Jason Helopoulos / Feb 19, 2017 / Luke 16:19-31
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Sermon Summary / Transcript
If you will grab your Bibles, turn to Luke 16:19-31. I’ve preached through a number of parables this year, so I thought we would tackle one more today.
Let’s pray before we read God’s word. Heavenly Father, we’re thankful for this day that you have made. We’re thankful that this day we have your word to speak into our ears and the recesses of our hearts. We’re thankful that you have not left us alone, but have instead chosen to reveal yourself to us. Especially this morning, as we look at what is in many ways a hard passage, we pray that you would plant your word deeply within our hearts, that we might see the beauty of your grace in our lives and leave this place worshiping you more. Truly, we have more than enough reason to do so. In Christ’s holy name we pray, amen.
“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” Luke 16:19-31
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. Isaiah 40:8
Thanks be to God. Amen.
In my freshman year of college, I wrestled with the Christian faith. I was devouring the Bible, reading as much of it as I could and trying understand it. I remember that this passage fascinated me as I read it. As I read it now, I still understand why it gripped me so much. It’s unique, isn’t it? It’s graphic, picturesque, emotional, and intense. It’s full of irony, and it’s quite a strong teaching. And it leaves one with an unavoidable question at the end, doesn’t it?
There’s a lot of debate about these few verses. The biggest is over whether this is a parable or an actual historical event. That is: Were Lazarus and this rich man real people, and is this an account from history? Or, was this just an illustrative story, meant to press home some principles about the afterlife? I’ll confess that I’ve wrestled with this over the years. In seminary, I sat under someone who is considered one of the world’s great authorities on the Gospel of Luke. This was my one burning question for him as I sat in his class: “What about this passage? Is it a parable, or is it history?”
He swayed me to his perspective, which is a third way. The passage begins with “There was a rich man…” This is similar to how Jesus began his other parables. It’s something like me saying, “Once upon a time…” When you hear that, you think, “Most likely, what Jason is going to tell us isn’t a historical story.” Since Jesus is using parabolic language at the beginning, it’s probable that this is not a real, historical account.
Yet it’s also more than a parable. I’m led to that conclusion because this parable is unique, in that it’s the only parable where Jesus actually gives a name to one of the people in it: Lazarus. That was a very common name at this time, so it doesn’t appear to refer to the Lazarus of resurrection fame. Yet, Christ names the man Lazarus. Why? I think it’s to bring out the reality of the story, and undergird its facts. This is also the only account that we have in Scripture of those in torment telling us their thoughts and feelings after death, which gives us insight into what people actually experience there.
Therefore, I think it’s helpful to consider this passage (as my seminary professor said) as an example story. That is, it’s not a single historical event, but a representative event that pictures what it’s like after death. This means that, on the one hand, we have to be careful to not press this parable too much on its details and say, “Well, this is what it must be exactly like”—like the dialogue between people in torment in Hades and people at Abraham’s side in Heaven. But on the other hand, we have to say that Christ is articulating themes and principles that we must understand about the afterlife through this example story. It’s a fine line to navigate.
There are three principal things that Christ is especially highlighting here, which I want to look at this morning: first, consider your life; second, consider your death; and third, embrace the testimony.
Consider Your Life
The parable begins with a great contrast. There’s a rich man who is quite rich. He is clothed in finery. He has purple clothes (purple being the most expensive kind of dye at the time), and we’re told that they’re made of fine linen. He is dressed outwardly in the best of things. He is rich in his wardrobe.
He feasted as well. Jesus declares the extravagance of this man’s living by using the words “sumptuously every day” in verse 19. You’d have to be pretty rich to feast sumptuously every day.
It appears that he also owned a house large enough to have a gate in front. Just like today, if you live in a gated community, it usually means that there’s a good bit of wealth behind that gate. He’s a Beverly Hills living, Ferrari driving, tuxedo wearing, steak and lobster dinner eating Jew. He’s living it up. He has it all.
