Luke 16:19-23 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.”
I need to say certain things about this passage by way of introduction:
i] The most loving person this world has ever known told this parable. For example, when they’d hammered nails through his hands and feet and suspended him from a cross with all his weight hanging on those nails, Jesus prayed for the men who did that, “Father forgive them; they know not what they do.” He loved his hurtful enemies as he loved his hurting self. He showed how much he loved every one of his people by becoming the sacrificial Lamb of God who would give his life in their place as atonement for their sins. What a kind and lovely man he was; his perfect goodness wasn’t a grumpy, sour strictness. Jesus often spoke of God’s reign in terms of a wonderful feast, and almost everywhere he went, people were inviting him to sit and eat with them. In fact, he was involved in so many parties and was the focus of so much happiness that some folks criticized him for not being stern and strict enough. There was laughter and softness where he was present. So his enemies said that Jesus had got the wrong kind of friends, and they were enjoying themselves far too much. That happiness did not suit the guardians of dour decency. But despite those complaints, Jesus kept making new friends who were constantly throwing parties for him. It was, I say, this gregarious, kind and loving man who said these words.
ii] It was this one who loves you today who once told this parable. He is the one who has so arranged your providence that at this very moment you happen to be hearing or reading these words. It is he who has caused this to occur because he personally cares about you. Maybe as you think of this you can begin to appreciate that he’s been the one who perhaps has made you agreeable to accept an invitation to go where Christians gather to worship. Or maybe no one else at all was involved; there was just a growing conviction in your heart that you should go where you could hear the word of God being preached (or visit this website). It was the Lord Jesus who, because he loved you, created that curiosity in your mind in order that you should know and understand him better. He has made you aware that your earlier ideas were a cobweb – perhaps the feeling you once had that this world was made by chance and that everyone has to choose their own meaning for life and do things their own way. You have now come to see that that is a great mistake, because you can see order and purpose and design and beauty simply everywhere, and that speaks to you of one living and glorious Creator. God has set eternity in your heart and increasingly you have longed to know who this God is. His love has homed in on you, and the result is that you are hearing or reading these words. The Lord Jesus, the very best of men, is showing his love for you at this very moment.
iii] This man who spoke these words is also Jehovah Jesus, the true Almighty God. The New Testament tells us that Jesus Christ already existed in the very beginning, and that he was God the Son. He is called God very directly by the writers of the Old and New Testaments. For example, the prophet Isaiah declared that the Messiah would come and his name would be called, “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). David in the Psalms addresses the Messiah, “Thy throne O God is for ever and ever” (Psa.45:6). John begins his gospel, “The Word was God,” and ends his gospel with Thomas saying to Jesus, “My Lord and my God.” Our Lord claims, “I and my Father are one.” Peter speaks of “the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1). Paul speaks of “our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). He tells the church in Rome of “Christ who is God over all, forever praised, Amen” (Roms. 9:5). He tells the Colossians about Christ, that “in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily” (Cols.2:9).
In other words I am telling you that the man speaking these words here in Luke 16 possesses by right all the names and titles of God. He is equal to God himself; he is Jehovah Jesus, Elohim Jesus, El Shaddai Jesus, Jesus Tzidkenu, that he has all the prerogatives of God, to create and sustain and save and resurrect and judge. He has all the authority and competence of God. Then we are told that he became flesh. In other words, the second person of the Godhead, the Son of God added flesh to his deity whilst not ceasing to be divine. It was a real addition and a real transformation. The Creator became created; the Omnipotent became weak; the Sustainer of all things became dependent; the Changeless changed; the Eternal one entered time and became subject to it. He became a true man begotten by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary, and hence having the larynx of a normal healthy man, with a man’s tongue and lips. He could form words, and breathe and speak in sentences with meaning, and communicate to his hearers and also to God exactly what he wanted to be heard. He had also been filled with the Holy Spirit as he began his ministry, and his Father said about him that he was well pleased with his Son. In other words, everything he said was endorsed with the additional authority of his Father and that of the Holy Spirit.
So these words of Jesus are inspired words, and true words, and powerful words, and they must be helpful words intended for us to understand and obey. All the authority of God lies behind Jesus’ words. To be ashamed of anything Jesus said is to forfeit any hope of God’s blessing on your life. The Lord Christ knows so much more than you and me. He knows his heavenly Father better; he knows the ugliness of sin better; he know what contentment without God deserves; he knows the state of the hearts of men; he knows what takes place after death; he knows everything about heaven and everything about hell. So whatever he says is worth weighing and taking on board. So we will try to explain, “What are the implications of these words of Jesus for me?” Those were my words of introduction.
