The Rich Man and Lazarus
Many people quote the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus the Beggar to support the traditional teaching that the righteous go to heaven at death and the wicked go to a place of eternal torment. One must admit, the story does show a judgment in graphic detail. It is no wonder that after hearing a 'hell-fire' sermon based on this parable, vast numbers of people are scared into a religious life. But, does this story support such a belief?
In the Abramic covenants, God promised great, irrevocable blessings to Abraham and his descendants. The Jewish civil and religious leaders of Jesus' day understood the magnitude of these promises. They also understood that when the Messiah came, he would establish a kingdom that would rule the earth and give Abraham and his descendants their inheritance. An analysis of the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus shows that this story is just one of the many warnings Jesus gave to the Jewish leaders of his day. These men who were supposed to lead the people into righteousness were themselves examples of unrighteousness. Jesus warned them many times that they would lose their inheritance, as well as their lives if they did not repent of their evil ways.
"And there was a certain rich man, and he was accustomed to wearing a purple robe and fine linen, making merry in luxury day by day" (Lk.16:19 Para.).
A Dual Meaning
The meaning of this story can easily be viewed from two perspectives: It can be viewed as a reprimand for the failure of national Israel to perform their national covenant with God or as a reprimand for the failure of the religious and civil leaders to perform their duties before God.
The nation of Israel and their descendants were chosen by God to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation to God (Ex.19:6) through which he would bless the entire world (Gen.18:18; 22:18). And as a reward for performing this task, they would receive great physical blessings (Deut. 28:1-14; 30:16).
The Rich Man
The Rich Man is depicted as a son of Abraham (Luke 16:24;25). Such sonship made him a legal heir to Abraham's inheritance. Moreover, he had the great material blessings which were promised to Abraham's descendants.
The Rich Man wore purple, which is symbolic of kingship and a sign that the Davidic or Messianic Kingdom was his. Therefore, he represented both national Israel and Judah who should have been spiritually dressed in kingly robes. The Rich Man also wore linen, which is symbolic of the priesthood and righteousness. Moreover, he enjoyed the riches of the earth (Rev.19:8; Deut.28:1-14; Gal.3:8-9; Acts 3:25-26).
The Rich Man also represents the religious and civil leadership of the Jews who, by virtue of their offices (i.e., temple service, religious duties, and civil functions), lived in luxury compared to the common person.
"And there was a certain poor one named Lazarus, who had been laid at the porch, being plagued by sores, and longing to be filled from the crumbs that were falling from the table of the rich one. But even the dogs coming licked his sores" (Lk.16:20-21 Para.).
Lazarus is the English translation of the Hebrew word Eliezer, which means God has helped. Of the eleven different Eliezer's in the Old Testament, the only one who fits the lesson of the story is the Gentile, Eliezer of Damascus, who was the chief steward of Abraham. Once this simple connection is made it is possible to interpret the real meaning of the story.
The Lazarus of the story represents Abraham's faithful steward Eliezer. Although he had been the legal heir of Abraham's possessions (Gen.15:1-3), he was disinherited at the birth of Isaac. He no longer had a claim to any of Abraham's inheritance: "To him [Isaac] has he [Abraham] given all that he has" (Gen.24:36). Likewise, Lazarus the beggar possessed nothing of earthly value. The desire to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the Rich Man's table was also a typical image of Gentiles during Christ's time. To the Jews of Jesus' time, the Gentiles were 'dogs' who were unworthy of any special consideration. See Matt. 15:21-29; Mk.7:27-29.
Jesus could have chosen a laborer, a tax collector, or any other class of individual to compare with the Rich Man, but he chose a common beggar with diseased flesh, which was one of the lowest and most repugnant of Jewish society in the eyes of these sanctimonious leaders.
In the beginning of the story, Jesus mentions the Rich Man first because of his position and wealth, but eventually he reverses the order and begins to give honor to the beggar by mentioning him first.
"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" (Lk.16.22 KJV).
The beggar Lazarus is the one carried to the bosom of Abraham, but the Rich Man is left behind and buried in the grave. In the story, Lazarus lives alongside the Rich Man. He is sick, hungry, and destitute, but something must have changed before his death, because it is he who gains the prize of eternal life, but the Rich Man loses everything, including eternal life.
