Nov 26, 2006

The Eye of the Needle

Mark 10:23–31

The pursuit of wealth and success is a tempting distraction from the kingdom of God, and we would be wise to ensure that our focus is in the right place. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in Mark to help us put wealth in proper perspective.


Let’s turn our attention now to chapter 10 of Mark’s gospel. I’ll be reading from verse 23 through verse 31, and I’d ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God.

Then Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were astonished at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God! 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.”

And they were greatly astonished, saying among themselves, “Who then can be saved?”

But Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible.”

Then Peter began to say to Him, “See, we have left all and followed You.”

So Jesus answered and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children of lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

This is the unvarnished, inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God. Please be seated. Let’s pray.

Father, sometimes the things that we hear from the lips of your Son astonish us, and we find it hard to take it in, and so we ask that in this hour You would soften our hearts that we may give attention to this Word, that we may embrace it and trust it for now and for eternity. In Jesus’ name we ask it. Amen.

The Obstacle of Material Wealth

In our last study of Mark’s gospel, we looked at the passage of the story of the rich young ruler, who came to Jesus asking Him what he had to do to enter into the kingdom of God. In that discussion between Jesus and this man, Mark tells us that Jesus looked at him and loved him with compassion because Jesus knew that the man was so committed to his own wealth that he had no room in his heart or in his life for the things of God. The story ends badly when we read that the man walked away sorrowfully because he had great possessions.

The context for the text that I’ve just read to you is what follows after the encounter with the rich young ruler. We pick up in verse 23, when Jesus, after watching the man walk away in sorrow, looks around and says to His disciples, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” In this text, Jesus singles out an obstacle that human beings have, which stands between them and their readiness to hear the gospel.

The obstacle Jesus addresses on this occasion is the obstacle of material wealth. The Old Testament Jew looked upon material wealth as a blessing from God, but it could have a second side to it, bringing forth the curse of self-sufficiency. So, Jesus basically says, “Be careful if you’re wealthy, because if you are, it will be hard for you to enter into the kingdom of God.”

As Jesus repeats Himself, He gives greater clarity to this warning after the disciples express astonishment at His teaching. Jesus says to them: “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God. 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.”

Notice the slight shift in wording. First Jesus says, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter into the kingdom of God!” When the disciples express their amazement, He qualifies it when He says, “How hard it is for those who trust in their riches to enter into the kingdom of God!”

Four Types of Poverty

Let me say a little bit about the biblical view of wealth and poverty, because it is a view that we need to understand, particularly in the climate of the politics of envy that saturates our own culture today. We tend be quite simplistic about the question of wealth and poverty. There is a tendency among us to assume that if any person among us is poor, it must be because they are indolent, that only the lazy are in poverty. From a biblical perspective, that is simply not true.

Conversely, we often have the idea that only way a person can be wealthy today is if they are corrupt and exploit people so that they tramp over the weak in order to gather their riches. The myth that people believe is that the only way a person can become wealthy is the expense at somebody else. That may be true in a poker game, but that’s one of the few places where it is true. We think of Henry Ford, for example, who became fabulously wealthy by introducing mass production of the automobile. By his ingenuity, he brought the automobile into the reach of the average family in America so that everybody prospered by the increase in Henry Ford’s wealth.

In the biblical framework, if we look at the word for poverty or the poor, we see that there is a distinction among four distinct types of people who are poor in the Old Testament.

Poverty from Laziness

The first is the group I’ve already mentioned, those who were poor because they were lazy. They were poor because they wouldn’t work. They were poor because they were irresponsible. That view carries over to the New Testament with the warning from the Apostle that says, “If a man doesn’t work, neither should he eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). The view of God towards people who are poor as a result of laziness is one of judgment throughout the Old Testament, but there are other causes for poverty.

Poverty from Calamity

The second group describes those in the Old Testament who were designated as the poor in the midst of the people because of calamity, illness, or natural disasters that ruined their crops, for example. These people who were reduced to poverty received the compassion of God and the law of God that those who were better off should make provision for their care.

Poverty from Exploitation

The third group of poverty in the Old Testament designates those people who were poor as a direct result of the exploitation of the rich and the powerful. I might add at this point that those who were commonly the rich and powerful in the Old Testament were not merchants. They were rulers. They were government authorities who became tyrants, like Pharaoh in Egypt or like Ahab in Israel, who enslaved his own people. They were like Saddam Hussein and other dictators who amassed great wealth by stripping it away from the people.

This third group of poor people in the Old Testament have God as their Defender, who will not tolerate the exploitation of the weak by the strong. That is how the story of the Exodus takes place. God becomes the Warrior, the Defender, and the Champion of those who are enslaved.

