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Rich man and Lazarus
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Luke, chapter 16, and follow along as I read verses 19-31. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
19 "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.
20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.
22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.
23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.
24 He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.'
25 But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.
26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.'
27 He said, 'Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house--
28 for I have five brothers--that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.'
29 Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.'
30 He said, 'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.'
31 He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Not God and Mammon
We are confronted here with something that is just the opposite of what most people think. Even an atheist would say, “If someone came to me from the dead, I would believe in life after death.” An atheist does not believe that is going to happen, still they would say that if it happened they would believe. But Jesus says that is not so.
Jesus is always saying things that shock us. Earlier in this same chapter, in v13, he said, “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” The world says, “Why not?” Why cannot we serve both? That is exactly what the Pharisees were doing. They thought they served God, and they did most willingly serve Mammon, the God of money, so v14 says that when Jesus told them that they could not have it both ways, “They derided him;” they ridiculed him. But Jesus said in v15, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.” And then, as an illustration, He told them about the rich man and Lazarus.
The rich man’s name is not given, but traditionally he is called “Dives” from the Latin for “rich.”
V19 says, “There was a rich man,” and probably because he was rich, he was highly esteemed by people. He “was dressed in purple and fine linen,” and consequently esteemed the more because the world always thinks highly of those who dress the part. He “feasted sumptuously every day.” He ate well all the time, and not many could say that in the first century. He set a fine table—fine china, real silver, crystal goblets, and the table was heaped up with every kind of food that you can imagine.
The parable continues in v20. By the rich man’s Gate, there was a begger. We know the beggar’s name, Lazarus. Lazarus was not a pretty sight. He was covered with oozing, open ulcers.
But though he was in a pitiful condition, Lazarus was like the rest of us in that he wanted to eat. He did not want much. V21 says that he desired to “be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table.” Just a little of the rich man’s plenty would have been enough for Lazarus, but it does not appear that Dives ever took the least notice of this poor beggar, nor did anyone else.
The point Jesus is making is that the world had no regard at all for Lazarus;but the world respected Dives. Then came the great change. They both died. Death is the great equalizer. Be it the poorest peasant in Bangladesh or the richest Arab oil sheik, we all die. I head a story once about a man who was exceedingly wealthy and he was exceedingly powerful, and the day came when his doctor told him that he was going to die. The wealthy man, having given orders all his life, continued to give orders. He said, “No, I am not going to die.” Then he rolled over and died. So it was with Dives, he died and was buried. I suppose that he was buried with suitable pomp and circumstance, but in the end he was just as dead as the beggar.
And when Dives opened his eyes, he was in Hell. What a change. How the mighty have fallen. From the highest place in this life to the lowest place in the next life. He went to the place where the souls of the wicked reside until the coming of the Lord. “The Westminster Confession of Faith says, “The souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day.” (32. 1)
Now this man who went to Hell was rich, but he did not go to hell because he was rich. It is no more sinful to be rich than to be poor. V25 shows us indirectly why Dives went to Hell. Abraham, speaking from heaven, said to Dives, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.” Let us say what good we can of Dives. He was not a wicked man in the common sense of that word. He was not a drunkard, nor a blasphemer, nor an adulterer, nor a murderer. It is probable that he was a Pharisee; and as such was, outwardly at least, religious. How then did he come into “the place of torment.”
The answer is found in the words “during your lifetime you received your good things.” In other words, Abraham says, the things you chose for your happiness, the things that you counted good, were the things of this world. You set your heart on the things of this world, and you had what you wanted. You never desired heaven; so you do not have heaven.
Now this is an important point. Jesus is teaching basic lessons here. We need to pay attention. Many people, perhaps most people, seem to think that to go to hell you must be really bad in some way. They think that Hell is for rapists and murderers, tyrants and oppressors. But then Jesus shocks us. As I said in the beginning, he is always doing that. He said that the only thing necessary for entrance into hell is simply never to give consideration to heaven. If you never think about God and salvation and never give a thought to your soul, then your ticket is punched and you are on your way to hell.
So rather than criticize Dives, we need to look to ourselves. We need to ask ourselves, are we so different from Dives and the rest of the world? The things that we enjoy most, are they the things of this world or the things of God?
Do not be misled in the matter of your eternal destiny by what people think. The whole point of Luke 16 is that the world honors its own and God honors his own. Look rather to your soul. Examine your soul. If your soul cleaves to the things of this world, then you cleave to dust and your destination is hell.
Dives went to hell not because he was bad, but because he worshipped the things of this world. You do not have to be rich to fall into that trap. Plenty of poor people think the same way. They may be poor but they long for riches. They spent their time thinking about wealth. They long to “feast sumptuously every day.” They long for worldly things and worship those things, and so they are no different from Dives. The only difference is that the rich man had what they want and they do not. The point is, you do not have to be rich to be a spiritual failure. Rich and poor alike can worship at the altar of mammon, and the destination of all who worship at that altar is hell.
