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Camel Through the Eye of a Needle Hyperbole

There are different discussions about this statement: “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 19:24; see parallel Scriptures Mark 10:25 and  Luke 18:25). The differences in what is discussed have to do with whether or not Jesus the Christ actually uses the word “camel” in these aforementioned verses, or if He uses the word “rope.” Other differences involve whether or not the “eye of the needle” pertains to an ancient trade gate to Jerusalem, used after hours for trade caravans; an ancient mountain pass that was difficult for caravans to get through without losing everything to robbers; an ancient low gate to inns; a sewing needle; or a surgeon’s needle.

For the purpose of this piece, this writer is going with the oldest nearly complete Greek manuscripts, like the Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, and Ephraemi Codices, because scholars agree that these manuscripts are unanimous in using the Greek word kamelos, which translates as the English word “camel” in Matthew 19:24. Also, for the purpose of this piece, this writer is going with Strong’s Greek Lexicon number 5169 (truvphma, meaning “hole”). This Greek word, truvphma, is transliterated as trupema, from which comes the term “eye” that is used in the King James’ English translation of the New Testament. Likewise, for the purpose of this piece, this writer is going with Strong’s Greek Lexicon number 4476 (rJafiv, meaning “a needle”). This Greek word, rJafiv, is transliterated as rhaphis, from which comes the word “needle” that is used in the King James’ English translation of the New Testament.

In spite of the different discussions, the fact still remains that the original Greek words, those that originally mean camel, hole and needle, make it impossible for any other interpretation other than the “literal” camel passing through a “literal” sewing needle interpretation. Moreover, for the purpose of this article, the focus will be on the fact that Jesus the Christ is using this literal interpretation to drive home the idea of impossibility.

This camel passing through the eye of a needle is a hyperbole, and just like the Jewish Talmudic literature uses the “…nor an elephant going through the eye of a needle” aphorism (a brief saying embodying a moral, principle, or precept), which implies the unlikely, Jesus the Christ is using a figure of speech in the Greek New Testament literature that also expresses impossibility. Now, for believers, this last point is important because the impossibility the Lord is referring to in His hyperbole pertains to the impossibility of any kind of human activity ever substituting for the divine grace that is necessary for salvation to take place.

In the New Testament, there are many times when Jesus the Christ teaches with parables. Along with using parables to teach about divine truths, the Lord also uses hyperboles. The hyperbole is a grossly exaggerated description or statement. In literature, the hyperbole/exaggeration is used for emphasis or vivid descriptions.

One of the emphatic and imagistic exaggerations the Lord uses in the New Testament is seen when He speaks about the spiritually blind Pharisees who “…strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24, KJV). Then again, when the Lord addresses the Pharisees’ hypocritical righteousness in Luke 6:41, Jesus the Christ uses another hyperbole. He is using a grossly exaggerated description when He asks the Pharisees why they are more concerned with the “…mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye” (KJV).

Now, these aforesaid exaggerations are very effective ways of explaining why human activity and divine grace are dissimilar—why mankind’s ways to purchase or earn salvation and God’s plan to give salvation by grace are as different as night and day! It, therefore, is the Lord’s intent to explain to His disciples just how impossible it is for humans to achieve salvation through their own merits, and He achieves this goal by stating His Matthew 19:24 hyperbole. Once again, Jesus the Christ says: “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.”

Since it is evident that the Lord is suggesting that entering the Kingdom of Heaven (or Kingdom of God) and “being saved” are synonymous, then His camel exaggeration is His way of effectively describing for His disciples why it is more than difficult, nay, impossible for people to buy their way into Heaven—to use their money to purchase their salvation. The main problem with thinking that salvation could be bought with money is that no one knows how much money it would take to make such a purchase.

The Lord’s hyperbole also effectively describes for His disciples why it is more than difficult, nay, impossible for people to use their own ‘good’ works to save themselves—to do the amount of righteous deeds that could earn their salvation and a place in Heaven. The main problem with this thinking is that no one knows how many ‘good’ deeds it would take to be sure a person’s salvation is secure!

The good news is: “...The things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (Luke 18:27, KJV). Moreover, God not only makes salvation possible, but also He offers it as a free gift. Humans do not need any money or any works to pay for their salvation. That salvation is a free gift is the primary reason why human activity and divine grace are absolutely dissimilar!

The Lord, in another related passage, speaks again about the dissimilarity of human activity and divine grace. For example, His camel hyperbole becomes literally and symbolically analogous to the humans being pressed like grapes simile, as ‘being pressed like grapes’ is a symbolic meaning for the word “narrow” that is used in Matthew 7:14. Thus, while Matthew 19:24 literally means that it is unlikely that a camel could squeeze through the eye of a needle and virtually impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven,  when the symbolic interpretation of Matthew 7:14 is applied, the camel hyperbole gains a symbolic understanding. Now, the notion/myth of it being possible for camels to squeeze through an “eye of the needle” trade gate, but only after they have become unburdened from carrying the tradesmen’s wares, has some weight. Likewise, the notion/myth of camels squeezing through a mountain pass called the “eye of the needle,” but only after their owners suffer loss—only after they lose all of their goods to the robbers who controlled this mountain pass—also sounds believable.