Then Jesus introduces us to someone on the other end of the spectrum: “ a poor man named Lazarus…” This man was most likely lame, since he was laid at the gate, which is a passive term. He doesn’t eat sumptuously every day, but instead lays at this gate, begging for a few crumbs from the rich man’s table. He’s not clothed with wonderful clothing, but rather with sores. I mean, rags would have been bad enough, but he has sores all over his body.
What are these sores? I’m glad you asked. They’re probably not leprosy, because he couldn’t have been begging in public if he was leprous. They were most likely ulcers—festering, pus-oozing ulcers all over his skin. That appears to be the case, because adds insult to injury here: “ Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.” There must have been something to lick. This sentence is not meant to comfort—like, “Oh, at least Lazarus had Fido to play with out at the gate.” No, dogs were the pigs of the ancient world. This was not a good thing. In fact, it would have made him more unclean in Jewish eyes. There is truly no more pitiful scene.
The contrast is strikingly painted in the most vivid of pictures. A man of extreme poverty is begging for a few crumbs from this rich man, who lives lavishly every day—and the rich man pays no heed. He has no concern for this beggar. In fact, he has no concern for anyone but himself. He’s caught up in his own enjoyment, and can’t be bothered.
Jesus, at the outset, is making it clear that we need to consider our own lives. Our living needs scrutiny and examination. The rich man doesn’t live this way. He’s just going about his day. It’s easy to do, isn’t it? We get busy with our work, our families, our duties, our chores, our recreations, and our playthings, and we get distracted—distracted by the world, and by the immediate. It just takes over, and we live for it. The devastating thing is that the rich man will lose everything—even his very life!—for lack of considering this.
Let’s be clear: he isn’t condemned in the verses to follow for being rich. Wealth doesn’t damn a person. It’s not inherently evil. I think of a comment by Spurgeon that I read some time ago in one of his sermon’s (though I haven’t been able to find it since), where he said, “When you walk through a neighborhood with large houses, don’t sigh to yourself and shake your head.” That’s a good reminder: there’s not sin in wealth, but there is sin in envy. The rich are not condemned for being rich. That isn’t what this man needed to examine.
The context is helpful here. It seems clear that Jesus told this parable for the benefit of the Pharisees. Look back at verse 10, where Jesus is closing the Parable of The Dishonest Manager, and he says,
“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” Luke 16:10
Then, drop down to verse 13:
“No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all of these things, and they ridiculed him. Luke 16:13-14
Jesus was rebuking these Pharisees for their greed, their idolatry of money and wealth, their selfishness, and ultimately for their lack of love towards God and towards others. He is reminding them that there is a great judgment that comes for such living. They were ignoring the testimony of the Scriptures by forsaking God and others, and simply seeking to please themselves.
The rich man is enjoying himself. There’s nothing wrong with a good meal. There’s nothing wrong with nice clothes, in moderation. The problem is that he’s living for that. It has taken over his life. Riches are not ultimately the problem. His callous, idolatrous, self-seeking, rich living is.
And he didn’t see it! It is an easy trap to fall into. Some of you have never examined your lives. Well, Jesus throws out this example to us: “Here is one man who worshiped wealth and lost everything, and another who trusted in the Lord and gained everything.” He’s saying that that’s the difference between a life distracted by the things of the world and one that’s lived in light of eternity.
Here’s the question: have you examined your life? Have you inquired into the state of your own soul? It would almost seem funny if it wasn’t so eternally serious. Some of us will go months, years, and even lifetimes without examining our lives—never asking ourselves, “What do I live for? What do I truly value? What has gripped my life over the last week, month, or year? Ultimately, what will be the final destination of my soul?”
Yet, if a lawsuit was brought against you, you would go to your lawyer and ask, “What’s the likely outcome of this lawsuit?” If you were being charged in a courtroom of law and the death penalty was on the table, you would plead with your lawyer and be very anxious. You would want to know, “What is the likely outcome here? Am I going to die or not?”
