It struck me this week that the two, I think, most significant events in our nation’s modern history juxtapose themselves this week in particular—with COVID, something that’s been around for a year and a half, dominating the culture; alongside of that was a rehearsal of all that happened at 9/11, twenty years ago. And it seemed to me that these two events draw up in people’s lives an unusual amount of fear. And I understand that politicians use that fear to increase their power. But at the same time the heart of man has normal fear, and by normal fear I don’t just mean it’s a physical fear; I think it is a common grace, in a sense.
I think God has built His law in us. The Scripture says that. And that law convicts us, and our conscience feels the pangs of that conviction and leads to fear, and particularly to fear of death. It isn’t just the finality of death, it isn’t just the sense of incompleteness of death, it isn’t just the fact that you don’t want to suffer when you die; death is called “the king of terrors” for none of those reasons. Death is called the king of terrors because there is in every human heart the sense that there may well be an accounting for the transgressions and iniquities that dominate the human heart.
No human being can escape the knowledge of his or her own sinfulness. We may mask it, may play psychological games with it. We may try to blunt it through drugs or alcohol or a fast-paced life, going from relationship to relationship. But in every human heart the law of God does a convicting work, and that convicting work has an existential element to it. There is naturally the fear of death because of what may lie immediately ahead of that. And even though people would reject Christianity, reject the Bible and what it says—about, “It’s appointed unto men once to die, and after that the judgment”—they cannot escape the consciousness of their own sin, and they cannot escape the lingering reality that justice does exist in the world. We understand the concept of it; we understand right and wrong, and there may well be an accounting yet to come. And therein lies the dominant fear of death.
Fear of death can come from the fear of a virus, it can come from the fear of terrorists; it can come a lot of ways. And again, it isn’t just that you have a rational fear of something that’s going to happen to you, or there’s a high percentage that’s going to happen to you. We know with the virus, 99 percent of the people will have no lasting effect. But there is this foreboding reality in the heart of every sinner that there may be a day of accounting, that even though you don’t believe the Bible, there’s something true about, “It’s appointed unto men once to die, and after that the judgment,” Hebrews 9:27. And so people are doing everything they can, and typically so, to prevent the inevitable death. They know they can’t stall it off forever, but they work very hard to prevent it.
Two things seem to characterize the culture in which we live. One is fear, a dominating fear. And of course, for those of us who are Christians, there is no fear of death. Death is an entrance into the presence of the Lord. Far better to “depart and be with Christ”: to be absent the body, to be present with the Lord. We have no fear about what is coming after death, only joy and anticipation. For the believer, fear is not a virtue; fear is a sin, because we have been told, “Fear not. Fear not, your life is in the hands of God.”
Safety is not a virtue. That may surprise you, but safety is never listed in any place in the Bible as a virtue. Life is full of risks. Being born into this world is simply getting a terminal disease called life. And they all end up in the same place; and there is risk in life. Virtues are not self-protective, virtues tend to be self-denying and centered on the well-being of others. And for Christians throughout all of history, the last thing that Christians who were faithful to the Lord cared about was safety. And I don’t mean an unreasonable sense of safety, but I mean a kind of preoccupation that you need to be protected, you need to be safe, and if you’re not there’s an inordinate fear. Safety is not a virtue; it is not a virtue. We who live for Christ live in a world that at its very foundation Jesus defined this way: “If anyone will come after Me,” Luke 9:23, “he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me.”
So the first thing about being a Christian is self-denial. It’s not about the preservation of your life, it’s not about your safety; it may be about your death. That’s what taking up your cross means. That’s not talking about some kind of spiritual exercise; that’s saying it could cost you your life. Everybody who lives lives with risk. If you try to make safety a virtue, you find yourself in a back room somewhere, staring at the wall, and make no contribution to anything. For Christians that’s unacceptable. We have to be out front in the battle, taking the risk that the proclamation of the gospel and living godly lives calls for.
So safety is not a virtue; it’s not in any biblical list of virtues. We don’t pursue safety as a goal. We’re reasonable, but we pursue the proclamation of the gospel and living godly lives and doing the work of Christ. And if there’s risk, so be it. “All that will live godly in this present age will suffer persecution.” We have no guarantee that we’re going to live forever, fortunately. Most of us have had enough of what we’ve been doing for the last couple of years to check out, if it were an option. We don’t live with fear, and we don’t live for safety; we live to be faithful. And that’s what we’ve been endeavoring to do through these many, many months.
But for the world, it’s a different thing because the fear is existential. It is a profound fear that is not attached to reality. If they reject the Bible and what the Bible says about the future, what it says about the judgment of God, what it says about eternal punishment and hell—if they reject that, then they’re just wishing that when they die, it all turns out okay. And since no human being is an authority, you can tell me you believe something about the future, but that has no impact on me whatsoever—you’re not an authority. And what you wish to happen is meaningless. You need the truth, and that truth is revealed in the Word of God. For non-Christians in this world, I understand why they’re afraid. I understand why they’re terrified; I do understand that. I understand why they don’t want to die because, again, there are very unsettled realities in their souls about sin and judgment. And it plays out in life in general; they’re not ignorant of it.
