RICH MAN & LAZARUS: Fantastical Parable or Literal Account?
What happens to the soul & spirit of unsaved people when they die? By “unsaved” I’m referring to anyone who has not experienced spiritual regeneration through the gospel (see John 3:3,6 and Titus 3:5), which includes Old Testament saints—holy people who were in covenant with God throughout the Old Testament. The Bible shows that the souls of these people go to (or went to) Sheol at the point of physical decease. Sheol corresponds to Hades in the New Testament. These souls will be resurrected from Sheol/Hades one day (Revelation 20:11-15), which is why Sheol/Hades is described as the “intermediate state” since it refers to the condition of souls between physical death and later resurrection.
So what’s the condition of souls in Sheol/Hades? Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus, if taken literal, suggests a conscious state where people either hang out in bliss with father Abraham or suffer constant fiery torment begging for less than a drop of water for relief. Another view is that Sheol is the graveyard of dead souls, a vast pit in the underworld where dead souls are laid to rest “awaiting” their resurrection to be judged. Initially I adhered to the first view solely due to Jesus’ story of The Rich Man and Lazarus, which was the only passage I ever seriously considered on the topic. This is the case with the majority of believers as well. I have since come to accept the second position after much thorough and honest biblical research—prayerfully analyzing literally hundreds of passages on the subject.
In this teaching we’re going to analyze Jesus’ popular tale and determine if it should be taken literally or figuratively. Here’s the story:
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. (20) At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores (21) and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
(22) “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. (23) In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. (24) So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
(25) “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. (26) And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
(27) “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, (28) for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
(29) “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
(30) “ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
(31) “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”
The first thing that needs to be stressed about this story is that, whether a person takes it literally or figuratively, it does not refer to the eternal fate of damned people; that is, the “second death.” In the story, the rich man and beggar are said to be in Hades, which refers to the intermediate state of un-regenerated souls between physical death and resurrection to stand before God and be judged. The Greek Hades corresponds to the Hebrew Sheol, as a comparison of Psalm 16:10 and Acts 2:27 verify. Once everyone is resurrected from Hades (Sheol) and judged, Hades will itself be thrown into the lake of fire.
See for yourself:
The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
So regardless of how a reader views Jesus’ imaginative story, it’s not applicable to the eternal fate of unredeemed people. It amazes me how often this tale is brought up when discussing the topic of human damnation with others. Anyone who cites this story to support eternal conscious torture hasn’t studied the subject of damnation to any great length.
With that understanding, let’s now consider Jesus’ story—it’s meaning and importance.
Someone wrote me and said:
There’s got to be something more to this tale as I’ve found that every time there’s a seeming contradiction in Scripture, a deeper truth is waiting to be discovered. The story of the rich man and Lazarus bothers me. If this was a common story of the time, why did it make it into Scripture? Jesus did so much stuff that didn’t get written down and since God knew this tale would get confused in future generations, why was it included for us to scratch our heads over? There’s something there.
I agree, so we’ll focus on mining insights from Jesus’ story, but—at the same time—we shouldn’t overstate its importance. Unlike the Parable of the Sower, which appears in 3 of the 4 gospel accounts, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus only appears once. I’m not saying it’s not important, but it’s no more important than, say, the Parable of the Shrewd Manager that also appears only once in Scripture, also in Luke 16, and is of comparative length. How often do we hear anything about that parable? Almost never, right? But everyone seems to know about the tale of the rich man and Lazarus and ask questions about it ad nauseam (don’t take me wrong as the tale naturally provokes important questions; I’m just making a point).
Now, someone might object that I just referred to Jesus’ story as a “parable”—a figurative tale—but be patient because I’m going to prove beyond any shadow of doubt that the story of the rich man and Lazarus is just that—a symbolic tale that makes many potent points.
