Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Study Skill 03: Context & Plain Meaning

A short series of posts about how we read the Bible

“... it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God....” Luke 18v24.

Its a well known saying. Part of our language. And yet time and again people seem to fall over themselves trying to interpret it. What is going on? What is Jesus talking about? Context, as always, provides the solution to finding the plain meaning of the text.

The context is a conversation between Jesus and a ruler.

The Context – v18-27.
V18 And a ruler asked him “Good teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
v19 And Jesus said to him “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.
V20 You know the commandments, do not commite adultery, do not muder, do not steal, do not bear false witness, honour your father and mother.
V21 And he said “all these i have kept from my youth”
v22 When Jesus heard this he said to him “one thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me”
v23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.
V24 Jesus, looking at him with sadness, said, “how difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
v26 those who heard it said “then who can be saved?”
v27 But he said “What is impossible with men is possible with God”

1.v24 is part of a response by Jesus to someone asking how to get eternal life. So, it is concerned with how to get treasure in heaven – a synonym for eternal life.

2.The question is asked by a ruler.... who we find in v23 is very rich.

3.Before answering the question Jesus responds to being addressed as good – saying only God is good. God whose kingdom is on offer – v24... and who can do the impossible v27.

4.The Old Testament law is laid out in v20... and v21 the man says he has kept that....

5.Then comes v22. And the man finds it too much to bear... Jesus responds with sadness... it is difficult! In fact it is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle. Many have speculated that this refers to an alleged “Needle Gate” which required camels to bend low and unload before passing through.
This is erroneous for two reasons.
a) That requires knowledge that is not given here – it forces us beyond the plain simple meaning of the text. Of course I'm trying to prove that you can't do this so that's not an argument. (Its similar to people saying that something in Revelation refers to the European Union – an interpretation only a European, and a eurosceptic at that, could ever etertain. A Christian in the south pacific isn't going to see that...)
b) That actually teaches the opposite of this saying. Why? Because, the people present say – its impossible... and then Jesus says, yes it is impossible with man, but God can do it. If unloading was actually required – as possibly implied in v22 then it would not be impossible, only difficult.

6.So, what is going on? Jesus is showing the man that he is not righteous. He thinks he keeps all the law... but Jesus finds something he can't do. He makes it
impossible for the man to save himself. The man is pushed to have to do something that is beyond him – selling all he has. In fact the man must ask God to help him – for God can save him according to v27. And where might he find God? The “good” teacher....

7.The context helps us to see the plain meaning of the text. The Bible is a book that can be plainly understood. Its meaning is not mystical. The only mystery in the Bible is the gospel – which was hidden until Jesus, and then made known. In context Jesus is plainly saying that the only way to eternal life is to ask him for it – not to imagine that if you unload yourself enough you'll be able to get there yourself.


  1. Oh no, it's Dave Kirkman being critical yet again! I can't help myself.

    I was just wondering about your understanding of what exactly is the impossible thing, that God makes possible in this passage. You interpret Jesus' challenge to the ruler, as an attempt to make him realise his unrighteousness, as someone who hadn't kept the whole law (no doubt true). But his challenge is really a challenge to follow him ('come, follow me'), which means self-sacrifice, something Peter is all too eager (in his self-righteousness) to point out that the disciples have already done.

    The ruler loves his wealth too much though - more than the treasure in heaven that will result from following Jesus. In this he is not unlike everyone else who will always choose the many treasures of this world (wealth or whatever), over the treasures of heaven - it is impossible for fallen man to do otherwise.

    Jesus is not saying that although the ruler has failed to meet his challenge its all ok because his sacrifice on the cross will cover all. The ruler has not just failed to keep the law, he has rejected following Jesus. Rather, I think, he is saying that God can change hearts by his Holy Spirit and turn even a worshipper of money into a follower of Jesus willing to forsake all for the greater pleasure of knowing Jesus.

    Jesus' strange greeting to the ruler ('why do you me call me good') then is also a challenge to the ruler, asking him to re-evaluate who he is talking too (God?), and whether his accepting the position of student to the teacher Jesus is genuine.

    All the above was prompted by a post by Mark Horne, although I don't think he has quite got it either.

  2. Another thought!

    Perhaps this is just another example of the standard evangelical interpretation of scripture sometimes being a bit too Arminian! (ooo contraversial.) Sidelining as it does God's regenerating work.

  3. The impossible thing I have in mind from the passage is "getting eternal life"... Here is a man who thinks he can attain it - but Jesus ably demonstrates that he cannot.

    So, as you say - Jesus challenging the man to come follow him - but that is too much for the man to do....

    God, whom the man is actually talking to, could change his heart so that he could humbly follow. I think its probably fair to say that we have two things going on - a revelation of God to the man (if he'll see it) and an affront to his self-righteousness.

    Now try: the parallel passage, with the same question in Luke 10.... The Good Samaritan. Structure in Luke's gospel tells me the incident is basically the same... whaddya think?

  4. You said: The impossible thing I have in mind from the passage is "getting eternal life"... Here is a man who thinks he can attain it - but Jesus ably demonstrates that he cannot.

    Working still from within this passage obviously the impossible thing is 'getting eternal life', but why is that impossible? I suppose your answer from this passage is because he cannot complete the law, whereas I am arguing that it is that he cannot repent. I don't suppose it really matters too much as we would both argue for the other from different passages so our understanding of our relationship with our Father would not change - it's probably not worth getting in a twist about it.

    You said: we have two things going on - a revelation of God to the man (if he'll see it) and an affront to his self-righteousness.

    I agree we have a 'affront to his self-righteousness' I just think the focus is on a challenge to follow Jesus. I guess it is a revelation of God, after all, all the bible is, and all that Jesus did is too. However, I feel I may be missing something you are seeing that has made you bring it up here.

    In the unlikely event you are wondering where I am coming from...I have quite a deep conviction that too often we make the focus of Gospel passages into descriptions of Justification by Faith and other doctrines, when (while that is there) their focus is usually on revealing who Jesus is, and his personal challenge to follow him.

    The Good Sm passage in Luke is amazingly similar in structure. I really do not know what to make of it...Jesus seems to give a different answer to the same question! He does again hold a mirror up to the questioner's failings but, it would seem, not primarily to make him trust in the cross, temple sacrifices, his merciful God, or even Jesus himself. He does it to make the man change his actions... he is 'merely' sent away and told to do like the Good Sm.

    I suppose he does amplify (if you know what I mean) the OT law (like in the Sermon on the Mount), which means if the lawyer accept Jesus' teaching he has also accepted Jesus' authority. And if you are optimistic I think the passage suggests the lawyer may have turned from a superior attitude ('to put him to the test', 'to justify himself') to a teachable one. But I'm probably reading too much into it.

    Interestingly the next story in Luke is the one involving Mary and Martha which all about the value of Jesus' teaching.

    The Good Sm is at it's heart though a moral challenge to repent and change.

    Luke must have wanted us to see a parallel, but I can't put my finger on it.


    It's been an education - thanks.

    I suppose I best apply it now, and not let it stay at the intellectual puzzle level.

  5. HMMM. Yeah i'm keen to try and take the passage on its own terms. I see what you're saying - neither the Lawyer or the Ruler seem to respond positively to Jesus challenge...

    Luke 9-19 covers Jesus' road to the cross, it just seems a bit too much of a coincidence that he gives us the same question answered twice near the start and end of this.... It does seem that much of the content in these chapters concerns the question of how to get eternal life... and who gets it...

    Great to talk about these - like you say it has to be applied too..