IS IT NOT FOLLY TO GAIN THE WHOLE WORLD BUT LOSE YOUR OWN SOUL?
Our Saviour told this parable of two very different men, one who never achieved anything in life and yet went to heaven; another had everything this world could offer and yet went to hell. That is the theme of this story, and it majors on the fate of the wealthy man. We are told a bare minimum about the poor man. We are told his name. He was a man with an identity, a real man, not a symbolic man. It was a common enough name. The brother of Mary and Martha in John’s gospel, whom Jesus raised from the dead, also bore this same name, Lazarus. We are also told that he had to beg in order to survive. His pitch was outside a rich man’s house; he was so ill that he was covered in sores; he was so weak he could not drive off the dogs that came to him growling and licking his sores. But we are told that when he died angels came and escorted his soul to heaven to the side of Abraham. That is all we know today of the poor man. We are not told how he became poor and sick. We are not told how he became a believer in the Lord.
All that is incidental to the message that you all need to lay to your hearts, which is that it is possible for you in your lifetime to lose everything, your possessions and family and home and friends and health, living in the gutter, begging in order to survive, and yet when you die you may enter the glories of heaven for ever. You do not have to make it in the eyes of the world in order to live with God for evermore. That is what Jesus Christ the Son of God is saying. He turns the health and wealth gospel on its head. The beggar who possessed nothing went to heaven while the lottery winner went to hell. You may mock hell; you may believe this, that after death you are simply annihilated, that those who had nothing in life will get less than nothing in death. Once they had life at least, you see, but now they have non-existence. They have been snuffed out. Rich men, of course, will also be snuffed out but they, you believe, have at least been dressed in purple and fine linen and have lived in luxury every single day of their lives like the man Jesus spoke of (v.19). They have lacked nothing whatsoever. So the non-Christian message to those who will listen to them is to get all you can while you can because the day will soon come when you are left with less than nothing, not even having the memory of what you once had or once loved. You will simply cease to be. So in their judgment the rich man is to be our role model. Get as much as you can by any means you can because there is absolutely nothing when this life is over. That is what this rich man did and millions like him today. That philosophy lay behind the actions of the looters of last month. They were not all from the unemployed destitute underclass. There were university graduates and private school people who stole what they could because this is the only life there is and no judgment lies before us, so we will get as many toys as we can today, by any means.
The Son of God, in this parable of his, is telling us something very different, that a man who lacked for nothing in this life went to hell in the life to come. Now we are told specifically why he went there, and this is the reason for his condemnation, that though the word of God told him how he should live, and what he and all men must do to get to heaven, this millionaire had refused to listen to God’s word. Abraham in heaven tells the wealthy man in hell of the privilege that men possess when they have in their hands the Word of God – they have it in their community, and in their history, and in their hearing, but that privilege Mr. Rich Man had disdained. Abraham said to him, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them” (v.29). “Hear the Word of God!” He is saying. He refused to do this and so he ended his brief existence in this world by going to hell in the world to come. In fact the Lord Christ tells us clearly that this wealthy unbeliever spent his eternity in hell in torment (v.23), without God, because he had rejected the God of the Bible and lived only to please himself. He had gained the whole world but he had lost his own soul.
Our Lord was transparently clear in what he taught. He wanted everyone to know what was his message from God. He told this truth in the form of a parable in order to make its truthfulness more vivid bringing it to bear particularly on our emotions. Once C.H. Spurgeon was preaching on the words of our Lord in Matthew 8, verses 11 and 12, “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” and in the sermon Spurgeon quoted a minister who told his congregation, “If you do not love the Lord Jesus Christ you will be sent to that place which it is not polite to mention.” Then Spurgeon gives us his opinion of that preacher: “He ought not to have been allowed to preach again, I am sure, if he could not use plain words. Now, if I saw that house on fire over there, do you think I would stand and say, ‘I believe the operation of combustion is proceeding yonder’? No, I would call out, ‘Fire! Fire!’ and then everybody would know what I meant. So, if the Bible says, ‘the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ am I to stand here and mince the matter at all? God forbid. We must speak the truth as it is written. It is a terrible truth, for it says ‘the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside’ (C. H. Spurgeon, New Park Street Pulpit [Banner of Truth, 1963], vol.1 (1855), p.306.) What a misjudgment of catastrophic proportions, to gain the whole world but to lose your own soul.
WE ARE NOT MISREPRESENTING JESUS.
