The camel and the needle
Pp Mark 10:23-31, Luke 18:24-30
Who can be saved?
Sacrifice and reward
1. The twelve thrones
2. Receiving a hundredfold
The first will be last
The demarcations of passages at this point are extremely deceptive even though commentators normally pick up on the logical development of thought which not only spans Mtw 19:22 and 19:23 but which continues from the end of chapter 19 into the first parable of chapter 20 to end with Mtw 20:16.
Reading plans are of no use to the reader here at all, for they normally end one reading with the close of the nineteenth chapter only to begin afresh with chapter 20 at a later date when the thoughts and teachings of what’s just transpired are beginning to fade in the memory - my wife’s annual Bible reading plan does just such a thing.
But Mtw 19:30 is an integral part of the parable which follows and shouldn’t be separated, for the whole reason for the telling of the story is lost when it’s made to stand independently and out of context.
The reader will obviously realise that I’ve divided Mtw 19:16-30 into two for ease of reference but what you may not perceive is that I’ve actually divided Mtw 19:16-20:16 into three. Therefore, when we come to the final verse of this short passage, we must consider carefully the bridge which it gives for Jesus to continue into a parable which warns Peter and the disciples from thinking that the harder one’s life is on earth, the greater their reward will be.
At the start of this second section, then, let’s be careful to remember that we’re in the middle of the three sections and not at its conclusion.
The camel and the needle
Mtw 19:24 presents the commentator with a small dilemma as to the correct text of the original and, even though the alternative readings are in the minority, the plausibility of what they testify to needs addressing. The verse runs
‘...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’
an absurd statement as it stands and one which has tried to be softened or interpreted in the supposed light of a scribal error.
I first learnt of the variations of interpretation in my early christian life when I was doing a study on a passage in Isaiah and looked up a small, one volume, commentary on the Matthean cross reference finding written there the definitive statement that the phrase ‘eye of the needle’ was the label given to a small entrance in the city wall which was used by travellers when the city gates had been shut at night for security.
Although the hole was just large enough for one man to squeeze himself through, he was forced to leave his animal outside along with all his baggage because it was impossible that they could be fit through such a small opening. Mathen notes that some see the camel as being able to be brought through the opening
‘...on its knees and after its burden has been removed’
but it’s difficult to see just how the camel could effectively move once it was in a kneeling position! It’s better to take the ‘eye of the needle’ in this case to have been a small crack through which only a man could pass through.
The phrase brought to mind, therefore, the impossibility of bringing something through a hole which was too small to allow it passage and, although it seemed to give Jesus’ words a direct circumstantial application, it neither altered the meaning of what He was actually saying nor was an accurate description of what was in existence in first century Israel.
Though they may have had the smallest of openings in ancient city walls, there appears to be no documented contemporary source which bears witness to the label which has been taken as representing the doorway into the city.
The other main apologetic interpretation of the phrase involves the assumption that there must have been a scribal error when the earliest of manuscripts were copied and that this wrong reading has been transmitted down to us over successive generations. This interpretation, however, is in two parts and has also fuelled the debate surrounding the assertion by some that the Gospels were originally written in Aramaic before being translated into Greek for distribution to the readership of the early Church.
I’m in possession of a few sheets of a photocopied book - which I have no idea of the title, neither the author - which is beginning a discussion of the problem of translation of this assumed Aramaic original and how the words were misunderstood when they were first rendered into the Greek language. One such error lies in Mtw 19:24, so the text illuminates its readers, because the Aramaic word for both ‘rope’ and ‘camel’ are so similar that the early scribe mistakenly read one for the other and so has come down to us the incorrect statement that it’s easier for a camel - rather than rope - to go through the eye of a needle.
This, says the text I have, is ample proof (along with a great many other similarities) that the original manuscripts were written in Aramaic and that, at a very early date, they were translated into Greek. This all sounds very plausible, but the On Line Aramaic Gospel of Matthew actually renders this verse with the word ‘camel’ rather than ‘rope’ and, as this is based upon the ancient versions which are reputed to have been copied from the earliest of manuscripts and which contain no translation errors, it seems surprising that ‘camel’ is still being retained.
