52. The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:14-31)
14 The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight. 16 “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. 17 It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law. 18 “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ 25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ 27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ 30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ 31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ “
A long time ago, I made the statement from the pulpit that I would rather conduct two funerals than conduct one wedding. The reason is simple. At weddings, everyone is happy. It is a joyous occasion. Two people, very much in love, are joining together. It is a time long awaited. Everyone can feel the excitement and share in the joy of it all. Quite frankly, the mood is such that one could say almost anything and people would leave delighted. I can just hear someone saying, “Good word,” at the end of the ceremony, even if a nursery rhyme had been recited.
It is not so at a funeral. People are not happy at all. Someone they loved has been snatched away by death, never again to be seen or heard in this life. And not only is there the painful reality of the loss of a loved one, but also the frightening reminder that we, too, must die. What one says on such an occasion is of great moment. This is why it is so sad when the gospel is not preached, for there is no hope apart from the good news that Jesus has died and has risen, so that we, too, might be forgiven of our sins and live eternally in fellowship with God.
An older woman and her daughter-in-law happened to be in the audience on this particular occasion, when I spoke of my preference for funerals. To my knowledge, I never met this woman. Nevertheless, on that day she turned to her daughter-in-law and said, “When I die, I want you to call that man to preach at my funeral.” She did die, years later, and I received a call from the daughter-in-law. She told me that she and her mother-in-law were Gypsies. She told of her mother’s death, and of her request of years back that I deliver the funeral message. I did so, gladly. I delivered the funeral message from our text in Luke chapter 16. There was, to my knowledge, just one or two Christians. It was a tragic funeral because so few shared the hope of the gospel which this woman had found.
At the end of the service, I walked to the rear of the little chapel, virtually ignored by most of the people who had come. A young woman came up to me, a woman whom I doubt was saved. She said something very encouraging to me, however. Her comment on the message was this: “What you preached was what my grandmother believed.” I believe that it was.
When I preach a funeral message, I have always done so with the knowledge that I represented Jesus Christ, and with a sense of responsibility to proclaim the gospel, the good news of forgiveness and salvation in Him, which is the only basis for hope in the face of death. In addition to this, I also have the sense that I am speaking not only for God, but also for the one who has died, even if that person is not a Christian. I say with full assurance that the message I am bringing is that message which the one who has died would want me to proclaim. I say this, based upon the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. We shall see why this is so.
This account of the rich man and Lazarus is of very great importance to every one of us. In recent years, there have been many who have died and then been revived, reporting their “after-life” experiences. I do not wish to doubt or to debate each and every experience. I do wish to say, however, that none of these experiences are inspired, inerrant, and authoritative, as this account is. Even the apostle Paul refrained from describing what seems to have been his “life after death experience” (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:1-5). This story of the rich man and Lazarus is, I believe, a parable, but its description of the fate of men after death is both true and unchanging. Let us listen very carefully to these words. If the rich man was not able to warn his brothers, he can warn us, if we will listen.
The Lord Jesus has been speaking to the crowds, among whom are Pharisees. They are not at all pleased with what they have seen and heard from Jesus. They grumbled against Jesus for receiving sinners and even eating with them (Luke 15:2). In response to this, Jesus told three parables, all of which dealt with the finding of something lost. While the Pharisees could identify with the rejoicing of one who found something material (a lost sheep or a coin), they could not rejoice in the return of a repentant sinner, even though all of heaven did so. This is because they hated grace. They did not believe they needed grace, and they did not appreciate it being manifested to anyone else, especially the undeserving (which are always the recipients of grace). If Jesus was out of step with the Pharisees, they were out of step with God and with heaven.
In chapter 16, the grumbling of the Pharisees turned sour—to scoffing. This scoffing was the result of yet another parable, the parable of the shrewd steward. This steward was unrighteous. He had been squandering his master’s possessions, but when he learned that he was soon to be unemployed, he became very shrewd, using his master’s money to gain friends, who would minister to him in the future. While the master commended his wicked steward for his shrewdness, Jesus did not. Jesus taught that His disciples should, like the steward, make friends for the future, but in an entirely different way. The watchword for disciples was not shrewdness but faithfulness. In verses 9-13, Jesus laid down the principles which should govern the way in which the disciples viewed and used material possessions.
