How to Get a Camel through a Needle's Eye
And someone came to Him and said, "Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?" 17 And He said to him, "Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." 18 Then he said to Him, "Which ones?" And Jesus said, "YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER; YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY; YOU SHALL NOT STEAL; YOU SHALL NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS; 19 HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER; and YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF." 20 The young man said to Him, "All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?" 21 Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." 22 But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property. 23 And Jesus said to His disciples, "Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 "Again I say to 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." 25 When the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, "Then who can be saved?" 26 And looking at them Jesus said to them, "With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." 27 Then Peter said to Him, "Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?" 28 And Jesus said to them, "Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name's sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life. 30 "But many who are first will be last; and the last, first."
A Great Inconsistency When Dealing With Impossibilities
This sermon was conceived several weeks ago when I was praying about the human impossibility of raising another $3.8 million in pledges for the vision of Education for Exultation and Growing without Growing. I was suddenly struck with a great inconsistency in my prayers and in my preaching. Here I was preaching about the Gideon Venture and the Isaac Factor and the Fish Factor - that God often chooses to do things in ways that highlight man's weakness and God's omnipotence: 300 men defeating 120,000 Midianites, barren and aged Sarah giving birth to a son, a coin found in a fish's mouth. Here I was calling the whole church to pray and give toward the humanly impossible. "Don't do the math," we said, "ask God to do the miracle."
And rightly so. God is doing it. I believe he is pleased with our commitment to do this without debt and to keep looking to him when we cannot imagine where another $3.8 million in pledges will come from.
But it hit me very hard that our decade-long prayer goal of 2000 by 2000 ends officially December 31 this year, and we are not pursuing it in prayer in the same way - I fear precisely because it feels impossible. "What's the point?" our hearts say to us. If it hasn't happened in nine years, how can it happen in eight months? And suddenly I saw the glaring inconsistency in my heart. I was calling us to pray for the pledges toward the new building precisely because it is humanly impossible; but I was letting 2000 by 2000 fade quietly into the sunset without the same prayer for the very same reason: it seems impossible.
We felt led by God in 1990 to formulate what we called a "prayer goal" of sending 2000 out from us and of winning 2000 people to Christ. We broke the sending down into career missionaries, two kinds of short-termers, pastoral ministers, parachurch ministers, those who leave to plant churches, and nationals who come here to study and then go back out from us. You can see the results. Overall, 988 toward the goal of 2000 have been sent, as of today. Similarly, there have been a little over 500 toward the goal of 2000 professions of faith -about one a week over the decade instead of the pattern of the book of Acts: "the Lord added to their number daily as many as were being saved" (Acts 2:47; 16:5).
So is the prayer goal of 2000 by 2000 impossible? Yes, it is -for man. But is it impossible for God? What we have said over and over in recent weeks is: "All things are possible with God." So the aim of this message is to remedy the inconsistency of our praying and my preaching. My aim is to call us for the next eight months not only to pray toward the human impossibility of another $3.8 million in pledges when you have already stretched to the breaking point, but also to pray toward 1500 more professions of faith and over a thousand people sent out from us. And to believe that God has ways and means that we have never dreamed of. I'll mention the details of how we can pray and fast together to this end when I close.
But first, let's let Jesus talk to us this morning about the human impossibility of these goals - especially the goal of winning 1500 people to Christ in the next eight months - and the divine possibility.
What Does "Salvation" Mean?
In Matthew 19:16-30 the issue is salvation. And that's the issue for us. We want to pray toward 1500 people who are now lost being saved. So let's notice, first, six different ways that salvation is described in this text.
1. Verse 16: "And someone came to Him and said, 'Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?'" That's the first description: "obtain [or have] eternal life."
2. Verse 17b: Jesus says, "If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." The second way to express "salvation" is "enter into life."
3. Verse 23: "Jesus said to His disciples, 'Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.'" Third, you can describe salvation as "entering the kingdom of heaven."
4. Verse 24: Again Jesus says, "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." The fourth way to say it is "enter the kingdom of God." There is no substantial difference between "kingdom of heaven" (verse 23) and "kingdom of God" (verse 24).
