Text: “Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. 20 “And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, 21 and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. 22 “Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. 23 “In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 “And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ 25 “But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 ‘And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ 27 “And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house — 28 for I have five brothers — in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 “But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 “But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ 31 “But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.'” (Luke 16:19-31 NASU)
In order to understand a passage of Scripture, it is necessary to get the immediate context. This text is part of a long section of Scripture where the Lord is talking directly to the Pharisees.
Luke 11:37-16:18—the section preceding the story of Lazarus and the rich man:
These almost five chapters are exclusively addressed to the self-righteous, haughty Pharisees who think they know the way to heaven. Jesus says they are hypocrites, that they are distorting the Scriptures for their own ends, that they are responsible for misleading others, that they have no fear of God, that they are divorced from God and they will not make it to heaven. However, He says, in contrast, those who are outcast, scorned by the Pharisees, humble and repentant will be received into heaven joyously. Details are available in Appendix I.
Luke 17:1-18:30—the section immediately following the story of Lazarus:
This entire section (up to Luke 18:31 which is addressed to the twelve disciples) is addressed specifically to the Pharisees. It must have really made them furious. He said they were leading people astray, they were unforgiving, they were ungrateful to God, they didn’t acknowledge God, they had no fear of judgment, they had no humility and they were much more interested in worldly possessions than in God. Details are available in Appendix II.
Since four-and-a-half chapters before the story of Lazarus, and almost two chapters after the story of Lazarus are addressed to the Pharisees, it seems certain that this story is directed at them also. If so, what is it telling them?
Jesus is a fabulous story-teller. This is His primary way of communicating. He uses everyday events and situations with which his hearers are intimately familiar so they can relate to His stories. In these few chapters, He talks about barns, rich men, stewards, current events (Galileans killed, towers falling), lost sheep, lost coins, towers built, kings and armies, mustard seeds, leaven, healing, eating, money, slavery, divorce, judges, praying in the Temple, children, and possessions. Since the Pharisees believed in the resurrection, it is logical for Him to use a story with which they could relate, even if He didn’t fully approve of its doctrine. Remember he also used examples of unjust judges, slavery, armies, misuse of money, divorce, etc, without approving of them. The thrust of the message is more important than the details of the story. In modern terms we might say that the letter is more important than the envelope. Let’s not get overly involved with examining the envelope and totally miss its content. So, what is the message of this story? Let’s answer that question then see how the envelope serves that purpose.
Clearly the main teaching of this story is condemnation aimed at the Pharisees for being rich in this world but poor in the next. It shows that the ones who were rejected and scorned by the self-important Pharisees are actually the more important souls in the sight of God. It speaks to the need for repentance1 since there will be a time of judgment and/or reward. It also is prophetic about Jesus’ resurrection that “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.”2 This same statement is accusing the Pharisees of not even listening to Moses and the Prophets.3
As we have just demonstrated from the context and the content of the story, the message of this parable is directed at the Pharisees and their false righteousness and their need of repentance.
But what about the details of the story? What can we learn from them? What are they teaching about life after death?
As the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says in its article on Hades,
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) should not be used as a definitive statement about the afterlife, since parables were told to illustrate a point, not to give a systematic account of any doctrine. Thus Jesus intended not to describe Hades, but to warn His listeners about their hardheartedness.4
First of all let’s examine the Greek word that is translated “Hades” in the New Testament. It occurs four times in the Gospels5 and each time it is spoken about by Christ. Unfortunately, the King James Version incorrectly translates it as “Hell” which has distorted the meaning severely and prejudiced getting an accurate understanding of the word.
The word “Hades” also occurs twice in Acts6 and four times in Revelation7. Unfortunately, the King James translation again consistently makes the same mistake and translates the word as “Hell,” thus loading the word with unnecessary connotations.
“Hades” is equivalent to the Old Testament Hebrew word “Sheol” which means the temporary resting place of the dead, both righteous and unrighteous. “Sheol” occurs 66 times in the Old Testament and is invariably translated in the Septuagint (LXX) as “Hades.”
Again the translators of the King James Version of the Bible made a similar error in the Old Testament and frequently rendered the word in English as “hell” or “the grave” or “the pit” whereas the true meaning is:
“the netherworld or the underground cavern to which all buried dead go. Often incorrectly translated ‘hell’ in the KJV, ‘sheol’ was not understood to be a place of punishment, but simply the ultimate resting place of all mankind.”8
They rest there until the final judgment.
King James of England firmly believed in Hell.9 Since he was the king, it behooved the translators the use the word “hell” if they wanted to please the king and keep their heads.
Similarly, it was very much to the benefit of the Roman Catholic Church to propagate and expand the concept of Purgatory and Hell in order to retain power over the laity and to sell indulgences, both of which made the church very powerful and rich.
Although this passage about Lazarus and the rich man is frequently quoted in order to substantiate the concept of eternal punishment in Hell, that was not Jesus’ intent. That idea is based more on church doctrine, fear and misinformed tradition than on Scripture. Instead, this passage is meant as a strong caution against hypocritical religion that results in eternal consequences.
Context that precedes the story of Lazarus
- Luke 11:37-44. Ritual washing unimportant compared to heart washing. He blisters the Pharisees.
- Luke11:45-52. He includes the lawyers in His accusations too. Burdens, guilt.
- Luke 11:53-54, “When He left there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to be very hostile and to question Him closely on many subjects, plotting against Him to catch Him in something He might say.”
- Luke 12:1-3. Their hypocrisy is like leaven but it will be revealed.
- Luke 12:4,7. “…fear the One who… has authority to cast into hell…”
- Luke 12:8-12. “…but he who denies Me…” The Pharisees denied Him.
- Luke 12:13-21. Greed. Story of the rich man who tore down his barns to build bigger ones.