If Jesus got his beliefs about hell wrong then it is an error of immense proportions. It is either something that he believed but which we feel was false, or it is the most ugly of scare tactics. In other words, Jesus was frightening people through lies to turn and believe on him as Saviour. He was causing anguish to the whole human race, to everyone who witnesses a loved one dying and rejecting God, when in fact we are being encouraged to believe today that everybody is going to go to the same place when he dies irrespective of how he has lived and what he believes. The truth, our opponents believe, is the very opposite of what Jesus is saying here. So either Jesus himself got it colossally wrong and thus he is not infallible; you cannot rely on him utterly, and he is not God, or that Jesus knew that hell did not exist but still used the teaching to make people afraid in order to turn to him as their Saviour from a non-existent hell. If that were the case Jesus is unworthy of our trust as a deeply flawed man. So one of the foundations of Christology is the truthfulness of what Jesus said of hell.
You understand what I am saying? It is a dangerous thing to meddle with the theology of the Bible, to pick and mix what teachings of Jesus you are going to receive and which ones you are going to reject, because immediately you do that you have set yourself up over Christ. You are the Lord, and not him. You are the judge of him and not he of you. You’re claiming to be more loving than the incarnate love which is Christ. I am showing you that all the teachings of the Bible are inter-related and if you remove some of them the whole of the faith is affected. If you should cut out a portion of a ball like removing a slice of an orange then you do not have a different ball or a smaller ball. You no longer have a ball. If you should remove a square inch from the bottom of a rowing boat then you have not made a different boat or a slightly lighter boat but you have made that whole boat unusable. To deny one doctrine of Scripture is to imperil the rest. The theology of the Bible has been constructed like an arch in which all the great truths are key-stones. When you remove one truth then the remainder falls. If you mock and claim that Jesus is wrong, that men won’t perish, then you have taken something central from John 3 verse 16 which tells us that the giving of the Son of God was made by God the Father in order that men might not perish. Why should the Son of God have to die the accursed death of the cross if none is going to be lost in hell? Why the anathema, the agony and bloody sweat of God if all are going to get to heaven anyway?
Yet there are many who believe that. There are even many ministers in the professing church who believe that. There is a certain Klaas Hendrikse of Gorinchem in central Holland who does not even believe that there is life after death. Though his church services have readings and hymns his message is always, “Make the most of life on earth because it will probably be the only one you get.” His hero is not the beggar or even the Lord Jesus, but the rich man dressed in purple and fine linen and living in luxury every day. Way to go! How different is Jesus! Is there any way that this parable can be explained away so that it teaches something else, something diametrically opposite to its plain meaning? To discover that it is teaching that there is no hell? The great word today is ‘hermeneutics’ the right principle of biblical interpretation, knowing what is poetry and what is hyperbole and so on. I like good hermeneutics. My son-in-law teaches hermeneutics in a Bible school, but when I read these words of Jesus I do not find poetry!
i] Could there be any justification for the suggestion that this parable is a ‘one off’ on the lips of Jesus, that we can scarcely find another reference to hell in his teaching, and this parable was not written by him but an idiot thirty years later and God allowed it to be placed in the gospel? Is that true? There is no evidence for that at all. Could this parable merely be an extended hyperbole intended as a warning to the wealthy not to ignore their duty to the poor? I affirm that that is not the case. Jesus often spoke of the place of woe; he said, “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul, but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Again, he warned, “if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43&44). There were others of his parables besides the rich man and Lazarus where there are warnings of hell. The parable of the wheat and tares concludes like this: “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); and in the parable immediately following it, our Lord warns: “So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire” (Matt. 13:49&50). When Jesus spoke about the Day of Judgment and the great separation we read, “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Matt. 25:41).
Even in the gospel of John there is no escape from Jesus’ warnings. As he looks forward to the general resurrection of the dead, the Saviour declared, “the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation” (John 5:28&29). Once he answered people who had been disturbed by certain tragedies telling them plainly, “Except you repent, you shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3-5).
So there is no way that we can make this parable of the rich man and Lazarus some kind of one off, uncharacteristic of Jesus’ teaching as a whole, something out of keeping with the Sermon on the Mount and the profound discourses of John’s gospel. In his great prayer at the end of his life recorded in John 17 he speaks to his Father in heaven about his apostles and he says that, “they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them” (Jn. 17:6-8). So the Lord Jesus was convinced that everything he said was supported by all the authority of the God of truth, the mighty Creator of the heavens and the earth.