What especially angered the Pharisees, however, was something else. Jesus had identified this evil man as a shrewd man, when it came to money. The Pharisees, whom Luke now tells us were “lovers of money” (v. 14), were very shrewd in their use of money, in such an evil way as to make the unjust steward look like a saint. The steward ripped off a rich (and evil) master. The Pharisees were “ripping off” little old ladies, as Jesus put it in Matthew’s gospel, they were robbing widows’ houses (Matthew 23:14). That for which the Pharisees prided themselves, Jesus viewed as wicked. In His parable of the unjust steward, Jesus identified the shrewd as unbelievers, contrasting them with saints. Now, the Pharisees, who were proud of their skill in making money were mad. That did it! Grumbling turned to scoffing.
The Structure of our Text15
Jesus’ teaching in verses 14-18 is in response to the scoffing of the money-loving Pharisees (v. 14). He deals first with their fundamental (root) problem in principle (vv. 15-18). He then illustrated the problem with the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (vv. 19-31).
The unity of the entire chapter is evident in many ways. The thread which unifies the chapter is money. The unjust steward used his master’s money to serve his own interests, rather than to serve his master. The rich man will also use his money for his own interests, ignoring the needs of Lazarus, who lay at his gate. Both parables begin with virtually the same expression: “There was a certain rich man … ” (vv. 1, 19). Verses 14-18 enable us to understand the evil of these two rich men, which was descriptive of the wickedness of the Pharisees, by showing the source of their sin.
The Scoffing of the Pharisees
14 The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.
The Pharisees, it would seem, had previously been mumbling and grumbling to and among themselves (cf. 15:2). Now, however, they seem more vocal and more public. Their reaction has turned from discontent to disruption. They kept on scoffing,16 so as to become “hecklers” of Jesus. His words on the subject of money had proven to be too much. Luke tells his readers here that the Pharisees were “lovers of money,” an expression which is found only elsewhere in the New Testament in 2 Timothy 3:2. Luke tells us this fact because it helps us to understand why the Pharisees would be so distressed by Jesus’ teaching on money in the previous parable and its interpretation. They loved money and they were shrewd in the ways they found to gain it, to keep it, and to use it to indulge themselves.
But what, specifically, were the Pharisees scoffing about? The text does not tell us exactly, and perhaps we would do best to leave it at that. Given the Lord’s words in response to their scoffing, we might conjecture what they would be scoffing about. They judged on appearances. Jesus was talking a great deal about money, and how to use it. They could well have said to themselves and others, “Who is this expert on money, anyway? Who does He think He is? How much money does He possess? He is so poor that He has to have women of means accompany Him, to provide for His needs!” They may very well have mocked Jesus’ teaching, based upon His poverty.
But you see, Jesus’ poverty was that which proved His qualification to teach on money. Jesus did not have money because He did not take money. He had no vested interest. He had no desire to get rich and to live luxuriously. Thus, Jesus could speak as one who was disinterested, rather than as one who was preoccupied with money and material things.
The Wrong Judge
and the Wrong Standard
In response to these scoffers, Jesus did not bother pointing out that the Pharisees were really “lovers of money.” The reason is, I believe, that Jesus was interested in the source of their problem, not just in symptoms. Loving money was a serious problem, but it was not the root of their problem. In verses 15 Jesus exposed the root problem—The Pharisees sought approval from the wrong person, on the wrong basis:
15 He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable17 in God’s sight.
The underlying problem of the Pharisees was that they were seeking their approval from the wrong source, and they were seeking to be judged according to the wrong standard. They were striving to be justified by men, and their standard had to be that which men could see and evaluate—outward appearances.
This simple observation explains the actions of the Pharisees and also their reactions to Jesus. Because the Pharisees wanted the approval of men they acted in a way that would attract attention to themselves, in a way that would make them look righteous, as men might judge it. The Pharisees were into long prayers, they visibly fasted, and made contributions, and took the places of prominence at banquets and the like. Their clothing, too, was ostentatious—they lengthened their phylacteries. The Pharisees were repulsed by the fact that Jesus associated with sinners, and even ate with them. They were proud of the fact that they kept their distance. No defilement for them! They meticulously washed themselves ceremonially, and they observed Sabbath regulations. In all of this, Jesus said, they were hypocrites, because their hearts were wicked, because they were not really righteous at all.
