This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Matthew 19:16-29
Confessions: Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 23, Q&A 59-61
Sermon prepared by Rev. Harry Zantingh, Ponoka, Alberta
Dear People of God,
There is a very difficult saying in verse 24 of our passage. “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.” In other words it is impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
Some have softened this text with some questionable interpretations. Such as, the Greek word for “camel” is a typo for the Greek word for “rope.” Or the needle is not a sewing needle but a small gate difficult for a camel to enter through. But the disciples grasp what Jesus is saying when they ask, “Who then can be saved?” We need to take this passage literally. A rich man cannot enter the kingdom of God.
That is very hard for us to hear because most of us in North America are rich in relation to the rest of the world. On top of that, we also hear Jesus’ words to the young man in verse 21, “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.” Many of us are left feeling guilty because the truth is we are not about to go and sell our possession and give them away. Surely, Jesus can’t mean what he says. What about Abraham or Job who were rich?
But our passage is not about how to use riches, nor about how to live our lives in relation to the Ten Commandments. Those are secondary issues. Our passage is about something more fundamental, more important than that. It is about how to enter the kingdom of God, how to gain eternal life, how to be saved. How does a camel get into heaven? Well, not actually camels but how do people get into heaven? How do you and I get into heaven? That is what Answer 59 is about in the Heidelberg Catechism. “In Christ I am right with God and heir to life everlasting.”
In our story the rich young man’s focus is on gaining eternal life. “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” His emphasis is on what he must do. So Jesus brings in the commandments, the law. God asks for obedience and those who are obedient will be in his presence.
The young man has kept all these and yet he knows that he lacks something. Perhaps there are some rules he has not kept, something that he might be unaware of or perhaps he has omitted something. He has the right concept which is that sins separate us from God. Things we do separate us from God.
Jesus also brings in another element in verse 17, “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” The man knew that the “One” was God. We might include Christ as well. For there is no one else who can be good. We are all lacking “one more good thing.” We overcome one sin area in our life only to discover another. So the rich young man asks, “What do I still lack?” He has kept the commands but he still lacks something.
There is no “rich-in-good-deeds” man who is going to enter the Kingdom of God. It is impossible because there is no one but God who is good. Keeping the law will not get you into heaven.
Keeping the law, doing good things, doesn’t make any difference when it comes to getting into heaven. There are people who have done many good deeds who are in heaven and there are people who have done few good deeds in heaven. Think of the thief on the cross. Think of Paul before going to Damascus, before he did all those great things. He was saved on that road to Damascus and he had done no great deeds except persecute the church but God saved him on that road. It is not good deeds or keeping the law that get us there.
Many of us know this but many of us struggle with it nonetheless. Our assurance of salvation often rests on the question of whether we are good enough. Well, we are not! It is impossible for a rich man, even a rich man rich in good deeds to enter the Kingdom of God.
“’All these I have kept,’ the young man said, “what do I still lack?’” He still lacks something though he has kept the laws Jesus mentions. We might frown at this man as being naïve, blind or proud. But he probably was an upstanding young man, morally very good. He is the kind of person we would want as a leader in our church, an example to all.
Jesus responds, “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.” He gives the first and greatest command in this response, which is to love God. He challenges him to make a choice. He had great wealth and he had great faith in that wealth. Jesus doesn’t just spiritualize things but asks him to do something.
But whether he would get rid of his wealth or not is not the issue. The real issue is whether he would follow Jesus. In fact, we tend to focus too much on the question of wealth. It could be anything we must give up. It could be houses or families or fields as verse 29 mentions. The houses you have worked so hard to buy and build. Your family which is so important in your life. For farmers it could be your fields. For pastors it could their ministry. The disciples left everything and they were not rich.
But it is not because they left everything that they inherited eternal life. It is because they followed Jesus. In verse 28 Jesus says, “When the Son of man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on 12 thrones.”
Some of us have wrestled with this passage and often felt guilty. We should sell everything, we think, but we do not. But it is not selling everything that is required, it is following Christ. There have been people who have given up everything and still not entered the Kingdom. There are those who have kept their wealth and yet entered the Kingdom. It is impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom because it is not riches which gets you in. It is following Jesus, it is faith in Christ.
