Jesus, his disciples, and several others are journeying south along the main road just east of the Jordan River. They are headed to Jerusalem for the Passover. Their discussions so far (as Matthew presents it) have all been on the same theme—a combination of recognition of the equality of all believers and love expressed toward those brothers and sisters in Christ.
In verse 13 the parents of the children on the journey are bringing their little ones to Christ for blessing. The disciples begin to rebuke the parents because it seems to them a distraction from the weightier matters that they are discussing. But the weightier matters being discussed are directly opposed to their actions. Their rebuke exhibits just the attitude that Jesus has been teaching against. And Jesus reminds them as much by saying that to such (those who come as children) belongs the kingdom of heaven, reminding them of his discussion at the beginning of chapter 18.
As they travel, walking and talking, a rich young man in the company has been overhearing Jesus teach. He comes alongside and asks Jesus what good deed could he perform to inherit eternal life. Jesus answers him with a question—an approach Jesus often used to make a questioner reflect on or open up to his own assumptions. Jesus asks him why he came to him to find out what is good. Jesus comments that there is only one who is good. He tries to make this man realize that his standard must come from God. And Jesus quickly links that notion to its practical application by telling him to follow the commandments.
It seems odd that the man would ask “Which ones?” (19:18). He evidently wants to know which are more important, thinking that to gain eternal life, the most noble acts must be performed. Jesus, rather than simply saying, “All of them,” recognizes the man’s problem and suggests to him those commandments which concern relationship with others. The man, who has kept all these already (albeit to a superficial extent), replies that he has already checked them off his list. But Jesus then teaches that the keeping of a commandment means keeping it in its fullest perfection. Does the man really love his neighbor as himself? Jesus suggests that he sell everything he has and give it to the poor (his neighbor). The man drops back from walking along with Jesus. He is sad because he is rich. He doesn’t want to give that up. He doesn’t really want to love his neighbor as much as he loves himself.
Jesus then turns to his disciples to hammer home the point. He tells them that it is difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Here Jesus uses an expression of it being easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. This expression is not as strange as it may first sound. The Greek word for camel is kamelos. The Greek word for rope is kamilos (a thick rope often made with the hairs of a camel). Many have suggested a copyist error here (although most manuscripts have kamelos). Additionally, the Aramaic word for camel and camel rope (and Jesus was speaking in Aramaic) is the same—gamla. How the word was changed and in which manuscript is unknown. But there is a good chance that Jesus was saying that it is easier for the common thick rope used to lead or bridle the camels to be thread through the eye of a needle (perhaps the large 6 inch needles used in rug-making, although Luke uses the term for a surgeon’s needle) than it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom. Whether we are talking about a camel or a rope, the idea is the same—it is virtually impossible.
Notice then the disciples’ astonishment. They move from Christ’s discussion of a rich person to everybody—“Who then can be saved?” (19:25). How did they get to everyone from Christ’s comment on the rich? Perhaps they understood Christ’s emphasis that loving your neighbor meant loving in its fullest perfect sense. Or maybe in that time (as in most times) the rich person was thought to be at the head of society. Therefore, if even the rich are having difficulty getting into the kingdom, what chance is there for us poor people—who then can be saved? And Jesus answers matter-of-factly that it is impossible…with people. But with God, all things are possible. And God making it possible was the very point of their journey to Jerusalem at that moment.
Perhaps all the disciples did not wonder aloud “Who then can be saved.” Perhaps Peter was lost in his own thoughts. “Wait a minute,” he may have mused. “Jesus told the rich man to give up everything and follow him. That’s…that’s exactly what I did—what we all did!” So, he turns to Christ and asks, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (19:27). Now, this question may seem a bit odd. Hadn’t Peter been listening? The rich man asked what he could do to gain eternal life. Jesus said give away what you have and follow me. So the giving away of everything and following Christ equaled the gaining of eternal life. So why does Peter ask what they’ll get? Why didn’t he expect to get eternal life?
Perhaps Peter had a few other thoughts. Perhaps Peter was thinking that not only did they give up everything to follow Christ, but they did it immediately and they did it first. And up to now, they are really the only ones who have done it totally. So maybe these other people, if they follow Christ now or when he comes into his kingdom, they’ll get eternal life, but, well, Peter and the disciples were first! What will they get?