If we’re sick, we go physicians and inquire what our prognosis is: “Am I going to get well?” If you were going into surgery, you would pull your surgeon aside (if it’s an invasive surgery) and say, “What are my chances here? What’s the outcome going to be?” You would inquire!
Yet some of us think little to nothing of our eternal souls! We leave them without any inquiry, questioning, or searching, not thinking at all about our eternal destination. Why? Because we’re simply living in the moment. We’re distracted. Eternity is not in view, and the awful truth is that we will lose everything because of it.
Consider Your Death
Christ’s example is clear: everyone dies, and arrives at their destination—and it is fixed. You must consider death. Everyone dies. It’s not a matter of if, but when. All must face it. All will suffer it. Some of you will graduate from college, have kids, retire, and even get to see the second Cubs World Championship in your lifetime! But all of you will die. Humans have a 100% mortality rate. Unless the Lord Jesus returns in our time, you will die.
It doesn’t matter if you’re young, old, poor, or rich—death comes. It’s a great equalizer, isn’t it? It puts us all in the same plane. There’s nothing else really like it. It unites us all and strips us bare. We can’t use our influence, power, positions, or riches to avoid it. It comes. The rich man died, even as Lazarus did. He could spare himself from some of the trials of this world, but he could not protect himself from death.
When it comes, our destination is immediate. Notice what Jesus says:
“The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment…” Luke 16:22
There is no in-between holding ground. There’s not a hair’s breadth between “he died” and “he went” for both of them. When they die, they go. As Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “…today you will be with me in paradise.”
It’s not only immediate, but also fixed. Death seals our fate. There is no purgatory or second chance. There is no further opportunity. You see this in the text. There is a great reversal: the beggar dies, and his despair ends. The rich man dies, and his feasting ends. The beggar dies and enters joy and the rich man dies and enters anguish. It is immediate and fixed.
The destinations could not be more drastically different. As good as heaven is is as awful as hell is. The rich man’s purple clothes and delicious food did not separate him as far from Lazarus, at his gate with sores on his body, as this eternal separation does now. It’s a diametric opposite.
Jesus says in verse 22 that “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.” There is great comfort here. In the moment that the Christian dies, his or her soul is immediately ushered by angels into Abraham’s presence—Abraham being the great man of faith in the Scriptures. This represents how, when the Christian dies, they go to be with all those who have Christ as their Savior and God as their Father—those who the world is not worthy of. They are dwelling with the best of people.
Not all of those who died are in a place of great comfort, as Jesus says in verse 24. But how Lazarus needed comfort. He had suffered all of his life, had nothing, and experienced anguish day after day. Now Jesus says, “He’s just receiving comfort.” The shepherd makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters. He restores our soul.
We could call Abraham’s side “heaven”. It’s heaven because Christ is there, but it’s not the eternal Heaven, since God will remake the heavens and the earth. We see that picture in Revelation 21, as Heaven truly descends upon Earth, they become one, and God makes his home among us here forever. Yet we can call it heaven, because that is where Christ is, though it is not that final Heaven. It is where Christ is, where the angels are singing before his throne, and where he is comforting his people. We are the objects of his comfort throughout all of eternity.
Notice that when Christians die, we do not enter some kind of soul sleep. Neither are we extinguished, or are we bodiless souls wandering the universe. We’re not homeless, in some state of discontent until our bodies are raised from the grave. We’re at rest with Christ, experiencing life in the full and lacking nothing. What Lazarus enjoys in heaven makes the rich man’s fare on earth seem like piddlings. He goes from having nothing to having absolutely everything, because he has Christ. As Paul said, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” It’s a far better country.
This is a good text, Christian, to remind you that you need not fear death. Christians should not fear death. I don’t fear death. I fear dying—what the process of dying will be like, and what I’ll have to go through—but I don’t fear death, because I know what awaits me. We shall be with Christ. He promises something far better.
Notice that the rich man’s fate was also immediate and fixed upon death. He knows that nothing can be done to change his destination, so he pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers before they die, that they might repent (verse 30). He knows that when they die, their fate is sealed. They have made their decision in this life, and oh! how this rich man regrets his own decision. He is conscious of his eternal, damned state. Simply living for self in the world has damned him.