5. Verse 25: "When the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, 'Then who can be saved?'" There is the familiar word "saved." So now we know "being saved" means here having eternal life and entering the kingdom of God. The opposite would be eternal death and separation from God - a place and a condition which Jesus more than anyone else in the Bible calls "Hell," a place of great torment.
6. Verse 29: Jesus says to Peter, "Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name's sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life." Here the future orientation of the passage becomes clear. "Salvation" means "inheriting eternal life" in the age to come.
This is what the rich young man was after. And it is what we are after. And it is what we want others to have through our lives and ministries. That is the goal of the "harvesting" half of 2000 by 2000. We believe eternal life is at stake in how people respond to Jesus. We want them to be saved and have eternal life and enter the kingdom of God and not be condemned on the Day of Judgment.
So now what does Jesus tell us about this salvation?
The most striking thing he tells us is that the conversion that leads to this salvation is humanly impossible. And this is all the more striking because the question he is answering when he says this could easily have been answered without bringing up the issue of the impossibility of conversion.
Let's look at this in the text. This young man, who wants eternal life, claims in verse 20 to keep the whole law that Jesus had summed up with "Love your neighbor as yourself" in verse 19: "All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?" I don't think Jesus agrees with this man's self-assessment - namely that he loves his neighbor as himself.
And so, to expose the man's love of money and his dependence on money, Jesus says in verse 21, "If you wish to be complete [or perfect], go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." If you want to be what you need to be and inherit eternal life, 1) unshackle your heart from your possessions, 2) have a heart for the poor, 3) treasure God in heaven, and 4) follow me (see also John 10:26-27).
But verse 22 says the young man "went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property." Jesus responded to this departure in verses 23-24: "Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. (24) Again I say to 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." One thing is crystal clear: a camel cannot go through the eye of a needle. It is impossible. And if you have ever heard anyone say that this is a reference to a gate in the wall around Jerusalem which was so small that a camel had to get down low and take the load off its back, there is no such gate and the context will not allow such an interpretation.
Jesus interprets his own meaning in his response to what the disciples ask next. They are astonished and ask in verse 25, "Then who can be saved?" Now at this point Jesus has the golden opportunity to answer with something like: "The poor can be saved." Or: "Believers can be saved." Or: "Those who follow me can be saved." But he does not say any of those. He follows through with the meaning of what he had just said about the camel and the needle's eye. He says in verse 26, "With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
What is Jesus referring to when he says, "This is impossible"? The rich young man had just been unwilling to leave his possessions, and care for the poor and treasure God and follow Jesus. Jesus had said, See how hard it is for a rich man to be converted into a follower of mine. It's as hard as a camel going through a needle's eye. But then the disciples broaden the issue to everybody: "Who then can be saved?" And Jesus in essence says, "The point I am making about the rich is true for everybody. This is not a problem with money. It's a problem with the human heart." So he makes the broad general statement: "With people this is impossible." That is, conversion for everyone is humanly impossible. Who then can be saved? Answer: No one -unless God intervenes to do what is humanly impossible.
But Can't a Person Just Decide?
This is what Jesus meant in John 6:65, "No one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father." It's what Paul meant in Romans 8:7 where he said, "The mind of the flesh. . . does not submit to the law of God, for indeed it cannot." And 1 Corinthians 2:14, "A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised." And Ephesians 2:5, "We were dead in our trespasses and sins." It is impossible for a dead man to be converted - unless God does the humanly impossible.
Now there is a kind of theology that says, Yes, with man conversion is impossible apart from God's grace, but God makes it possible for everyone by a universal work of grace which he gives to all people everywhere. So, this view says, God overcomes the deadness of our fallen nature and makes all men able to believe.* So it would be impossible without this grace, but with this grace it is possible. And God has given it to everyone. And now the decisive act of conversion is our work, apart from any added work on God's part.
