The Impossibility of the Kingdom

Posted: October 28, 2012 in Matthew

Matthew 19:23-30, “The Impossibility of the Kingdom”

Humans are always pushing the limits on what is possible.  Flight was often dreamt about by the ancients, but it wasn’t until the Wright brothers that it became truly possible.  (And now we have people flying to the edge of space and skydiving!)  Technology was viewed out of the hands of the people at large, with IBM president Thomas Watson supposedly saying in 1943, “I think there is a worldwide market for maybe 5 computers.”  Today your smartphone is more powerful than the largest computer of Watson’s day, and it’s difficult to imagine our lives without our laptops, TV’s, iPads, etc.  Every day the impossible takes place in surgical rooms with organ transplants, heart surgery, and much more.  Surely nothing is impossible for us, right?  Wrong.  There is yet one thing that is impossible for humans, and will always remain so: we cannot take ourselves into heaven.

Of course, of all things that we can imagine, this is by far the most important.  Only a handful of people ever become surgeons, but every single human is going to die and be faced with the issue of eternity.  If there is one thing we need to have, it is the assurance of how we will spend the next several eons.  (What will you be doing in 1000 years?  That is a very real question we need to consider!) 

Yet this is the one thing we cannot purchase for ourselves.  This is the one thing we cannot earn for ourselves.  This which is supremely important must be given to us by God.  It is impossible to take ourselves into the kingdom of heaven, but through God’s grace, it is possible for Him to take us there…and what He promises to give is truly good!

Jesus had been talking with the infamous rich young ruler.  The young man had come to the Lord in the presence of the rest of the disciples, wanting to know how he could be assured of eternal life.  From an evangelistic point of view, you couldn’t ask for an easier softball of a question!  Most of us would have put our arms around him & simply said, “Just pray after me…”  But not Jesus.  Instead, Jesus engaged with the young man to get to the heart of the issue.  This man thought he had been good enough to earn his place in heaven, and Jesus knew that his heart had been taken with idolatry.  Once the young man demonstrated that his view of himself was self-righteous, Jesus challenged him to sell all his possessions (giving up everything), and to come follow Jesus as a disciple.  Ultimately, the young man couldn’t do it.  He went away sad because his pride and his possessions kept him from Jesus.

The story could have ended there, but it went on.  Matthew gives us the conversation of what took place afterwards.  Keep in mind that for Jesus to have allowed this rich man to go away would have been pretty shocking to everyone around, including the disciples.  By all outward appearances, the rich young ruler would have been close to the kingdom of heaven than anyone else.  After all, he was externally holy, according to the traditional interpretation of the law (though not according to the truth of God’s intent behind the law).  He was respected in his community.  Luke describes him as an ἄρχων – a ruler, most likely within the local synagogue.  And the icing on the cake – the supposed proof of his holiness – was his wealth.  To the Jews, if God had blessed you, it meant that He blessed you financially.  Not unlike the (false) prosperity gospel today, they thought rich people must have done something right, because otherwise God would not have allowed them to be rich.  This man had it made…and yet, he turned away from Jesus’ offer of eternal life.  Truly he was indeed far from the kingdom of God.  What gives?!

In the conversation that follows, Jesus lays an even more shocking truth upon the disciples.  Not only are riches an obstacle, they are impossible to overcome.  It is not the very best the world has to offer that will inherit the kingdom of God; it is those who have left the world behind.  And how will they do it?  Not through their power, but through the grace of God which can make all things possible.