However, there’s also a problem with such an interpretation in the Greek for the rendering ‘camel’ can be confused with another Greek word for ‘rope’ which sounds identical when spoken. It appears that the Codex Sinaiticus was copied from the manuscripts in existence by dictation, an elder reading out the text of the older scrolls to a recorder who did his best to commit to writing what was being spoken. Although this was considered to be an accurate method of copying a manuscript, it relied upon the recorder’s grasp of the Greek and of his being able to remember how certain words were spoken, for there are alphabetical symbols in the language (as there are in English) which can make the same sound.
Therefore, when the elder said ‘kamilon’ which is the regular word for ‘rope’, the recorder could have heard ‘kamelon’ which meant ‘camel’ and, being oblivious to the alternative Greek word, rendered the sentence with a new word which meant something completely different.
This would have had to have been done at a very early date in the Gospel transmission simply because there are only a minute amount of manuscripts which bear witness to such a rendering. It would be the more likely that a scribe inadvertently rendered ‘camel’ with ‘rope’, however, because he knew that it must make more relative sense rather than the other way round.
Nevertheless, it shows that the assertion that such a variation makes it obvious that the original Gospel must have been written in Aramaic cannot be demonstrably certain because it could equally well have been mistaken in either language.
This rendering of ‘rope’ in place of ‘camel’ goes back to the time of Origen according to Luknol but, as Lukcole comments
‘...there is no good early evidence for what may just be a popular misspelling of the same word’
Besides, there’s a parallel in Rabbinic writings even though the reference is somewhat later and may have even borrowed the phraseology from the NT. In the Babylonian Talmud (Baba Metzia 38b) is written
‘Perhaps you are from Pumbeditha where they draw an elephant through the eye of a needle?’
the same phrase being used elsewhere (Erubin 53a) as
‘...through the eye of a fine needle’
and where they both mean that something is either absurd or impossible. The camel in the NT setting was the largest of animals known to the inhabitants of Israel and is therefore probably used as a symbol of size rather than simply because Jesus felt there was some significance in the beast. Elsewhere in Mtw 23:24, we read of the two extremes of size in another of Jesus’ sayings where He calls the scribes and Pharisees
‘You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel’
and this substantiates the interpretation that its size is that which matters. In the Talmud, they also appear to have used the largest of animals which were known to them to illustrate the point but, as the camel was comparatively smaller, the elephant was used.
It’s difficult to be sure whether the saying used by Jesus was one which was common in first century Israel, for the Talmud may be a copy of the NT text, adapted for its own purpose. But it would be the more likely that such a phrase was an idiomatic one for anything which was absurd or impossible in common, day to day, speech. Therefore, Lukgeld is correct when he writes that
‘Jesus intended to say something drastic and to make His hearers realise how humanly impossible it really is’
and Mathag that
‘The analogy is deliberately ludicrous and hyperbolic’
Jesus wasn’t concerned to harmonise His metaphors through the use of ‘rope’ instead of ‘thread’ which would have gone with ‘the eye of the needle’ much better than ‘camel’. He was concerned, rather, to make an impression upon the disciples as to the extreme position He was taking.
After all, whether we render the ‘camel’ as ‘rope’ or as the animal, the real problem is still the needle’s eye which remains incredibly small for either of the two to be able to pass through. The ‘rope’ might just as well be rendered as ‘the Empire State Building’ for all the difference it makes - the real point is that Jesus is using a phrase which exaggerates the position in order that His point may be made - that is, that it’s impossible that material possessions will be sufficient to enable a man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, simply because the Kingdom isn’t built upon monetary values but upon the bestowal of mercy and forgiveness from God the Father and the response of an individual to do God’s will.
It isn’t just that salvation is difficult for the rich man to receive, it’s impossible or, in the words of Jesus, it’s as possible as a large object ever being able to go through a small aperture.
There may be a significant use of a different Greek word in Luke 18:25 for ‘needle’ (Strongs Greek number 956d - according to Vines) rather than the regular one employed in both Mtw 19:24 and Mark 10:25 (Strongs Greek number 4476). The Textus Receptus from which the AV is translated, however, still uses the Greek word that’s recorded by the first two Gospels but, as there seems no good reason to alter the word except to harmonise the passages, the more unusual word may be original.
It’s difficult to find out too much information about this word other than to say that it appears to have been a word to describe a needle that was predominantly used by physicians in the first century. What appears to have happened is that Luke, recorded as ‘the beloved physician’ in Col 4:14, chose to use a word to describe what Jesus had said in terms that he more fully understood.
However, one must realise that Luke’s Gospel was written to a person named Theophilus (Luke 1:1-4) and there would have been very little point in using a word - however relevant it was to the writer as an individual - if the recipient had no idea what was meant by the term. Just how common the word was in the Greek world of that time is difficult to know and, even if we were to find its use in other documents, it would be difficult even then to know if a person such as Theophilus was aware of the meaning.
It may be more significant that Luke uses the word for us to determine who Theophilus and not who Luke was - that is, if the word for ‘needle’ was a technical one, it would be more likely that Luke had used a part of his life to be able to convey truth to a fellow physician who would readily understand the message and see how Jesus’ words were directly applicable to his way of life - that is, Jesus would be seen to be a Man who spoke to people in their situation rather than One who spoke of things which no one could possibly comprehend.
Although we cannot be certain why Luke might have used it, there’s a slight chance that we shouldn’t so much see the Greek word for needle employed as being a flare of the writer but as an attempt to convey truth to the recipient on their own grounds.
Having dealt with the phrase ‘the eye of the needle’ and ‘a camel’ - and seen that there’s no change of meaning whichever translation we choose (so why bother discussing it?!) - we need to note Jesus’ words carefully in Mtw 19:23-24 because He speaks firstly of the difficulty of a rich man entering the Kingdom of Heaven before continuing to give the illustration which says that it’s not just ‘difficult’ but impossible (affirmed as being the meaning in Mtw 19:26).
Did Jesus really mean to say that rich men can’t be saved?
The best way of taking Jesus’ words, it seems to me, is to see the word ‘rich’ in the phrase ‘rich man’ as being that which presents the problem to entry. The society in which Jesus’ hearers lived presumed that the rich would be in a better position to give alms and to please God than the poor and that wealth in itself was a sign of God’s pleasure in the individual amongst the Jews - but Jesus points out that a rich man is more likely to have his heart in his possessions than in taking pleasure to do God’s will. Matfran rightly comments that
‘If the Kingdom of Heaven demands the total renunciation of personal rights and possessions...then wealth is a handicap...’
simply because the rich are more likely to be tied up in the pursuit and maintenance of their wealth than in using them for the furtherance and the proclamation of the Gospel. But Jesus isn’t just talking about the materially wealthy when we elevate the description to a level which takes us out of the equation and makes the sin of the rich young ruler as relevant only to another section of society which we’re never likely to reach.
Material possessions can be just as much a stumbling block when they become something which won’t be forsaken as is a bank balance which has so many zeros in it that you have to remind yourself that it isn’t in lira.
Whatever a man’s heart is in is what a man’s god is (Ezek 14:3,7) and where our heart is is where our treasure is also (Mtw 6:19-21). Every person, it would seem, is a ‘rich man’ in the sense of possessing whatever they love and being unwilling to forsake it for the Kingdom - Markcole paraphrases well the Scripture Mark 10:23 as
‘How hard it is for those who have things...’
where ‘riches’ is equated with material objects rather than grandiose wealth. It certainly can be material wealth as it was in the case of the rich young ruler (James 5:1-6, I Tim 6:9-10) but it can equally be attitudes of the heart and mind, hobbies, relationships or some small object in our possession which hinders us from committing everything we are to the Gospel. As Matmor observes
‘It is all too easy for most of us to be so wrapped up in what we own that we find it difficult to face the prospect of doing without it...Whatever our wealth, great or small, it can tempt us to self-sufficiency and Jesus is saying that this is a special temptation to the wealthy’
and as Jesus summarises in Luke 14:33
‘...whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be My disciple’
The Kingdom of God is topsy-turvy - and even when it’s understood to be against the world’s reasoning it goes further (Mtw 19:30). For instance, it’s the poor in spirit who are the heirs of the Kingdom, not the rich (Luke 6:20, Mtw 5:3, James 2:5), and also those who are rich towards God (Luke 12:21, I Tim 6:17-19), the rich needing not to rely upon their wealth but upon being rich in doing good. In the Kingdom it’s the poor who are the rich (II Cor 6:10, Rev 2:9, James 1:9-10, 2:5) and having one object in our life which is more important than serving God puts us in the same category as the rich young ruler - even though we may not be people who share his relative wealth.
Who can be saved?
These two verses are such a strong statement that we must be careful not to gloss over the meaning or to change them into something which is more suited to a sympathetic Gospel which doesn’t represent the absolutism of what Jesus taught.
His words strike at the very heart of what it meant to be ‘saved’ in first century Israel and challenges men and women today to realise that salvation isn’t something which is achieved by man in his own efforts but which is received through a direct work of God (John 1:12-13, Eph 2:8-9, Rom 6:23).
The disciples are naturally astonished (Mtw 19:25 - the word used is a strong one meaning ‘to strike out of one’s senses’ and emphasises how gob-smacked they were) but this isn’t simply because, as Matfran writes, that
‘The rich were those whom God had blessed...’
The point was that the rich stood in a unique position to be able to afford the sacrifices which were obligatory for sin, had the resources to give alms which far exceeded that which the poor could give and who would have been able to demonstrate their goodness by the commitment of their money to causes which were accepted to be in the heart of God.
Mattask, along with many other commentators, rightly observes that
‘...the Jews were apt to regard material prosperity as a mark of divine favour and the possession of riches as a kind of virtue...’
but this doesn’t seem to be the main reason for disciples’ shock. If they’d thought of the rich man as already in a unique position with God which was being demonstrated by his material wealth, they wouldn’t have asked Jesus concerning who could be saved which implies actions which achieve the result one is aiming for. It isn’t that the disciples see the rich man as having already received salvation because he’s rich but that he’s rich and that his wealth might be used wisely to achieve salvation. As Mathag correctly observes
‘...riches...provided the possibility of both deeds of charity...and leisure for the study of Torah and the pursuit of righteousness’
The disciples, then, seem to see riches as a means towards an end where their own route towards such a place would be thwart with impossibility simply because they don’t have the same resources as the rich man does.
If such people as the rich weren’t automatically and inevitably saved so long as they didn’t turn their backs upon God and His ways, then who could be? Jesus’ response is shocking and it certainly doesn’t appear to be what the disciples had been expecting. He says that
‘...with men this is impossible’
That is, man cannot be saved in his own strength and with his own resources. And, by Jesus’ use of a sentence which includes all mankind as individuals, the extension of the truth goes far and wide to include all the world - both Jews and Gentiles.
Salvation is not dependent upon the will or effort of man but is rooted solely in the will and mercy of God. Whether intellect, personality, character, upbringing - or, to the Jew, circumcision (Rom 4:11) - nothing can achieve salvation in a person’s life because it’s that which is bestowed upon man from above that’s necessary (John 3:3 - RSV marginal).
A man such as the rich young ruler may like to think that he can ‘do’ and become acceptable to God, but goodness cannot be attained that ever matches the character of God (see on Mtw 19:16-17). Rather, salvation is a supernatural act of God upon the individual, granting all men the potential to be saved. As Matfran observes
‘...while wealth may be a handicap, no earthly circumstances can determine a man’s fate’
Both the small and great, therefore, are not outside the scope of God’s work. Although, initially, Jesus’ words are shocking, they’re actually reassuring for mankind because they show that no man nor woman has an advantage to being saved that someone else doesn’t possess. Even the most despised of men who are treated as the off-scourings of society are in just the same position as the wealthiest men who distribute their riches to the masses.