This is not what the Jewish leaders would have expected. Moreover, it would not have met with their sanctimonious view of righteous standards. Here, Jesus begins to show these leaders their true spiritual condition and the consequences of their behavior if they would not repent:
"Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called "uncircumcised" by those who call themselves "the circumcision" (that done in the body by the hands of men)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ" (Eph.2:11-13 NIV). See also Rom.10:19,11:11.
In The Bosom of Abraham
Many people believe that the phrase Bosom of Abraham is analogous to heaven, but is it? The word 'bosom' is a reference to a close, intimate relationship, as noted in Numbers 11:11-12, Isaiah 40:11, and John 1:18. The Jews knew that a close relationship with Abraham assured them of God's love, protection, and a share in the blessings and inheritance which were promised to Abraham.
This principle applies to the elect of God, whether or not they are Israelites or Gentiles. The apostle Paul said, "And if you be Christ's, then are you Abraham's seed [children], and heirs according to the promise" (Gal.3:29 KJV) See also v.7; Gen.12:5-7, 13:15, 15:18, Acts 7:1-5, Rom.4:13; Heb.9:15)
Did Lazarus go to Heaven?
The ancient Israelites believed that everyone who died—the righteous as well as sinners— went to sheol and were there together. However, over time the word sheol (the realm of the dead) had undergone a considerable modification in meaning. The belief that sheol was separated into two divisions became popular. These two divisions were Abraham's Bosom, where the righteous were and the lower part of sheol, which was separated from Abraham's Bosom by a great ravine. The lower part of sheol was believed to be a prison for all of the wicked.
The Jewish belief was that the Bosom of Abraham was the place in sheol where the true children of Abraham would be taken by angels after their death. This may be the belief that Jesus referred to in his story.
In this story, Jesus never says that Lazarus went to heaven. However, he does say that Lazarus was carried away to the Bosom of Abraham by angels. This is important, because the only references to the righteous being collected by angels is in an end time context at the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead.
The Righteous Gathered
"Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other" (Matt.24:29-31 KJV). See also Isa.43:5-7, Mk.13:24-27, 14:62; Rev.1:7.
At the return of Christ, the angels will gather the resurrected saints who will receive many of their rewards and inheritance at that time. This must be the logical time setting of Lazarus being gathered to Abraham's Bosom, because the scriptures support the timing of such an event. However, this is not the time setting in which the Rich Man will open his eyes and see Lazarus enjoying his reward and inheritance. The Rich Man will awake from death at a different time for a different purpose.
Is Abraham in Heaven?
Abraham is not in heaven. According to Jesus, Peter, and the writer to the Hebrews, he is still dead in his grave.
"And no man has ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man . . ." (Jn.3:13 KJV).
Here, John is quoting what Jesus told Nicodemus. Did Jesus make a mistake? Remember that Abraham had been dead for a long time when Jesus was on earth (Jn.8:51-53).
"Men and brethren, let me freely speak to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulcher is with us to this day. . .. For David is not ascended into the heavens" (Acts 2:29;34 KJV).
Here, Peter merely confirms what Jesus and the writers of the Old Testament taught about the state of the dead.
The writer to the Hebrews notes a long list of righteous individuals who died without receiving God's promises.
"Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection" (Heb.11:33-35 KJV).
"And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect" (Heb.11: 39-40 KJV). See also v13.
The simple truth is that these champions of the faith—Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets and the righteous of all ages—are dead, not alive in heaven or any other place.
It is clear that Jesus did not portray Lazarus going directly to heaven at death to be with Abraham, because Abraham is still dead (Psa.6:4-5; 146:3-4; Ecc.9:5-6;10; Jn.8:52-53). Moreover; Lazarus could not have inherited the promises before Abraham did (1.Thes.4:13-17; 1.Cor.15: 51-54). Jesus is clearly speaking of future events in which there will be a judgment of the righteous and the unrighteous.
The Rich Man Was Buried
"The rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell [Greek: hades, the grave] he lifted up his eyes, being in torments, and sees Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom" (Lk.16:22-23 KJV).
Those who teach that the righteous go to heaven at death and that the wicked go to eternal punishment often point to Luke 16: 22-23 as proof of their teaching. However, this is not the meaning Jesus intended, nor is it the point that Jesus was making to these religious leaders.