It is God, however who justifies, and not men. God does not judge on the basis of outward appearance, but He knows and bases His judgment on what is in man’s heart:
But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do no look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him [Eliab, cf. v. 6]; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
God’s standards differ greatly from man’s, indeed, they are the exact opposite. Those things which men highly esteem, Jesus said, are an abomination to God (Luke 16:15).
What were some of the things which men esteemed in Jesus’ day, which God abhorred? I believe that there are many things which could be listed under these two contrasting categories, but to simplify matters, let me simply outline the two categories which we find in the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6:20-26):18
Blessed are …
Woe to …
Those persecuted as evil
Those respected as “good”
In the context of our passage, there is a very clear illustration of what our Lord was talking about when He said that God detests the things which men highly esteem (v. 15). The Pharisees, and, according to Jesus’ words, the “sons of this age” esteem shrewdness, and thus the master could commend his steward, even though he had ripped him off. God’s values are not man’s values, just as His ways are not man’s ways (cf. Isaiah 55:8).
Now we can see why the Pharisees valued money so highly. Money, to the Pharisee, was one of the external proofs of piety. After all, had God not promised to prosper His people Israel if they kept His laws (cf. Deuteronomy 28:1-14), and to bring them great poverty and adversity if they disobeyed (Deuteronomy 28:15ff.)? Money was the proof of piety that would cause an externalist to love. The Pharisees’ love of money was an indication of their attachment to external standards and appearances, so that they could obtain the praise of men. In the process of seeking men’s praise, they also obtained God’s condemnation.
The Keepers of
the Law are its Corrupters
In verse 15, Jesus indicted His opponents as playing before the wrong audience, according to the wrong standards or rules. In verses 16-18, Jesus accuses those who prided themselves as the “custodians of the Law” as being its corrupters:
16 “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. 17 It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law. 18 “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Jesus began by referring to the fact that the former dispensation had ended with John the Baptist, and that at His appearance there was inaugurated a new age, a new dispensation (v. 16). This new dispensation was welcomed by many, in fact, Jesus said, men were pushing and shoving to get into this kingdom. Men were violently trying to force their way in. This, then, was regarded as a welcome change.
But the coming of the new dispensation did not do away with everything that had to do with the old. The Old Testament did not terminate with the coming of Christ. As Jesus said elsewhere, He did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). The two commandments which Jesus taught simply summed up the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 7:12; 22:40). Paul, who rigorously held the line for grace, rather than law, said that the salvation which was accomplished in Christ was that which was that “to which the Law and the Prophets testify” (Romans 3:21).
There is a vast difference between the Mosaic Covenant, which was but a temporary solution (a putting off, a buying of time) to the problem of sin, and the New Covenant. With the coming of Christ and His death, burial, and resurrection, the Mosaic Covenant was put away, replaced by a new, better, covenant, as the book of Hebrews forcefully argues. The expression, “the Law and the Prophets” was one that summed up the entire Old Testament revelation, and not just the Law given through Moses on Mt. Sinai. The Law and the Prophets was that revelation which provided men with a divine standard of righteousness, a standard to which no man could attain, and thus all men are condemned as sinners. The Old Testament, the “Law and the Prophets,” still serves this same role as a divine declaration of the standards of righteousness. Thus, the apostle Paul can say that the one who “walks in the Spirit” will fulfill the requirement of the Law (Romans 8:4).
This Old Testament revelation is that which the Pharisees prided themselves for preserving. They, unlike the “sinners” of their time, “loved the law,” and sought to preserve it, or so they thought. But the exact opposite was the case. Once again the hypocrisy of the Pharisees is evident. Jesus, like the Pharisees, was committed to the preservation of the “Law and the Prophets,” the Old Testament revelation, despite the change of dispensation that occurred as a result of His incarnation. Thus, He insists that “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the law to fail.” Here is something to which the Pharisees could say, “Amen!” But could they?
The Pharisees were adamant about their fidelity to the “law,” but this was heavily weighted in the direction of the Law of Moses, and thus of that old covenant.19 Jesus persistently spoke of the “Law and the Prophets,” for this was the sum total of the Old Testament revelation, not just a portion of it. While the Pharisees focused on the outward aspects of religion, the Old Testament prophets persistently called Israel’s attention to the “heart issues” of the Law. No wonder the prophets were all persecuted and put to death. Note these words of the prophet Isaiah, as they bear upon the Pharisees and the text which is to follow. Notice how the outward appearance is hypocritical in the preceding context of Isaiah, but the heart of the nation is corrupt:
1 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins. 2 For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. 3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. 4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. 5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? 8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. 9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, 10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. 11 The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail (Isaiah 58:1-11).