Matthew 19:23–30
23 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

  1. Rich people have a hard/difficult time entering heaven.  Unlike the assumptions of the apostles (and many within the church today!), riches don’t make heaven more likely; they make it far less likely.  (If we truly believed Jesus’ words here, we might spend a little less time trying to get as wealthy as possible!)  Jesus specifically called out the rich.  Why?
    1. He had just spoken with a rich man who turned away because of his possessions.  This is simply relevant to the discussion!  Jesus wasn’t picking on the rich; He was making an observation regarding the man who had just turned down eternal salvation.
    2. Riches can be obstacles that a poor person never has the opportunity to experience.  Wealth is not always a blessing.  The thing about wealth is that there is never enough.  There is always room for one more dollar.  It would be tough to find a single soul who would not pick up a $10 bill on the street, no matter how fabulously wealthy the person might already be.  In our minds, there is always room for more.  Thus riches can easily lead to covetousness.  Riches can easily lead to idolatry.  These are things that keep people from the Lord.  Even among born-again Christians, money can become an obstacle to our walk with Christ.  Paul famously wrote: 1 Timothy 6:10, "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows." []  Obviously it isn’t money itself that is evil (it’s only a tool), but the love of money is a problem with all kinds of people.  Keep in mind that Paul was writing to Timothy about issues within the Church.  It was the love of money which caused people to abandon their faith.  They would willingly deny Jesus if their own pocketbooks would be made a little more secure.  If that is a danger from someone who is already a Christian, imagine the problem for the rich man or woman who doesn’t currently know Christ!
  2. Beyond the issues of idolatry and covetousness, a major obstacle that wealth presents to the gospel is independence.  Those who are wealthy can provide for themselves, and they rarely (if ever) need any help from others.  Typically we mighty think of this as a good thing.  After all, who doesn’t want to be able to provide for one’s own family and stand on his/her own two feet?  That is a good thing, and a blessing when it comes to financial matters.  Yet it is a tremendous problem when we carry this attitude over to spiritual matters.  Those who see themselves as fully capable and independent of the need for grace will find themselves in a very sorry place on the Day of Judgment!  No one is a self-made man or woman in terms of our standing before God.  We’ve all sinned against Him, and nothing we can do or accomplish for ourselves changes the fact that we are guilty of rebelling against our Holy Creator God.
  3. What’s the point?  When it comes to righteousness before God, none of us are wealthy.  In fact, it’s the opposite.  We are spiritually destitute, having nothing to offer God, and no hope on which to stand for eternity.  The rich person has a tough time understanding the poverty of his/her spiritual condition.  Yet we need to understand our poverty if we are going to be saved.  Matthew 5:3, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven." [] …
  4. Is it hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom?  Yes!  Exactly how hard?  Jesus goes on to explain in verse 24…

24 And again I say to 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.”

  1. There’s a striking picture!  Not all of us have sewn clothing before, but there is no doubt that it is a difficult enough task to put a piece of thread through the tiny eye of a needle…much less a massive camel!  It is as if Jesus told us a tank rolling through the center of a paperclip would be easier than a rich man entering into heaven.  It is so difficult that it is impossibly difficult.  There is simply no way of achieving it.
  2. Be careful of popular interpretations that attempt to water this down.  Despite claims to the contrary, there has never been found a gate called “the needle” which was so short that the only way a camel could enter through it would be if the camel got on its knees (signifying humility).  That might be a very popular teaching among some, but it simply has no basis in history.  Obviously Jesus has taught often about our ongoing need for humility, but that isn’t the point here.  Jesus is not saying that only the humble rich people can enter the kingdom of heaven, and that humility may be difficult but still possible.  No – Jesus is painting the picture that this is so tough that it is impossible – it’s absurd.  The disciples understood exactly what Jesus meant, which was the reason for their astonishment.
    1. One basic rule of thumb for Bible interpretation: Once we’ve taking the time to observe the text for what it’s actually saying, we need to ask the question, “What did this mean to the original audience when it was first said?  What would they have understood it to mean?  What’s the most natural interpretation?”  When we look at the original words in the original context first (before moving to the process of application) that will help us steer clear from some of the wild interpretations offered by others.