- Luke 12:22-40 (material things are less important) is addressed to His disciples but in verse 41 Peter asks: “Lord, are You addressing this parable to us, or to everyone else as well?” His answer includes all who are stewards of other men’s souls.
- Luke 12:41-48. The parable of the steward who was not looking out for others in his charge.
- Luke 12:49-53. He knows His sayings will cause serious division and antagonism.
- Luke 12:54-59. Warning them to deal with the Lord while they can.
- Luke 13:1-3, Galileans killed and their blood mixed with that of the sacrifices
- Luke 13:4-5, Tower of Siloam falls and kills 18
- Luke 13:5-9, Parable of the fig tree that was cut down because it bore no fruit
- Hypocrisy: Luke 13:10-17, Healing on Sabbath of woman bent over for 18 years
- Kingdom of God:
- Luke 13:18-19, Mustard seed grows into tree
- Luke 13:20-21, Leaven grows into loaves
- Luke 13:22-30, Narrow is the way
- Luke 13:31-35. Pharisees try to scare Him. He predicts His death as a prophet.
- Luke 14:1-6, Hypocrisy of Pharisees: healed man with dropsy on the Sabbath
- Luke 14:7-11, Parable of exalting self with position at table
- Luke 14:12-14, Give to those who can’t give back—repaid in heaven
- Luke 14:15-24. Parable of dinner guests refusing invitation. Bring in those who were not invited (Gentiles?)
- Count the cost of being a disciple: Luke 14:15
- Luke 14:25-26, Hating relatives and even life itself
- Luke 14:27, Carrying own cross (death sentence)
- Luke 14:28-29, Not completing a tower
- Luke 14:30-32, King with insufficient troops for battle
- Luke 14:33, Give up all possessions
- Luke 14:34-35, Summary of above: You are as useless as tasteless salt
- Lost joy found through repentance:
- Luke 15:1-2, Pharisees grumbled that He ate with tax collectors and sinners
- Luke 15:3-7, Parable of 99 sheep
- Luke 15:8-10, Parable of lost coin
- Luke 15:11-32, Parable of prodigal son
- Parable of the steward:
- Shrewd use of money, Luke 16:1-9
- Faithful in use of money, Luke 16:10-12
- Can’t serve two masters—money and God, Luke 16:13
- Pharisees were lovers of money, Luke 16:14-15
- Luke 16:16-17. Pharisees were distorting the Scriptures to justify their own ends but God knows their hearts and they are detestable.
- Luke 16:16, The statement about divorce seems totally out of context until you realize He is speaking to the Pharisees about spiritual divorce—that they were divorced from God and married to other gods (money, prestige, etc)
Summary of the preceding context (Luke 11:37-16:18): This is almost exclusively addressed to the self-righteous, haughty Pharisees who think they know the way to heaven. Jesus says they are hypocrites, that they are distorting the Scriptures for their own ends, that they are responsible for misleading others, that they have no fear of God, that they are divorced from God and they will not make it to heaven. However, in contrast, those who are outcast, scorned by the Pharisees, humble and repentant will be received into heaven joyously.
Context that follows the story of Lazarus
- Luke 17:1-2, Leading astray (Pharisees are stumbling blocks)
- Luke 17:3-4, He said forgive and receive others (don’t reject them like the Pharisees do)
- Luke 17:5-10, We deserve no praise for doing what we are commanded (unlike the Pharisees who sought man’s respect)
- Luke 17:11-19, Ten lepers cleansed but only one was grateful (Pharisees were not grateful to God for His grace)
- Luke 17:20-21, Kingdom of God is in your midst (but the Pharisees didn’t recognize Him—they had intellectual debates about the Kingdom of God)
- Luke 17:22-37, His second coming foretold but the Pharisees were clueless (v 22, v 37). They thought day-to-day life would continue on unchanged without judgment.
- Luke 18:1-8. The widow and the judge. Warning to the Pharisees that the judgment day is coming.
- Luke 18:9-14, Lesson on humility addressed directly to the Pharisees. The story of the Publican and the Pharisee.
- Luke 18:15-17, Humility continued. Children rebuked but Jesus said we must believe like them (unlike the Pharisees)
- Luke 18:18-27, The rich young ruler. Jesus tells the Pharisees that earthly things are unimportant.
- Luke 18:28-30, Our rewards are in Heaven (the Pharisees got their rewards here on earth).
Summary of the context following the story of Lazarus (Luke 17:1-18:30): This entire section (up to Luke 18:31 which is addressed to the twelve disciples) is addressed specifically to the Pharisees. It must have really made them furious. In essence, He said they were leading people astray, they were unforgiving, they were ungrateful to God, they didn’t acknowledge God, they had no fear of judgment, they had no humility and they were much more interested in worldly possessions than in God.
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- Verse 30. The Pharisees thought they were righteous and had no need for repentance.
- Verse 31.
- See also John 5:44-47, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God? Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?”
- International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised edition 1979 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
- Matt 11:23; Matt 16:18; Luke 10:15 and Luke 16:23.
- Acts 2:27 and Acts 2:31 where Jesus is quoting from the Old Testament Psalm 49:15 and applying it to Himself.
- Rev 1:18; Rev 6:8; Rev 20:13 and Rev 20:14.
- Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, 1985.
- “As for Purgatory and all the trash depending thereupon, it is not worth the talking of; Bellarmaine [Romanist Cardinal] cannot find any ground for it in all the Scriptures…But as for me I am sure there is a Heaven and a Hell…for the elect and reprobate…Heaven and Hell are there revealed to be the eternal home of all mankind, let us endeavor to win the one and eschew the other.” As quoted by Stephen A. Coston, Sr. author of “King James: Unjustly Accused?”