E.W. Bullinger’s View
Greek scholar E.W. Bullinger maintained that Jesus was using the Pharisees own teachings and own words to convict them. This makes sense for two reasons: 1. The story, if taken literally, blatantly contradicts what the rest of Scripture teaches about Sheol, including the LORD’s own descriptions, as detailed in Chapter Six of SHEOL KNOW: The Longest and Most Detailed Passage on Sheol. And 2. the Pharisees embraced the unbiblical Hellenistic concept of the immortal soul apart from Christ and, consequently, eternal roasting of damned souls. As such, Jesus’ parabolic tale mimicked their beliefs with the twofold purpose of rebuking them and conveying one of the most important themes of the Bible, both of which we’ll extract from the story in this chapter.
You can read Bullinger’s take on the story on the internet (just Google “E.W. Bullinger rich man and Lazarus” and it will come up). I should warn you though that he has an archaic and convoluted style of writing that’ll likely turn-off most modern readers. Let me also add that I don’t embrace everything Bullinger advocates, but who agrees with anyone about everything? As they say, “Eat the meat and spit out the bones.”
The Living Word of God Would NOT Contradict the Written Word of God
Here’s my take on Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus:
Jesus Himself is the living “Word of God,” so he’s not going to contradict the written Word of God. This is another key that the story is not to be taken literally. After all, anyone—regardless of sectarian mindset—who simply does an honest, systematic study on Sheol in the Bible will admit that a literal reading of Jesus’ tale contradicts what the entire rest of the Bible teaches about Sheol. As my book SHEOL KNOW exhaustively details, many of the most important men of God in the Old Testament, and even the LORD Himself, describe Sheol as the world of the DEAD where souls ‘sleep’ in death until their resurrection & judgment. And by ‘sleep’ I don’t mean literal snoozing, but rather the condition of death itself—i.e. non-existence as far as conscious life goes (please read Sheol Know before automatically assuming that this is erroneous). No one’s roasting in conscious torture crying out for tiny bit of water; and neither are (or were) Old Testament saints chummin’ around with father Abraham in paradise. Jesus said the TRUTH will set us free, which is God’s Word (John 8:31-32 & 17:17). By contrast, that which is false cannot set us free, because it’s not true.
With this understanding, God didn’t place the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in the Bible to “confuse anyone in future generations” because he knew (and knows) that anyone who is diligent and simply studies the subject from Genesis to Revelation will be set free by the truth. Only those who are unwilling to search for the truth or are too proud to admit they might be wrong and insist on following uninformed leaders will be misled by it (see Matthew 15:14). Most of these are sincere God-fearing brothers and sisters in the Lord who’ve simply been misled about Jesus’ tale and only casually view it as a literal teaching; in other words, they’re simply ignorant on the subject. However, some of their leaders are rigid, unthinking sectarians poisoned by legalism, like the Pharisees. To them Jesus’ story is a stumbling block.
Believe it or not, the LORD and godly characters in the Bible have been known to set out “stumbling blocks” to intentionally discombobulate proud fools, whether legalists or libertines; see, for example, Ezekiel 3:20, Romans 11:9 and Psalm 69:22. I’m not saying there’s no hope for these people. I’m very patient and merciful; in fact, my ministry is all about setting the captives free, including those who are figuratively blind. I want to stress that I’m not suggesting that everyone who regards the story of the rich man and Lazarus as a literal description of life after death is a modern-day Pharisee, not at all. Again, most are simply ignorant on the subject. I wrote SHEOL KNOW for just such people.
“Scripture Interprets Scripture” is a Hermeneutical Law
I said above that the tale of the rich man and beggar “if taken literally, doesn’t gel with what the rest of Scripture teaches on the nature of Sheol, including the LORDs own descriptions;” I also said “Jesus Himself is the living ‘Word of God,’ so he’s not going to contradict the written Word of God.” Both statements are rooted in the hermeneutical rule that Scripture interprets Scripture, which is a common sense guideline for proper biblical interpretation. Without this rule, people could take any passage in the Bible and declare that it means whatever they say it means, which Peter condemned when he said, “no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20). In other words, the way you interpret a passage is 1. According to its immediate context where the surrounding texts usually indicate the meaning of the passage; and 2. According to the context of the whole of Scripture whereupon you ask: What does the rest of the Bible say about this particular subject? The clearer or more detailed passages obviously take precedence over the more ambiguous and sketchy ones.
