The Rich Man and Lazarus
By Mary Kroeger
Many of the insights in this article come from an article by J. Preston Eby.
"Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, 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. 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. In Hades he lifted up his eyes being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. 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.' 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. 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.' And he said, `Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father's house - for I have five brothers - in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.' But Abraham said, `They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.' But he said, `No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!' 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)
This is an amazing parable! It shows us in part, Christ's spiritual understanding of God's plan for the Gentiles, and the sadness Israel would experience because of their rejection of Christ. During Christ's time of ministry, He had to constantly face opposition from the scribes and Pharisees. So Jesus often veiled a truth in a story called a parable. The correct interpretation of the parable would convey a spiritual truth that would be fulfilled in the future. Very often He would later explain the meaning of the parable to His disciples.
We know this is a parable because it says, "So He told them this parable." Also, it could not be a real life occurrence because so many things do not add up. For example, nowhere does it say that rich people go to Hades (the abode of the dead) after they die just because they are rich. Neither does it say that the suffering poor are carried into Abraham's bosom after they die just because of their sufferings. How could a drop of water help when you are surrounded by flames of fire? Neither do the scriptures teach that there is communication between those in Hades (or in hell if you believe in a hell of fire), and those in heaven (if Abraham's bosom is heaven). If Abraham's bosom is heaven, then what happened to believers in God who lived before Abraham's time?
So let's look at this parable and receive the message Jesus was conveying in it. This parable focuses on the rich man, Lazarus, and Abraham's bosom. In the understanding of symbolism, a future event for those who lived at that time would be revealed. This event would upset the religious leaders of Israel but bring hope and joy to others.
To identify the rich man we note that he was clothed in purple (the color of the raiment worn by royalty) and fine linen (the clothing of the priesthood) and had five brothers. This gives us a key to his identity. We know this rich man was related to Abraham because he called him father Abraham. Furthermore, he had five brothers. Now who was related to Abraham and had five brothers? Abraham's grandson Jacob had twelve sons - six were born of Leah. The other six were born of the handmaids and of Rachel. Since the rich man had five brothers, he must have had Leah as his mother. Only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin were occupying the land at that time. Benjamin only had one brother, so we can easily identify the rich man as representing Judah. As a nation, Israel was spiritually rich. As God's people they had received many blessings. God had performed many miracles for them, He had given them the Law, and even dwelt among them in the Tabernacle of Moses!
This man's riches symbolized the spiritual riches the Lord had bestowed on Judah. As Paul the apostle said, "Who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen." (Rom. 9:4-5)
The Jews were proud of their many blessings and wanted to keep them for themselves. Instead of being a blessing to other nations, as God had said to Abraham, they despised and hated all who were not part of their nation. They did not realize their true condition and how offensive their pride was to God!
The scribes and Pharisees realized that this parable was spoken against them - against their hypocrisy and religious tyranny. They were not pleased when Jesus tore the mask off their faces.
Who and what did Lazarus symbolize? Lazarus was not only poor; he was full of sores! How he longed for the crumbs (the spiritual blessings) that fell from the rich man's table! But there was no help for him, for the Jews would not share their knowledge of God with Gentiles. They called the Gentiles "dogs".
The fact that Gentiles were often called dogs by the Jews is illustrated by an incident that took place when Jesus visited Tyre and Sidon, as recorded in Matt. 15:21-28. It's about a Canaanite woman who wanted Jesus to heal her daughter from demon possession. Her people were unable to heal her daughter. Since she thought Jesus would only heal Jewish people, she initially came as a Jewish woman and addressed Jesus as, "Lord, Son of David." Jesus didn't answer her, for He knew she was not who she pretended to be. He responded by telling the disciples that He had only come for the lost sheep of the house of David. But this woman was in such desperate need of help that she would not be dissuaded. She came again, bowed down before Him and simply said, "Lord help me." Then Jesus answered her in a way that sounds harsh and very unlike our compassionate Lord. But actually He was testing her honesty and humility. He said, "It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." Now wouldn't that get you upset and angry! But this woman's need was so great that she was willing to humble herself and to see herself as the Lord saw her - a little dog that needed a crumb from the Master's table! Jesus always responds to those who came to Him in humility and faith. "'O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.' And her daughter was healed at once." In this story we see that both the Jews and the Gentiles knew the meaning of the expressions, "the dogs" and "the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master's table" This beautifully confirms our understanding of the identity of Lazarus - a Gentile dog!
"Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores." According to Strong's and Thayer's Lexicon, a more accurate translation would read, "other dogs". Dogs on occasion do lick the sores of humans and other animals, but most often they are found licking the sores of their own kind. This fact would establish Lazarus as being a Gentile. The Gentile's religious thinking could only "lick" the sores. It could not heal, for religiosity depends on self-effort, and it does not have that power. It is without promise, without covenant, without hope, without Christ and without God! This is a very hopeless condition, for self can never provide for us the righteousness of God!
This raises another question. If Lazarus symbolized the Gentiles, why did Jesus not clearly identify him as a Gentile? Was this not important to the truth Jesus was teaching? As the story develops, we will see the reason for this omission.
Next, we read that the rich man and Lazarus both died. The rich man was buried, and Lazarus was carried into Abraham's bosom! What a surprise awaited the rich man! Instead of being in an imagined beautiful place called heaven, he found himself in Hades!
The word, "Hades" means un-perception - a place of darkness and un-perception. So the rich man was not a happy camper. He had not anticipated this! He was not only unhappy, he was in torment! The correct translation of the Greek word "BASANOS" that is used here, is not "torment", but "touchstone" - a stone used for testing metals to determine their purity. The color of the mark left by metals when rubbed on this stone determined its value. The rich man's quality and genuineness was being tested.
In his unhappy condition, he lifted up his eyes. What a surprise awaited him! He saw Lazarus in Abraham's bosom! Lazarus, the dog, was in the Jew's coveted place of honor! Even though Lazarus was in Abraham's bosom, the rich man still considered Lazarus inferior to himself. So he cried out, "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." But his former riches had no power in this realm. Lazarus could not bring him even a drop of living water!
If the rich man had been in a literal burning hell, how much good would a drop of water do? If you were engulfed in literal flames, would you calmly carry on a conversation with others?
It is very obvious that the rich man was NOT engulfed in literal flames of fire. It was his tongue; it was so hot and dry! The tongue - that unruly little muscle that needs taming! In Hades it needed water - living water! The rich man only recognized his need to some extent. His wealth kept him from seeing his true need. He was blind to his inability to fulfill the demands of the law covenant. He was blind to his need of a Saviour and blind to his inability to keep the whole law. He liked what they had! Christ's message of life and truth was submerged and rejected in the satisfaction his riches brought him. He loved their rituals, traditions, honor and prestige! They over-shadowed all that Christ had to offer.
Without receiving the truth and the life that Christ is, we are in the darkness of our natural, carnal thinking. This is where Judah, the rich man now was. Natural thinking can never receive spiritual understanding! (1 Cor. 2:14) This proved that the rich man symbolized Judah as being of the natural seed of Abraham.
This is a lesson we all have to learn. When we refuse to receive truth, we remain in the lies that have become our truth. We seek relief but it evades us. When the ways of selfish ambition no longer work, we are left in . a flame of unhappiness!
The rich man needed some relief for himself. So he asked father Abraham to help him. His tongue was so dry and parched because it had not spoken words of truth. But instead of going to God for help, he pleaded with Abraham. He wanted help according to his own understanding. This does not work. Jesus said, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink." (Jn. 7:37) He also said, "But whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life." (Jn. 4:14) The Jewish nation, symbolized by the rich man, refused to receive their Messiah. Their faith was NOT in the promises of God and in their fulfillment in Christ. Instead, it was in being the natural descendants of Abraham.
However, Abraham could not give his faith to his descendants. It was not his to give. His faith was counted to him as righteousness, but he could not give his faith to others. Jesus Christ is the author and finisher or of our faith! (Heb. 12:2) Faith cannot be inherited from relatives; it can only be received in Christ, for He is the author!
Lazarus, on the other hand, was carried into Abraham's bosom. Traditionally we are taught to say that Christians go to heaven after they die. So we think that Abraham's bosom must symbolize heaven. But this idea has no scriptural basis. If Abraham's bosom represents heaven, did heaven only come into existence in Abraham's time? Jesus said that heaven is the throne of God. A throne represents the authority of government. Our Father is in heaven - in the authority of His government!
