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Charles Dickens referred to the parable of the prodigal son as the greatest story ever written. He has not stood alone in that sentiment. Unfortunately, much of the story is lost to those of us reading it more than two thousand years after it was first told.

Pastor Jeremy Sarber takes a fresh look at this timeless parable in Man With Two Sons.

Camel Through the Eye of a Needle

Matthew tells us of a rich, young man who struggled with the thought of being unprepared for eternal life. Perhaps he did not feel as close to God as he believed he should if he was going to one day live in God’s heavenly kingdom. Perhaps he felt a sense of his shortcomings. While he kept God’s law according to his own self-evaluation, he couldn’t help but think something was missing.

He went to Jesus and asked, “What good deed shall I do to have eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16) He unknowingly bit off more than he could chew. He certainly went to the right source for answers about eternal life. He even asked the right kind of question. Even so, he wasn’t quite ready for the answer Jesus gave him. First, Jesus told him to keep the commandments to which he believed he had already done his entire life. Second, Jesus told him to sell everything and give to the poor in order to have treasure in heaven.

“But when the young man heard this, he went away sorrowful. For he had great possessions” (Matt. 19:22). If anyone is to enter into an abundant life with Jesus Christ, he must first do what Jesus taught so many times: “If anyone will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). Jesus may have practiced what we perceive to be a harsh form of evangelism, but we cannot make our “calling and election sure” without first denying those things which we love more than Him (2 Pet. 1:10).

Self-denial is the foundation of repentance and repentance is the only appropriate response a sinner can have to God’s heavenly call. Peter preached, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39).

The young man in Matthew 19 would have preferred the easy believism that is so popular in contemporary Christianity. The gospel is often presented as though a person only needs to say a prayer, affirm a doctrinal creed, or verbally accept Jesus in order to stake a claim on his place in the kingdom of God.

On the contrary, Paul wrote, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither the fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, and you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

The rich, young ruler likely assumed Jesus would tell him he simply needed to pray more or add a religious work or two in order to gain some assurance of eternal life. Instead, Jesus attacked the one thing in the man’s heart which he loved more than all else. It’s the one thing which prevented him from seeking God with all his heart. Moses wrote, “If from there you will seek the Lord your God, you will find Him, if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 4:29).

The rich man in Matthew 19 is reminiscent of three others described at the end of Luke 9. Each one of them vowed to follow Christ. Each one of them had a clever excuse for why they couldn’t follow Him just yet. Finally, Jesus said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back at things is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). There is no such thing as part-time discipleship.

To be clear, Jesus was not commanding each and everyone of us to sell everything we have and give to the poor. That’s not the primary intention of the lesson. If we interpret it that way, we do so with a somewhat legalist mindset. Remember, Paul said, “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). In our study of the Bible, it is important for us discern its meaning by digging deeper than a shallow reading of the text. On the surface, the story of the rich, young ruler appears to be about wealth when really it is about self-denial. Sacrificing wealth was simply the personal application of the lesson for the rich man.

Keep that in mind as we continue through this passage.

The Lord’s Requirement

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.”

Matthew 19:23-24

The rich man left the scene and Jesus was alone with His disciples once again. As was common, Jesus used the opportunity to teach those men who would soon become the leaders of the church. He did not want to leave them lacking in their understanding. If not for these private moments Jesus used to teach His disciples, there’s no telling what conclusions they would have come to on their own.

First, He said to them, “Truly, I say to you that it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” That would have come as quite a surprise since most in Israel assumed the wealthy were wealthy by God’s divine blessing. According to conventional theology, the poor and disabled were cursed by God while the rich and healthy were blessed by God. Of course, that was not always the case.

The disciples had previously learned not to think that way. When in Jerusalem, Jesus and His disciples passed by a man who had been blind since birth. They asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2) Jesus was quick to correct their misguided assumptions by saying, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But it happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).

If nothing else, the disciples would have assumed a rich person was rich because he followed the wisdom of Solomon contained in the book of Proverbs. Solomon said, “He becomes poor who deals with a slack hand, but the hand of the diligent makes rich” (Prov. 10:4). Granted, they may have ignored some of the other lessons found in Proverbs such as when Solomon said, “There is one who makes himself rich, yet has nothing; there is one who makes himself poor, yet has great riches” (Prov. 13:7).

For those of us with a more complete view of the Bible, we understand that material wealth is not only meaningless, it’s dangerous. Paul wrote, “For the love of money is the root of all evil. While coveting after money, some have strayed from the faith and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Tim. 6:10).