Poverty for Righteousness’ Sake

The fourth group of poverty in the Old Testament consisted of the ones who were poor for righteousness’ sake; that is, they willingly embraced poverty that they might devote themselves to spiritual things and not become distracted by the pursuit of wealth.

It’s important that we understand these four distinct groups and don’t lump them all together. We need to have hearts that are open to those who have suffered at the hands of natural calamities and illness and be aware of the needs of those around us. James tells us that true religion is this: to care for orphans and widows who have suffered through no fault of their own (James 1:27).

The Fundamental Premise for Wealth

In the Old Testament God’s wrath is poured out against the wealthy who use their wealth to exploit people, to crush people, and to enslave people. God’s wrath for Solomon’s actions, for Ahab’s actions, and for others is manifest in the Old Testament, yet we also see in the Old Testament that wealth can be a manifest blessing given to people by God.

Some of the greatest saints of the Bible were, at the same time, some of the wealthiest. Consider, for example, Abraham, who was the father of the faithful and one of the richest men in the world in antiquity. His riches may have been exceeded by God’s servant Job. Later on, in the New Testament, we hear of Joseph of Arimathea, who was a wealthy man. These three examples tell us something about the relationship between wealth and God.

In light of Jesus saying, “How hard it is for a person who trusts in their wealth,” if that’s where we put our confidence and our trust, then we have put our trust in that which cannot possibly redeem us. Jesus again and again warns people against trying to serve two masters, trying to serve God and mammon, trying to store up riches for themselves in this world where thieves come in and steal, where moths come in, and rust corrodes that which is precious. Instead, He calls us to store up our treasures in heaven.

The question is, Where is our trust and what do we do with the wealth we receive? The fundamental premise for wealth in the Bible is this: every good and perfect gift that we have comes from the mercy of God. There is no such thing as a bootstrap ethic in the Bible. Nobody pulls himself up by his own bootstraps without the grace of God. Everything that we have comes to us from His bounty and from His goodness. God looks at what we trust and what we do with that which He has entrusted us.

The Example of Abraham

Think of Abraham, who is so often the example set forth as the father of the faithful. In Genesis 13, a dispute arose between the cattle ranchers of Lot and those of Abraham. The dispute became so serious that Abraham said to Lot: “We’re family—we’ve got to be able to get along. There’s plenty of room in this land for both of us. Let’s not have anymore discord among us. Let’s split the land in half. You take one half. I’ll take the other half. You choose first, Lot. Whatever part you want for your livestock and your family, take it, and I’ll take what’s left.”

Lot looked in one direction and saw the near desert conditions of Canaan. He saw the place had very little to provide for the feeding of the cattle and he saw how difficult it would be to take the herds and drive them to market from that distance. Then his eyes came to the Jordan plain, with its lush grasslands, right next to the city where all of the commerce was taking place. Being the businessman that he was, Lot said, “I’ll take the Jordan plain and the city.”

Lot moved his family to Sodom. Sodom was a fantastic place to raise cattle, but it was a terrible place to raise a family, as Lot found out. Abraham, as wealthy as he was, counted his family, his faith, his integrity of much greater value than his cattle.

The Example of Job

Consider Job, who was fabulously wealthy by ancient standards. Satan came to God in heaven, and God said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job?” God called attention to Job for his integrity, for his devotion to God, for his love and affection for the Lord, and for his faithful service.

Satan issued the challenge, saying: “Does Job serve You for naught? Look at what You’ve given him—of course he loves You; of course he serves You. You’ve given all of these possessions to him, making him one of the wealthiest men in the world, and You’ve put a hedge around him. Let me at him, and we’ll see how long he continues to be faithful to You.”

You know the rest of the story. Satan unleashed the horror of hell upon Job, upon his family, upon his livestock—upon everything that was precious and dear to him—until Job sat moaning on a dunghill, crying out, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.” Job did not trust in his wealth. He trusted in his Redeemer to the day that God vindicated him.

The Example of Joseph of Arimathea

Finally, there is Joseph of Arimathea in the New Testament. He was an obscure person, only referenced briefly in the New Testament in the gospels. Who would ever have heard of Joseph of Arimathea because of the tremendous business deals he was able to consolidate? But now he is known throughout the Christian world for what he did with his wealth. He donated an expensive sepulcher so that the body of the Lord Jesus Christ might be buried in dignity. Joseph is remembered not for what he had, but for what he gave to the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s what it’s about: where our trust is, where our hearts are, and where our priorities are.

