Luke continues to tell the scene as Jesus is teaching his disciples about using money to be friends of God. Jesus taught the disciples that everything we have is God’s and we are to be good managers of God’s wealth. The Pharisees were listening to Jesus’ teaching and ridiculed Jesus for teaching this message. But Luke tells us the reason why they ridiculed and rejected the message was not because the teaching was false, but because they loved money and this teaching cut them. Jesus turns to them and tells them that God knows their hearts and they cannot force their way into the kingdom of God. You cannot come to God on your terms. You do not enter his covenant on your terms. You enter on God’s terms, obeying what he has told you to do. Jesus is not teaching a new message, but the message that the Law and the Prophets taught for centuries. This leads us to Luke 16:19-31 where Jesus speaks about the rich man and Lazarus.
Actual or parable? The first debate that immediately occurs is whether the rich man and Lazarus are actual people or is this is only a parable. We need to make a couple observations about this question. First, Jesus does not say it is a parable. Luke has often introduced Jesus’ teachings with the words, “And he told them his parable.” But Luke does not always do this even though a parable is being spoken (cf. Luke 16:1). Second, if this is a parable, then this is the only time where the characters in the parable are given a name. This is a fairly compelling consideration. Why name the person if he did not exist? So there are some reasons to take this as an account of actual events. However, whichever way we understand this story does not change its impact or meaning. We must also consider that the phrasing is the same as Luke 16:1. Jesus begins in 16:19, “There was a rich man who” and Luke 16:1 begins, “There was a rich man who.” So it sounds like this is another parable of Jesus. Even if this is a parable, Jesus never told parables that were not grounded in the truth. Jesus never told fables or myths. Every parable he told has grounded in spiritual reality. This story is not a fantasy. Jesus is speaking about the eternal destination of two people and what they experience. The descriptions of the afterlife and its impact on these two people is true. One important proof of this point is to recognize that the point of Jesus’ teaching is not to tell everyone about what will happen after death. The point is noticing who was in each place, not what each place was like. Therefore, our lesson today will have two parts. This story gives us the most information about what happens when we die. Therefore, the first part of today’s lesson will look at what happens after death. In the second part of today’s lesson we will then examine the point of Jesus’ teaching — who is going to torment and who is going to comfort.
Hades: Paradise and Torment
Verse 23 describes the location where the rich man has gone as Hades. Hades was understood to be the realm of departed spirits. Lazarus dies and the rich man dies. Please notice that physical death is not the end of existence. There is something after death. Though the physical body died, Lazarus is with Abraham. Lazarus is described as being in Abraham’s bosom (vs. 22) being comforted (vs. 25). In the same way, though the rich man died and was buried, his existence was not over either. The rich man is described as being in torment (vs. 23) and in anguish (vs. 24, 25). When we die, we will either go to eternal comfort or go to eternal torment. There is not a waiting period or a sleep period. This fits what Jesus said to the criminal on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” At the moment of death, our spirits are sent to paradise and comfort or torment and anguish.
The other important observation to make about life after death is that there is no changing of the outcome. Notice in verse 26 that there is no switching between these two realms. Once one is in comfort, that person remains in eternal comfort. Once one is in torment, that person remains in eternal torment. Jesus ends the idea that you can suffer punishment for a definite period of time and then go to comfort. It also ends the idea that you suffer punishment for a definite period of time and then go out of existence. There is nothing in the scriptures to suggest or hint at the idea that hell is temporary or that a person pays for your sins and then your eternal existence ends or changes to be in eternal life. This idea comes from a false notion that we need to consider: none of us can pay for our sins. The reason we need Jesus is because we cannot make payment for our sins. If we could pay for our sins, we would not need Jesus. We could just go to torment, pay for our sins, then go to comfort. But this is false. We cannot pay for our sins. We are receiving what we deserve in torment and there is no end to that torment. You will not go out of existence. You will not later go to eternal comfort. There is no opportunity to cross over. Listen very carefully: there are no second chances. Your whole life is your opportunity to decide. Your whole life contains hundreds of thousands and millions of opportunities to repent and turn to God. Once we die, our opportunity has passed. Now let’s move to the point of Jesus’ teaching: who are those who will experience this torment and who will experience this comfort?