It is important to note that Luke did not use the word gehenna (the place where garbage is destroyed by fire) when quoting what Jesus said in this story. Jesus often used the word gehenna when referring to the fiery destruction of the wicked. The word hades refers to the same place as the Hebrew word sheol (i.e., the realm of the dead, a hole in the ground, a pit or grave). Neither the Greek word 'hades' nor the Hebrew word 'sheol' indicate a place of fire or torment. Hades (i.e., the grave) is the same place where Jesus was buried, the same place where his body lay after his death, and the same place from which he was raised to life. See Acts 2:27,31; Psa.16:9-10.
In this story, the Rich Man died and was buried in the grave where he will stay until he is brought back to life to be sentenced for his sinful life.
Most of the Jews of Jesus' time believed that, by virtue of being Abraham's descendants, they were assured the blessings and inheritance which God had promised Abraham. They were under the false assumption that Abraham's righteousness was ascribed to them by birthright. However, this is definitely not what the God of Israel taught through his servants.
The Jewish concept of a hierarchical relationship of man with God would have placed Abraham at the very top. Jesus uses this relationship to warn these leaders of their error in looking to Abraham for their salvation and that they should obey the teachings of the servants of God:
"They answered him, We are Abraham's seed, and we have been in slavery to no one, never! How do you say you will become free? Jesus answered them, Truly, truly I say to you, Everyone practicing sin is a slave of sin. . .. I know that you are Abraham's seed, but you seek to kill me because my word has no place in you. They
answered and said to him, Abraham is our father. Jesus said to them, if you were Abraham's children, you would do the works of Abraham" (Jn.8:33-39 Para.). See also Rom.4:1-3.
"But when he [John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said to them, O generation of vipers, who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say to you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham" (Matt.3:7-9 KJV).
The Resurrection to Death
The Bible speaks of several different resurrections of the dead. And each has its own unique time and purpose in God's plan for humanity. The first general resurrection of the dead is clearly the one in which the beggar would participate (Rev.20:4-6). The resurrection in which the Rich Man would participate is the resurrection to death (Rev.20:11-15; 21:7-8):
"And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which stands for the children of your people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time your people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book. And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Dan.12:1-2 KJV).
"Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, to the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, to the resurrection of damnation" (Jn.5:28-29 KJV).
The tragic situation we find here is that the Rich Man who is a descendant of Abraham has failed in his responsibilities before God; therefore, he will not obtain the blessings and inheritance promised to Abraham and his descendants. Instead, he will suffer the punishment of death for his failure to obey the laws of God. See Mal.4:1-3; Lk.13: 25-29.
"And calling he said, Father Abraham, have pity on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am suffering in this flame" (Lk.16:24 Para.).
There is no doubt that this pictures the Rich Man being tormented by fire; however, is his suffering going to continue for eternity? There is no proof or indication of eternal punishment for the unrighteous.
In this story, the Rich Man awakes from death to find himself immersed in fire and he cries out for help because he is in excruciating pain, because his flesh is being consumed by fire. At this point, he remembers the teachings of God's way of life, which he did not heed. He knows that he is about to die forever just as the prophets foretold (Dan.12:2; Mal.4:1-3).
Jesus said the following about the fate of the wicked:
"The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth" (Matt.13:41-42 KJV). See also Lk.13:28.
The fire that the wicked will find themselves cast into when God purifies his kingdom is not a fire of eternal torture, but a fire of destruction. This fire will destroy all impurity and wickedness from God's kingdom. See 2.Pet.3:10-13.
A Sin of Omission
"But Abraham said, Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and you are tormented" (Lk.16:25 KJV).
Verse 25 is a stinging rebuke and indictment upon the wealthy religious leadership of Jesus' time. The Creator God gave Israel many instructions about their responsibilities to be a righteous example in caring for the poor and teaching his truth. However, as history documents, Israel as a whole did not follow God's instructions. It was and still is the leadership's responsibility to promote God's way of life to his people. The following scriptures show what the proper treatment and attitude toward the poor should be:
"He that has pity upon the poor lends to the lord; and that which he has given will he [God] pay him again." (Pro.19:17 KJV).
Speaking of the qualities of a righteous man, the Psalmist said:
"He is ever merciful, and lends; and his seed is blessed" (Psa.37:26 KJV).
"A good man shows favor, and lends: he will guide his affairs with discretion" (Psa.112:5 KJV).