There is a mentality we have in our tradition. When we have been successful in life then we say that we have been blessed by God. Though we may not dare say it, we see those material blessings as evidence of God’s approval of us, as evidence of his saving us. Some of that thought comes from the Old Testament which promises material blessing if we obey. We look at our wealth and success and see it as an indication of salvation. But might our wealth really be a curse? Perhaps the failure we often see as a curse is really a blessing from God. Yet riches could be a blessing. They could be either a blessing or a curse.
This may not seem very clear. The only thing clear is that it is still impossible for a rich man to get into heaven. It is as impossible as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
The disciples ask, “Who then can be saved?” The young man was sincere about keeping the law. He was not a hypocrite. So he was no doubt sincere about the use of his riches. He probably was generous. There are many rich people who use their wealth for the glory of God.
Kenneth Bailey writes (Through Peasant Eyes), “Rich men are able to build synagogues, endow orphanages, offer alms to the poor, refurbish temples, and fund many other worthwhile efforts. If anyone is saved, surely it is they. Jesus says that such people cannot enter the kingdom by such noble efforts. We commoners do not have the wealth to carry out such noble deeds. Who then can be saved?”
We can do great things for God. We can be very successful in spiritual endeavors. But they do not get us into heaven. We look at others who have done great works for the Lord but they don’t make it either. Billy Graham doesn’t make it. Martin Luther or John Calvin do not make it. We are all in the same position as the camel that cannot get through the eye of the needle.
It is not by keeping the law. It is not our wealth. It is not how successful you are in serving God. It is not what position you are in the line, whether first or last. It is only those who have lost it all, died, shed all their baggage and like a child have simply followed Jesus. They trust him, believe in him. They enter the Kingdom of God.
The verse just before the passage we read sheds light on this. In Matthew 19:14 it says, Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
The children are the opposite of the rich young ruler. The children simply come to Christ and Jesus accepts them. The kingdom of heaven belongs to them. They don’t come to Jesus in order to bless Jesus with their gifts or deeds or service. They are brought to have Jesus bless them and he does bless them—with the Kingdom!
No one enters the Kingdom of God in his own strength. It is impossible for a camel, for a rich man, for anyone. But what is impossible for us is possible with God. God makes it possible through Jesus Christ. Lord’s Day 23 says “All I need to do is accept this gift of God with a believing heart.” That is what following Christ means. That is all one needs to do, to have faith in the gift of God.
How does a camel get into heaven? He can’t unless he lets God do it through Jesus Christ. But it is not camels we are worried about. How does anyone get into heaven? We don’t unless we let God do it through Jesus Christ.
Order of Worship
GOD GATHERS US FOR WORSHIP
Welcome and Announcements
Call to Worship: Psalm 103:1-2
Opening Song: “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” (PsH 253)
God’s Greeting: May the grace, mercy and peace that comes from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father's Son, be with us in truth and love by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Songs of Praise: “My Lord, I Did Not Choose You” (PsH 496)
“I Know Not Why God’s Wondrous Grace” (PsH 495)
GOD REMINDS US OF HIS GRACE
Call to Confession: 1 John 1:8,10
Prayer of Confession
Assurance of Pardon: 1 John 1:9
God’s Will for His People: Matthew 22:37-40
Song of Dedication: “My Faith Looks Up to Thee” (PsH 262)
Confession of Faith: Apostles’ Creed (can be recited in unison) (p.813 in PsH)
GOD SHAPES US THROUGH HIS WORD
Prayer for Illumination
Confessional Reading: Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 23, Q&A 59-61
Scripture Reading: Matthew 19:16-29
Sermon: “How Camels Get Into Heaven”
WE RESPOND TO GOD’S SHAPING
Prayer of Application: Lord God, help us to recognize that nothing we can do can gain us access into your kingdom. Graciously let your Holy Spirit help us understand that to follow you is to simply have faith in your Son, Jesus Christ. May we enter your presence through what Jesus has done. Amen.
Song of Response: “Not What My Hands Have Done” (PsH 260)
GOD SENDS US OUT INTO HIS WORLD
God’s Parting Blessing: May you grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever. Amen
Our Parting Praise: “Lead On, O King Eternal” (PsH 555)