So, our Lord did not shrink from emphasizing hell in his ministry; in fact, he frequently used parables and vivid imagery and symbolism to convey to his listeners’ thinking and feelings a sense of its awfulness. What emphasis am I giving to hell in my ministry? How frequently have I preached on this subject? I fear that I have not spoken enough about it. I really do, to my shame. Is that because I have unconsciously felt that people would stop coming here if I preached what the Lord Jesus preached? Such thinking has emptied and destroyed the churches of Europe in the past century and a half. To refer to hell briefly or just occasionally, or to talk about it in vague terms, is inadequate, for there is much biblical material on hell and it must be preached if we are to declare the whole counsel of God. Am I seeking to do this, or do I shy away from preaching hell? Have you ever said to me, “It’s been quite some time pastor, since we all heard a sermon on the last things, judgment and hell. Don’t neglect this.” A congregation should say things like that to its pastor if it is true because sometimes a pastor can have a blind spot. Jesus spoke on hell to his disciples to strengthen their battle with remaining sin and with the seduction of the world.
Jesus never made jokes about hell. Our Lord preached this truth as all other truths with authority. There was nothing he needed to apologize for in turning to this theme, and nothing diffident, and nothing uncertain in his proclamation of judgment and hell. He doesn’t reminisce with his Father in heaven at this moment, and he’s not saying, “Abba Father, you know I just have one regret about my preaching in Galilee and Jerusalem, that I preached so much about hell. There was an imbalance in my ministry, and I am sorry about that.” No, there is nothing at all like that. Jesus was referring to something that needed to be spoken of with exactly the emphasis that he gave to the place of woe as true, certain and awful. Could it be said of me that I have been as straight with you all as Jesus was with us all? One verse that impacted John Bunyan’s preaching ministry is found in Revelation 21 and the fifth verse. He was rather diffident in his preaching; there was an element of authority absent from his preaching, and then he read these words in Revelation 21, “he that sat upon the throne said . . .” Bunyan was made more aware than earlier that the message he had been given to speak to men came from the throne of the universe so that he was never mealy-mouthed in his preaching subsequently but clear and forceful and authoritative. I must be like Bunyan. You must know this passage of Scripture before us in Luke 16, how important it is, and what is your duty to respond to it.
ii] Could there be justification for the claim that in this parable Jesus is contradicting his own exhortation that we should not judge others lest we be judged ourselves? It is in the Sermon on the Mount that Christ says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matt.7:1). That is true, but our Lord is speaking there of dismissive judgments, and derisory judgments, and censorious judgments, and self-righteous judgments that are all so ugly. But he is not dismissing the need of evaluation, and assessment, and thoughtfulness; he is not commending gullibility. He himself in the Sermon on the Mount warns us to watch out for false prophets, for wolves in sheep’s clothing. Make judgments, Jesus is pleading. At the end of history our Lord shall return. We don’t know just how or when he will come. But we do know he is coming. We also know two things that will happen. One will be the resurrection of our bodies. The other will be the last judgment. The resurrection will not be in order for men to go on behaving in cruelty and deceit just as they behaved during their lifetimes. They will be raised in order to be judged for the deeds they themselves have done in their bodies.
What is a judgment? A judgment is a settled conclusion that a thing is good or bad, or that an act is right or wrong. In some cases, as we know, persons themselves are judged to be right or wrong, good or bad, guilty or innocent. Of course, we think at once of courts. A man or woman wearing a robe enters a courtroom and mounts the bench, this person, when no jury is present, makes judgments of guilt or innocence. He has the power to find you guilty of driving a car without insurance, or of looting a shop, or abusing your wife. Other people make judgments too. A doctor makes a judgment about your health. Teachers judge whether your mathematics answer is right or wrong or whether your performance in your history finals is worthy of a first class honours degree. Eisteddfod judges determine who played an instrument best or which choir sang most sympathetically and sweetly, what poem was considered worthy of obtaining a chair or a crown. Umpires judge whether a batsman was ‘L.B.W.’, leg before wicket.
You yourself make judgments every day. You judge safe distances on a bike. You judge whether clothing fits you or whether it’s appropriate for a wedding or funeral. You determine what books and music are pleasant and which friends are best. A judgment is a determination, or an assessment of some action or object or person. We deal with judgments all the time.
The trouble is that human judgments are flawed. Sometimes they are plainly wrong or even wicked. More often they are partly slanted by our own prejudices. Most courtroom judges, for example, are honest and wise, but a few can be bribed to help criminals go scot free. Most teachers are skillful and caring, but a poor teacher might have it in for you just because he or she didn’t like your father the preacher. Eisteddfod judges can be prejudiced. Referees sometimes need a visit to an optician. You and I will make wrong judgments about distances, clothing, friends, books, and music.