Luke cites another condemnation of the religious leaders for not having compassion on the poor, sick, and needy:
"And taking it up, Jesus said, A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, who both stripped him and laid on wounds, going away, they left him, being half-dead. But by a coincidence, a certain priest went down on that road; and seeing him, he passed on the opposite side. And in the same way a Levite, also being at the place, coming and seeing him, he passed on the opposite side. But a certain Samaritan came upon him, he was filled with pity. And coming near, he bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. And putting him on his own animal, he brought him to an inn, and cared for him. And going forth on the next day, taking out two denarii, he gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, Care for him, and whatever more you spend, I on my return will repay to you. Who then, of these three seems to you to have become a neighbor to the one having fallen among the robbers? and he said, The one having done the deed of mercy with him. Then Jesus said to him Go, and you do likewise" (Lk.10:30-37 Para.). See also Lk.14:12-14.
The beggar, Lazarus, lay sick and hungry outside the gates of the Rich Man's house and he needed to be helped out of his sickness and poverty, but the Rich Man ignored this need against the express instructions of God.
The purpose of this story was not lost on these unrighteous leaders; they knew the laws of God and that Jesus depicted them as insensitive and derelict in their duty to serve his people.
The Great Gulf of Separation
"And beside all these things, a great chasm has been fixed between us, and you, so that those desiring to pass from here to you are not able, nor can they pass from there to us" (Lk.16:26 Para.).
There will be a chasm or separation made between the righteous and the unrighteous in the day of judgment.
"Do not marvel at this, for the hour is coming in which all that are in the tombs will hear his voice. And they will come out, the ones having done good, into the resurrection of life; and the ones having practiced evil into a resurrection of judgment" (Jn.5:28-29 Para.). See also Dan.12:2; Heb.9:27; 2.Pet.2:9; 2.Thes.1:5-9.
"Again the kingdom of heaven is compared to a drag net thrown into the sea, and gathering together of every kind; which when it was filled, drawing it up on the shore and sitting down, they gathered the good into containers, and they threw out the rotten. So it will be in the end of the age: The angels go out and will separate the wicked from the midst of the righteous; and will throw them into the furnace of fire; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt.13:49-50 KJV).
"And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire" (Rev.20:14-15 KJV).
Under the terms and conditions of both the Old and New Covenants, those who live righteously in obedience to God's laws are granted eternal life in the Kingdom of God (Matt.25:31-34). Moreover, the disobedient and the unrighteous who cannot be written into the Book of Life must be destroyed because of their wickedness and unwillingness to obey God's law (Matt.25:41-46).
Only the righteous will be granted eternal life (1.Cor.15:50-55) and only the righteous will inherit the Kingdom of God (Matt.25:31-34). But, the unrighteous will be punished with eternal death for their wickedness. See Matt.25:41-46; Mal.4:1-3; Rev.20:14-15; 21:8.
The great gulf separates life from death and once a person has chosen death, they cannot have eternal life.
Throughout the Bible, there are many examples of God's great mercy toward those who repent and the finality of judgment for those who will not:
"Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his ways and live: turn you, turn you from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?" (Ezk..33:11 KJV).
Ezekiel, chapter 33, shows the concern God has for Israel and the finality of the punishment of the wicked. See also 2.Pet.2:1-22; 1.Cor. 6:9.
"Then he said, I pray you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father's house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify to them, lest they also come into this place of torment" (Lk:16:27-28 KJV).
Knowing his fate is sealed, the Rich Man shows concern for his loved ones. He does not want them to make the same mistake that he has. However, they are also in the same spiritual condition as the Rich Man.
There were six religious sects of the Jews at the time of Christ: the Essenes, Nazarites, Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, and Zealots. The Pharisees were the ones to whom Jesus was addressing this admonition. It does not take much imagination to see that the Rich Man's five brothers are analogous to the other five religious sects of the house of Judah.
"Abraham said to him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, No, father Abraham: but if one went to them from the dead, they will repent" (Lk.16:29-30 KJV).
Always Seeking a Sign
The leaders and the people of Jesus' day were always seeking a sign from Jesus to prove his authority (Matt.12:38-42, Mk.8:11-12; Lk.11: 16,30-31). They were also well versed in the history of Israel, which documented resurrections of the dead at the hands of the Prophets. And many of these leaders had heard that Jesus had resurrected the dead. But as great as it was, the witness of one raised from the dead was small in comparison to the witness, miracles, and teaching of the servants whom God had sent to Israel.
"And he said to him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead" (Lk.16:31 KJV).
Apparently, none of the prophet's teachings, warnings, or the awesome events of Israel's history made much of an impression on the arrogant religious intellectuals and their followers; they were not persuaded to repent of their rebellion against God.
