There are probably still a lot of people that could complete that quotation, even though they never usually open the Bible:

“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” (Matthew 19.24).

A wealthy young man had approached Jesus, full of good intentions. He believed he had observed all the basic principles of Moses’ Law since he was a child, but he knew that something was missing. Jesus told him the one thing he didn’t want to hear:

“go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (verse 21)

Such a radical change in his lifestyle was too much for him; regretfully he turned around and walked away. Hence Jesus’ comment about the camel.

A small latchgate?

Many years ago I was told that Jesus didn’t quite mean what he said. He wasn’t talking about a literal needle but about a small archway in the city streets, or maybe a small latchgate opening in the gate that could be left open when the main gate was shut. This was what was known as the ‘eye of a needle’, (so I was told) and it was just possible to get the camel through if you unloaded all its baggage and got it down on its knees and gave it a good poke.

Like most ideas that are implanted when you are young, this thought has stayed with me ever since.

But then, not so long ago, I learnt that there was no evidence, historical or archaeological, for this suggestion. It was a nice idea but… (see for example the ESV Study Bible’s comment on Matthew 19.24; ‘there is no evidence for the popular interpretation that there was a gate in Jerusalem called the ‘eye of a needle’ which camels had to stoop to their knees to enter’).

In other words, Jesus meant exactly what he said!

An impossibility?

His disciples were astonished, and questioned him about it. His reply is crystal clear:

“…with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew.19.26).

Jesus was not talking about something that was very, very difficult.

He was talking about something that was impossible. He took the biggest animal that was familiar to his listeners, and the smallest aperture, and in a very simple graphic way illustrated his point: it was impossible for one to go through the other; impossible for the rich man to get into God’s kingdom.

Impossible, that is, without God; “with God all things are possible”.

The impossible becomes possible!

So Jesus introduced his disciples to one of the foundations of his teaching, later to be expanded by the apostle Paul, that we cannot in any way buy or earn a place in God’s kingdom. It is impossible for us to make ourselves acceptable to God. It is only through God’s grace, his loving foregiveness, that we have the hope of life to come, and the impossible becomes possible.

The disciples were impressed by wealth, by the gifts that rich men publicly and ostentatiously poured into the Temple treasury (see another incident in Mark 12. 41–44). They had nothing of their own to give, and they were in danger of thinking that riches were a positive asset in getting you into the kingdom. Jesus, in this very simple, powerful illustration, showed them the right way.

And later on the Apostle Paul spelt out Jesus’ message:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith …not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2.8)

“… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ” ( Romans 3.23)

So, for each of us, the ‘impossible’ can become ‘possible’ too!