Indeed, as Jesus’ statement concerning the difficulty with which the rich achieve entry into the Kingdom of Heaven implies (Mtw 19:23), it’s easier for a poor man, relatively speaking, to come to terms with his own lack of ability and the impossibility of him achieving what is right than it is for the rich man who is secure in his own resources and sees no need for himself to do anything necessary to reorder his lifestyle.
But there’s no difference between either the rich or the poor because both need God to move in their lives to forgive their sins and to restore them back into a relationship with Himself before salvation can be thought to be their own - it’s the self-sufficiency of the rich, however, that prevents him from realising his need.
Shocking though Jesus’ words may be, therefore, they’re also reassuring.
But what of our western society? It seems a well-documented fact that there’s been a decline in the numbers of believers in the affluent centres of the world when, over the same years, there’s been an increase in the Third World who have no such stockpile of natural resources by which they can arrange their lives into one which is secure and comfortable.
Wealth, therefore, can be a very real hindrance to entry into the Kingdom of Heaven for it buys the security and reassurance that everything’s okay in a way that poverty cannot do. When a man has possessions, his heart can be rooted in them, finding his own delight in the things which he approves of and participates in.
After all, put believers on a yacht in the middle of wealthy neighbours and with enough money to be comfortable the rest of their lives, and thoughts about Mission and bringing the Gospel to the streets of the slums and run down estates may naturally begin to be subdued before a life of ease and luxury.
No wonder, then, that the salvation made available to mankind by a gift of God is more tangible to the less well off than it is to the rich who care for other things entirely. And yet, it isn’t that riches exclude men and women but that they present a hindrance.
The bottom line is always that salvation doesn’t come by the application of material resources but by the acceptance of the free gift of God offered to mankind which will challenge the very security that’s trusted in and undermines the ease that has come to be accepted as normal.
In discomfort and poverty, a man is the more likely to respond to the invitation of salvation.
Sacrifice and reward
Peter gets side-tracked and lets his mind drift back to Jesus’ command to the rich man (Mtw 19:21) to
‘...sell what you possess and give to the poor and you will have treasure in Heaven...’
Perhaps Peter hasn’t actually been listening to the response of Jesus to the disciples’ question but has been waiting in the wings to burst out with his statement as soon as one or other of the two sides stopped to take a breath. Certainly, his statement and question are totally irrelevant to the overall flow of thought that has been developing in the last four verses and seem to rely on his desire to know what reward they might be expected to receive when their sacrifice had been full.
Unfortunately, Peter is still thinking about reward for an action of man rather than the incredible free gift that God has bestowed upon them to grant them the ability to be saved but, nevertheless, his question does cause Jesus to respond in words which outline what they should expect to receive through their commitment to both Himself and the Gospel.
When Peter speaks of leaving everything, we shouldn’t think that by this he means that the fishing industry they had was sold off and that the proceeds were given away to the poor or invested into the common purse to finance the Gospel, for we read in John 21:1-3 of their return to fishing one day after Jesus had risen from the dead and this implies that their boats and equipment were simply ‘left’ behind. I noted on a previous web page that
‘It may be that John’s father, being certainly not poor (as noted above by the mention of the hired servants in Mark 1:20) may have continued to maintain at least one of the boats and employed workers for fishing (an ancient form of share fishermen, no doubt!) so that the boat(s) and equipment was still in use and adequately maintained for when - or if - John and James his sons returned from following after Jesus’
and the reference to the boat in, for instance, Mtw 8:23 and 15:39 may also be an indication that their livelihood was occasionally used for the transport of the small band to and fro across the Lake as Jesus required.
1. The twelve thrones
Mtw 19:28 is unique to Matthew’s Gospel and, even though there remains a similar statement of Jesus recorded in Luke 22:30, the verse doesn’t appear in either Mark or Luke’s parallel passage.