That is one of the great anguishes of damnation: that men will remember. Abraham tells the rich man in verse 25: “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things…” How there is torment in remembering. Like Esau, he traded an inheritance—the riches of glory!—for a mere carnal appetite. It has been said that hell is nothing more than truth known too late, and the rich man doesn’t deny it. Living in the world and trusting riches instead of Christ has led him to Hades.
Let’s see if we can make a little sense of the term “hades”. It’s a Greek word that’s often used in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) to translate the Hebrew word “sheol”. Sheol is the place where all people go when they die, and Hades is often used to translate that and bring forward that idea. But it’s often used in the New Testament to reference the place of torment. In that way, it is a synonym for “gehenna”, or Hell, which are used even more often in the New Testament to speak of the place of final judgment. Hades is sometimes used as a term to speak of where you go when you die, whoever you are, but it’s also used (as Jesus is doing here) to speak of the place of judgment and torment that the wicked go to. Similarly, Abraham’s side is used to speak of heaven—that is, not the final heaven, but heaven with Christ. As Abraham’s side has all the characteristics of heaven, so Hades has all the characteristics of hell.
As much as some may wish to argue that the wicked are annihilated (and some pretty prominent theologians over the years have tried to make that case), it just isn’t biblically defensible. From the Garden of Eden, when Satan whispered in Eve’s ear, “You shall surely not die,” that’s always been a lie that people try to propagate: “There’s no such place as Hell.” I was reading a theologian this week who was arguing against the existence of Hell. At least he was honest. He said, “It’s just too hard to accept.” He revealed his hand, and I give him credit for that. “Emotionally, it’s just too hard to accept Hell.” Hell should distress us. It should grieve us that some will suffer the anguish of hell, which Jesus articulates in this passage and many others. But while it may not be our desire, human opinions and desires do not change God’s plans. The Scriptures are clear: there is an awful, conscious, eternal, irreversible torment of the wicked at death. The greatest crime in the universe—rebellion against God—is met with the greatest punishment in the universe, and it is truly awful.
The rich man is in torment, Jesus says. It’s conscious anguish. I’m not sure how that works, since he’s not embodied. His body is still in the grave—and yet, even as Lazarus can experience the joy and happiness of heaven as a disembodied soul, so the rich man experiences the pain of the flames and heat without a body. And he knows that he can’t escape it. There is a great chasm which separates the godly from the ungodly. It’s eternal, and there is no crossing over. So he doesn’t ask to be set free. Did you notice that? He knows that this is his eternal state. Instead, he just asks for a little relief: a drop of water from a finger, that his tongue might be cooled just for a moment.
I was thinking this week that if we spent but one hour in eternal glory, I bet we would take pains every day of this life to make sure that we would enjoy it in the end. We would think about it every moment of every day. Conversely, if we experienced for but one minute the torments of the wicked as Jesus describes here in verse 23, would we not be willing to sacrifice all to avoid suffering that fate for all of eternity? Our minds would be on it continually, every day.
Most people in this world eat, drink, and live as if this is all that there is, but the Christian knows differently. We live with eternity in view, considering our lives and deaths. As one theologian said, “He that would live will should often think of his last day and make it his company keeper.” We must live in light of dying every day, because if you don’t, you get distracted and all will be lost.
Sin promised the rich man much, but he forsook much in the end. That’s the irony. He appears to have much, but that’s sin’s lie. In reality, it’s trying to steal everything away from him. The Christian lives differently. We have a heart set on eternity and on God, and that informs our living. As Jesus says in another passage, “They will know you by your love for one another.” Those who love God will be marked by loving others, especially the least among us—the poor, the sojourners, the disreputable, the marginalized, and the suffering. Self does not dominate our hearts, but rather love. Again, the parable isn’t against the rich, but against the self-seeking and self-absorbed. The kingdom ethic is sacrificial love, and that dominates the lives of the godly.
Embrace the Testimony
You will only live this kind of life and have this eternal blessing if you embrace the testimony. The rich man cannot get relief, and can’t change his circumstances. The time of grace has passed him by. So he pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers, “that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” He doesn’t want them to experience what he is enduring, so he asks that Lazarus be sent to them. But Abraham responds, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” That is, “They have the word of God, and that’s enough. They need nothing else.”
Now the rich man understands why he is in torment. He says that “if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He knows that he is there because he lived in sin and refused to repent and believe. He knows that these are the conditions: not a perfect life, poverty, good works, but repentance and belief.
“Abraham, please! Just send Lazarus back to my five brothers! If they see a man come back from the dead, they will repent and believe!” Abraham says, “No. They have the Scriptures. They have all that’s necessary for them to believe. Nothing more is needed.”
Many of you know the first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
The second question then builds on the first:
Q2. What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?
A. The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.
It’s the only rule. It’s authoritative and sufficient.
The rich man wants Lazarus to come back from the dead to testify to his brothers. He wants there to be a sign. If his brothers see a man back from the dead, surely they will believe! But his thinking is faulty. He’s deluded in thinking that there’s something greater, more effective, and more significant than the word of God—something that will cause his brothers to believe more than just hearing the truth. That’s just wrong. God’s revelation of himself in his authoritative word is sufficient. “ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Sin came through the ear in the garden with a lying whisper, and the God-breathed word goes through the ear and converts the heart. It’s the same organ.
This is why this church, by God’s grace, must always stand upon the Word and preach the Word. It’s not empirical evidence, as one commentator said, that stops people from believing. Their will does. Only faith yields understanding. History proves that miracles will not convince anyone to believe. Ironically, there was another man named Lazarus who rose from the grave, and the Jews still didn’t believe. In fact, they wanted to put him to death in order to silence him. Even more so, the Lord Jesus Christ rose from the grave and the Jews still didn’t believe! The testimony we have been given must be embraced. You have all you need to repent and believe.
I had a conversation just recently with somebody along these lines. They said, “I don’t know what will happen to me in death. But I know that God is good, and I’ll just trust that what happens happens. I don’t know that I need to repent and have faith. I’ll just trust God.” That’s like pulling into a four-way intersection in your car, lifting your hand off the wheel, flooring the pedal, thinking nothing at all of the stop lights, and just saying, “I’m going trust God on whether I get through. On my way to work today, at every four-way intersection, I’m just going to go through and trust God. If I’m supposed to get through it, I’ll get through it.” That’s not trusting in God. That’s not trusting in the means that he has given and appointed.
Listen to his word and testimony. Listen to the prophets, the apostles, and ultimately Christ Jesus himself. They all testify that we must place our faith in him and trust him. We must turn to this Savior who died for sinners and was raised from the grave, or we lose everything.
The story ends with irony, doesn’t it? As readers of this parable, we hear the testimony from the grave which the brothers of the rich man were prevented from hearing. In this way, the parable demands that we make a choice in hearing the testimony. We are hearing a voice from the grave that’s giving us a warning. Will we consider our lives? Will we consider our deaths? Will we embrace this testimony, and live a life of faith and repentance that loves God and others? Or will we live for this world? Will we be distracted by piddlings and simply seek self? All the while, we hear this testimony from the grave that if we live in such a manner, we’re giving up eternal blessings. It’s a question that the parable leaves before us, and it’s one that we must answer. Frankly, it’s one that we’re even now answering with our lives. Examine your life. Examine death. Consider them both. Embrace the testimony of the Scriptures.
Let’s pray. Our Lord and our God, we’re thankful that you did not leave us destitute in this world of darkness, but that you have shown the light of your word, and that we have firm truth to stand upon. We know where truth lies. We pray, oh Lord, that you would reveal that truth to our hearts and minds where it is absent, that we might live in light of eternity, with our eyes set on glory, and that we might be those who love you with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves. In Christ’s holy name we pray, amen.
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