25 When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?”

  1. The disciples were truly amazed and dumbfounded…and understandably so!  After all, those who lived their lives according to the rabbinical traditions of the law should have been close to heaven…the synagogue leaders even closer…the rich even closer still!  If God had blessed them in this life, than surely He would bless them in eternity, right?  Wrong.  Jesus just came out and said that it was impossibly difficult for even the rich to be saved.  No wonder they were “astonished”…their whole system of eternal assurance just came crashing down around them.  If the rich were without hope, what hope did any of them have?
  2. Please note that the disciples were completely taken aback by this.  They were not only “astonished,” but they were “greatly astonished.”  The word for “astonished” is itself emphatic, literally meaning to be struck with something – in this case, to be struck with shock.  Yet the adverb for “greatly/exceedingly” serves to intensify this even more.  It would be difficult to overstate the amazement of the disciples to what they had just witnessed and heard.

26 But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

  1. Jesus agrees totally with their conclusion.  If the rich person cannot be saved except through impossible circumstances, then it is truly impossible for anyone at all.  Entering the kingdom of heaven based upon our own merits, riches, blessings, worth, rituals, etc., is truly impossible.
    1. We’ve so often lost this idea in our culture.  So many people believe they will go to heaven because they are a “good person.”  The problem is that there are no good people!  Jesus made that much clear when He walked the young man through a section of the 10 Commandments. …  Other people believe they are going to heaven because of their religious background, as if the religious convictions of our parents and grandparents have any bearing on our own personal relationship with God.  Still others think they are going to heaven simply because there is no way God would refuse to let them in.  No matter what they’ve done, God will just look the other way because “God is love.”  Jesus makes it clear that all of these ideas are wrong.  Of ourselves, it is impossible to enter the kingdom of heaven. BTW – what does “impossible” mean in the Greek?  It means “impossible.” J  There is absolutely no capability or chance of this happening.
  2. With all this in mind, Jesus goes on to give one of the greatest statements in all of the New Testament. “…but with God all things are possible.”  Praise God for little conjunctions like “but”!  In an instant we move from hopelessness to hope, from impossibility to possibility.  What makes the difference?  The power of Almighty God.  God is powerful enough to fit a 1500 pound camel through the tiny eye of a sewing needle, and God is powerful enough to bring any of us into the kingdom of heaven, whether we are rich or poor.  In fact, our status as absolutely nothing to do with it; we are completely dependent upon the power of God!
    1. This is what happens when that moment comes in our lives that we willingly and knowingly surrender our lives to Jesus.  When we consciously turn to Jesus in faith, actively believing upon Him as our Lord and Savior.  That is the moment that the power of God intervenes in our lives, giving us the promise of eternal life in heaven.  What was assuredly impossible for us just moments earlier now becomes a reality through the power of God.
    2. Through the power of God, salvation is made possible for all people…including you.  Have you personally availed yourself of His promises?  Have you experienced the power of God to take you from death to life?  If you don’t have that moment when you know it happened, then this can be your moment right now.  Trust Him – actively place your faith in Jesus to save you, and He will!

27 Then Peter answered and said to Him, “See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?”

  1. Peter is seemingly still thinking of the young man who had left disappointed.  That man (never named for us in the Scriptures) had turned down the offer of discipleship and everlasting life because he refused to give up his possessions.  His love for his money and stuff overrode his love and desire for God.  Peter looks at that situation and sees and instant comparison with himself and the other disciples.  The young man had been asked to sell/leave everything behind and follow Christ, and he refused.  The 12 disciples had basically been invited by Christ to do the same thing, and they had obeyed.  They had left their families and family businesses behind to follow Christ.
  2. The logical question, then is, what promises do they have?  The young man came asking for eternal life…did the disciples have that assurance?  Would they be included in the kingdom of heaven?  If so, what could they expect when they got there?
    1. Some look at this question of Peter’s as selfish.  It’s better to see it just as an honest question.  Who among us has not been curious about heaven?  Peter is standing there with God Incarnate when the subject just happened to present itself.  Why wouldn’t he ask the question? J