The Old Testament prophets thus had much to say about the “heart issues” of life. God’s revelation in the Old Testament was not seeking mere outward conformity, but inward conformity to the will of God. No one portrays this “heart” better than David, and David confessed that the source of his “heart for God” was the Law of God (cf. Psalm 119).
On the surface, the Pharisees and the Savior seemed, for once, to agree, on the importance of the Old Testament revelation, except that for our Lord it was the Old Testament as a whole, including the prophets, and for our Lord it was a matter of the heart, and not merely of outward conformity to the Law (cf. Matthew 5-7).
The final verse of this section, verse 18, is a biblical (Old Testament) indictment of the Pharisees’ disregard for the Law and the Prophets. While they claimed to obey and to seek to promote and preserve the Law, the Pharisees actually set it aside. A case in point was the matter of divorce. Jesus thus lays down the Old Testament standard concerning divorce, which stood in dramatic contrast to the stand taken by the Pharisees:
“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
To my knowledge, this is the only reference to divorce in the gospel of Luke. Elsewhere in the gospels, we know that the Pharisees questioned Jesus about His position on divorce (cf. Matthew 19:3). We can rather easily imply that the Pharisees were much more liberal on the conditions under which divorce was permissible than our Lord. Jesus contrasts the “liberal” view they held with the biblical view consistently held to in the Bible. The bottom line is this: God hates divorce; divorce is sinful; divorce causes sin.
Men had come to accept divorce, to take it very lightly. There were conditions under which divorce was permissible, but men always sought to expand them. While men wished to talk about the exceptions which permitted divorce, Jesus insisted in stressing the rule, in holding to the divine standard. He expresses that standard again. God’s ideal for marriage is that one man and one woman should remain married so long as they live.
Verse 18 is a specific illustration of the charge Jesus made against the Pharisees: The Pharisees had capitulated to the standards of men, and had set aside the Law and the Prophets. They had come to live in accordance with what men approved. Jesus challenged them, showing that they had turned their backs on what God approved and disapproved. Men had come to “highly esteem” the freedom to change wives; to God, this was an abomination. The so-called custodians of the law were really its corrupters.
I must take a momentary aside at this point, for surely those who have experienced the ravages of divorce are feeling especially uneasy. Does divorce categorically condemn one to being a sinner? I am inclined to say yes. But, lest the divorced somehow feel that they are the focus of attention, the object of scorn, let me remind you that the purpose of the law was to prove every man a sinner. Thus, those who have experienced divorce must also be joined by those who have had an immoral thought (and who can be excluded here), for Jesus taught that immoral thoughts constitute adultery, too (Matthew 5:31-32). Anger constitutes murder. On and on the list of sins and sinners goes and grows.
The purpose of the Law was to prove men sinners, and to promise them a provision for sins—the Lamb of God. If the revealed Word of God proves us sinners and pointed us to Christ, it serves us well. Regardless of what our sins may be, the shed blood of Christ covers them all, for all who believe. Let the divorced not feel singled out by our Lord’s words. They were chosen because this was one place where the conservative Pharisees had become far too liberal, and where they had set aside the standards of the Word of God for those of their culture. They had thus sought justification by men, in accordance with appearances, rather than justification from God, based upon a clean heart.
The Rich Man and Lazarus
Two very important charges have been laid down against the scoffing Pharisees in verses 15-18:
(1) They have sought the approval of men (based upon what men can see—appearances), not of God (based upon the heart).
(2) They have set aside the revelation of God, which exposes the heart.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus graphically illustrates both of these points:
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ 25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ 27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ 30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ 31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
In dealing with this passage, I will divide it into three sections: (1) the rich man and Lazarus in life—vv. 19-21; (2) the rich man and Lazarus after death—vv. 22-23; (3) the rich man’s requests—vv. 24-31.
