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“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. 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 receivest 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. Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house: for I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead”—Luke 16:19-31.
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Before considering this solemn story concerning which there has been so much controversy, particularly in recent years because of the revolt against the doctrine of eternal punishment, let me suggest two considerations which it is well to keep in mind. First, He who related this incident was the tenderest, gentlest, most gracious Man who ever trod this earth. Certainly He never would have attempted to portray human suffering beyond the grave unless He knew and wished to impress upon His hearers the awfulness of living and dying without God. If there were any possibility that men might live in their sins and yet find peace and blessing in another world, He would have made it known. The impression left upon everyone of His hearers who listened thoughtfully to what He had to say must have been the same as that which is stressed in the Epistle to the Hebrews (10:31): “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” The second consideration I would present is this: We have no reason whatever to look upon this story as an imaginary incident which had no foundation in fact. The question has been often raised as to whether it is a parable or not. If by parable we are thinking of a fictitious tale to illustrate some moral or spiritual lesson, I believe we are right in saying that it is not a parable. On the other hand, if we think of any incident used to illustrate truth as parabolic, then it is perfectly right to speak of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
In what is probably the earliest book of the Bible, that of Job, the question is raised (14:10), “Man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he?” Apart from divine revelation there can be no satisfactory answer to this inquiry. The human mind cannot pierce the veil and tell us whether or not there be personal consciousness in other worlds than this; but in the incident here recorded He who had come from the Father’s house into this world of sin in order to redeem mankind, draws aside, as it were, the heavy-curtain that hides the unseen realms from view and shows us plainly what takes place after death for both the righteous and the unrighteous.
Once more, as on other occasions recorded in this Gospel, Jesus uses the expression, “There was a certain rich man.” Was there, or was there not? He definitely declared that there was. He did not introduce the story by saying, “Hear a parable,” as on some other occasions; neither did He say, “The kingdom is as if there were a certain rich man and a poor beggar,” or some similar language. But in the clearest, most definite way He declared, “There was a certain rich man.” If any of His hearers had inquired the name of the man and of the town in which he lived, dare we doubt our Lord’s ability to have answered both questions definitely? He knew this man; He knew how he had lived; He knew what took place after he died. We do not know his name and never shall know it until he stands before the great white throne. Ordinarily we call him Dives, but Dives is not a name; it is simply the Latin equivalent of the Greek for “rich man.” Yet this unnamed man stands out on the pages of Holy Scripture as a distinct personality, the representative of many others who live for self and ignore the two great commandments which inculcate love to God and love to man. He was “clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day.” He enjoyed the best that earth could give and had no interest in the things of eternity.
Next we are told that “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.” This poor beggar is mentioned by name because the Good Shepherd “calleth His own sheep by name.” In spite of his wretched circumstances, Lazarus (which means “God is my help”) was a man of faith, a true son of Abraham. Had conditions been right in Israel no son of Abraham would have been found in such a plight, but Lazarus was suffering because he was part of a nation that had drifted far from God and had forfeited all right to claim His temporal mercies, mercies which were promised to the nation if obedient to the divine law. Apparently the rich man felt no concern whatever for this poor beggar who was daily brought to his gate by friends or relatives with the hope that Lazarus might receive sufficient alms to nourish him and prolong his life. He seems to have been passed by with contemptuous indifference. The dogs showed more concern for him than his own kind who thought only of gratifying their selfish desires.
But at last a great change came. The beggar died and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom. Possibly Dives and his associates did not even hear of the death of this man. We have no record of a funeral service. The poor, wretched, starved body was thrown, perhaps into the continual fires burning in the valley of Hinnom, or left to be devoured by hyenas or jackals; or if there were someone who was sufficiently interested to give it a burial it must have been of the simplest possible character. And yet as we look beyond the veil, enabled to do so by our Lord’s words, we see a convoy of angels waiting to conduct the spirit of this erstwhile poverty-stricken wretch into the bosom of Abraham, the father of the faithful. It is distinctly a New Testament revelation that when believers die now they depart to be with Christ which is far better; but before the cross the highest hope of the godly Hebrew was to be welcomed by Abraham, with whom the covenant had been made, into an abode of bliss. We should not make the mistake of thinking of Abraham’s bosom as the name of a locality in Hades. The locality was paradise. Abraham’s bosom was the bosom of Abraham. In other words, Abraham, a living person, even though his body was long since dead, welcomed to that abode of happiness this child of faith when he moved out of his afflicted body.
We are not told how soon after the death of Lazarus the rich man also died, but it could not have been very long. We read that he “was buried.” That, in itself, is significant. Undoubtedly he had a great funeral service with many hired mourners and every possible honor paid to the lifeless clay that had once housed his selfish spirit, but while the funeral service was being held on earth, he himself, the real man, was in hell enduring the torments of the damned.
I know that many today will object to this. Some will cry out, “Stop a moment. The word translated hell there does not refer to the final abode of the lost which is really Gehenna,” and we grant that. They insist that Hades does not convey any thought of judgment to come. But let us read the passage again and use the Greek word and see how it sounds. “The rich man also died, and was buried: and in Hades he lift up his eyes, being in torments.” Observe that “torments” was not done away with by changing the word from English to Greek. Others insist that Hades, after all, does not mean the “world of the lost”; it simply means “the grave,” and should be so translated. While we do not for a moment accept this view, let us read it that way and see if it helps us to escape the apparent teaching of the story: “The rich man also died, and was buried: And in the grave he lift up his eyes, being in torments.” Notice that the torment is still there even though we have changed the word so drastically. Was the man buried alive that he suffered torments in the grave? No; we are told he died, and after he died, in another world than this, he suffered torments.
