The Rich Man and Lazarus
Luke 16: 19-31 (NIV)
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 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.’
“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. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them,so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
“ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“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.’ ”
Much argument has taken place over whether the words of Jesus in Luke 16:19-31 were intended to be understood literally or as a parable. Some Christians feel that in this story, Jesus was offering His hearers a glimpse of what existence in the afterlife is like.
Others, citing numerous passages of Scripture that seem to contradict the portrayal of heaven and hell contained in this passage, feel that Jesus was teaching an altogether different kind of lesson. Unfortunately, many modern religious teachers have isolated the story from its original context and used it as a device for scaring people. Religious “conversions” resulting from a fear of hell as it is depicted in this passage have indeed occurred, but are based on a foundation sorely in need of the strength that comes only from a genuine appreciation of God’s character and a proper understanding of Scripture. To begin this study, we’ll take a closer look at just what a parable really is, and then examine the setting in which Jesus told this story. Perhaps then we will better understand what lessons there are for us in the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
The Random House College Dictionary describes a parable as “a short, allegorical story designed to convey a truth or moral lesson.” Cruden’s Complete Concordance further expands this concept, saying that parables in the Bible were used “more generally than elsewhere.” We know that the Bible writers used situations both imaginary—as in the trees asking the bramble to be king over them (Judges 9:8-15)—and realistic in parables. Whatever form the parable took, it was only a vehicle for the moral lesson being taught.
Jesus recognized the value of parables in teaching the people. He desired to stimulate their deepest thought and contemplation, and He knew that if He spoke too literally, certain of His hearers would quickly forget His words. Not only that, but others, for whom certain of His parables contained stern rebuke, would be so angered by straight speaking that they would attempt to silence Him by violence. Wise as a serpent but harmless as a dove, Jesus recalled the words of Isaiah 6:9 and told His disciples,
“Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.”
Cruden’s Concordance explains: “Our Saviour in the gospels often speaks to the people in parables. He made use of them to veil the truth from those who were not willing to see it. Those who really desired to know would not rest till they had found out the meaning.”
It was Jesus custom to talk to the people with parables.
It is appropriate here to ask to whom Jesus was speaking in Luke 16:19-31. Which category of people was He dealing with? The last verse before Jesus’ voice begins in this passage tells us.
“And the Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things: and they derided him.”
Luke 16: 14
Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees, a class of men who were notorious all through the Gospels for their refusal to deal honestly with Him and the truths He taught.
We can be sure that of all the people Jesus taught, none were handled more guardedly than the wily Pharisees. They dealt in deception and subterfuge, but Jesus dealt with them wisely and truthfully. The safest way for Him to do this was by parable and allegory. Evidence that they did not understand many of His teachings can be found in Jesus’ prayer:
“I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hath revealed them unto babes.”
“And with many such parables spake he the word unto them: as they were able to hear it. But without a parable spake he not unto them; and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples.”
Mark 4: 33, 34
The rich man and Lazarus is at the end of a long list of parables that start in Luke chapter 14:7 before he turns to the disciples and begins to speak to them plainly.
Now we are ready to examine the story of the rich man and Lazarus itself, and try to ascertain the real message Jesus was seeking to convey through it.
“There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.”
Who was the symbolic rich man? The Jews had been blessed above measure by a knowledge of God and his plan of salvation for all mankind. They had received
“the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises.”
Only a Jew would pray to “Father Abraham,” as we find the rich man doing later in the story. The Jewish nation was clearly represented by this character.
By contrast, Lazarus symbolized all those people in spiritual poverty—the Gentiles—with whom the Israelites were to share their heritage. The words of Isaiah were well known to the Jews.
“I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.”
Unfortunately, the Jews had not shared their spiritual wealth with the Gentiles at all. Instead, they considered them as “dogs” that would have to be satisfied with the spiritual crumbs falling from their masters’ tables. The metaphor was known. Jesus had used it before in testing the faith of the Canaanite woman.
“It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.” She responded accordingly: “Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ tables.”
The rich Jews had hoarded the truth, and in so doing, they had corrupted themselves. Only moments before relating this parable, Jesus had rebuked the Pharisees for their spiritual conceit.
“Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.”
What was to be the result of this terrible conceit?
“And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.”
The Jews had enjoyed “the good life” while on earth but had done nothing to bless or enrich their neighbors. No further reward was due.
“Woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger.”
Conversely, the poor in spirit, symbolized by Lazarus, would inherit the kingdom of heaven. The Gentiles who hungered and thirsted after righteousness would be filled. The “dogs” and sinners, so despised by the self-righteous Pharisees, would enter heaven before they would.
“Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.”
The parable concludes with the rich man begging for his brethren to be warned against sharing his fate. Asking Abraham to send Lazarus on this mission, he alleges
“if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.” Abraham replies,
“If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”
Jesus thus rebuked the Pharisees for their disregard of the Scriptures, foreseeing that even a supernatural event would not change the hearts of those who persistently rejected the teachings of “Moses and the prophets.”
The miracle of raising the real-life Lazarus from the dead soon afterward confirmed the accuracy of Jesus’ conclusion. One did rise from the dead, yet the brothers of the “rich man” did not repent. In fact, the Pharisees even plotted to kill Lazarus after his resurrection. His very life was a reminder to them of their own hypocrisy.