Here’s an excellent example of Jesus utilizing this rule when the devil attempted to mislead him by quoting a passage:
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. (6) “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ ”
(7) Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”
As you can see, the devil—who knows the Bible verbatim—was trying to use a biblical passage to spur Jesus to do something wrong, but Jesus didn’t fall for it because he followed the principle of interpreting Scripture with Scripture. So He responds, “It is also written…” In other words, the verse the devil quoted must be viewed in light of what other passages say. When a person fails to do this they inevitably get off track and fall into error. The problem with error is that it’s not true; even partial error is not wholly true; and it’s only the truth that can set people free, as the Lord taught (John 8:31-32).
With this understanding, Jesus’ tale of the rich man and beggar is not open to private interpretation because doing so is condemned in the Bible. The parable must be interpreted in light of what the whole of Scripture teaches on the subject of Sheol, as well as the other topics that the tale addresses. This is the approach we’ll take.
A Literal Interpretation Doesn’t Mesh with either Old Testament or New Testament Theology
If taken literally the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus does not support either Old Testament or New Testament theology, which is another indication that the tale’s not to be taken literally.
For instance, notice that nothing is said of the rich man being immoral or evil, nothing. In fact, it’s implied that he gave handouts to the beggar. Also, according to Old Testament theology, the Mosaic covenant Israel had with YHWH (the LORD), being consistently financially blessed indicated God’s blessing—generally speaking—whereas poverty indicated being cursed (see Deuteronomy 28).
Let’s honestly consider what this story says if we embrace it as a literal accounting of life after death in Sheol. In other words, what does this tale literally say? Please disregard any sectarian bias and what you think it says, just focus on what it actually says:
- If one is prosperous, gives to the poor,* respects authority and is concerned about his loved ones, he will go to Sheol at the point of death and suffer constant roasting torment desperately hoping for less than a drop of water for relief, but it won’t be given.
- If one is poverty-stricken, diseased, has no faith to be healed, is not physically blessed of God and has a life of bad things, he will go to the paradise compartment of Sheol to hang out with father Abraham and be perpetually consoled and comforted.
* For those who argue that the rich man didn’t give anything to Lazarus, why else would the beggar be laid at his gate (verse 20) if he wasn’t receiving anything from him? It would be pointless.
Let’s face it: This literal data from the story totally butchers Old and New Testament theology concerning eternal salvation. The fact that it’s diametrically opposed to Old Testament theology has already been stated while the latter is obvious: Nowhere in the story does it indicate that Lazarus expressed repentance and faith for salvation (Acts 20:21). Nowhere does Lazarus indicate or imply that “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9-10). If we take the facts of the story as literal history we must conclude that being a diseased bum equals paradisal bliss at Abraham’s side. Is this the case? Does the rest of Scripture back up such a conclusion, such a warped theology? If so, we’re damned and so are 99.9% of the people we know!
The Parabolic ‘Lazarus’ vs. the Real-Life Lazarus
Let me offer one quick example of how a literal interpretation of Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Man & Lazarus contradicts what God’s Word teaches on the nature of Sheol/Hades:
Contrary to the fictitious “Lazarus” of Jesus’ parable, there’s an account of the real, historical Lazarus and his death, as detailed here:
11 After he [Jesus] had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
The account goes on to show that the Messiah eventually resurrects Lazarus after his body had been in the tomb for four days (verses 43-44).
Please notice in the passage that Christ plainly informed the disciples that Lazarus was dead and not chumming around with father Abraham in some paradise in the nether realm. Also observe that Lazarus’ sisters — Mary & Martha — were horribly mourning his death, as well as many others (verse 33). Why were they mourning so severely if going to Sheol for Jews meant blissful fellowship with father Abraham? Furthermore, why would Christ resurrect Lazarus and bring him back to this lost, corrupt world? Wouldn’t it be better for Lazarus to chum around with Abraham in wonderful bliss than come back to this dark world?
As you can see, a literal interpretation of Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Man & Lazarus makes nonsense of the Scriptures. And this is just one example.
The Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a Parable—a Symbolic Tale
These factors are further evidence that the story was never meant to be taken as a literal account of the nature of Sheol. It’s symbolic, meaning it’s a parable—a figurative story. This is in line with the generality that Jesus “did not say anything to them without using a parable” (Matthew 13:34) and that Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus comes in a long line of parables: The whole first half of Luke 16 is a parable that starts with the same exact words as Jesus’ tale of the rich man and Lazarus; and Luke 15 consists of three other parables. It simply makes no sense that Jesus would suddenly switch to giving a supposedly historical account that contradicts what the Word of God has plainly established about Sheol up to this point.
Add to this the fact that the story clearly contains fantastical elements. For instance, the rich man is in literal agony in the fire and so he asks Abraham to have Lazarus dip the tip of his finger in water so he can cool his tongue—not even his hand or finger, the tip of his finger! Like that’s going to help his roasting condition one iota. It’s as if Jesus was getting a megaphone and declaring, “This is a fantastical tale that is not meant to be taken literally!” How much more evidence do people need that this is not a literal accounting of life after death?
I’ve heard it argued that a parable always reflects reality and cannot be fantastical. But a parable is simply a short allegorical tale that teaches a moral lesson or lessons. That’s it. Nowhere does the Bible say that a parable has to reflect reality and cannot be fantastical. For instance, righteous Jotham shared a parable in Judges 9:8-15 about trees talking to each other. Should we take that as reality? Of course not; the argument holds no water.
With the understanding that this is a fantastical symbolic story, Jesus knew that unspiritual people would wrongly interpret it as a literal account in centuries to come, just as a religionist misinterpreted Jesus’ statement about being born-again to refer to literal physical rebirth (John 3:3-4). Please understand that Jesus didn’t tell parables to reveal truth to the masses, but rather to hide it for those with spiritual discernment (Matthew 13:10-15 & 1 Corinthians 2:14). As such, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a stumbling block to the carnal person—those who are spiritually blind—including religious people with a Pharisaical spirit.
The Surface Meaning of the Parable
The surface meaning of The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is obvious: Jesus had just finished rebuking the Pharisees’ greed:
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.
As you can see, the Pharisees worshipped Mammon (money) and therefore scoffed at Jesus’ correction. The Lord’s wise response was to reprimand them further via a classic tale of reversal of fortune. This was possibly Jesus’ unique take on a common story of the time, perhaps a favorite of the Pharisees. In any case, the tale mimics the Pharisees’ Hellenistic belief in the immortal soul apart from Christ with the dual purpose of rebuking them and conveying one of the most important themes of Scripture.
The rich man in the parable obviously represented the Pharisees (and Hebraic leaders in general) whereas Lazarus symbolized the Gentiles. We’ll look at this further in the next section, but allow me to point out the obvious: We live in a world of lies where the devil is the “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4) and not everything is as it might appear. In this case the Pharisees claimed to be Abraham’s offspring (John 8:38-44) and prided themselves on being rich in God’s truth—not to mention they were physically rich due to their greedy manipulations—but Jesus’ parable reveals them be greatly impoverished in reality and that it is the Gentile beggar who’s actually Abraham’s “bosom” buddy, not the Pharisees.
Needless to say, if the Pharisees sneered with contempt before Jesus gave the parable they were absolutely livid now!
Jesus’ punchline in verse 31 is that, if the Pharisees did not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. Christ was potently proclaiming two things by this statement:
- Although the Pharisees claimed to strictly follow the Torah—God’s Law—they really didn’t. The reference to “Moses” is a reference to the Law; and “the Prophets” refers to all the prophets who rebuked Judah & Israel’s wickedness in times past and were rejected. In other words, Jesus was saying that the Pharisees and other religious leaders of Israel were not who they claimed to be—devout men of God who strictly followed the Law. No, they were hypocrites, which literally means actors. In fact, Jesus blatantly told them this to their faces on other occasions, as shown in Luke 11:37-54 and Matthew 23:13-35. In short, the Pharisees were fakes.