A Strange Aphorism

In talking about the difficulty for the wealthy, Jesus uses a strange aphorism when He 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.” If that’s the truth at face value, then you and I should get rid of all the riches that we have in order to gain heaven.

Around the ninth century, a legend developed saying that Jesus was talking here about an obscure gate or point of entry into the walled city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem had several gates into its interior, and each of the gates had a certain name, like the East Gate, or the West Gate, or the Dung Gate. This ninth-century writer argued that the smallest gate in the city of Jerusalem was called the Eye of the Needle. The idea was that the only way a camel could come into Jerusalem through that gate was on its knees, and that the camel driver would get the camel to bend its knees at the front of the gate and then push, prod, and shove it through to get it in. You could get the camel in that way, but barely.

Now, that makes for a great story, that the only way rich people can get into the kingdom of heaven is on their knees, but there is no evidence until the ninth century of such a gate as that in Jerusalem, so it’s very iffy. Rather, Jesus takes the largest commonly known animal of His contemporaries and compares it to the smallest slot of opening and says, “It’s harder for a rich man to get into the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through an eye of a needle.” Jesus is going to make it clear that it’s possible, but it’s difficult.

We really need to heed our Lord’s warning at this point because we are the most prosperous people in the history of the world. The poorest person in our congregation this morning has a better standard of living than kings had two hundred years ago. We have been so blessed by God that the obstacles and snares are there, and we need to think about the eye of the needle and take stock every now and then of where our hearts are. Show me a man’s checkbook, and I’ll tell you where his heart is. That’s true of all of us, dear friends. We need to hear our Lord.

The disciples are flabbergasted by Jesus’ statement, and they ask, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus says, “With men, it’s just not possible.” Do you see how hard it is for those who put their trust in wealth? Humanly speaking, it’s impossible for that person to get into the kingdom of God. “But with God,” He says, “all things are possible.” With God, it’s even possible to be abased and to abound, as the Apostle Paul said. It’s possible to receive blessings of great wealth from God and still have our hearts focused on the kingdom of God.

It may be difficult, but this is where the Holy Spirit intervenes in the lives of people and cuts through the hardness of our hearts. Somebody just said to me a couple of weeks ago, “It’s very, very hard for people to give up their wealth.” When I heard that, I thought: “Yes, that’s true. It’s hard for me.” I think it’s hard for all of us, but there are times when we are called to do that for the kingdom’s sake.

Leaving All to Follow Christ

Then Peter begins to say to Him: “You’re not talking about us, Lord—not me, Lord. We’ve left all to follow You.” Here is the impetuous Peter speaking up again, as if Jesus were rebuking him for whatever he had left after he departed from his family business, saying, “We left all to follow You.”

Jesus says, “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house, or brothers or sisters, or father or mother, or wife or children, or lands for My sake and the gospel’s…” Let me comment on this. There are people in this room this morning, people who may be sitting right next to you, who have done just that. They have left their families and left their homes, not because they wanted to divorce themselves from their loved ones, but because of Christ and for the gospel’s sake.

I remember walking in the parking lot of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church one night a few years ago when there was a furious battle going on in the theological world over the gospel. In that controversy, I lost friends who were very, very important to me. They were friends that I counted on, and I lost them. I was very depressed about it, and I was walking across that parking lot, and I thought of the words to “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”: “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also.” He who starts following Jesus and puts his hand to the plow but looks back is not worthy of the kingdom of God. We are not to look back. We’re to look at Him, for His sake and for the gospel’s sake, and to forsake all other things in this world if called upon to do it.

You Will Receive a Hundredfold

Jesus says to Peter, “I speak with certainty and full assurance that there is no one who has forsaken all who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and lands, with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life.”

Jesus is saying: “You can’t leave these things for Me without My taking notice. You can’t out-give Me. What you leave, I will replace a hundredfold. Yes, you will be persecuted, but you will receive the kingdom and all that it contains. But there will be surprises when you enter into the kingdom. You will see that many who were first in this world are last in the kingdom. The lowly ones to whom people gave little significance, those who were last, the least of My brethren—they will be first.” What gets you first place is not merit, but fidelity and faithfulness to Christ. Let’s pray.

Our Father and our God, it is hard for us to put our trust in that which we do not see when we’re surrounded by things that are tangible, things that have solid value and purchasing power, or goods and services that are available to us. Yet Father, next to that You’ve placed the Pearl of Great Price, whose value eclipses all other things, making them but wood, hay, and stubble. Give us the value system of Jesus. For we ask it in His name. Amen.

The transcript has been lightly edited for readability.