But that interpretation won't work in this text. Here is a rich man who loves his riches so much that he chooses to have them rather than to help the poor or have treasure in heaven or follow Jesus. When Jesus explains this tragic choice, what does he say? Does he say: God's universal grace had overcome the hardness and rebellion of the man's heart and made it possible for him to leave his riches and love the poor and treasure heaven and trust Jesus, but the man still did not do it? Is that his explanation for the man' s not leaving his riches and following Jesus? No. That is not his explanation. His explanation of the man's unwillingness to leave his riches and follow Christ is: With humans it is impossible.
It's irrelevant in this text to argue that God makes faith possible for all men, and that the reason some don't believe is merely their own independent liberty. It's irrelevant because the issue here is why this one particular man does not use his so-called "liberty" to leave his riches and follow Christ. And what is Jesus' explanation that this particular man, in this moment, would not leave his riches and follow Jesus? His answer is: With humans it is impossible. In other words, even if there is a universal grace that enlightens every man that comes into the world, what Jesus is explaining here is one particular man's refusal to leave money and follow Jesus, even with such a universal grace. And his explanation for this man, even with such universal grace, is: He did not follow me because "with humans it is impossible."
Therefore what Jesus means when he says in verse 26, "With God all things are possible," is that God can and does effectually enable people to leave their riches and follow Christ. He does grant repentance, as Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:25. He does grant that we come to Christ (John 6:65). He does work in us the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8). He does the humanly impossible to convert sinners and bring them to eternal life.
What Will We Do With This Impossibility?
Now we as individuals and as a church stand at a fork in the road at this point in the message. 1) We can elevate our human reasonings above Scripture and say, "Well, if conversion is impossible with man, then I'm not going to pray or evangelize the lost. Because my mind tells me, What's the point?" Or 2) we can submit to this word of Jesus and to the whole counsel of God in the Bible and say, "Because all things are possible with God, including the conversion of the hardest sinner and the most spiritually callous person we know, therefore we will pray to this all-powerful God for such conversions, and we will speak the gospel of Christ with great expectation that this is the very means God will use to do what is humanly impossible."
There is no doubt which road we should take. It is the road of confident, God-centered, courageous, loving evangelism and prayer. "All things are possible with God" was spoken not only over $9 million; it was spoken over your wayward son and your unbelieving dad and self-sufficient brother, your alcoholic neighbor and the secular people you work with, Muslim Somalis of Minneapolis and your Jewish friends and the kids you go to school with.
Who can be saved? Are you going to stop with the words, "With man this is impossible"? Or will you go on and rejoice over the words, "But all things are possible with God." Think of the hardest unbeliever you know - and then say with Jesus, "All things are possible with God." Nobody is too hard for God to save. Therefore let us ask him to do it, and let us boldly fill our mouths with the gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation.
I call you to three specific ways we can be about this as a congregation in the next eight months:
1. Join Dan Holst and the other prayer leaders and me each month for First Sunday Sunrise Prayer from 6:30 to 8:00 am. This will start next Sunday at 6:30 AM and continue on the first Sundays of the month for the rest of the year with a view to praying that God would do the impossible, not only to complete the pledges but to complete 2000 by 2000.
2. Join the staff and me for the usual First Tuesday Fast at 12:30 this Tuesday. We skip lunch and worship and pray from 12:30 to 1:00. Only now, we will enlarge the focus of the first Tuesday fasts and include our prayer that God would do these two impossible things - finishing the pledges and finishing 2000 by 2000.
3. Pray earnestly and expectantly - each of us - that God would grant us each to lead one person to Christ this year. Here I give you permission to do the math. If we long to see 1500 people profess faith in Christ this year, how many people do 1500 people have to win? One each.
With God all things are possible. Let's believe it and let's make it the basis of our prayer and our giving and our evangelism. Amen.
NOTES *Explaining the position of Arminianism, and of John Wesley in particular, Millard Erickson says, "This prevenient grace also makes it possible for any person to accept the offer of salvation in Jesus Christ." Christian Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), p. 914. To see Wesley's own words see the sermon, "On Working Out Our Own Salvation" section iii, paragraph 4 at .
Unless otherwise indicated, Bible quotations are taken from The New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.