Another reason that Dives was condemned was his failure to help Lazarus. Lazarus was obviously unable to help himself. He was covered with loathsome sores. We read also that he “lay” at the rich man’s gate. He was so weak that he could hardly move. Someone should have helped him, but no one did. It seems repulsive to us that the dogs came and licked his sores, but what Jesus was implying was that the dogs did what they could for him. The dogs had more compassion than Dives. That shows us the kind of person Dives was. He was so busy increasing his own wealth and power and prestige that he had no time for compassion, no time for love.
Heaven Sees Hell
So he dies and he goes to hell. Then, he lifted up his eyes and far off in the distance, he saw Abraham, “and Lazarus in his bosom.” This implies that we will know one another in the world to come. If Dives in hell knew Abraham and Lazarus in paradise, as far off as they were, certainly those who are together in paradise will perfectly know each other.
Now you might ask: How can someone in hell see people in heaven? Why not? Who knows how far a soul in hell or heaven can see? I have heard it said that part of the torment of hell is to know what we have missed. We look into heaven and see what could have been and know that it will never be.
The verse says that, Lazarus was in Abraham’s bosom. That is the old Hebrew way of saying that Lazarus was in the place of honor. In ancient times, when they had a party or feast, the guests did not sit in chairs. They lay on couches, each having a pillow at his left side on which he supported his elbow; and the place of honor was to the right of the host so that whoever sat on his right side was said to lie in his bosom. So when the scripture says that Lazarus lay in Abraham’s bosom, it is saying that he was in the highest place of honor and happiness. That is a hint of what heaven is like. Heaven is the best we can imagine. It is a place of absolute happiness and peace.
Wrong Person Wrong Time
But Dives was in a different place and v24 says that he cried out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me.” He made the right plea. This is the sinner’s plea. We must all ask for mercy. The problem with the plea is that he made it to the wrong person and at the wrong time.
He was asking the wrong person. Abraham could do nothing to help him. No creature, either in this life or the next, can save anyone from the bottomless pit. We do not have that power. Only Christ who rose from the dead has the power over heaven and hell. So, whoever would escape from the place of torment must ask the right person. They must ask Jesus.
But it was too late for Dives anyway. Had he lifted up his eyes to God and cried for mercy in this life, he surely would have been saved, but he did not. I suppose that he was like most people. He knew that he ought to do something about his relationship with God, and probably he intended to do something some day, but he put it off, until it was too late. The lesson is obvious. We should cry for mercy while there is yet time. We should seek Jesus here and now; otherwise, the day will come for us when we open our eyes upon the flames of hell.
Dives then moves on to another request. In v24, he says, “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” This seems like a small request, but Abraham cannot grant it, because no mercy can enter hell. That is a frightening thought. No mercy is available in hell.
V26 is even more frightening. Abraham says that he cannot send Lazarus to Hell because “between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” In other words, when we die, we go either to heaven or hell, and once we are in either of those places, we never go to the other place. Our choice is made here and now, and once we pass on from this life, the choice cannot be changed.
Then Dives says in v27, “I beg you to send Lazarus to my father's house.” Dives explains that he has five brothers and he wishes Lazarus to warn them so that they will not come to “this place of torment.” We see from this that Dives was not, as we have said already, a monster. He was just a man who never thought about the fate of his soul until it was too late. Now he knows it is too late for him, but he wants to do something for his brothers, who apparently are just like him.
It is strange to say it, but Dives in hell has a missionary message for us. Dives realized that now while we are in this life, is the accepted time to make a decision about heaven or hell. And now is the accepted time for us to present that choice to our friends and relatives. Now is the time to testify about the reality of hell and the blessedness of heaven. It is too late for our loved ones when they pass through the gates of death. Tell them about Jesus now while there is yet time, because soon enough there will be no more time.
But Abraham refused to send a Lazarus as a missionary to the brothers of Dives. In v29, Abraham said, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” Moses and the prophets was a way of referring to the Scripture. Abraham said, they have the Bible, let them read it.
Dives replies in v30, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Almost everyone would agree with that statement. Everyone would say that a message delivered from beyond the grave would have irresistible force. But would it? Suppose that God actually allowed something like that to happen. Suppose that a living sinner was asleep in his bed one night, and God sent back a dead relative to testify to him. The sinner wakes to a room shining with the glory of heaven, and a person who he knows to be dead is there, and this person says, “I have come from God with a message for you. The way you are living is the way of death. Change your life, believe in Christ, and you shall have eternal life.” Then having spoken these words, the messenger from the dead disappears and all the glory of heaven with him.
Now at first, this message would probably make a great impression, but then the sinner soon begins to doubt. He says, “Maybe I was only dreaming, or maybe I was hallucinating. Nothing like this ever happened to anybody else, and so surely nothing like this can happen to me.” He says, “I am a sensible man, a rational man, and I cannot explain this in a sensible, rational way, so it probably did not happen. Thus, in a matter of a few hours, the sinner would convince himself that nothing happened, and he would continue to live in sin, and continue on his way to hell.
The conclusion is found in v31, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." In other words, anyone who is going to be persuaded already has sufficient proof in the Bible to persuade them, and if that is not enough, then nothing will be enough. We have sufficient proof given us by God in his holy word. We know how to avoid hell. We know how to go to heaven. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall see heaven and you shall see God, but the time to believe is now. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 03/23/04