In both of these scenarios, these just-made-it-through camels can be compared to “redeemed” believers who squeeze through the Kingdom of Heaven’s gate. The former scenario pertains to  the 11th-hour believers who receive salvation just before they die.  They have unburdened  their heavy loads by rolling their cares over onto the Lord, but they do not have any treasures stored up in Heaven because all of their works from this life are consumed by the Holy Spirit’s fire. The latter scenario refers to redeemed believers who live Christian lives that tend to be more selfish than self-sacrificing. In the end, they make it into the Kingdom of Heaven but only after they too have suffered much loss—have many or ALL of the works they did in this life burn up because these works were not of the quality of gold, silver, and precious gemstone (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:12-15).

In the Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus the Christ says:

Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (KJV)

Like it is impossible for the rich man in Matthew 19:24 to enter into the Kingdom of God, yet possible though a bit difficult for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle that is a mountain pass or a trade gate, it also is very impossible for ANYONE, rich or poor, to enter into eternal life without the Lord, yet possible though a bit difficult for some people to squeak through the Kingdom of Heaven’s gate, but only if they have been redeemed by the Lord. The point here is that even with the Lord, many people still will think that “the way” into the Kingdom of Heaven is very difficult even impossible to achieve, because the “strait gate” they MUST go through is very small or little, just like the literal “eye of the needle.”

Additionally, because this life is full of so many afflictions, trials, and tribulations that press humans like grapes, and because so many people choose to obey their carnal urges rather than allow the Holy Spirit to lead and teach them so that they will desire to surrender to Jesus the Christ’s Lordship, humans (believers and non-believers) often believe that Christ’s “Way” is not only difficult/almost impossible but also very unpleasant. As a result, these people often feel just like the young rich man in Matthew 19:21-22—they, too, feel like they have to give up too much to follow the Lord.

Consequently, most of these people will end up choosing to enter through large gates (wide gates) that lead to destruction (no salvation), because these are the roads most traveled. The people who take these roads know pretty much what to expect while they make their journey through this life. Not knowing what to expect in the afterlife, however, is one of the reasons why ONLY a few people will choose the “strait gate” and “narrow…way.” The sad thing about these facts is that only a few people will reap Jesus the Christ’s FULL abundance of heavenly rewards for having chosen His “strait gate” and “narrow…way” and stayed on that path, come hell or high water.

To be sure, too many people, believers included, are not the come hell or high water faithful, perhaps because they also are not that confident that their eternal-life rewards will far exceed any earthly riches they might obtain in this life. Yet, to this unfaithful pursuit of eternal life Jesus declares: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul” (Mark 8:36)?

In the case of the rich man who turned and walked away from Jesus the Christ (cf. Matthew 19:21-22), the Lord’s response to His disciples’ question about who could be saved speaks to the foolishness of humans who place ALL of their trust in their worldly assets, particularly money. The Lord actually is portraying wealth as a hindrance to salvation. Jesus the Christ knows that His rich man, like so many of today’s individuals, will become slaves to money, material possessions, fame, and reputation.

Because it truly is so easy for so many people to allow their souls to be controlled/consumed by their lusts for worldly possessions, these individuals end up forfeiting their own salvation and/or their own heavenly rewards for the love of wealth/riches, materialism, notoriety, and/or an excellent repute. For this reason, the Apostle John gives this timeless warning:

Stop loving this evil world and all that it offers you, for when you love the world, you show that you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only the lust for physical pleasure, the lust for everything we see, and pride in our possessions. These are not from the Father. They are from this evil world. And this world is fading away, along with everything it craves. But if you do the will of God, you will live forever. (1 John 2:15-17, NLT)

Finally, the Lord’s words in Matthew 19:24 more than adequately explain the dissimilarity between human involvement in the salvation process and God’s gift of salvation via His grace, the power of His Holy Spirit, His Faith, and Jesus the Christ’s atoning sacrifice. The Lord makes it emphatically clear that humans who put their trust in what this world offers, as opposed to trusting God’s salvation gift, will neither see nor enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In other words, the Lord wants believers to accept the literal interpretation of Matthew 19:24, which is it not only is unlikely for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye, but also it is impossible for a rich man to see or enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

The rich man’s actions in Matthew 19:21-22 support this literal interpretation of Matthew 19:24. Indeed, when wealthy persons are weighed down with their riches and the cares of this world to the point that they abuse the power and enormous responsibility they have been given to do good, it not only will be difficult but also virtually impossible for these rich people to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

It is sad to say, but there are, and always will be, too many ultra rich people—people with net assets of more than $1 million (excluding their primary home and everyday possessions)—who are unwilling to meet the Christian goals of bountiful giving and earnest fellowship, which ironically are met by realizing that God never intends for them to remain ultra rich. God blesses people to have an abundance so that they will share their abundance with those in need. This sharing, however, is just as hard for many of today’s ultra rich to do as it was difficult for Jesus the Christ’s rich man to do.

Be that as it may, when humans approach God’s throne of grace, they do so bringing NOTHING with them that could pay for or earn their salvation. There is NOTHING humans can give or do to obtain eternal life, because God by His divine grace predetermined that He would grant the gift of salvation to this entire world. God also preordained that Jesus the Christ would be the ONE person who would pay the price for ALL.  As a result, EVERY person owes ALL of him or herself to Jesus the Christ.

Furthermore, EVERY person who accepts Jesus the Christ as Lord and Savior not only is redeemed (bought with a price) but also is allowed to live eternally. Lastly, because of Jesus the Christ’s self-sacrifice, EVERY believer who remains faithful to the command to enter the difficult yet possible to travel ONE and ONLY path also will be guaranteed entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven!