Some preachers say that the city of Jerusalem had a gate called the Eye of the Needle. Other gates were high and wide, but this gate was low and narrow. People could pass through the gate and enter the city if they went single-file and crossed through the gate one at a time. But for a camel, the gate was almost impossible to navigate. To get a camel through the Eye of the Needle, one first had to remove all the packs from the camel’s back. Then the camel had to be forced down to its knees. On its knees, without any baggage, the camel could pass through the Eye of the Needle and enter the city of Jerusalem.
Now that I have painted this picture in your minds, I have to work to erase it again. Jerusalem had no gate called the Eye of the Needle. Even if it had such a gate, no sensible person would have tried to get a camel into the city that way. There were plenty of other gates one could use to enter Jerusalem without forcing a camel to its knees. I can see why a preacher might think that Jesus was pointing to a gate called the Eye of the Needle when telling his disciples how hard it is to get a rich person into the kingdom of heaven. But the preachers who make a metaphor about removing the baggage from a camel and forcing the camel to its knees are preachers who do not understand Jesus and the message he was sharing.
Jerusalem had no gate called the Eye of a Needle. If Jesus had been pointing to such a gate as a metaphor, his conversation with the disciples would have been very different. If the disciples had seen a camel removed of its baggage and forced to its knees, they would not have asked Jesus, “Then who can be saved?” Nor would Jesus have answered their question with the words, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”
Putting a camel through the eye of a needle is impossible. Rescuing a sinner from evil in this world is also impossible. Our possessions, our burdens, our attachments to worldly things all make it hard for us to find our way into the kingdom of heaven. Like camels, we simply cannot fit through the eye of a needle. Any effort of preachers and teachers to change the message of Jesus, to make the impossible merely difficult, misses the point. We cannot rescue ourselves. We cannot earn forgiveness and eternal life. We cannot defeat our enemies—the sins we have committed, the sinful world around us, and the devil who masterminds the evil that exists in God’s creation. All things are possible for God; but I am not God, and you are not God. We cannot do the things God does. Things that are possible for God remain impossible for you and for me.
We know that good deeds cannot earn us a place in the kingdom of heaven. From childhood we have been told that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works. Some people who were wealthy might give away all their possessions. Others might use those possessions to do great things for the poor in this world and for the work of the Church. Some people commit their lives to work in the Church; other people have different callings, but they give their spare time to serve the Church. Some sinners have turned away from their sinful ways and are trying their best to imitate Jesus. We salute their good works and rejoice in the good things they are accomplishing. But we remind them—and ourselves—that those good works are not good enough to earn God’s love and approval. Like the rest of us, they are forgiven by God and granted eternal life as a gift. Heaven is not a reward for their goodness; heaven is a benefit they receive because of the good things Jesus did for them.
While we know that we cannot earn a place in heaven, many Christians still confuse their good works with the gift of forgiveness. After all, they want to be certain of their salvation. How do you know that you have enough faith to be saved? How can you be sure that the promises of God are true for you? Some preachers fall into the trap of saying that, when you come to faith, your life is changed. You turn away from sin; you become better at imitating Jesus. They tell Christians to look at the good things they are doing and to be confident of their salvation because they have been changed, because they are acting like Christians and no longer acting like sinners.
Jesus never said that. The Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles never said that. They said that our good deeds would be signs to other people, but they did not tell us to measure our good deeds. We teach other people about Jesus by trying to imitate Jesus, but we cannot prove to ourselves that we are Christians. The more we measure ourselves, the more we realize that we still fall short of the kingdom of heaven. We still sin every day and need a Savior every day. Our lives as Christians are a paradox: at the same time, we are saints and sinners. We belong to God, and we know that he has forgiven our sins and guaranteed us eternal life. But none of us has arrived yet at perfection. No matter how hard we try, we still are not pure and righteous. Measuring our good deeds honestly shows us that we still are not good enough for God and for the kingdom of heaven. Left to our good deeds as proof of our salvation, we must despair. We still fall short of saintly lives. We are still stained by the sin and evil of this wicked world.
We can be saved from our sins and from the evil in this world only by God’s gift of grace. This gift enters our lives through faith. Many Christians are confused about faith. They treat faith as a work, as something we do for God. They measure faith the way they measure works: do I have enough faith? Is my faith strong enough to save me? When we think of faith as something we do for God, then we are certain to conclude that we do not have enough faith, or that our faith is not strong enough to save us. We know that we must believe. But when we treat that requirement as a burden placed upon us, we are forgetting God’s grace. God’s grace rescues us from sin and evil; God’s grace also gives us the faith we need to be saved. We come to Jesus, not by our own reason and strength, but by the work of the Holy Spirit. He calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us, purifies us, and keeps us in the true Christian faith. We are saved by grace through faith, and even the faith that saves us is God’s work in our lives, not our work for God.
“But we have to repent,” someone might say. “We have to say we are sorry, or God won’t forgive us.” Even when we understand that grace and faith come from God, we still think of repentance as our responsibility, something we do for God. After all, the sinner who refuses to repent is a sinner who cannot be forgiven. The sinner who loves sin more than he or she loves the Savior cannot be brought into the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, we are back to the camel that must get rid of its baggage and drop to its knees before it can enter the gate. We are creating that false picture of a camel at the imaginary gate to Jerusalem whenever we say that something must be done on our end before the gift of salvation and eternal life can belong to us.
If we had to do anything to enter the kingdom of heaven, that kingdom would be a reward and not a gift. We must repent and believe the Gospel. But repenting, as well as believing, is work that the Holy Spirit accomplishes in us. God’s Word changes us; it gives us the ability to do what was impossible for us before God spoke. Jesus told a paralyzed man to stand and walk, to carry his stretcher home. That man stood and walked and carried his stretcher. The Word of Jesus made him able to do what he could not do earlier. Jesus told Lazarus to come out of the grave. Lazarus could not have left the grave without that Word of Jesus. Lazarus was dead, and dead people do not move. But when Jesus called Lazarus, Lazarus was no longer dead. He was alive, able to obey the command of his Lord. Likewise, when Jesus tells us to repent and to believe, we can repent, and we can believe. His Word changes us, making us capable of doing what once was impossible for us because we were sinners trapped in a sinful world.
With God all things are possible. When Jesus acts, we are no longer sinners trapped in a sinful world. Jesus enters this world as one of us to do the things we have not done. He obeys the commandments of God and earns his rewards; then he passes those rewards on to us as a gift. In exchange, he takes on himself the burden of our sins. He pays our full debt on the cross. He battles our enemies and defeats them, and he shares with us his victory. The only-begotten Son of God pays to adopt us into his family so that we also are children of God. His kingdom is our home, not because of anything we have done for Jesus, but because of what Jesus has done for us.
With God all things are possible. Jesus dies and is buried, but he returns to life and leaves the grave. He also promises us a resurrection like his. Even if we die, we will not remain dead forever. Jesus will appear in glory and will call us out of our graves as he called Lazarus from his grave. We too will answer his call and will rise, healed and able to live forever in the kingdom of God. Because we belong to his kingdom, we possess eternal life. We will be with Jesus and with all his saints forever in a world without sin or evil or death.
That guarantee belongs to us today, even though we remain sinners living in a sinful world. We are not trapped; we are already free because of what Jesus has done for us. The Holy Spirit purifies us and gives us faith; he also gathers us into the Holy Christian Church. His gifts are found in the Church, because his gifts create the Church. We gather in the name of Jesus—we gather around that Word that causes us to repent and believe, to be his people and to have life in his name. The work that Jesus did for us, dying for us and rising again for us, is transferred into our lives through Holy Baptism. In Baptism we die with Christ and are buried with Christ; in Baptism, we rise with Christ. We leave behind our old sinful lives, and we rejoice in our new holy and purified lives. Jesus feeds us at his Table. He shares with us his body and his blood, welcoming us into his kingdom and guaranteeing us forgiveness and eternal life with him and with all his saints.
Because we are given power to repent and to believe, we also are transformed. We can imitate Jesus now, because he has changed us. We are not perfect yet, but other people can see our good works and know that God is shaping our lives. Peter could boast of all the worldly things he had left behind to follow Jesus. Jesus reminds Peter (and the rest of us) of the things we gain by God’s grace through faith. While we measure the burdens we have left, we are not yet focused on the kingdom of God. When we measure the blessings we receive by grace, we no longer care about the burdens we have lost. Belonging to God matters more to us than any worldly riches and wealth. We can be poor in spirit, using what we have today to serve God. We can be good stewards of our worldly blessings while we focus our attention on the heavenly riches that we possess. Those heavenly treasures are not earned by works we do in this world. The heavenly treasures are gifts. But their existence changes how we see the things that God has given us for this lifetime in this temporary world.
With Jesus, everything turns upside down. In this world, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush; but in eternity, the wealth we have today is nothing compared to the treasure already stored up for us in heaven. In this world, the past shapes our present and the present shapes our future. In eternity, our past is erased and has no effect on our present, and our guaranteed future shapes the lives we live today. “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” Jesus, who is first in the kingdom of God, makes himself last, suffering and dying on the cross for our redemption. He moves us to the head of the line where we are given as a gift the rewards Jesus earned. J.