The verse echoes Dan 7:14,18,22,27 where the Christ is prophesied as reigning but as conferring His authority onto the saints, His Church, so that they will proclaim His judgments throughout the whole earth and to all mankind. Both here and in Luke 22:30, the verse is referring to the final judgment, it appears, rather than to be a place solely of authority and rule (but see below for a short discussion of this latter possibility). In Daniel, it was probably taken to be referring to the nation of Israel as ruling over the nations of the world but such a view is too narrow in its interpretation for it automatically made each person of Israel out to be a ‘saint’ and, consequently, the Gentiles out to be less than that.
The application, however, is to take the ‘saints’ as referring only to those who are ‘saved’, those who have laid down their possessions for the sake of following after Jesus and His message of the Gospel (Mtw 19:27-28) and, therefore, the idea of a ‘true Israel’ can’t be far from Jesus’ thoughts, those who stand as the people who are drawn out of the naturally descended nation and who are in a right relationship with Him.
Jesus doesn’t say that there are only twelve thrones (and neither does he refer to only the twelve disciples but to ‘you who have followed Me’ which may be indicative of all who had left behind their possessions to be with Jesus even if they hadn’t been specially selected to be one of the inner twelve) even though the number is indicative of the new Israel represented by the fact that they will sit to judge the tribes of Israel, but is possibly meant to be taken as showing that all who have forsaken possessions for the Kingdom’s sake will be elevated into a position of authority in the new age (Rev 3:21, 20:4).
From the phraseology of the sentences, however, this doesn’t appear to be the obvious interpretation of both verses which record Jesus’ words and the judgment of natural Israel seems to be a specific reward given to the inner twelve disciples that had been selected by Him.
We tend to think of ‘judgment’ in terms of something which will be a single event at some future time in earth history and, though we’re right to think of a final and future judgment of all men (Rev 20:11-15), Matmor points out that
‘Judging is sometimes used in the sense of ruling and we cannot rule out such an understanding of the present passage’
not only because the regular word for ‘Judgment seat’, the bema seat, isn’t used but the general word for ‘throne’ (Strongs Greek number 2362).
An intriguing application of Jesus’ words here, of course, is to Judas Iscariot who was to betray Him. It’s often asserted within the Church that the promises of God are ‘without repentance’ meaning that, however far a man or woman might go away from God, the gifts and promises given to them remain with them for God will not take them back.
Here, however, that is seen to be incorrect. Judas’ destiny was to continue to the end, to successfully overcome the temptation of the betrayal and to receive the work of Christ into his life after having witnessed the resurrected Jesus. That he didn’t receive the work was solely rooted in his response to Jesus by betraying Him, of rejecting the message that he’d heard repeatedly since being selected by Jesus to be one of the twelve (Mtw 10:1-4).
The promise concerning his place in the new Kingdom, the ‘regeneration’, was subsequently also rejected through his betrayal but it shows clearly that the promises of God aren’t inevitable occurrences but are dependent upon a correct response in those to whom they’re given.
Mathen is totally wrong here to suppose that (my italics)
‘Jesus assures these twelve disciples - excluding Judas...’
seeing the number of ‘the twelve’ as being correct because Jesus knew that there would be found a replacement after His ascension (Acts 1:15-26). The point of the passage is that ‘you who have followed Me’ were to be given that position of unequalled authority over Israel and that that must necessarily include Judas who was standing there along with the others.
The RSV’s rendering ‘new world’ of a Greek word (Strongs Greek number 3824) is more a paraphrase and interpretation than it is a correct rendering of what it’s directly conveying. The word is s compound word which would hold the literal meaning of ‘birth again’ or ‘new birth’, Kittels observing that it means either ‘return to existence’ or ‘renewal to a higher existence’.
Perhaps the best translation would have been as the AV renders it which is ‘regeneration’. The only other occurrence of the word is in Titus 3:5 where the RSV follows the AV where the verse speaks about the need to be ‘born again’ of the Spirit of God.
This regeneration could be thought of either as a return to the existence which was before the Fall - that is, a restoration of the Creation (Rom 8:21) - or of a new order of the universe which elevates the Creation to a place where it hasn’t yet been (Rev 21:1ff). Both interpretations are possible and both seem to be the will of God for His Creation at some future time, even though it isn’t easy to see whether they’re one and the same or two distinct and separate events.