28 So Jesus said to them, “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

  1. An honest question deserves and honest answer and Jesus gives it.  Those who left everything behind will gain everything.  Jesus actually describes this in terms of the disciples who had asked the question, and then in terms of everyone else who would later follow in the footsteps of the apostles.  There is a reward coming to those who leave all to follow Christ.
  2. When is the reward? “In the regeneration…”  Literally, this is in the new genesis – during the time in which all things begin anew.  There are a couple of ways of looking at this:
    1. The eternal state, when the new heavens and the new earth are revealed.  After the day of the Great White Throne Judgment, there is a new heaven and a new earth coming, for the former one will pass away (Rev 21:1).  This time period would fit extremely well with Jesus’ choice of words here, but not so much with the activity that He goes on to describe.
    2. The Millennial Kingdom, when Jesus reigns physically over all the nations of the earth.  This takes place from the moment of Jesus’ 2nd Coming, and continues 1000 years, until Satan is released for one final moment of rebellion, and then is forever cast into hell.
  3. So which is it?  Most likely, this is a reference to the Millennial kingdom. Yes, Jesus uses the language of a new genesis, but the actions He describes sound much more like a new kingdom.  At this point, the whole order of the world has been remade.  Jesus is reigning and sitting on His throne.  The 12 apostles also have positions of authority, and they judge the 12 tribes of Israel.  Interestingly, the grammar Jesus uses here speaks of a continued judging.  Thus this is speaking of ongoing leadership; not a one-time judgment at the end.  (Not to mention the fact that the 12 disciples do not judge at the Great White Throne; that is left for God alone.  The disciples must have the opportunity to judge & lead, and that takes place during the Millennium.)
  4. There is a Millennial Kingdom coming.  We may not know exactly what that kingdom will be like, but the Bible gives us many clues.  It will be a time during which Satan is bound, and Jesus rules with an enforced righteousness over all the earth.  It will be a time that the nation of Israel will finally serve their Messiah King in the way God had intended (and in fulfillment of all of the promises made by God to David).  It will be a time of profound peace, and all of us who came to Christ during the Church Age (now) will share in the inheritance of our Savior, and it will be glorious!
  5. For the 12 disciples, they will have a specific role in judging the 12 tribes of Israel.  They will be blessed with a specific role of leadership among the nation.  Remember that all of the 12 apostles were Jews, and thus they will help administer the kingly government of Jesus over the Jews.  Again, we don’t know how this will look in exact terms, but it’s something to which the apostles are surely looking forward!  (BTW – this is one reason that Judas needed to be replaced after he betrayed Jesus and killed himself.  He left a vacancy among the 12, and Jesus has a specific plan for a specific number.)

29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.

  1. It’s not just the 12 disciples that look forward to a reward & inheritance…it’s all of us who follow Christ!  Remember the rich young ruler was challenged to surrender everything he had for the call of Christ, and he could not do it.  Yet everyone who follows Christ as Lord has surrendered something in order to become a disciple.  We laid down our own plans and will to be a follower of Jesus.  Some of us lost out on earthly riches because we chose Jesus.  Some of us had family members who turned their back upon us or disowned us because we followed Jesus.  Some of us experienced other forms of rejection and sacrifice.  All of us laid down our lives in some form…if we haven’t, they we cannot truly be called a disciple!  Jesus told us specifically what someone has to do in order to follow Him as one of His disciples: Matthew 16:24–25, "(24) Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. (25) For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it." []
    1. If you haven’t made the conscious decision to follow Christ whatever the cost, you might need to ask yourself if you’re following Him at all.  The decision needs to be made…
  2. Yet whoever leaves something of the world gets something far better in God.  Be it homes, families, or inheritances, God offers something far better in eternity.
    1. It’s better in quantity: “a hundredfold.”  Christians have more family (brothers and sisters) than we know what to do with!  We have more to look forward to.  We have spiritual riches untold in reward because God gives them according to His great grace and abundance.
    2. It’s better in quality: “inherit eternal life.”  It just doesn’t get any better than this.  This is exactly what the young ruler came seeking, and this is the promise of Jesus.  Those who leave everything for the sake of Jesus will receive more and better than they can possibly imagine.