The Rich Man and Lazarus in Life (vs. 19-21)
Verse 19 begins almost identically with verse 1: “There was a certain rich man … ” This rich man “had it made.” Jesus’ description of his life is incredibly similar to the fate of the one on whom Jesus pronounced woes in his Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6:20-26). So, too, with Lazarus. He epitomized all that Jesus called “blessed.” Failing to name the rich man is typical of parables, and the naming of Lazarus is unique. This name means “the one God helps.”20
The rich man was wealthy, and enjoyed all the benefits of his wealth. He was magnificently dressed. We get the impression that his wardrobe was filled with expensive garments. He ate well, and he lived happily. Life was good to this man. From all appearances, and from a superficial reading of Deuteronomy 28, this man, the Pharisees would have supposed, was a righteous man. Surely he would go to heaven when he died.
Lazarus was the exact opposite. He was a poor man, a virtual beggar. He was placed21 by the gate to the rich man’s house. His clothing is not described, but we can well imagine how bad it was. His food was whatever scraps he might get from the rich man’s garbage—fighting off the dogs to beat them to the food. He had sores and these the dogs licked. He was precisely the kind of person that the Pharisees would brand a “sinner,” a man whom, in their minds, was worthy of hell.
These two men lived in close proximity to each other. I believe that Lazarus was in close enough proximity to this rich man’s living quarters that he could see the entourage of people coming and going. He could hear the laughter. He could smell the aroma of the sumptuous meals being prepared in the kitchen. He knew what he was missing.
And if Lazarus was painfully aware of the bounty and blessings of the rich man, but evidently not a sharer in them, so, too, the rich man had to have been aware of the pathetic plight of Lazarus. He would have had to walk past Lazarus every time he left or entered his house. This means that he would have had to have consciously chosen to ignore his need. The rich man thus used his wealth to indulge himself, but not to minister to the needy. This was a clear violation of the Old Testament standard of righteousness.22
Based upon appearance alone, one could see how the Pharisees would have judged these two men. They would have justified the rich man and condemned Lazarus. The fate of these two men after their deaths shows man’s judgment to be wrong. Thus, their destiny after death will illustrate our Lord’s indictment against the Pharisees above, namely that they sought to be justified before men, according to appearances, rather than before God, based upon the heart.
The Rich Man and Lazarus in Eternity (vv. 22-23)
It was only after both men died that God’s judgment was evident. Here, the roles of the two men are almost exactly reversed. Now, it is the rich man who is in torment, and Lazarus who is blessed. The change occurred at the deaths of the two. On earth, one can imagine that the rich man had a very ostentatious funeral. Lazarus’ funeral would have been basic. It is even possible that his body may have been cast onto a dung or refuse heap. From a heavenly viewpoint it was decidedly different. We are told that the soul of Lazarus was escorted to “Abraham’s bosom.” Of the rich man we are simply (even tersely) told that he died and was buried.
The identification of the place of Lazarus’ above as “Abraham’s bosom” is both interesting and highly significant. In our parable, Lazarus is not said to be in the presence of God, but in the bosom of Abraham. We must remember that this parable is told to an Israelite, for an Old Testament point of view. I believe that in Old Testament times there was a kind of “holding place” for the souls of those who died. I believe this holding place had two separate compartments, so to speak. One was reserved for the righteous, the other for the unrighteous. Each compartment had its eternal counterpart. The above of the righteous had heaven as its eternal counterpart, while the place of the wicked was a prototype of hell. The rich man and Lazarus are thus each in their own place.
The place of Lazarus’ bliss was called “Abraham’s bosom.” From his place of torment, the rich man addresses Abraham as “Father Abraham.” I can almost see the faces of the Pharisees flinch as Jesus spoke the words “Father Abraham,” for this rich man thus addressed Abraham as his “father,” and Abraham called him “Child.” The Pharisees believed that all one needed to get into the kingdom of God was a birth certificate which proved they were a physical descendant of Abraham (cf. Luke 3:8). Here is a rich man, an offspring of Abraham, in hell (or rather, its prototype). What a striking way to remind the Jews that being a physical descendant of Abraham was not a guarantee of one’s salvation.
The place of bliss was “Abraham’s bosom.” I believe that we may find a clue to the meaning of this expression in Matthew 8:11:
“And I say to you, that many shall come from east and west, and recline at table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of God” (Matthew 8:11; cp. Luke 13:29).
Lazarus was represented as reclining in Abraham’s bosom. The occasion when a man would lean on the bosom or breast of another was at the meal table, as John did with our Lord (cf. John 13:23, 25; 21:20). Thus, it may well be that Lazarus is being portrayed as reclining at a banquet meal with Abraham.
