In the rich man and Lazarus parable, Jesus continues the lesson set forth in the parable of the Dishonest Steward (Luke 16:1–12) and that the use made of the opportunities of the present life determines future destiny (vs. 1, 4, 9, 11, 12). The rich man and Lazarus parable was addressed to the Pharisees in particular (Luke 15:2; 16:14). The Pharisees refused to accept Jesus’ teachings on stewardship and sneered at Him (v. 14). Jesus then pointed out that they might be honored by men, but that God read their evil hearts like an open book (v. 15).
Luke 16:19-31 contains the story of a rich man who lived a life of luxury. And outside the gate of this rich man’s house, there was a poor man named Lazarus who hoped “to eat what fell from the rich man’s table” (v. 21). The only comfort the beggar gets is from the dogs that lick his sores. The parable goes on to say that both died. Lazarus went to heaven, and the rich man went to hell. Appealing to “Father Abraham” in heaven, the rich man requested that Lazarus be sent to cool his tongue with a drop of water to lessen his “agony in this fire.” And, the rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn his brothers to repent so that they would never join him in hell. Abraham told the rich man that if his brothers did not believe in Scripture, neither would they believe a messenger, even if he came straight from heaven.
Many miss the point of this parable as they focus on its potential afterlife symbolism. But its real purpose was to show how important sharing the gospel really is. The Jewish nation had the Word of God, yet hoarded it amongst themselves, choosing instead to critique the Word and argue about it — all the while the world was lost around them, dying for the crumbs. The rich man, that resembled the Jewish nation, erred in thinking that salvation is based on Abrahamic descent rather than upon character (Eze. 18).
In this parable, Jesus was not discussing either the state of man in death or the time when rewards will be passed out; He was simply drawing a clear distinction between this life and the next and showing the relationship of each to the other. Therefore, to interpret this parable as teaching that men receive their rewards immediately at death clearly contradicts Jesus’ own declaration that “the Son of man shall … reward every man according to his works” when He “shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels” (Matt. 16:27; 25:31–41; 1 Cor. 15:51–55; 1 Thess. 4:16, 17; Rev. 22:12; etc.).
This parable is to be taken figuratively and not literally for the following reasons:
1. Abraham’s bosom is not heaven (Hebrews 11:8-10, 16).
2. People in hell can’t talk to those in heaven (Isaiah 65:17).
3. The dead are in their graves (Job 17:13; John 5:28, 29). The rich man was in bodily form with eyes, a tongue, etc., yet we know that the body does not go to hell at death. It is very obvious that the body remains in the grave, as the Bible says.
4. Men are rewarded at Christ’s second coming, not at death (Revelation 22:11, 12).
Parables cannot be taken literally. If we took parables literally, then we must believe that trees talk! (Judges 9:8-15.)
The point of the story is found in verse 31 of Luke 16, “‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’” And to prove this point, a few weeks after narrating this parable Jesus raised from the dead a man named Lazarus, as if in response to the challenge of the Jewish leaders for greater evidence than they had heretofore. But that very miracle led the leaders of the nation to plot harder against Jesus’ life (John 11:47–54). Not only so; they felt it necessary to do away with Lazarus in order to protect their evil stand (John 12:9, 10). The Jews thus gave a literal demonstration of the truth of Jesus’ statement here, that those who reject the OT would reject “greater” light, even the testimony of one who “rose from the dead.”
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In His service,
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