Mathag notes that Josephus uses the word to speak of the rebirth of the nation and that Philo employed it to refer to the new earth which existed following the flood. Unfortunately, this doesn’t tie down the meaning in favour of one or other of the possibilities, but it does show that it doesn’t have to imply something which comes into existence from nothing - that is, it isn’t used of a totally unique result such as the original Creation but of a situation which comes about out of the things which are in existence.
2. Receiving a hundredfold
This verse expands the application to all followers of Jesus (He speaks of ‘every one’) and not just the twelve who had been specifically referred to in the previous verse. As such, we should pay it particular attention for it has something relevant to say to the present day believer seeing as eternal life is equated with sacrificing our possessions for the sake of the Gospel. Although the demands laid upon the disciple are truly great, the rewards are ultimately much greater.
There are seven specific points of sacrifice noted in the text but we shouldn’t take them to be exclusive of any other object which could be held on to. The ‘seven’ is surely symbolic in this passage and meant to represent the all inclusiveness of the demands of Jesus upon His followers, that everything must be willing to be left behind for the sake of following after Jesus and the message of the Kingdom (Luke 14:33).
We should follow the parallel passage of Mark 10:29-30 (the italicised words are the main differences between Matthew and Mark though the latter puts Jesus’ statement in the negative whereas the former makes it easier to realise that it’s a temporal promise and response to Peter’s question) which reads
‘Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for My sake and for the gospel, who will 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’
Most of the differences needn’t concern us too greatly here - such as the addition of the words ‘and for the Gospel’ which simply ties together both Jesus and His message as one unit rather than allow the reader to think of each of these as being separable, and the list of items left behind which are repeated as being given back is inferred in Matthew though not specifically spelt out. Also, Matthew’s word ‘inherit’ should be taken as something which is directly parallel to Mark’s ‘in the age to come’.
However, significant are Mark’s words that the reception of a return upon what’s been given up is not only ‘in this time’ but also ‘with persecutions’.
To the first, whatever a believer lays down for the sake of the Kingdom is to be received back in this life greatly multiplied (Luke 6:38) so long as it isn’t selfishly given but sacrificed for Him. Matmor is correct in seeing that
‘He is not speaking of people who have left these things or these people because of some preference of their own for the wilderness or solitary life, but who have left them for My name’s sake’
for it is never a matter of what we would do but of what God would will. It isn’t an automatic consequence for a believer that, when they come to know Him and His work that they must leave their homes and quit their jobs - in each and every way, it must only ever be done in the will of Jesus, not as a Law which has become unavoidable.
But, whatever house has been left, homes will be found of believers which are open to receive them in the place they’re sent by God and, if the natural family is left behind, the disciples will find a far greater and larger family of God wherever they are.
Lands, too, are mentioned which are, perhaps, a little surprising but we should think of these as the corporate possession of the Body of believers which would be made available to those who had forsaken their own to follow after both Jesus and the Gospel.
The numerical word ‘hundredfold’ shouldn’t be taken literally, however, and is more likely to refer to an innumerable quantity or potential which becomes available.
And, to the second, we must note that Jesus is honest enough to state from the beginning that laying everything down doesn’t safeguard the believer from being persecuted (Acts 14:22, John 15:20, I Thess 3:3, II Tim 3:12, Rev 1:9). To some, the christian life is considered to be simply a bed of roses, but one has to remember that it’s only so if the thorns haven’t been removed - great scent but occasionally uncomfortable.
To be associated with God means hatred from the world. God’s light shining from the believer is not a good thing to behold if the observer is one who persists in walking in spiritual blindness (John 3:19-21).