The circumstances of the rich man and Lazarus are thus almost exactly reversed after death. The rich man, who lived in luxury, now lived in agony. He was distant from Abraham’s bosom, but was aware of what was taking place there. Lazarus, who had suffered greatly in his life now was in bliss. While he had struggled in order to get the scraps from the rich man’s table, now he reclined at Abraham’s table, leaning on his bosom! While it was formerly Lazarus who looked upon the bounty of the rich man, but did not share in it, now it is the rich man who beholds Lazarus in bounty and blessing.
It would seem that the rich man’s “hell” is something like solitary confinement in a prison. There may be others there with you, but you are hardly aware of them, nor is there any real fellowship. What you are aware of is the bliss of the righteous. It is as though hell has a one-way picture window, and each resident of hell is given a pair of binoculars. The wicked are thus enabled to see the joy and bliss of the righteous, but it appears that the righteous are unaware of the suffering of the wicked. The wicked can see out, but the righteous cannot see in, so to speak.
The Rich Man’s Requests (vv. 24-31)
It would be easy to think that the bulk of the parable might be devoted to a description of the bliss of Lazarus and the agony of the rich man. In fact, the larger portion of the parable is devoted to two requests which are made by the rich man. Before we look more closely at these requests, take note of several observations. First, both requests were denied. Second, the first request of the rich man had to do with his personal comfort, while the second was for the eternal well-being of his immediate family (his five brothers). Third, both of his requests are that Abraham send Lazarus to do something. In my opinion, the rich man still looks down upon Lazarus, viewing him as a kind of servant, not as a superior.
The rich man’s first request was the result of his torment, his suffering. The flames were causing him great discomfort. He pled for mercy, asking that Lazarus be sent to him with the smallest quantity of water, to cool his tongue.
His petition was denied, based on two factors. First, the rich man’s fate was a just one. He had gotten just what he had deserved. He had his “good things” in life. Now, justice demanded that he get what he deserved. His suffering was a just penalty. Justice would not allow Abraham to diminish his suffering. Second, hell and heaven are divided, with no access between the two. There was, Abraham said, a great fixed chasm, located between the two abodes. The wicked could not cross over to the place of blessing, and the righteous could not (to show mercy, such as to take water to the suffering) cross over to the place of the wicked. Thus, the rich man’s petition must be denied. Hell is the irreversible destiny of some, with the choice of entering it being made in one’s life.
The rich man’s second request still involves the service of Lazarus, but this time he does not request that Lazarus ease his suffering, but that Lazarus go to his five brothers to warn them not to come to this place. The rich man now understands that men’s choices must be made before death, and that their decisions remain after their deaths.
Abraham responded negatively to the second request, as well as to the first. There was no need for someone to be sent from the grave to warn the lost. Moses and the Prophets served this purpose well. Let the lost listen to the Old Testament revelation. That, Abraham maintained, should serve as a sufficient warning.
The rich man protested, however. He insisted that while men may not heed the Old Testament Scriptures, they could not ignore the message of a man who had returned from death. They thought that “signs and wonders” could do more than the Word of God. This is but a continuation of the request that Jesus prove Himself by performing some miracle as a proof of His person and His power.
Abraham’s answer was short and pointed. He said that if his brothers refused to listen to Moses and the Prophets, they would not be convinced by a spectacular appearance from the grave. There is a very significant principle underlying this answer. Man’s failure to believe is not due to any lack of evidence, but due to a closed heart, determined to disbelieve any amount of evidence. The problem, to put it differently, was not a lack of external evidence (appearances), but a willful rebellion of the heart against God. The hearts of this man and his five brothers were unbelieving. Such unbelief was not solved by a preponderance of the evidence, but only by a change in the heart. Once again, the outward appearances are not the issue, but the heart is.
Jesus would soon be crucified, and He would soon rise from the dead. That empty tomb in Jerusalem did not result in a host of conversions, for it was not appearances which were the problem, but the closedness of men’s hearts. If men were to believe in Christ for Salvation, they would have to believe in the Christ of which the Old Testament Scriptures foretold. Thus, when Peter preached his Pentecost sermon, he grounded his preaching on the Old Testament Scriptures, on the “Law and the Prophets” (cf. Acts 2:16-36).
