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The Disadvantages of Wealth
23Then Jesus said to His disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24Again I tell you, 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.”
25When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
26Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
27Peter answered Him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
28Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, 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. 29And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.
In the previous section, a rich, young man came to Jesus, asking: “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16). In the end, sensing that the man’s riches had too great a hold on him, Jesus said: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21). The rich, young man did not heed this request of Jesus. Instead, the rich, young man “went away sad, because he had great wealth” (Matt. 19:22).
In this section, Jesus responds to that episode: “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven’” (vs. 23). Jesus speaks of the difficulty for wealthy people to “enter the kingdom of heaven.” This difficulty stems from a variety of reasons: “Riches, which all desire to obtain—riches, for which men labor and toil, and become gray before their time—riches are the most perilous possession. They often inflict great injury on the soul; they lead men into many temptations; they engross men’s thoughts and affections; they bind heavy burdens on the heart, and make the way to heaven even more difficult than it naturally is” [Ryle, 242]. “How few of the rich even hear the Gospel! They are too great, too fine, too busy, too proud to regard the lower preacher of the Gospel of the poor. If, perchance, they do hear the heavenly message, they have not the necessities and tribulations which drive men from the present world to seek consolation in the world to come, and so they feel no need to accept Christ” [Spurgeon, 270].
So, with regard to spiritual matters—and spiritual matters are the most important that we, as human beings, deal with—it is much better not to be wealthy. “This teaching is very useful for everyone: for the rich, that they are warned to beware of their danger; for the poor, that they may be content with their lot and not greedily seek what would do them more harm than good” [Calvin, 259].
Jesus gives a picturesque illustration of the difficulty for the wealthy to enter heaven: “Again I tell you, 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” (vs. 24). Now, I have heard some preach sermons that water this illustration down by, for instance, saying that what Jesus meant by “needle” was actually a small gate leading into Jerusalem. These preachers are implying that, if one tries really hard (by, say, unloading the camel) that they could indeed get the camel through the “needle”. Such teaching misunderstands what Jesus is saying. This illustration is pointing out the impossibility (see vs. 26) for the rich to enter heaven by their own means. “There is no sense in hunting up abstruse metaphors where the proverbial teaching is as plain as possible” [Spurgeon, 269]. “The camel was the largest beast familiar to the Jews, and the needle’s eye was the smallest opening in any familiar object… It is perfectly evident that Jesus was understood, and meant to be understood, as stating an impossibility” [Broadus, 408]. “This is a proverbial expression, denoting a difficulty altogether unconquerable by the art and power of man; nothing less than the almighty grace of God will enable a rich man to get over this difficulty” [Henry].
The disciples were surprised by this teaching: “When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’” (vs. 25). They were “greatly astonished” because their culture viewed riches as a sign of God’s favor. To them, the riches themselves were a sign that the wealthy man would enter heaven. “Most Jews expected the rich to inherit eternal life, not because their wealth could buy their way in, but because their wealth testified to the blessing of the Lord on their lives” [Carson, 425]. Thus, they asked the question: “Who then can be saved?” In their view, if it was difficult for the rich man to enter heaven, it would be impossible for anyone else to. Jesus corrected these beliefs concerning the spiritual state of the rich. “Where the people of His day saw riches as a manifest sign of the blessing God, Jesus saw wealth as a hindrance to spiritual progress” [Morris, 493]. “Note, it should be a satisfaction to them who are in a low condition, that they are not exposed to the temptations of a high and prosperous condition: If they live more hardy in this world than the rich, yet, if withal they get more easily to a better world, they have no reason to complain” [Henry, 631].
Jesus answered their question of astonishment: “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible’” (vs. 26). Though it be impossible by man’s ability for the “camel” to go through “the eye of the needle”, it is not impossible by God’s ability. In actuality, it is “impossible” for any man, rich or poor, to enter heaven by his own merits. Man is fallen, and all men “fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). God, in His love for us, made it possible for us enter heaven by sending His Son, Jesus, to die for us. The salvation of our souls only becomes a “possibility” through God’s work, not ours. “God is mighty to save. ‘With God all things are possible.’ What a joyful truth for the writer and the reader! Our salvation, when we view our own weakness and the power of sin, ‘is impossible with men.’ Only when we turn to God and His grace, does salvation range among the possibilities” [Spurgeon, 270]. Jesus paid the price for our sins, so that we would not have to be punished for them, and so that we could attain the holiness, through Jesus Christ, to enter into God’s presence upon death, and live for eternity in heaven with Him. May the Lord be praised!
As stated above, the reason for Jesus’ teaching on the difficulty of the rich entering the kingdom of God was to respond to the episode of the rich, young man who would not leave his wealth to follow Jesus. Peter points out to Jesus that the disciples did what the rich, young man would not do: “Peter answered Him, ‘We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?’” (vs. 27). This seems to be somewhat of a self-serving and mercenary comment of Peter’s. It even seems a bit childish, smacking of “Look what I have done, daddy!” “What Peter said was true, but it was not wisely spoken. It has a selfish, grasping look, and it is worded so barely that it ought not in that fashion to have come from a servant to his Lord. After all, what have any of us to lose for Jesus compared with what we gain by Him? ‘What shall we have?’ is a question which we need not raise, for we ought rather to think of what we have already received at our Lord’s hands” [Spurgeon, 271].
And yet, we must remember that the Twelve disciples did indeed “leave everything” to follow Jesus. “Little as these first believers had to leave, it was their all, and they had forsaken it to follow Jesus” [Spurgeon, 271]. “They had made real sacrifices, and were following Him in worldly destitution with dismal worldly prospects, for they were now near Jerusalem, where He would be rejected and put to death” [Broadus, 409]. Moreover, and certainly Jesus knew this, nearly all of these disciples would later suffer a martyr’s death. So, in a very true sense, they “left everything” in this world to follow Jesus.
Jesus did not rebuke Peter in any way for his comment, but rather comforted the disciples greatly with His response: “Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, 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. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life’” (vss. 28–29). Jesus in this response showed great respect for the sacrifice of the Twelve disciples, and He let them know that they would be greatly rewarded for what they had given up to follow Him. The Twelve disciples in particular are to receive a special and glorious reward: “You who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (vs. 28). They are to receive a place of honor and authority in the kingdom of God.
And there are rewards in store, not just for the Twelve disciples, but for anyone who makes a sacrifice to follow Jesus: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life” (vs. 29). “We may rest assured that no man shall ever be a real loser by following Christ. The believer may seem to suffer loss for a time, when he first begins the life of a decided Christian; he may be much cast down by the afflictions that are brought upon him on account of his religion: but let him rest assured that he will never find himself a loser in the long run” [Ryle, 244]. What a magnificent and loving Lord we have! Our lives should be His for the taking, and we should gladly leave anything just for the privilege of serving Him, and yet, He rewards us for any sacrifice made by us, even a hundred-fold. May the Lord be praised! Let us lift up our praises to Him!