Today many Christians believe that the story of the rich man and Lazarus is a historical account of two individuals’ literal experiences in the afterlife. Based on this belief, some people teach that those who are consigned to the fiery torments of hell will never stop burning throughout all eternity. As with the parable of the trees and the bramble (Judges 9:8-15), however, serious problems arise with a literal interpretation of the story elements.
Can we believe that all the saints are even now gathered in Abraham’s bosom? If they are, in whose bosom does Abraham rest? And if there is really a great gulf fixed between heaven and hell, how could the rich man possibly have been heard by Abraham? Perhaps more disturbing, how could the saints enjoy the comforts of heaven while enduring the cries of the wicked being tormented?
Another dilemma that arises with a literal interpretation of this story could be called “the mystery of the empty graves.” If this is taken literally, apparently neither of the two leading characters spent very long in the grave—both being whisked away rather quickly to their respective places of reward. Their bodies obviously came along, for we find the rich man lifting up his eyes, and desiring to have his tongue cooled by a drop of water from the finger of Lazarus who was resting, as we have seen, in Abraham’s bosom. Enough graves have been exhumed in recent years to know that the bodies of the deceased are carried neither to heaven or hell after burial. They finally turn to dust and await the resurrection.
From these few examples, we begin to see that in this parable, Jesus was not trying to explain the physical realities of the afterlife. Instead, He was referring to the unfaithfulness of the Jews regarding their assigned responsibility. As stewards of the special message of truth, they utterly failed to share it with the Gentiles, who were eager to hear it. In fact, the entire chapter of Luke 16 is devoted to the subject of stewardship.
Beginning in verse one, Christ gave another parable about stewardship of money or property. “There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods.” After dealing with the principle of being entrusted with material goods, Jesus opened up the issue of being entrusted with the truth. By the parable of another rich man, He graphically illustrated how they had proven just as unfaithful with spiritual riches as the steward had been unfaithful with physical wealth.
To attempt to stretch the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to cover the doctrine of hellfire is to miss the point Jesus intended to convey. The Bible speaks with unmistakable clarity on the subject of hell in many other places. Nowhere do the Scriptures teach that the wicked will continue to suffer in the fires of hell through the ceaseless ages of eternity. Rather, they will be utterly destroyed. Jesus never would have compromised the integrity of the Holy Scriptures by teaching a doctrine contrary to its own overwhelming testimony on the subject.
The truth about hell may be ascertained by examining even a few of the many Bible texts that speak directly on the subject. Before examining these, however, we must remember that
“the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life.”
There are only two alternatives for every soul. Those who accept Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice will live forever; those who do not accept Jesus will die. If the wicked suffered without end, eternal life—however painful—would be theirs. But we know that eternal life is available only to those who accept Jesus.
Consider these clear texts of Scripture that speak of the reward of the wicked:
“But the wicked shall perish, and the enemies of the Lord shall be as the fat of lambs: they shall consume; into smoke shall they consume away.”
“For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.”
“And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of hosts.” Malachi 4:3.
“And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
“But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.”
“But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.”
Many other texts could be cited, but these clearly illustrate that the ultimate fate of the wicked is death. Notice that the Scriptures choose the strongest possible words to describe the complete annihilation of the wicked. In no way should these clear words be misunderstood by one who honestly desires to know truth. There is a fire reserved for the wicked, but a fire so hot it will utterly destroy all who are engulfed by it. When the fire has done its work, it will go out. Eternally burning fire is not taught anywhere in the Bible—not even in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. (Some people have wondered what the expression “for ever” means in the usage of Revelation 20:10. Other similar passages demonstrate this merely to mean as long as a person lives. See Exodus 21:6; 1 Samuel 1:22; Jonah 2:6, etc. Also, the expression “eternal fire” may be understood in terms of consequences rather than duration, as in the example of Sodom and Gomorrha in Jude 7).
(We will talk more about this next time.)
It would be tragic to miss the actual point of the parable by removing it from the setting in which Jesus gave it. Let’s accept the lesson He was trying to teach and apply it to our own lives. Are we doing all we can to spread the message of salvation to others? Do we have a genuine love for those around us, and have we invited them to share our spiritual inheritance? If we hoard our riches, like the Jews of old, we will become self-righteous and corrupt. In contrast, by active, loving service, our relationship with Christ as well as with others will become stronger and more meaningful.
Let us not make scary stories the basis of our Christian experience. Instead, let us understand that
“God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
After all of this, the pivotal question must be asked,
Do you know God enough to know that He is a God of mercy and not a God who tortures his creation for rejecting Jesus? …even though He gave man the freedom to choose.
Choose this day whom you will follow.
Sin comes with its own penalty….eternal and non-ending death. This is in itself mercy. The sinner gives in to the carnal nature and chooses a life of pleasurable sin and its ultimate penalty of death rather than a born-again life of service in Christ that brings satisfaction and real joy. The rebel to God’s Spirit will one day cease to exist in the lake of fire. They choose this world and its temporary pleasures rather than Jesus and His eternal riches of life and discovery.
It is not what your choose, but rather who. If you choose Jesus, then eternal life is yours. Will you choose Him today?
I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live;
Much thanks to Doug Batchelor with Amazing Facts