There are a number of things we can glean from the story of Lazarus and the rich man, as well as a number of things we might get wrong unless we view this story in light of the rest of what the Bible teaches.
One thing we could come to the wrong conclusion about is what gets a person to heaven. From this story, taken alone, one might think that poor people go to heaven and rich men go to hell. We could surmise that this story teaches that one who suffers hunger, disease, and hardship during this life will go to heaven because of that suffering. And, of course the reverse of that would also be seen as true; that the rich will necessarily suffer condemnation for having lived a life of luxury. We might even find other scripture passages that at first glance might seem support that mistaken view. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”? Didn’t he also say, “For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”?
If that were what those verses were teaching, it should be cause for great alarm for every one of us living in the United States today, because compared to much of the rest of the world, and especially compared to most people throughout history, we are rich and live a life of luxury! But, when we consider the rest of God’s word, it is plain that the point of this story of Lazarus and the rich man has nothing to do with what caused their eternal destination, but we’ll come back to that.
One thing we can safely take from this passage about the Lazarus and the rich man is that riches in this life is not necessarily a sign of God’s special favor on a person, nor is sickness and poverty a sign of God’s judgment.
We have enough examples from scripture to show this to be obviously true. In fact, we might simply consider a portion of Matthew 5:45. Your Father which is in heaven “… maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”
Another thing we might rightly glean from this story of Lazarus and the rich man is the horrific circumstances of hell. Here it’s portrayed as being in flames, suffering such that even a drop of water on his tongue would provide some relief. Suffice to say that Jesus tells us that it would be better to remove your right eye or your right hand than to enter this place of torment. Perhaps even more alarming is the impossibility of improving on that situation. As our text says, “a great gulf is fixed” between heaven and hell, which it is not possible to cross.
The next thing that might strike us from this story is that the rich man, once he realizes that his fate is fixed, seems to suddenly become evangelistic. Obviously, the rich man regrets being cast into a place of torment, and one might even be tempted to think of it as a form of repentance, but in reading a number of the saints of the last several centuries, they seem to agree that his motive was less than purely charitable. John Bunyan, John Gill, and John Wesley all point out that the presence of the rich man’s brothers with him in hell would add to his own torment.
Regret is not the same thing as repentance and I think it is likely that the fires of hell did not change the rich man very much; his primary care was for his own comfort, just as it had been while he was alive and living in luxury while Lazarus laid hungry and suffering by his gate.
But what of this plea that Lazarus would rise from the dead to warn the rich man’s brothers to repent? He is told that they have Moses and the prophets to warn them. Moses and the prophets, … that is God’s word, the Old Testament scripture. The rich man’s brothers had the Old Testament, so they were without excuse. We have not only Moses and the prophets, but also the New Testament. If the rich man’s brothers were without excuse, then we are doubly so!
“But no,” the rich man says, “if one went to them from the dead, they would repent!” The answer, from verse 31, is wonderfully profound. “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”
Think about that for a moment. What if one rose from the dead?
That bring us to the day we celebrate this weekend. Easter. Resurrection Sunday. One did rise from the dead. Yet many, in fact most, will not be persuaded.
On Good Friday two thousand years ago Jesus Christ, the unique Son of God, fully God and fully man, after living a completely pure and sinless life, was whipped and beaten nearly to death and then went to die in our place on the cross of Calvary. The righteous wrath of God was poured out upon Jesus so that we might receive mercy. At the same time God’s perfect and holy justice was upheld because our sins received the proper punishment. Then the dead body of Jesus was buried in a tomb, but three days later he rose from the dead. The only question is, are you persuaded?
Let’s finish with this. Remember earlier I said that the point of the story of Lazarus and the rich man has nothing to do with what caused their eternal destination, but we’d come back to that? Well, now we’re back. Lazarus, despite his poverty, clearly must have had one thing that the rich man lacked.
That thing is faith. In the book of Hebrews chapter 11 we read of the faith of the Old Testament saints of God. Some were rich, some were powerful, some were leaders of armies, … but some were like Lazarus.
The Bible tells us some were tortured, some mocked and beaten, some imprisoned, and worse. Some were ill clothed, destitute, mistreated and afflicted, but what marks all of these mentioned in the book of Hebrews, whether rich or poor, is faith.
Poor health is an affliction. Disabilities are an affliction. Old age is an affliction. Whether rich, young, and healthy, or poor, old, and sick; none of these things have any bearing on whether our destination is one of being comforted along with Lazarus or tormented with the rich man. Those eternal matters are determined by faith. If you already have that faith, I pray that it would be strengthened. If not, won’t you trust in Jesus, that his suffering paid for your sins, and that his burial and resurrection proved it? Won’t you be persuaded by the fact that he rose from the dead?