So what does Abraham's bosom represent? A bosom signifies that body part where things that are precious are held. Isaiah tells us that the Savior will carry the lambs in His bosom. This indicates a close personal relationship of love. In John 1:18 it says that Jesus was in the bosom of the Father. Again, this emphasizes the close relationship between the Father and Jesus Christ. The expression "bosom friends" is often used to denote a close friendship.
Therefore, the fact that Lazarus was carried into Abraham's bosom must indicate that a loving relationship between the two now existed. What a beautiful prophetic message in symbolism! The deaths of Lazarus and the rich man represent a fundamental change in Israel's prominence as God's favored nation. The rich man's burial prophesied that natural Israel would lose its status of prominence, and it would it never be recovered. It was buried! Prophetically, this would end that special father-son relationship Israel had with Abraham.
The rich man's burial announced the demise of Judah's prominence, while Lazarus in Abraham's bosom prophesied that a new relationship of love would be established with the lowly Gentiles!
Abraham's new family would be born of Abraham's spiritual seed, namely Christ. This is a family of faith! In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile. Both Jew and Gentile are put into one new man! This puts an end to the difference between Jew and Gentile. Lazarus symbolizes this new family of faith called spiritual Israel. The hungry have received the life-giving words of Christ and are now a new creation!
Now we understand why Lazarus was not particularly called a Gentile, for he did not typify the Gentile nations! He only typified those who were born of faith! Although we understand that he was a Gentile, he typifies all who by faith have received the bread of life. In Christ there is no Jew or Gentle; there is just one new man called spiritual Israel! The people of faith have been taken out of their former heritage and are now in the bosom of Abraham, the father of faith. They are the spiritual seed of Abraham. Abraham had been given the promise that his seed would be like the sand of the sea and like the stars of heaven. Sand speaks of his physical descendants, and stars of spiritual Israel - the people of faith!
There is a great divide between the two types of relationships with Abraham! The first relationship is with the natural descendants, and the second is with the people of faith! When natural Israel lost its prominence, it became evident that the promises did not belong to them. The promises were given to the seed, not to natural Israel.
Paul explains this beautifully. "In order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith...Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, `And to seeds', as to many, but rather to one, `and to your seed,' that is, Christ." (Gal. 3:14 and 16)
The promise of the Spirit comes to us in Christ Jesus, and He is of the seed of Abraham. The fulfillment of this promise came at Pentecost when the Spirit came on the believers who were gathered together in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast. Then it came to the Gentile believers through Peter!
We may wonder why Jesus Christ is called the "seed" of Abraham. After Adam and Eve sinned, God told the serpent that the SEED of the woman would bruise his head. Why did He not say that the man who would come from the woman would bruise the serpent's head? We need to understand that "seed" contains life, and that it keeps reproducing itself after its kind from generation to generation! To produce fruit, the seed first has to die.
In John 12:24 Jesus said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." Here Jesus compared Himself to a seed, a grain of wheat that would be sown into the earth and die. Out of that death, life would spring forth and continue to spring forth from one generation to the next. In centuries yet to come, this seed (Jesus Christ), is producing, and will keep on producing sons of God in the exact image and likeness of the seed that was planted. This is the multiplication of spiritual Israel "like the stars of heaven."
It's exciting to understand that seed produces after its own kind! So what will the seed of Christ produce? After His own kind! From generation to generation, the seed will produce the life of Christ in believers! Truth, mercy and grace will be manifested in the hearts of spiritual Israel!
The promised blessing to all nations is being fulfilled through Christ, the spiritual seed. Natural Israel's prominence disappears in earth's darkness, while spiritual Israel becomes more visible because of its very essence and because of the multiplication of the seed. Those who see spiritually will see the great divide!
The burial of natural Israel's prominence was a very revolutionary thought for the traditional Jewish population, for they were blind to their spiritual condition. They thought their natural lineage in Abraham was all that counted. In John 8 Jesus told the Jews that although Abraham was their father according to their natural lineage, their spiritual lineage was fathered by the devil. Their thinking was fathered by a lie, for there is no truth in the devil, and there never has been any truth in him. (v. 44) This word of truth really struck a blow to their pride in their imagined self-importance! After all, didn't their history and many traditions give them a special standing with God? The truth in Christ's words produced anger and unhappy emotions in the Jews instead of needed repentance!
