By Hope Bolinger, Crosswalk.com
Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. – Matthew 19:24
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. – Mark 10:25
Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. – Luke 18:25
This seems like a really odd metaphor. After all, anyone can have a hard time picturing a large camel going through the eye of a needle. Of all the illustrations Jesus has used, this feels like one of the most bizarre.
But what does this illustration really mean? Why did Jesus choose two bizarre symbols in this passage? And how have believers throughout the years misinterpreted these two verses above?
What ‘Camel through the Eye of the Needle’ Means
The illustration in itself seems simple enough. Jesus talks about how obsession and idolatry with earthly riches makes it harder to follow God. So hard that a camel would have an easier time going through the eye of a needle than for someone who idolizes riches to reach the kingdom of God.
For those unfamiliar with the world of sewing, “eye” refers to the hole at the top of a sewing needle where you attach the string. Ancient needles had a similar construction to ours, and so you can imagine that a large camel would not fit through the hole at the top of the needle.
And that was Jesus’ point.
He uses hyperbole. Other religious texts use similar examples such as an elephant going through a needle eye.
So does Jesus just mean that rich people can’t get into heaven here? No. This passage means to illustrate that our love of the world, not just riches, prevents us from getting into heaven by our own accord.
Where to Find This Verse in the Bible
Interestingly enough we don’t really find the phrase needle or camel, or at least the words used in this passage, in many other places in Scripture.
We do see another camel illustration used in Matthew 23:24, another hyperbole. Perhaps Jesus used the camel due to its large size and the familiarity the Jewish people would’ve had with this breed of livestock.
As for needle, we only see it used in the three passages that use the camel and needle illustration.
Why Is ‘Camel through the Eye of the Needle’ Included in Three Gospels?
Why did all the Gospel writers, except for John, include the ‘eye of the needle’ illustration that Jesus used? Do we run into a Synoptic problem here where all the writers copied each other’s notes?
Synoptic problem arguments aside (check out the article above for more information on this issue)...even if the three Gospel writers had derived some of the stories from different sources, they each distinctively chose to include this in their accounts.
Luke had interviewed countless eyewitnesses, and Matthew and Mark witnessed many of the events firsthand. So why did they all feel compelled to include this passage?
We’ll discuss this more in depth in the next section in regards to context, but we have to think about some of the main groups of Jewish people during the time of Jesus: mainly the Sadducees and Pharisees. Sadducees often had acquired a great deal of wealth and held prominent positions in government and society.
Pharisees, strict rule-followers, carried themselves with an air of significance, believing themselves to be more holy than the rest.
Jesus attempts to address both groups here. He shows them how riches, earthly power, and good deeds don’t merit a spot in heaven. Because the Gospel writers would’ve attempted to reach some group that either had dealings with these people, or were these people, they wanted to include this illustration from Jesus.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Estradaanton
What Is the Context of This Story?
In all three passages, we meet a very wealthy man. We can most likely assume he had a Sadducee status.
He asks Jesus what he can do to inherit the kingdom of heaven. Jesus knows his heart, but decides to play along. Our Savior lists a number of commandments from the Old Testament. The rich ruler “whews” and says that he’s kept all of the commandments since his childhood.
He thinks he gets off the hook. After all, he obeyed all the rules. Does this sound reminiscent of a certain older brother in the prodigal son story?
Jesus knows the rich man is still holding back, and he tells him to sell all of his possessions and focus instead on eternal treasures. The rich man walks away very sad “because he had great wealth.”
We should note that you could insert anyone into this story, not just a rich man. We all idolize something. Something prevents us from diving 100 percent into a relationship with Christ, and Jesus makes that clear here.
3 Lessons for Christians in Jesus’ Needle Story
Pastors do like to preach on this passage frequently for good reason. We can learn a great deal from this illustration. Here are just three lessons from Jesus’ needle story:
Lesson 1: No One Can Inherit Heaven without Jesus
We have all chosen to idolize something ahead of God. Relationships, riches, and even religion can fall under this umbrella. Without Jesus, we cannot make it to heaven. It doesn’t matter how many Old Testament rules we’ve followed or how many times we’ve attended church. Camels have an easier time getting through needle eyes than we do getting to heaven on our own accord.
Lesson 2: Jesus Peers into Our Hearts
You can’t fool God. I’m sure the rich man had put on a good face to everyone around him. Sadducees did have a way of people-pleasing. But you can’t people-please God. He knows what idols you place in front of him in your life, and if you want to grow in a relationship with him, he will ask you to tear them down.
Lesson 3: Money Isn’t Everything
Although the passage could refer to any idol we do have in our hearts, we do have to understand how wealth can often cloud our judgment. Many people who have acquired great wealth often will have less giving hearts (this, of course, is not always the case).
Whether God has blessed us with earthly wealth or not, we need to set our sights on more important treasure, the kind moth and rust does not destroy.
Misconceptions about the Eye of the Needle
Theologians throughout the years have attempted to conjure up some faulty translations in regards to this passage. We could talk about the camel root word being similar to rope here, but I’d like to address the camel crawling through needle gate interpretation.
Supposedly (although we have no archeological evidence for this) there was a small gate travelers would venture through known as Needle Gate. But it was so tiny, that the travelers had to strip the camel of its saddles and have the camel crawl through on its knees.
People have, in turn, said, “If you humble yourselves and pray on your knees, you can approach the kingdom of heaven.”
They appear to miss the point.
Jesus purposely used hyperbole in this passage to point out that we can do absolutely nothing on our own to inherit the kingdom of heaven. Salvation comes through him alone.
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A Prayer to Refocus Your Heart
Dear Heavenly Father,
Like the rich young ruler, I want to follow you wholeheartedly, and I realize I have idols in my life that I need to get rid of. A relationship with you often requires I get rid of worldly or earthly possessions, and in a spiritual sense, that means getting rid of the pedestals I’ve placed these idols upon.
Thank you for the salvation that only comes from you. I know that I could never reach the kingdom of heaven without the sacrificial love of your Son Jesus Christ. Thank you for that wondrous gift.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
We need Christ to receive eternal life. Wealth, possessions, or even good deeds cannot get us into the kingdom of heaven alone. Jesus uses an outrageous illustration to show us how much we desperately need salvation, and how we cannot attain it on our own.
Some theologians have tried to fiddle with the interpretation of this passage. But ultimately, the verses found in all three Gospels try to indicate the same thing: salvation comes from God alone.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/turk_stock_photographer
Hope Bolinger is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E. and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 600 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her column "Hope's Hacks," tips and tricks to avoid writer's block, reaches 6,000+ readers weekly and is featured monthly on Cyle Young's blog. Her modern-day Daniel, Blaze, (Illuminate YA) Den (releasing July 2020), Dear Hero (releasing September 2020), and Dear Henchman (releasing 2021) Find out more about her at her website.
This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.