Next we learn two remarkable things: First, that spirits out of the body are perfectly conscious and able to converse one with another. Second, that there is recognition in the unseen world. There is recognition of the redeemed in paradise by the lost who are in hell, even though between the two there is a great gulf fixed.
As we pursue the story we see that the separation which takes place in the hour of death remains for all eternity. Dives looked up in his torment and saw Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom. That lost man looked into paradise and there he beheld what he had missed. He saw what would have been his if only he had given God His rightful place in his life: he saw the one who had lived as a neglected beggar at his gate, now enjoying a bliss which he himself would never know. In his distress he began to pray. Think of that—a praying man in hell! But the trouble is he began to pray on the wrong side of the tomb. While on earth he felt no need of prayer; he lived his own self-centered life in utter indifference to the claims of God and man. But in eternity he began to pray when prayer was useless. He did not ask for much at first, simply a drop of cold water on the tip of the beggar’s finger, but even that was denied him. He used the language of the physical although it was spiritual thirst—a thirst which he never would have known if he had availed himself of the offer to drink of the living water while he was on earth. Now it was too late. Abraham, to whom the prayer was addressed, replied, “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.” Son, remember! What a terrible thing memory will be for the unsaved: to remember throughout all eternity every sin committed and unrepented of, and therefore unforgiven; to remember every opportunity to get right with God which had been carelessly passed by; to remember every gospel message one has ever heard and yet refused to believe. Memory will be indeed as the worm that dieth not, tormenting the soul forever.
Abraham’s words show that one might have on earth everything the heart could desire and have nothing for eternity. On the other hand, one might seem to have nothing on earth to minister to his need and comfort, and yet have everything for the world to come.
Then the words that follow tell us of the impossibility of any change throughout the ages to come. “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.” A great gulf fixed! The separation of the saved and the lost is final when one has passed through the gate of death into worlds unseen. Here is the death-blow to universalism. Naturally we would like to believe that there is some way by which those who have died without repenting of their iniquities, might be cleansed from their sins, even after ages of suffering, and enjoy the beatific vision, but the gulf is impassable. The saved can never lose their blessing and fall into perdition; the lost can never attain to blessing and enjoy salvation.
Hopeless of any alleviation of his own misery, the rich man suddenly became missionary-minded. Pitifully he pleaded for his five brothers still on earth and begged that Lazarus might be sent to them from the dead to warn them, so that they might not come to that same place of torment. We have heard unsaved people flippantly exclaim at times, “Well, if I am lost I shall have plenty of company in hell.” We have no suggestion here of anything like that. This man does not desire company; he does not want his most intimate relatives to be there. It gives us some conception of the awful loneliness of hell. Even if one should be conscious of the nearness of those whom he had known on earth it would only add to his wretchedness.
Think of the family to which this man belonged: there were six brothers, one was in hell and five were on the way! Yet for all of them Christ had come to die. They need not have been lost if they had been ready to receive the message of grace.
This second prayer, like the former, had to go unanswered. Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” That is to say, they have God’s Word; they have their Bibles; let them read the Word; let them heed what they find therein, and they will never know the meaning of a lost eternity. But if they refuse the Word then not even a man coming back from the dead could persuade them to repentance. Dives reasons otherwise. He exclaimed, “Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.” The answer comes back sternly in the negative, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” The man who refuses to heed the clear, definite instruction of the Holy Scriptures would never believe though one came to him asserting that he had been on the other side of the tomb and had returned to warn him to flee from the wrath to come.
Surely no thoughtful person can read this story seriously without realizing that our Lord Jesus meant us to understand that if we die in our sins, if we go out of this world loving the things which pod hates and hating the things which God loves, we must be separated from Him forever.
But now another consideration ere we close this message. If this story be only a parable, as some tell us, what is it meant to teach? The answer given by materialists of different groups who deny the consciousness of man after death and refuse the doctrine of eternal retribution for sin, is ordinarily something like this: The rich man, we are told, pictures the Jewish people who in centuries gone by enjoyed all the blessings of God and kept them selfishly to themselves; the poor man, despite his Jewish name, represents the Gentiles who were strangers to the covenants of promise but lay, as it were, outside the door of the favored Jew. A new dispensation is represented by their death. Now it is the Gentile who is in the place of privilege, even in Abraham’s bosom, having become an heir to the promises to which before he had no claim. The Jew is the outcast now, and has been suffering all down through the centuries because of the sins of his fathers. At first this seems plausible enough, but now let us go a step further. This .outcast Jew and this highly privileged Gentile—are they separated by a gulf that cannot be passed? Is it true that the Jew cannot come from his present place of suffering into the privileges of Christianity? Is it also true that the favored Gentile cannot refuse the grace of God in Christ and go over, if he will, to the place in which the Jew himself is found? Surely not. No such gulf has ever been fixed on earth. Any Jew may accept Christ and enter into all the blessedness of gospel light and privilege; and any Gentile who refuses the grace of God passes over to the place in which the unsaved Jew is found under the judgment of God.
The only legitimate deduction therefore is that our Lord related this incident to bring clearly before us the importance of being right with God in this world in order that we might enjoy His favor in the world to come.