We also have the example of the Laodicean church in Revelation 3. Generally, when we think of the Laodicean church whom Christ warned would soon be spit out of His mouth if they did not repent, we think of their lukewarmness. But what caused them to be lukewarm? According to Jesus, “For you say, ‘I am rich, and have stored up goods, and have need of nothing,’ yet do not realize that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). They had unknowingly slipped into a state of worldly contentment because, materially speaking, they were well off.

Churches in America are commonly in the same precarious position. We, too, have significant wealth which results in various forms of apathy and self-satisfaction. That’s not to say we should feel guilty over the prosperity we’ve been given. It simply means we have an even greater responsibility to be good stewards and generous givers. Jesus said, “For to whom much is given, of him much shall be required. And from him to whom much was entrusted, much will be asked” (Luke 12:48).

Second, Jesus explained to His disciples here how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom. He said, “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.” How hard is it? The short answer is it’s impossible.

Jesus used a version of a relatively common proverb. The Jewish Talmud makes a familiar statement when it says it would be easier for an elephant to pass through the eye of a needle. The elephant was the largest animal in Mesopotamia and the camel was the largest animal found in Israel. It was meant to be a graphic, exaggerated expression to show the impossibility of a rich man entering the kingdom.

Some have tried to diminish the difficulty for the rich man by claiming Jesus wasn’t referring to a tiny, sowing needle. They say He was making reference to what was called a needle gate. Supposedly, there was a short, narrow entrance into Jerusalem that was so small a camel could only pass through if its pack was removed and it was made to get as low to the ground as possible. First of all, there is no evidence any such gate ever existed. Second, why in the world would anyone stuff his camel through a hole in the wall when he could walk a few yards to the main entrance?

When Jesus used the word, needle, He meant needle. Sewing needles have been around a long time. In the first century, Romans made them out of brass and iron. The Egyptians were using needles made out of clay long before them. They may have been bigger than sewing needles today, but the eyes of those needles were still too small for a camel to ever go through.

Jesus essentially told His disciples, “It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom. How hard? As hard as it would be to shove a camel through the eye of a needle.” It is not merely difficult; it is impossible. It’s no wonder the disciples responded with shock.

The Disciples’ Response

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.”

Matthew 19:25-26

The disciples were “greatly amazed” as they processed what Jesus said. Have you ever been punched in the stomach? It not only startles you, it takes your breath away for a moment and you suddenly feel a sense of panic. That’s what the disciples were experiencing here. They were taken off-guard while instantaneously being struck with a fear of helplessness. “Oh no,” they thought, “If it’s impossible for wealthy, religious men to get into the kingdom, what chance does anyone else have?” So, they asked, “Who then can be saved?”

Let’s back up a few verses. When the rich, young ruler approached Christ, what did he ask? He asked, “What good deed shall I do to have eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16) We might phrase his question this way: “What good deed shall I do to be saved?” Jesus knew the man’s heart, but even his words gave him away. He wanted to know what he could do. He didn’t come to Christ with a repentant spirit. He didn’t come seeking the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness. He came with a self-righteous mentality despite his feeling that something was missing.

In turn, Jesus gave him the answer according to the law. Again, He said, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Matt. 19:17). When people thought they could be saved by keeping the law, Jesus always told them to go ahead and try. However, they would never be successful since “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). According to James, “Whoever shall keep the whole law and yet offend in one point is guilty of breaking the whole law” (James 2:10).

The reason Jesus gave legalists a legal answer is because the first obstacle standing in their way of entering the kingdom was a lack of desperation. Until they would understand their utter inability to keep God’s law, they would neither possess the humility nor the desire for mercy required. They would remain as the majority in Israel whom Paul wrote about when he said, “For, being ignorant of God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own righteousness, they did not submit to the righteousness of God. Christ is the end of the law unto righteousness for every one who believes” (Rom. 10:3-4).

If the rich man had come to Jesus, fell on his knees, and pleaded, “Lord, forgive me for I am a sinner,” Jesus’ response would have been much different. Of course, if the rich man had been in that frame of mind, he would have gladly sacrificed his wealth to follow Christ. Instead, he wanted eternal life by means of his religious works without it requiring self-denial or a submission to God’s righteousness.

That is precisely the problem Jesus addressed here. This lesson isn’t so much about wealth as it is self-righteousness or salvation by works of the law. When Jesus said it’s impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, He meant a rich man like the one in this chapter. He meant the kind of rich man who finds security in corruptible things and believes he is able to save himself. He meant the kind of rich man or any other person who thinks he can gain eternal life or come to Christ on his own terms. He was showing both the young ruler and His disciples that no one within the family of Adam can be saved by keeping the law.

Jesus answered the disciples and said, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Man cannot save himself just like a camel cannot pass through the eye of a needle. Furthermore, man cannot even deny himself as required without God’s grace. According to Acts 5, “God exalted [Jesus] to His right hand to be a Ruler and a Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31). According to Acts 11, “God has granted to the Gentiles also repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). Even repentance is given or granted to sinners by God. After all, “can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?” (Jer. 13:23).