- Since the Pharisees and other Judaic leaders weren’t really listening to Moses and the Prophets—even though they put on airs that they did—they wouldn’t likely believe even if someone rose from the dead, which is not only a reference to Jesus’ later resurrection, but also to Martha & Mary’s brother, Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, as seen in John 11:1-44. This is one of the reasons Jesus utilized the name ‘Lazarus’ for his parable. You see, many people believed in Jesus because of Lazarus’ resurrection, but not the proud, stubborn religious leaders of Israel; in fact, they proceeded to plot to kill Lazarus—as well as Jesus—because so many people believed on account of Lazarus’ awesome resurrection (John 12:9-11)! Unbelievable, isn’t it? This shows why Christ shared the parable in an effort to rebuke these disingenuous religious authorities. As far as them not having faith even after Jesus later rose from the dead, this is precisely how history panned out: When the Messiah was resurrected, the Pharisees and other stuffy Judaic rulers refused to believe it and tried to stamp out those who did believe in Christ and his resurrection. The few Pharisees who humbly repented were the exception, like Nicodemus and Saul (Paul).
Now, notice the key words in Jesus’ punchline in verse 31: The Pharisees and other hypocritical Judaic rulers wouldn’t believe even when the Lord rose from the dead. You see, Jesus died and his soul went to Sheol (Hades) when he was crucified. In other words, Jesus himself described the condition he was soon going to experience in explicit terms of being dead. If Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus was a literal account of life after death and not a fantastical tale Jesus would have said something like, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from blissful communion with father Abraham in the paradise compartment of Hades.” Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? Yet this would be what Jesus really meant if his story of the rich man and Lazarus is taken literally rather than symbolically. Of course, Jesus said nothing of the kind. He indirectly declared that he was going to rise from the dead, which perfectly coincides with the Bible’s clear descriptions of Sheol/Hades as “the world of the dead,” as scholar James Strong defined it, or “the company of the dead,” as Proverbs 21:16 defines it, or “the realm of the dead,” as the New International Version translates it on a number of occasions (e.g. Isaiah 14:9,15, Ezekiel 31:15,17 and 32:21,27; the verses from Ezekiel, incidentally, are the LORD Himself speaking).
Of course, there are some ministers who teach that Jesus didn’t go to be with Abraham in Sheol; instead they maintain that he was tormented in fire for three days & three nights, like the rich man in the story. If this were so, Jesus’ punchline would’ve been something akin to this: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from three days of fiery torment in Hades.” Whether a person holds to this interpretation or the other one it doesn’t matter because Jesus said nothing of the kind. He plainly said that he was going to rise from the dead, not rise from comforts in paradise with Abraham or rise from horrible roasting agony. Neither belief washes with the Scriptures because they’re false doctrines based on an erroneous interpretation of a tale Jesus told that is clearly parabolic and fantastical in nature, not literal.
Getting back to the reason Jesus used the name ‘Lazarus’ in his parable, we observed one notable reason above and we’ll see another below, but Jesus didn’t give a name for the rich man in his story. Why? Because the rich man is not a real person but rather is symbolic of group of people, which we’ll look at momentarily. This shatters the argument that Jesus’ story is a historical account on the grounds that he uses the proper name of ‘Lazarus,’ which Jesus didn’t do in any of his other parables. Bear in mind, however, that the rich man is the sole character in proving the conscious roasting of the damned in Sheol and yet he’s not given a name!
Chew on that.
Interpreting the Symbolism—the Bigger Picture
With the understanding that Jesus’ tale of the rich man and Lazarus is a parable, how are we to interpret it? Believe it or not, the symbolism of the parable is obvious for anyone who’s adequately familiar with the Scriptures and isn’t blinded by religious sectarian mumbo jumbo:
The rich man represents the Pharisees or Judaic rulers—and the Hebrews in general—who had the truth and who were therefore spiritually rich. His purple linen represents the priesthood (Exodus 39:1) and the abundant food on his table represents the blessings of truth and the oracles of God that were entrusted to the Israelites (Romans 3:1-2). The beggar at the gates refers to the gentiles who didn’t have a covenant with YHWH and were therefore spiritually poor (Ephesians 2:11-12). Lazarus in the story wanted even crumbs that fell from the table of the rich man, which corresponds to the Syro-Phoenician woman who begged Jesus to heal her daughter of the evil spirit in Mark 7:24-30. To further support this, dogs lick Lazarus’ sores in the story and Hebrews contemptuously called gentiles “dogs.”