The Pharisees rejected Jesus for two principle reasons. First, they sought to win men’s approval, based upon outward appearances, rather than God’s, based upon the heart. Second, in so doing they had rejected the Old Testament Scriptures, the “Law and the Prophets,” exchanging the divine standard of righteousness for a human standard.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus dramatically illustrates these two errors. Based upon appearances, it would seem that the rich man would be pronounced righteous and enter into God’s kingdom, and Lazarus would be rejected and condemned. The outcome after these two men died was just the reverse. Appearances, Jesus proved, were deceptive. Men would “highly esteem” the rich man, but God rejected him. Men would despise Lazarus, but God justified him.
What, then, was the basis of the rejection of the rich man and the justification of the beggar, Lazarus? We are immediately tempted to suppose that the answer is an external one—something we can judge by appearances. We are inclined to suppose that God judged these two men on appearances, only He did so with a reversed system of values. God condemned the rich man and justified the poor man. God must save the poor and send the rich to heaven. This conclusion would be the same kind of error that the Pharisees practiced, with a reversed system of external values.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus concludes in such a way as to indicate what really justifies a man. The rich man was not condemned because he was rich, any more than the poor man was justified for being poor. These outward conditions (riches and poverty) were fundamentally irrelevant to the eternal destiny of these men. A godly rich man would have used his wealth differently, but it was not his works that would have saved him. The real basis for justification or condemnation is to be found in the context of the rich man’s concern for his lost brothers. The issue was whether or not these men were rich or poor, but whether or not these men believed the Scriptures, Moses and the Prophets. It is not riches nor poverty which determines one’s destiny, but belief or unbelief.
Thus, the last portion of the parable illustrates the second charge of our Lord against the Pharisees—that they had exchanged the eternal, unchanging standards of the Law and the Prophets for the ever-changing standards of their society. The Pharisees, who saw themselves as the custodians, the guardians of the Law, were really its corrupters. In so-doing, they sealed their own fate. While they may appear to be righteous on the outside, while men may consider them to be righteous, their fate would be the same as the rich man, unless they believed and repented.
Belief and repentance was what the Old Testament revelation was given to produce. These Scriptures were not given to provide an external standard of righteousness which men, if they worked hard enough, could achieve. The Scriptures were given to convince all men that they were sinners, miserably and hopelessly lost. But these same Scriptures provided a temporary means of escape—the sacrificial system. Sins could thereby be put off for a time, like one might receive an extension on an unpaid debt. These same Scriptures spoke of an ultimate salvation which God would accomplish, based upon a new covenant, and upon the sacrificial death of Messiah, who would bear the penalty for a man’s sins, and on the basis of whose righteousness men could be declared righteous as well. Note Paul’s summation of all this as found in Romans chapter three:
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. 21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:19-26).
What an incentive our text is to unsaved men to turn to Christ and to be saved. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus teaches us several facts about hell which should be the source of great consternation to the lost:
(1) Hell is a real place. It comes after death, but it is a certainty.
(2) Hell is a real place, even though it seems fanciful now.
(3) Hell is the place which justice requires, for it is there and there only that the evils of life are made right. I often hear people protesting against hell, insisting that a loving God could not sent anyone to such a place. But God is also a just God, who cannot overlook evil. The love of God sent Jesus to the cross of Calvary, to bear God’s wrath on sin, to those who reject the love of God in Christ must bear the wrath of God in hell.
(4) Hell is that place where men suffer torment. That torment seems to include physical pain (the heat of the flames in our parable), as well as the mental anguish resulting from seeing the joy of heaven, but being removed from it, and the anguish of worrying about loved ones still living, who will share the same fate.
(5) Hell, once entered, is an irreversible fate. There was no passage possible between heaven and hell. Once a person is in hell, he or she is there forever.
(6) Hell is that place to which many go, thinking that they were going to heaven. The Bible teaches that there is a way which seems right to a man, but its ends are the ways of death. The self-righteous Pharisees never dreamed they would populate hell.
(7) Hell is that place to which men go because their hearts are not pure before God, and who have not believed the Scriptures, either regarding their sin, or God’s salvation in Christ.
There is certainly a strong message in this parable to those who may feel religious, but who are not really saved. Such was the case with the Pharisees. But there is a very grave danger of the errors of the Pharisees creeping into genuine Christianity.