It seems also that, in this story, Jesus foretells his resurrection, which these people would also reject as a witness. However, the story may have been referring to the resurrection of Lazarus, which angered those religious leaders. Moreover, they rejected Jesus' miracles and the resurrection of Martha and Mary's brother Lazarus.
"Then the chief priest and the Pharisees assembled a Sanhedrin, and said, What are we going to do, for this man does many miracles. If we let him alone, all will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away from us both the place and the nation. . . ..
Then from that day they took counsel how that they might kill him" (Jn.11:47-48, 53 Para.).
"Then a great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there. And they did not come because of Jesus alone, but that they also might see Lazarus whom he raised from the dead. But the chief priest took council that they also might put Lazarus to death because through him many of the Jews went away and believed in Jesus" (Jn.12:9-11 Para.).
Did these religious leaders forsake their false teachings and repent of their sin after Jesus rose from the dead? The Bible records that many of the priests (Acts 6:7) became obedient to the faith. However, not many of the other religious leaders were persuaded to repent by Christ's teachings, miracles, or the dramatic events surrounding his resurrection.
Throughout the history of Israel, God has sent his righteous leaders, prophets, and servants to teach, admonish, and warn Israel. But, to no avail. They importuned Israel to repent and obey God and they warned of the punishment that would follow if obedience was not forthcoming. However, the civil and religious leaders of Israel killed and slandered most who were sent to them by God instead of heeding their warnings
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one killing the prophets and stoning those who have been sent to her. How often would I have gathered your children together, in the way a bird gathers her chicks from under her wings! And you would not desire it" (Matt.23:37 Para.).
Nothing in the story of the Rich Man and the Beggar suggest, that the righteous go directly to heaven at death, nor does it prove the existence of an ever burning place of punishment for the wicked. It was a reprimand and a warning for religious leaders of Jesus' time to repent. Prophetically it is a warning for the religious leaders of both the House of Israel and the House of Judah of today to repent.
What is very evident is that Jesus constantly taught repentance and a return to the teachings of the Patriarchs, servants, and prophets of God. This story is an analogy of the vast difference between the rewards of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked.
"From the time the master of the house shall have risen up, and he shuts the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us, even answering he will say to you, I do not Know you. From where are you? Then you will begin to say, we ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in the streets. And he will say, I tell you, I do not know you, from where are you. Stand back from me, all workers of unrighteousness. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, but yourselves being thrust out. And they will come from the east and west, and from north and south, and will recline in the kingdom of God" (Lk.13:25-29 Para.).
Luke who was the companion of Paul the apostle to the Gentiles is the only one of the Gospel writers to record the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. This fact indicates that the story concerns Gentiles and their ability to participate in the inheritance of the promises to Abraham.
The following are explanations of the symbols, figures, and events in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus:
- The Rich Man is the House of Judah and the religious leadership of the day.
- Lazarus is Eliezer, Abraham's steward of Genesis, chapter 15, and Eliezer the Gentile of Damascus—a proselyte of the gate.
- Lazarus, the disinherited steward, became a beggar "who ate the crumbs of the table", but remained faithful to Abraham and God.
- When Lazarus' earthly life was over, he received Abraham's inheritance because of his faithfulness.
- The Rich Man represented the descendants of Abraham (Judah and the religious leaders, which Lazarus (Eliezer) was not).
- The Rich Man (Judah) had a purple robe, which is symbolic of royalty, and he wore fine linen, which is symbolic of the priesthood.
- The Rich Man (the religious leaders) is not a righteous steward of the Abramic blessings.
- Although the Rich Man and his brothers (Judah and the religious leaders) are given the oracles of God, they do not accept the witness of Christ resurrected from the dead.
- The great chasm separates eternal life from final and permanent death.
All the symbolism of the story fits perfectly to reveal profound teachings. The story of the Rich Man and the Beggar is just a storyCan analogy of faithful and unfaithful stewardship.
Although Judah was a legal heir of Abraham's blessings (both spiritual and physical), its religious leaders had been unfaithful in their responsibilities. Therefore, they would find themselves completely disinherited. The story also shows that the Gentiles are now legal heirs of the promises of the Abramic covenant and salvation.
The great lesson of this story is that the physical inheritance through Abraham is nothing without the spiritual redemption which Jews and Gentiles can have through Christ.
By B.L. Cocherell b7w13