Wealth Poorly Used
This is an example of the teaching found in Luke 16:1-13. The rich man did not make friends with God so that he would be received into eternal dwellings. He used his wealth as if it were his own. Notice verse 19. This rich man has the expensive clothes and eats the best meals. He is living in luxury and comfort. In front of his very gate is a person who is covered in sores and would have been happy just to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. The rich man has all that he needs and Lazarus has nothing. What did the rich man do for Lazarus? What did he do to help him? Apparently absolutely nothing. He walked right by Lazarus, completely unconcerned.
Notice the eternal reversal in this story. While on the earth, the rich man had everything he needed and wanted. Lazarus had neither while on earth. Listen to Abraham’s words in verse 25. Now Lazarus is comforted and the rich man is anguish. This is an enormous reversal. The attitude in that day was if you had possessions and wealth that you were in God’s favor and would go to eternal comfort and life. However, the poor were supposed by the people to be sinners who would not find eternal comfort. Jesus turns the tables on this thinking. The poor and destitute may very well be people of God who will receive comfort eternally. Just because you are rich does not mean you are in the kingdom of God. Being in the kingdom of God is not determined by being rich or poor, but is determined by what you do with the wealth God has given you to manage. Wealth is not a barometer of one’s standing before God. One’s fate is determined by one’s mercy to others, not by physical lineage to Abraham. (Notice how the rich man calls Abraham, “Father Abraham.” Our actions determine our outcome, not lineage.)
The story is not about solving world hunger or ending poverty. So often we think about doing good for people we get caught into thinking about large scale action. We do not need to fund food back or work at soup kitchens. That is not the point of the story. The story is about the hunger of one man who sat on the rich man’s doorstep. The story is not about being part of some large scale answer the world’s economic troubles. The story is asking us what are we doing with our wealth toward the people right in front of our eyes. Is the wealth that we are managing completely consumed on ourselves? Or are we using the wealth God has given us to do good wherever and whenever possible?
Severity of Missing God’s Kingdom
Notice the severity of the judgment against the rich man. The imagery that Jesus uses tries to press into our hearts how awful it is to not belong to his kingdom when we die. Jesus describes what the rich man is experiencing as torment, anguish, needing mercy, and in anguish in this flame. It is an awful picture of suffering once we die.
The anguish is so great that the rich man does not want any of his family to join him. He begs for Abraham to send him back, not so that he can right his wrongs, but to warn his brothers to change their lives so they will not go to eternal punishment like him. Abraham makes it clear that we have all the information and evidence we need to make the proper decision. You have the word of God. You have revealed to you what will happen when you die. If you will not believe God’s word, then nothing is going to sway you. Nothing else can change your mind except listening to God’s word. It does not matter if someone rose from the dead, we will not believe. Now, I think we read that and think that we would change our minds if someone rose from the dead. But we are fooling ourselves and know that we would not believe because someone did rise from the dead. Jesus rose from the dead and yet people still do not believe. The evidence is weighty and hundreds of people saw Jesus rise from the dead. Yet people do not believe. We have been given God’s word and it tells us what happens after death. There are no other signs needed. There are no other signs or revelations that will come.
Not only is God begging you to repent before it is too late, but every family member, friend, and loved one you ever knew who died outside of Christ is begging you also. None of them want you to come with them. If they could come back and warn you, they would. But you have been given all you need to know and decide. There is not a single person who would want you to experience eternal punishment. It is not a happy thought. It is not something that we like to dwell on. We want to preach everyone into heaven. We ease our consciences by assuming that everyone is saved that we know and they are in heaven being comforted. But Luke has shown us through the teaching of Jesus that few will be saved and only those who are striving will enter. The dead are crying to you to listen to this warning and repent.