We, like the Pharisees, are in danger of using external criteria by which to judge spirituality, both in ourselves and in others. When we do so, we, like the Pharisees, will place too great a value on money. We will, like them, become lovers of money. The “prosperity gospel” of recent times equates spirituality and prosperity. This is a most serious error, for in such cases, money becomes our master. As Jesus said above, man cannot serve two masters. When God is our Master, money becomes a means of serving Him. But when our god is money, God becomes the means of making money, of making us prosperous. The prosperity gospel has made God the means to riches, not riches a means of serving God.
There are many other ways in which we falsely measure spirituality by external standards appearances. Some, as I have indicated, measure spirituality by one’s wealth. Others change the labels, and equate spirituality with poverty. Others, with a particular spiritual gift, or a particular form of ministry (usually public, popular, and “successful”). Some measure spirituality by the way one’s children turn out, or by the number of days and nights one spends at the church, or in church-related activities.
This error of externalism is much more serious than we may initially recognize. I fear that the motivation for much that we do, or do not do, is a desire to win men’s approval, or to avoid their disapproval. Divorce, for example, was something which few Christians would have considered as an option, just a few years ago. Now it would seem that many Christians are not only considering it, but doing it. Why the change? I do not think it is because men’s understanding of the Scriptures have changed all that much, but because our culture (even our Christian culture the value system of the church and of our fellow Christians) has changed. Men and women may have refused to divorce in the past, not because it was displeasing to God (God hates it, you will recall Malachi 2:16), but because society would look down upon them for divorcing. Now, when society approves, Christians feel free to divorce. We see in this that we, too, are more eager for man’s approval, than for God’s.
And we do these things, all the while maintaining that we are biblicists. We believe that the Bible is inspired and inerrant, and applicable to our lives. We would oppose those who would say otherwise. But in the nitty gritty practice of the Word of God, we, like the Pharisees, often put God’s standards aside when they conflict with those of our culture. Let us seriously consider whom we are striving to please. The New Testament, like the old, has plenty to say about pleasing men (cf. Romans 2:29; 12:17; 14:18; 1 Corinthians 10:33; Galatians 1:10; Ephesians 6:7; 1 Thessalonians 2:4).
We would do well, I believe, to explore those things which our culture highly esteems, and then to consider whether or not these things are well pleasing in the sight of God. I fear that the values of our culture those values which may be an abomination to God have been adopted into our Christian culture without thought. Our secular culture, for example, highly values “a good self image,” which is dangerously close to, if not identical with, self love. Our culture values aggressiveness and assertiveness. God esteems meekness and humility. He teaches us to submit ourselves one to another. Let us carefully evaluate our values, and to consider the condition of our hearts. Only the Word of God can and will expose this (Hebrews 4:1213), so let us turn to the Scriptures, and not to our society, even as our Lord has taught.
15 “The section, which is an attack on the Pharisaic assumptions about wealth, is organized into a two-pronged group of sayings (vss. 14-18), followed by a double-edged parable (vss. 19-31). Verses 19-26 of the parable are an exposition of vss. 14-15, while vss. 27-31 serve as an illustration of vss. 16-18 (E. E. Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, p. 201, following a hint by John Calvin). This pattern gives unity to the section.” Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1984), p. 156.
16 The imperfect tense of the verbs “listening” and “scoffing,” accurately conveyed by the NASB’s “were listening” and “were scoffing,” indicates that the Pharisees had been listening to Jesus, just as they had also been scoffing. It was not a one-time kind of thing, but an on-going reaction and resistance to Jesus’ teaching. Incidentally, the term rendered “scoffing” is found elsewhere only in Luke 23:35.
17 A. T. Robertson reminds us that this term “detestable” is a strong one, use “… for a detestable thing as when Antiochus Epiphanes set up an altar to Zeus in place of that to Jehovah. There is withering scorn in the use of this phrase by Jesus to these pious pretenders.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), II, p. 220.
18 More and more I am inclined to see the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as a playing out of this passage in the Sermon on the Mount. The rich man of the parable personifies the one on whom Jesus pronounced woes. The poor man, Lazarus, portrays the blessedness of those whom Jesus called blessed in the sermon.
19 If I am correct in my view that the Pharisees majored on just one part of the Old Testament, namely the Law of Moses, then they were really not all that different from the Samaritans, whom they disdained. The Samaritans recognized only the Pentateuch as inspired revelation, with a few changes. The Pharisees revered the same portion, but their revisions did not require tampering with the text, but only the addition of their traditions and interpretations of it.