[To help with our thinking generally at this time of the Giving Review, I have produced an edited version of the "expository thoughts" of J.C.Ryle on Jesus' Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16). The Victorian first Bishop of Liverpool is always challenging on the subject of money. His own wealthy father was bankrupted when Ryle was in his twenties - David Holloway.]
19 "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 hell, 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 fixed, 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 father's house, 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'" (NIV).
The parable we have just read in one respect is unique in the Bible. It is the only passage of Scripture which describes the feelings of the unconverted after death. For this reason, as well as for many others, the parable deserves special attention.
We learn, first, from this parable that a person's condition in the world is no test of their state in the sight of God.
The Lord Jesus describes for us two men of whom one was very rich and the other very poor. The one "lived in luxury every day". The other was a mere "beggar" who had nothing that he could call his own. And yet of these two the poor man had grace and the rich had none. The poor man lived by faith and walked in the steps of Abraham. The rich man was a thoughtless, selfish worldly man, dead in transgressions and sins.
Let us never give way to the common idea that men and women are to be valued according to their income, and that those who have most money are those who ought to be most highly honoured. There is no authority for this notion in the Bible. The general teaching of Scripture is flatly opposed to it. "Not many wise; not many influential; not many of noble birth" are called (1 Cor 1.26). "Let not the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me" (Jer 9.24). Wealth is no mark of God's favour. Poverty is no mark of God's displeasure. Those who God justifies and glorifies are seldom the rich of this world. If we would measure men and women as God measures them, we must value them according to their grace.
We learn, secondly, from this parable that death is the common end to which all classes of mankind must come.
The trials of the "beggar" and the luxurious living of the "rich man" alike ceased in the end. There came a time when both of them died. "All go to the same place" (Eccles 3.20).
Death is a great fact that all acknowledge but very few seem to realize. Most eat and drink and talk and plan as if they were going to live on earth for ever. True Christians must be on their guard against this spirit. "He that would live well," said a great divine, "should often think of his last day and make it his company-keeper." Against murmuring and discontent and envy when you are poor - against pride and self-sufficiency and arrogance when you are wealthy - there are few better antidotes than to remember death. "The beggar died" and his bodily needs were at an end. "The rich man died" and his high-life stopped for ever.
We learn, thirdly, from this parable that the souls of believers are specially cared for by God in the hour of death.
The Lord Jesus tells us that when the beggar died "the angels carried him to Abraham's side." There is something very comforting in this statement. We know little or nothing of the condition and feelings of the dead. When our own last hour comes and we lie down to die, we shall be like those who journey into an unknown country. But it may satisfy us to know that all who fall asleep in Jesus are in good keeping. They are not houseless, homeless wanderers between the hour of death and the day of resurrection. They are at rest in the midst of friends with all who have faith, like Abraham. They lack nothing. And, best of all, St Paul tells us they are "with Christ" (Phil 1.23).
We learn, fourthly, from this parable the reality and eternity of hell.
The Lord Jesus tells us plainly that after death the rich man was "in hell – in agony in this fire." He gives us a fearful picture of his longing for a drop of water "to cool his tongue" and of "the chasm" between him and Abraham, which could not be crossed. There are few more awful passages perhaps in the whole Bible than this. And the one from whose lips it came, it must be remembered, was one who delighted in mercy!
The certainty and endlessness of the future punishment of the wicked are truths which we must hold fast and never let go. From the day when Satan said to Eve, "You will not surely die," there have always been those who have denied them. Let us not be deceived. There is a hell for the impenitent as well as a heaven for believers. There is a wrath to come for all who "do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus" (2 Thess 1.8). From that wrath let us flee in good time to the great hiding-place, Jesus Christ the Lord. If people find themselves "in agony" at the end, it will not be because there was no way to escape.
We learn, fifthly, from this parable that the unconverted find out the value of a soul after death, when it is too late.
We read that the rich man desired Lazarus to be sent to his five brothers who were still alive, "so that they will not also come to this place of torment." While he lived he had never done anything for their spiritual good. They had probably been companions in worldliness and, like him, had neglected their souls entirely. When he is dead he finds out too late the folly of which they had all been guilty, and desires that, if possible, they might be called to repent.
The change that will come over the minds of unconverted men and women after death is one of the most fearful aspects of their future state. They will see and know and understand a hundred things to which they were obstinately blind while they were alive. They will discover that, like Esau, they have bartered away eternal happiness for a mere mess of potage. There is no doubt or unbelief after death. It is a wise saying of an old divine that "hell is nothing more than truth known too late."
We learn, lastly, from this parable that the greatest miracles would have no effect on human hearts, if people will not believe God's word.
The rich man thought that "if someone from the dead goes to my brothers they will repent." He argued that the sight of one who came from another world must surely make them aware, though the old familiar words of Moses and the Prophets had been heard to no effect. The reply of Abraham is solemn and instructive - "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."
The principle laid down in these words is of deep importance. The Scriptures contain all that we need to know in order to be saved; and a messenger from the world beyond the grave could add nothing to them. It is not more evidence that is wanted in order to make people repent, but a commitment to make use of what they already know. The dead could tell us nothing more than the Bible contains, if they rose from their graves to instruct us. After the first novelty of their testimony was worn away, we would care no more for their words than the words of any other. This terrible waiting for something that we do not have and neglect of what we do have, is the ruin of thousands of souls. Faith, simple faith in the Scriptures which we already possess, is the first thing necessary for salvation. The man who has the Bible and can read it, and yet waits for more evidence before he becomes a decided Christian, is deceiving himself. Unless he wakes from his delusion, he will die in his sins.