Eternal life is mentioned here by Jesus as being a reward ‘in the age to come’ by Mark and is directly paralleled by the rich young ruler’s request to know what he should do to be assured that it was his possession (Mtw 19:16). Although we often assert that eternal life begins the moment a person comes to truly know Jesus, it must necessarily be thought of as a blessing of the age to come when it becomes a reality, but as a consequence of a life of sacrifice where persecution is a distinct possibility. As Marklane comments
‘The promise of eternal life in the age to come looks beyond the conflicts of history to the triumph assured through radical obedience to the will of God’
and such radical christianity is what is being proclaimed here, not a mere mind belief in the doctrines and creeds of the established Church.
Finally, in summary, this entire passage (Mtw 19:16-29) has shown the reader both how salvation both is and isn’t obtained and a short summary is in order:
1. Salvation is not obtained by good deeds (Mtw 19:16)
2. Salvation is not obtained by works of the Law (Mtw 19:20)
3. Salvation is not obtained by natural talents, resources or abilities (Mtw 19:23-24)
4. Salvation is obtained by a free gift of God (Mtw 19:26)
5. Salvation is a reward or inheritance bestowed on those who unselfishly give up all things for the Kingdom of God (Mtw 19:28-29)
The first will be last
The parallel passage in Mark is the only one of the two which records this saying of Jesus and it stands as the final word on the matter (Mark 10:31) whereas, here in Matthew, although it stands as the close of chapter 19 (because that’s where we’ve drawn the line!), it actually introduces the parable which follows (Mtw 20:1-15) before being repeated at the conclusion in a slightly different format but holding the same meaning (Mtw 20:16). Matthew’s repeated mention of both the first and the last in the parable (Mtw 20:8,10) should be sufficient grounds for us to realise that the phrase cannot be correctly interpreted unless we also correctly interpret the parable which Jesus presented to the disciples.
The only other occurrence of the phrase is in Luke 13:30 where the author records Jesus’ words as
‘...some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last’
a conclusion to a short answer to one who asked Him if there would be many who would be saved (Luke 13:23). The context appears to make the words refer to the coming of the Gentiles into the Kingdom of God ahead of the Jews and Jesus’ warning is that the nation cannot presume upon God’s riches toward them and think that they needn’t commit themselves to the Gospel which is being preached amongst them.
The first selected people, the Jews, will be rejected ahead of the Gentiles, the last to be offered the way to salvation - and this not because they weren’t given the first opportunity to enter the Kingdom (Luke 13:26) but because they were the first ones to both ignore and reject it.
However, this isn’t the meaning here where Jesus has been specifically asked about the reward which the disciples should expect to receive (Mtw 19:27) and concludes his detailed pronouncement concerning both what the twelve and each believer should expect, by noting that the Kingdom reverses the assumed order of reward.
Unfortunately, commentators turn this short verse into various interpretations which seem to pull away from the immediate context and significance of His words. Matfran takes it to refer back
‘...to the discussion of wealth...and to the case of the rich man who failed to make the grade...’
while Matmor comments that the words
‘...are a strong warning against being deluded by earthly ideas and standards and shutting one’s ears to the call of God’
and, further, Mathag that those
‘...who are willing to be to be last by the standards of this world will paradoxically be exalted to the first rank with the coming of the eschaton...’
But all these fail to firmly integrate the statement into what both immediately precedes it and the parable which follows and, for this reason, we should reject their interpretation for something which more fully allows Jesus’ teaching to flow logically together wherever possible.
However, it’s difficult to state with brevity the meaning of the text without straying into the following passage and interpreting that but, very simply, the reward of eternal life which has just been mentioned in the preceding few words shouldn’t be thought of as being intrinsically different from one believer to the next depending on the hardship of service which the will of God has led them into.
Rather, there is one ultimate reward for each man, woman or child regardless of the difficulty of their discipleship and of the sacrifices which they will be required to make. We might reason that, for the believer who has to endure physical beating and who is ultimately martyred, there should be a greater reward than for the follower who is never called to forsake his home, who raises a family and simply provides for the proclamation of the Gospel into places which have never yet been reached.
Our natural sensibilities cry out that such a lack of a distinction between the two followers of Christ is unjust and unfair - but the same reward of eternal life is the only ultimate prize for each and everyone on earth who seeks to follow after God.
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