Another indication is Lazarus’ name, which means “One in whom God helps or saves.” In the New Testament, who is God’s salvation focused on? Paul said, “because of [Israel’s] transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:11). He goes on to point out: “But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fullness bring?” (verse 12).
In the Bible, the Word of God is likened to spiritual food and compared to bread (Matthew 4:4 & Deuteronomy 8:3). In verses 20-21 we see Lazarus being laid at the rich man’s gate and hoping for crumbs from his table. This was the way it was for Gentiles during the Old Testament period: The Israelites were blessed with the Word of God—spiritual bread—while Gentiles rarely heard God’s word and essentially settled for “crumbs” from the Israelite’s table, which perfectly coincides with the Gentile woman’s response to Jesus in Matthew 15:27 after he told her that it wouldn’t be right to take the children’s bread—the Israelite’s bread—and toss it to “dogs,” i.e. the Gentiles. Her response was brilliant and showed great faith & persistence: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (NRSV).
In short, the rich man and poor man refer to spiritual riches and spiritual poverty. If you have a covenant with God you’re spiritually rich; if not, you’re poor, no matter how much material wealth you might possess. The rich man refers to the Hebrews who had a covenant with God, which is verified by the statement concerning his brothers having “Moses and the Prophets” (verse 29) while Lazarus is figurative of the Gentiles who through faith in Christ become “Abraham’s offspring” (Galatians 3:29), spiritually born of Abraham’s “bosom.” Lazarus being carried into Abraham’s bosom symbolizes the “grafting in” of believing Gentiles to a place once possessed by Israel (Romans 11:11-24).*
* The King James Version and the New American Standard Bible, which are both literal word-for-word translations, say that Lazarus was “In” Abraham’s “bosom” in verse 23.
Death for the rich man represents the end of their covenant with God (Hebrews 8:13 & Romans 11:15, 21) while death for Lazarus represents a believer’s death to the old nature when they’re spiritually regenerated through Christ (Galatians 2:20 & Titus 3:5) and the beginning of their new covenant with the Almighty. Think of it this way: The rich man was blessed and Lazarus was impoverished at the beginning of the parable, but these conditions are reversed when they die. Their deaths represent the end of the old covenant and the beginning of the new: Now the Gentiles have spiritual riches through the gospel while the Hebrews languish in unbelief. This was prophesied by Amos:
“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “when I will send a famine through the land—not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.
(12) People will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it.”
The rich man’s torment likely refers to the humbling torment of seeing God’s favor—His grace—shift to all the world who genuinely believe (Matthew 21:43), and possibly to the Jews’ extraordinary persecution and trouble throughout the last 2000 years.
Finally, if there was any question as to whom the Lord was referring to by the rich man, the parable reveals that he had five brothers. The significance of this is that Jesus shared this parable in Jerusalem, which was part of the southern kingdom of Israel, Judah. Genesis 35:23 shows that Judah—the person—had five brothers just as the rich man in the story. So the Lord was condemning the southern kingdom of Israel whose capital, Jerusalem, he described as “the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her” (Luke 13:34), the same city where Jesus—The Prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15)—was soon to be put to death. Through the parable Jesus rebukes the Judaic leaders for not genuinely following the law and the prophets (Luke 16:31) because they, in fact, pointed to Christ (John 5:39). Remember Jesus’ indictment of the counterfeit religious leaders:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. (30) And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ (31) So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. (32) Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!
(33) “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell (Gehenna)?
As you can see, Jesus’ parable potently symbolizes the main theme of the New Testament. It’s a prophecy of the rejection of unrepentant Israel and the coming Church Age where reconciliation with God and eternal life are made available to the whole world. Amazing, isn’t it? It’s true!
The woman who wrote me about the rich man and Lazarus asked why this story was included in God’s Word; she insisted that there was “something there.” There certainly is—the most important theme of Holy Scripture!
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