Back to the rich man who was now in a place of estrangement with his father Abraham! Even worse, the lowly beggar Lazarus had taken his place and was not even allowed to serve him a drop of water!
Our curiosity is aroused. Why could no spiritual help for natural Israel (the rich man), come from Lazarus, who symbolized spiritual Israel? This seems strange! To answer this question we have to look at the shocking truth Jesus was conveying. In symbolism, Jesus was striking a death blow to their belief system! They would lose their prominence as God's special people. Their faith in their laws, sacrifices, and temple services would be nullified! Instead, they would all be fulfilled in Christ. All their self-effort to obtain salvation would be in vain! They could not accept that! They wanted to merit their salvation and receive some recognition for all they had done. They did not realize that it was impossible for them to keep the whole law. The purpose of the law was to show them their inability to achieve their own salvation, thus showing them their need of a Saviour.
Their blindness to their spiritual condition prevented them from seeing their need of a better covenant - a covenant in which there was help! Faith in self-endeavor is a useless substitute for faith in Christ, the seed of Abraham. Faith in self-effort is religiosity. Faith in Christ is our salvation!
The great gulf between the rich man and Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham, symbolizes the great divide between natural Israel and spiritual Israel; between the old and new covenant; between the old and new nature, and between works of the flesh and the works of faith! The new covenant has nothing to do with keeping the laws of the old covenant. It is not a remodeled old covenant; it is completely new! It comes with a new law - the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus! (Romans 8:2) This law does away with the law of sin and death!
Since Christ was dead to sin, there is only life in Him!! In Christ, we have His life! His life in us gives us oneness with Christ, the seed of Abraham! In Christ we are members of spiritual Israel!
Membership is obtained by faith in Jesus Christ. Believing in Him is the only way to receive His life! Christ is not the container of life; He is the substance of life! Believing in Christ, puts us into life! "For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast." (Eph. 2:8-9)
This message of the great divide between faith and works is also relevant for us today! The works that have their source in the religion of self-effort, are often such a good counterfeit of the works that have their source in obedience to God's directives, that It is hard for us to see the difference! But there is a great gulf fixed between them! In Matthew 7:22, Jesus talked about those who will say, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and cast out devils in Your name?" And the Lord will say, "I never knew you." Here Jesus emphasized the great difference (gulf) between the woks of the flesh and the works of faith!
The works of the flesh are rooted in self-effort and are energized by the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh and the pride of life! The works of faith are rooted in the promises of God and are performed in the power of the Holy Spirit. They are works of righteousness done in obedience to God's directives! In the life of Abraham we see the obedience of faith exemplified in his willingness to offer up Isaac, believing that God would raise him from the dead. He had to be raised from the dead, for the fulfillment of the promises were to come through Isaac. Abraham, "believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness." (Gen. 15:6) It was Abraham's obedience of faith that set him apart from others. In contrast to Abraham's faith, the rich man's relationship with Abraham was not one of faith but of natural descent.
Lazarus, in the bosom of Abraham, marks the beginning of the answer to God's promise to bless all nations through the seed of Abraham. Lazarus typifies the spiritual children of faith through the new covenant. The rich man typifies the natural nation of Israel in its refusal to leave the old covenant. The great gulf symbolizes the fact that there is NO connection between the old and new covenants.
It may be hard for us to understand the blindness of natural Israel in its refusal to leave the old covenant. However, do not we Christians have the same problem? How can we leave some of our prescribed and cherished doctrines, and our preconceived ideas? Many of us have been rooted in these since childhood. What will people think of us if we leave them? The desire for honor invites self-effort. Leaving our old thinking requires a deep longing and love for truth.
Truth reveals the substitutions and additions that form our system of belief. We may not even notice that heaven is substituted for life, hell for death, natural understanding for spiritual understanding, choice for obedience, legalism and works instead of grace and faith, etc. It is so difficult to leave our comfortable pew of traditions and the accepted substitutions and beliefs! We need to lift up our eyes and see the great gulf that exists between the truth and the lie, between the old covenant and the new!
Even though the rich man's request for water was denied, he still wanted Lazarus to do for him what he could not do. He asked Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers and warn them so they would not come to this place of torment (testing). He figured that his brothers would believe someone who had been raised from the dead.
