven On Their Own Merit
We are all so tempted to place our hope and trust in something or someone other than God. For the rich man in this story, and many of us today, it was money and good deeds. He thought by having enough money and being good enough he could earn salvation. But he couldn’t and we can’t either.
A camel cannot go through an eye of a needle. A snowball cannot survive in hell. And we cannot earn salvation.
The only way is through Jesus. He is the only way (John 14:6). Jesus was trying to get this rich young ruler to see the dire condition that he existed in. He was trying to show him his need for a savior. There was simply nothing he could do to inherit eternity on his own merit.
2. The ONLY Thing You Can Worship That Will Satisfy You Is Christ
Everybody worships something or someone. You just get to choose what you worship. What we worship will be were we get our identity. It becomes who we are. The problem is the things that most people worship cannot satisfy, they only leave you wanting more.
David Wallace Foster was a staunch atheist and he said this about worship:
“There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship […] is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.” David Wallace Foster
You worship. But there’s only one thing that you worship that can actually satisfy you. The rich man worshiped his wealth and his ability to earn his way. Jesus is showing him that worshiping those things will never get you what you hoped. Only God can ultimately satisfy.
You might also like: 10 Surprising Modern Day Idols (how to identify idol worship in your life)
3. Jesus Offers A Better Way To Live… But It Will Hurt
Jesus offers us an invitation to a better life. Life the way it was intended to be lived. Life free from the things that weigh us down. The invitation is free, but the process is painful.
Hear me on this. Salvation is a free gift that you don’t have to do anything but accept. But Jesus wants more than to just save us, he wants to redeem us. Why? Because he loves us and wants what’s best for us. But that redemption process can be painful.
That’s what Jesus was offering this rich young ruler. A better life. This guy had everything the world has to offer and still felt something was missing. Jesus offered him a better way, but instead he left sad. Why? Because the pain of going through that redemption process was too great for him. It meant leaving behind what he worshiped, his identity. And at that moment he just couldn’t do it.
The same is true for us. Jesus doesn’t just want to save you, he wants you to experience life and life to the fullest. That process can be painful and it can be difficult. But we need to recognize that Jesus is leading us through this process because he cares about us. And on the other side of that pain is incredible life. It’s worth it. Don’t be like the rich young ruler.
You might also like: What It REALLY Looks Like To Follow Jesus
Thanks for reading. I hope that this post helped you rethink parts of your life and faith. If it did would you share this with a friend or two so they can benefit as well? And leave a comment below letting me what you learned from the rich young ruler and Jesus illustration of a camel through eye of a needle.
Don’t forget to leave a comment! Do you see yourself in the rich young ruler?
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