The Bible says that as we live in a moral universe, a cosmos which lives and moves and has its being in God its Creator and Sustainer, and as all men and women are made in the image and likeness of God then at the end of history there has to be a perfect judgment, a last judgment, a final judgment. All those who are then raised from the dead, plus those who are still alive at the second coming—billions of people—will be judged. The killer and the torturer and the rapist and the tyrant are not going to get away with what they have done. They will be sinners in the hands of an angry God. The judges in that day will be Jesus Christ and God the Father. The God of the universe and the King of history will judge. This time there will be no slip-ups, no bribes, no prejudices, no slanted judgments. All the facts will be brought into consideration. There is no way anyone can bluff his way into heaven. The richest person in the world cannot influence God by his money or rank. The most charming of men can’t hoodwink Jesus Christ. In that final, perfect judgment the loose ends of the world will be tied up and both the friends and the enemies of Jesus Christ will be exposed. The sheer truth of all history will be publicly revealed.
The Bible makes one thing clear: all people will stand before God having received good things personally from him during their lifetime (v.25). They will stand before him as debtors to his kindness and patience. They will stand before him having had the Word of God in some form and to some extent; the heavens will have been declaring to them the glory of God each day; their consciences will have been bearing witnessing to them each day; many of them will know of Jesus Christ and his love. Have they listened to the voice of God in creation and in conscience and in Moses and the prophets? Was there thoughtfulness towards a man in need who lived on the pavement outside their front door? Or has there been half-heartedness, selfishness, meanness, cruelty, and dishonesty? It will all count for evil, especially when done to the least, the poorest, the most vulnerable. Of course, we are not going to be saved by our good works. We are saved by grace and through faith in what Jesus Christ has done for guilty sinners. But we are to be evaluated according to works. For works are the evidence of our faith. What we believe shows itself in our priorities and actions through our lives. People sometimes have more faith than they think they have. Their works show this, and sometimes people have less faith than they think. Their lack of works shows this. In other words, we acknowledge that we expect surprises at the last judgment. So there is no reason to think that in this parable Jesus is repudiating what he said in the Sermon on the Mount not to dismiss and condemn people in some self-righteous way.
Let me close: I once asked Professor John Murray how long he had known his wife Valerie before he married her. He hung his head and said quietly, “To my shame, thirteen years.” He felt the guilt of neglecting Valerie and robbing them both of the joy they might have had in marrying many years earlier. I am saying to you that you should not neglect so great salvation in so great a Saviour. Professor Murray had developed a side-step when he talked with every woman that he might not compromise her or himself, and that became automatic and thoughtless, to his hurt. So it is with you and the salvation that is in Christ. There is the Bible but you side-step it. There is the testimony of those who love you and would see you saved, but you unthinkingly side-step it. There is the preaching of Jesus Christ in the free offer of the gospel, but you automatically side step it. There is the issue of your soul and the God you must meet so soon, and you thoughtlessly side step it. There are my warnings of hell, and you side step them without a shrug as my opinion because you’ve always done it. Your attitudes have become actions, and your actions have become habits, and your habits have become your character. You need to be born again – born from above. Please consider and think of what Jesus Christ said. What will it profit a man if he gain the whole world and loses his own soul and loses it in a place like hell?
Justice will stand before you one day as you approach the throne of God. The Father will say to the Son, “Here is another who spurned a father’s prayers and hardened himself against a mother’s tears. He had no desire for Moses and the prophets.” Now what is the future of this man? Not the hope of annihilation – as fearful as that is. Imagine that the best you can experience is non-existence, but that is not for you. It is to become a companion of the rich man for ever, to be where he is. I say that only if what Jesus Christ says is true. I have no other grounds for making a statement like this unless Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life and that no man comes to the Father’s heart and love except by what the Lamb of God has done for us. This is what God the Son has said. And so let us not neglect what we have heard this day. Let us lay these truths to our hearts. Let us cry mightily to God that he will enable us to believe them, and to appropriate Jesus Christ the deliverer from hell as our great deliverer. Let us give God no rest until we know that we are safe. How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? One day the day of grace will be over and you, unprotected, and without a Mediator, you must face your neglected Creator. Please be ready. Please find this Christ who is willing and able to save you as your Saviour today and receive him into your heart as your eternal Lord. There was once a Welsh woman who was very poor but she had true wisdom, for she said again and again to anyone who would listen to her, “Jesus and I exactly suit one another, for I have nothing and he has everything.” Lazarus had nothing; but Lazarus had it all from Christ. The rich man had once had everything for a brief life, but now the rich man has worse than nothing for ever.
4th September 2011 GEOFF THOMAS