Abraham disagreed with that presumption and told the rich man that his brothers had Moses and the prophets to listen to. If they did not listen to them, neither would they listen to someone who was raised from the dead.
Abraham was right. In John 5 Jesus told the Jews that they did not believe Moses, for Moses prophesied of Him. If they would believe Moses, they would also believe Him! Even Jesus Christ's resurrection did not persuade them to listen to Him!
The natural mind cannot understand spiritual realities, for it is limited to the seen realm. Spiritual understanding comes to us in the mind of Christ! It is the teaching and leading of the Holy Spirit that leads us into all truth. After Christ's resurrection, He had to explain many things to the disciples to help them to understand spiritually. On one occasion He appeared to two disciples on their way to Emmaus. They were so sad because of the crucifixion and death of Jesus! "Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures." (Luke 24:27)
How surprised they were that the Old Testament contained so many prophecies concerning Christ's coming and the sorrows He would have to endure! Jesus opened the eyes of their understanding, and the disciples saw that the scriptures had been fulfilled by Jesus Christ. This encounter with Jesus changed them! Instead of being sorrowful, they were filled them with joy!
Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector (Luke 19), was a changed man after his encounter with Jesus! Before, he enjoyed squeezing money out of people. Afterwards, he wanted to help the poor, and return the money he had taken unlawfully! Hearing about the miracles and signs Jesus had performed did not change him. It was his encounter with Christ that brought about the change!
We also need encounters with Christ in order to be changed into His image. Only Christ can satisfy our hunger for truth. Only in Christ can we experience oneness with our Father! It is so sad that humanity seeks for signs and human wisdom, instead of for Christ. As Paul said, "The Jews ask for signs, and the Greeks search for wisdom." (1Cor. 1:22) But remaining at a sign post will never get us to our destination; neither will human wisdom!
Craving for signs is a sign of unbelief. We want proof of God's power before we will believe. We're so excited when we see signs and wonders! But signs only point us to a thing or place. They do not bring us into a relationship. Believing God is the greatest thing we can do, for "whatever is not from faith is sin." (Rom. 14:23)
To enter into a relationship with our Father God we need Christ. This relationship only comes to us by faith in Christ. The scriptures testify of Him, and we need to believe its testimony! Life is not in the dead letter of the scriptures; it is only in Christ! He brings revelation and life to us.
In Christ we have relationship! There is a big difference between knowing things about someone and knowing someone in the intimacy of relationship! Years ago I saw the Queen of England and I knew things about her, but I don't know her. I have never had a relationship with her. Our relationship with Jesus Christ comes in believing Him, obeying Him, and experiencing His love, grace, faithfulness and power in the various challenges we face. Without faith, we will only know things about Him. Without faith it is impossible to please God and to have a relationship with Him. Faith sees the promises of God come into fulfillment! Faith believes that God is who He says He is, and that we are who God says we are! Faith believes that God's grace is sufficient for every trial and difficulty we are called upon to endure!
Faith, without the evidence of obedience, is dead faith. Obedience to God's directives is the evidence of faith! Living faith brings us into a relationship with God in which He reveals Himself to us. In our communion with Him we are taught by Him, and our steps are directed by Him!
In Christ, the great commission to go into all the world and preach the gospel can be fulfilled! Why? He has bridged the gulf of unbelief, and we can now bring the gospel to those who are living in the darkness of their carnality! By bringing in the light that Christ is, they will be taken out of the darkness of their carnality and receive spiritual light. This enables them to enjoy their new freedom in Christ. They are no longer bound to their old sin nature. In Christ there is no condemnation! In Christ we can cross the gulf of unbelief, receive His goodness, and share the love of God with others.
In summary, we see the uselessness of trying to obtain merit with God by ancestry, self-effort, power, riches or office. We see the great gulf between faith and unbelief; between natural Israel and spiritual Israel; between the old covenant and the new! The great gulf shows us that unbelief can never become faith, the natural can never become spiritual, and the old covenant can never be intertwined with the new covenant!
The bosom of Abraham pictures the faith he had in the promises of God that were rooted in the promised SEED! Receiving Christ as our Messiah is the key to inheriting the promises! By faith in Christ we enter into a relationship of oneness with Him and inherit the blessings of the promises! In Christ, all the nations will be blessed! What a glorious promise! So let us fight the good fight of faith, that the promised treasures in Christ may be revealed in and through us!