Only God can change the heart of man. Through Ezekiel, God described His new covenant this way: “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them” (Ezek. 36:26-27).

Jesus was not suggesting no one could be saved. He was not even suggesting that no rich person could be saved. Rather, He was teaching His disciples that if anyone is saved it is only by God. If not on this occasion, it was certainly a lesson the disciples eventually learned. John later wrote, “[Jesus] came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. Yet to all who received Him, He gave the power to become sons of God, to those who believed in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:11-13).

The Believer’s Reward

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. But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.”

Matthew 19:27-30

As Peter weighed all of this out in his mind, he was beginning to realize what Jesus was teaching them. The rich, young ruler refused to deny himself and submit to the righteousness of God. He walked away sorrowful because he previously believed he could obtain eternal life by own righteousness. But that’s impossible. Yet, those who are born of God are given power to become the sons of God. With God and His righteousness, it is possible for a person to be saved.

So, Peter spoke up and said, “We have left everything and followed You. What then shall we have?” Peter put the pieces together. He suddenly understood the difference between them and the rich man. The rich man was unwilling forsake his material possessions while the disciples had given up everything to follow Christ. Does that mean they would be saved? Would they obtain eternal life?

You can imagine a grin forming on the Lord’s face as He answered, “In the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on His glorious throne, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” It may have been a relatively cryptic statement, but it was good news for the disciples.

The word, regeneration, is descriptive of recreation or renewal. When it comes to regeneration in this verse, there are at least three common interpretations.

The first says the regeneration here is the personal, individual regeneration of the Lord’s followers. Paul used the same word in that way when writing to Titus: “We also were once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various desires and pleasures, living in evil and envy, filled with hatred and hating each other. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward mankind appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:3-6).

The second interpretation says the regeneration here is the regeneration of God’s people as a whole in the new covenant. After the Lord’s death and resurrection, He told the disciples, “Do not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, of which you have heard from Me. For John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:4-5). It wasn’t long after that the Spirit of God filled thousands of people on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

The third interpretation says this regeneration is the regeneration of the whole world at the end of time. In Revelation 21, John wrote, “I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth.’ For the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Rev. 21:1). The same event was prophesied in Isaiah 65. While we tend to think of God’s people living in heaven for all eternity, the Bible suggests we will return to the earth once it has been regenerated. Peter wrote, “According to His promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13).

What interpretation is correct? Perhaps all of them to some degree with the individual regeneration of God’s people being least likely since Jesus was speaking in terms of what was to come. As for the second and third interpretations, both are being alluded to here.

The writer of Hebrews described the era of the New Testament church following the Lord’s ascension into heaven as “the time of reformation” (Heb. 9:10). It is during this time that Christ sits on His throne. Hebrews also says, “Let us look to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).

Furthermore, John described this scene in Revelation 20: “I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and the authority to judge was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness of Jesus and for the word of God. They had not worshipped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (Rev. 20:4). In other words, the saints are reigning and judging with Christ during this time.

With that said, the fullness of regeneration and the ultimate judgment has not yet come and will not come until Christ returns. For instance, Jesus said in Matthew 25, “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory” (Matt. 25:31).

In Revelation 20, John wrote, “I saw a great white throne and Him who was seated on it. From His face the earth and the heavens fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God. Books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. The dead were judged according to their works as recorded in the books” (Rev. 20:11-12).

As for the twelve apostles, they clearly hold a special place in the church as well as the new earth to come. John described a new Jerusalem and said, “The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev. 21:14). People argue over who the twelfth apostle might be, but chances are it is Matthias who was chosen to replace Judas. Not only did Matthias meet the qualifications of an apostle such as being “a witness of [Jesus’] resurrection,” Paul considered him to be one of “the twelve” (Acts 1:22, 1 Cor. 15:5). Paul made thirteen and even described himself as an apostle “born out of due time” (1 Cor. 15:8).

Continuing the good news to His disciples, Jesus said, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for My name’s sake shall receive a hundred times as much and inherit eternal life.” Mark and Luke’s accounts clarify how the disciples were to receive a hundred times as much “in this age” and eternal life “in the age to come” (Mark 10:30, Luke 18:30). Whatever sacrifice is made to pursue Jesus Christ with our whole hearts will certainly be worth it.

Finally, Jesus said, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Disciples of Christ have no reason to be envious of someone like the rich man. There is no real security in material wealth or earthly possessions. There is no everlasting comfort in anything found in this world. There is no reason to rest our hope in our own religious works. Soon, many who thought they had everything will find they have nothing; those who had nothing will find they have everything.

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