Peter, like most of us, gets a little truth mixed in with a little error. Yes, that was the way to the kingdom—to die to self and follow Christ. But although Peter recounted how he had died to self, he was wrapped up in self as he looked for his reward that would be better than others. And so Jesus replies both to the truth and to his error.
First Jesus tells him, “in the new world (or regeneration)…you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” That must have lit Peter’s face up (at least his heart). Okay. That’s good. That’s what he had hoped for. But then Jesus goes on, “And everyone who has [died to self] for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (19:29). Maybe the smile dropped off Peter’s face. “What? Everyone gets special treatment? We don’t get more?”
The twelve thrones promised to Peter and the disciples (in other words, the reigning with Christ) was not only for the disciples. Second Timothy 2:11-13, Revelation 3:21, and Revelation 5:10 are examples from elsewhere in the New Testament where the promise is made to all kingdom heirs that they (we) will reign with Christ. So, keeping with the theme of these three chapters, Jesus is not promising that the disciples will be rulers over other children of God. Jesus is saying that following him in faith brings us into the kingdom in which we all will reign. Reign over what? Go back to the creation ideal. We were placed here to have dominion over the earth—over the rest of God’s creation. And just so will it be when Christ returns to make all things new.
But what about the ruling over the 12 tribes of Israel? Isn’t that something special? Again, it is no different from what we all will receive. In the throne room of God, pictured in Revelation 4 and 5, 24 elders sat on thrones. Among other things, these 24 elders represent a heavenly council of kingdom heirs (as opposed to the 24 elders of the Sanhedrin who condemned Christ on earth) who affirm the worthiness of Christ as he takes the scroll from the hand of God (for more detail, see the Revelation 4 and 5 summaries on this site). Revelation 5:8-10 shows us the elders in affirmation, falling down before Christ in worship.
But Peter is disappointed. He was first, but now he’s promised to be the same as everyone else. Jesus has a little parable for him. We read in 20:1-16 about a man and his vineyard. At the beginning of the day, the man promises laborers a denarius (a normal day’s wage) to go in the fields to work in gathering his harvest. A little later in the day the man finds other laborers and tells them also to go in the field and work and he’ll pay them what’s right. The man continues to find more laborers during the day and also sends them to the field. The last group he finds only one hour before the end of the day, but he sends them to the field as well. At the end of the day, he has his foreman pay the laborers in reverse order. (Don’t read anything into the reverse order. It is merely so that the point of the parable can be clear.) The laborers who did not have to work as much each received a denarius. When the ones who had worked all day saw that, they expected something more. But they received only what was promised initially. They were disgruntled, and the vineyard owner rightly points out that they received what he had promised…and what they had been happy about to begin with. Jesus ends the parable with the statement that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.
Notice everyone was paid. So in application of this parable, we can’t think about the rich man earlier in chapter 19 being the first here on earth but losing out (being last) regarding salvation, while the disciples being last (poor people) becoming first because they follow Christ. ALL the laborers in the parable received the same wage. Therefore the application must be to all those given eternal life. But some are disgruntled, and some are joyful. The application must be to the kingdom now. We are here laboring in the kingdom. Do we expect more for our efforts? Do we want to lead for the sake of our pride? Do we claim authority because we believe we have a higher calling? Do we believe we deserve more for any reason? Do we complain about our circumstances when others around us seem to abound? All these ideas that may constantly bombard our conscious or subconscious minds are ideas that do not belong in kingdom living.
Dying to self means personal ambition for the sake of personal status is gone. Our relationships with others in the body of Christ are not on some hierarchical scale. Our God loves each of us equally because he loves us infinitely.
Immediately following this parable we read Christ’s third declaration to his disciples that he will be arrested, condemned, and executed. But he also tells them, as he did the two previous times, that he would rise again on the third day. The emphasis in this whole section is on not seeking to lord it over others of the kingdom, but rather to be great is to serve. Jesus is going to Jerusalem for precisely that reason—to love and serve by giving his life a ransom for all.