30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

  1. Jesus takes us back to the rich young ruler (as well as introducing the next parable is about to teach).  He was privileged – he was powerful and influential.  People would have deferred to his judgments, and they would have naturally thought he was in the front of the line regarding the kingdom of God.  Yet he was in the back.  Worse yet, he was headed in the opposite direction.  The disciples, on the other hand, were last in the eyes of the Jewish community.  They were a rag-tag band of fishermen and tax collectors.  They had no schooling, and they were rubes from Galilee.  Certainly they weren’t like the rest of the upper-class in Jerusalem.  Yet they would be first in line to the kingdom.  And though the disciples likely did not yet fully realize it, to their surprise Gentiles would be in line as well!  People like us, with no tie whatsoever to the covenant promises of God about the Messiah would be brought into that same inheritance.  Truly, the last will be first.
  2. By way of application, we can see a principle here that goes beyond eternal salvation.  Be careful of what you assume about others.  Be careful how you treat those who might be viewed as the “last” – the outcast.  Be careful how you treat those whom you think might be untouchable in their sin.  We have no idea what God is going to do in their lives, and of course we do not that Jesus loves them and desires for them to be saved.  They might eventually move to the front of the line, and we will be sharing our inheritance with them.

Not only is the kingdom of heaven impossible, the impossible there takes place.  Those who were last are now first & the first are last.  Those who left everything for Christ are given everything by Christ in return.  From our entrance in the kingdom to our inheritance once we arrive, every promise we have is made possible by the amazing grace of our God.

The question is: will be one who partakes of those promises?  Are you one who has tasted of the grace offered by God?  The young man had come asking about the assurance of eternal life, and even Peter wanted the same assurance.  It’s a natural question to ask, and it is one that we should all ask ourselves. That assurance cannot come from ourselves.  If we think that God will look at us & see the good outweighing the bad, then heaven is impossible.  If we think that God will simply overlook everything we’ve ever done, then heaven is impossible.  If we think that some good thing we can offer God will give us assurance, or that some number of rituals we can perform will give us assurance, or any such thing…heaven is impossible.  On the issue of heaven, if it comes down to a work of man, it is absolutely impossible on every count.  “But with God all things are possible.”  It IS possible with God!

When we admit the impossibility of us saving ourselves, and actively put our trust in the power and grace of God through Jesus Christ, that’s when heaven becomes not just possible, but assured!  Jesus does the work & Jesus gives the grace for us to be saved, and gloriously so!  Not only are we saved from destruction, but there is a wonderful promise that awaits each of us.  Whatever we’ve laid down in this life for the call of Christ, we will find rewarded to us a hundredfold in His kingdom.

For the Christian, this ought to give us great comfort as we follow our Lord Jesus.  There are indeed times of sacrifice and suffering for the believer in Christ.  Not every day is better than the last, though we do have the assurance of Jesus being here right with us in the midst of it.  And we look forward to the future.  We have the hope of glory – we have the grand assurance of every day with Jesus for all days beyond the end of time itself.  He is our reward, and His promise is better than we can imagine.  Keep looking to Him as you walk with Christ.

To the rest of the world, this should be sobering, but hopeful.  Through your efforts, heaven is absolutely impossible…BUT with God all things are possible.  You CAN have the hope and assurance of eternal life today.  All things are possible if you but turn to God through Jesus Christ, and do what that young man did not: surrender your life to Jesus as your Lord & King.  Lay down your own personal sovereignty and follow Jesus as your Lord.  Believe upon Him as God who came to earth as a man, died upon the cross for you, and rose from the dead.  Confess your need for His forgiveness, and trust Him for your salvation as your King.

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