There are several different schools of thought on what Jesus was referring to in saying it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to gain eternal life (Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25). The Persians expressed the concept of the impossible by saying it would be easier to put an elephant through the eye of a needle. The camel was a Jewish adaptation (the largest animal in Israel was a camel).
Some theorize that the needle Jesus was speaking of was the Needle Gate, supposedly a low and narrow after-hours entrance found in the wall surrounding Jerusalem. It was purposely small for security reasons, and a camel could only go through it by stripping off any saddles or packs and crawling through on its knees. The problem with this theory is there is no evidence such a gate ever existed. Beyond that, what sane camel driver would go through such contortions when larger gates were easily accessible?
Others claim that the word translated “camel” (Greek: kamelos) should actually be “cable” (Greek: kamilos). Then the verse would read that it is easier for a cable (or rope) to go through the eye of a needle. To believe this, however, brings up more problems than it solves, namely casting doubt on the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture.
The most likely explanation is that Jesus was using hyperbole, a figure of speech that exaggerates for emphasis. Jesus used this technique at other times, referring to a “plank” in one’s eye (Matthew 7:3-5) and swallowing a camel (Matthew 23:24).
Jesus’ message is clear—it is impossible for anyone to be saved on his own merits. Since wealth was seen as proof of God’s approval, it was commonly taught by the rabbis that rich people were blessed by God and were, therefore, the most likely candidates for heaven. Jesus destroyed that notion, and along with it, the idea that anyone can earn eternal life. The disciples had the appropriate response to this startling statement. They were utterly amazed and asked, “Who then can be saved?” in the next verse. If the wealthy among them, which included the super-spiritual Pharisees and scribes, were unworthy of heaven, what hope was there for a poor man?
Jesus’ answer is the basis of the gospel: "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God" (Matthew 19:26). Men are saved through God’s gifts of grace, mercy, and faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Nothing we do earns salvation for us. It is the poor in spirit who inherit the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:3), those who recognize their spiritual poverty and their utter inability to do anything to justify themselves to a holy God. The rich man so often is blind to his spiritual poverty because he is proud of his accomplishments and has contented himself with his wealth. He is as likely to humble himself before God as a camel is to crawl through the eye of a needle.