So when we think about death, how are we to understand death? Is this inevitability something the devil does to us? There’s some people who believe that. Turn in your Bible to Hebrews chapter 2, Hebrews chapter 2 and verses 14 and 15. It says in verse 14 that Christ—who is presented here as “He Himself,” Christ—“partook of the same”—that is, took our flesh and blood, became human—“that through death”—through His death—“He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil.” And wait a minute—that says the devil has the power of death. So is it the devil that kills us? Do we have to somehow avoid the devil? Is he the one that brings about death?
Well look what that says in verse 14: In the death of Christ “He [rendered] powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil.” The devil had the power of death—when? In the garden. In the garden the devil had the power of death. I mean when he tempted Eve and when he tempted Adam, he unleashed that power on them because in the day they sinned, they died; and the whole human race died as well.
It was the devil who launched death in the world. And with the launch of death, something else happened, verse 15, the “fear of death” became a slavery throughout everyone’s life. The fear of death subjected everyone “to slavery all their lives.” And again, this is the reality that the king of terrors is the dominant fear in human society. People are terrified about death, and that’s why they’re preoccupied with fear. And when you exacerbate the potential of death, and you tell them there’s a looming threat that’s going to kill them, you can virtually get them to do almost anything, without reason or purpose.
But now wait a minute—Christ “[rendered] powerless the one who had the power of death,” the one who brought death into the human race, the one who enslaved the whole of humanity to a lifetime of fearing death. Does that mean that it’s the devil that kills us? Is he the one we have to fear, since he had the power of death? No, it says, “He had the power of death.”
Go back to the first book in the Bible ever written, the oldest book, Job, back to the first chapter of the first book, chapter 1. Job’s family, as you go down through chapter 1, was together. In verse 17 it says they were conversing. And while “still speaking, [someone] came and said, ‘The Chaldeans formed three bands and made a raid on the camels and took them and slew the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.’” “Somebody slaughtered all your servants.” And “while he was still speaking, another also came and said, ‘Your sons and your daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house’”—it was a family event—“‘and behold, a great wind came from across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people and they died, and I alone have escaped to you.’” So Job has had his family all killed in one natural disaster, you could say.
“Then Job arose,” verse 20, “tore his robe, shaved his head, fell to the ground and”—did what?—“worshiped.” Why didn’t he curse the devil? If the devil did it, why didn’t he curse the devil? Because the devil didn’t do it. Look what he says in verse 21: He worshiped and said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has”—what?—“taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” In the first cataclysm, in the oldest book, in the first chapter, there is a recognition that God is the one who gives life, and God is the one who takes life. Historically, Satan was the instrument that introduced death into the human race. God is in charge of who lives and who dies.
Now with that in mind, go to the twelfth chapter of Luke, as we get closer to the chapter that particularly will be our subject. But in the gospel of Luke, chapter 12, verse 4 and 5 make explicit what is obviously apparent in Job. Our Lord speaking in Luke 12:4, “I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do. But I warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!” That’s God.
God is the one who kills, God is the one who gives, God is the one who takes life, God is the one who casts into hell—fear Him! The devil doesn’t cast people into hell; the devil himself is cast into hell, Revelation chapter 20 and verse 10, by God. God kills, God casts into hell. James says, chapter 4, you shouldn’t say, “I’m going to do this; I’m going to do that.” You should say, “If the Lord wills, I’m going to do this, or I’m going to do that,” because your life is a vapor for a little time and, poof, vanishes away.
One chapter later, in the thirteenth chapter of the gospel of Luke, this issue of death comes up again. And there have been a couple of very interesting incidents in the headlines of the Jerusalem Gazette of that time because some Galileans, in verse 1, were down worshiping God, and Pilate’s men had come in and sliced them to ribbons and spilled their blood so that it was mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. And the people asked Jesus, “Why did that happen to them; are they worse than everybody else?” “And Jesus said to them, ‘Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’” “The same thing is going to happen to you if you don’t repent.”
And then in verse 4 another illustration: Eighteen people on whom the tower of Siloam fell, killed them. Were they “worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem?” Is that why they died? “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” This is Jesus saying, “You’re all going to die, and you’re not in charge of when it happens. It’s in the power of the One who kills and the One who gives life.”
And then He said in verse 6, here’s another parable: “A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; he came looking for fruit on it and didn’t find any. Said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’” The man represents God, and God is saying, “This is fruitless humanity; bring judgment.” But “he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; if not, cut it down.’” Jesus is saying we’re all living on borrowed time, we’re all living on borrowed time. Everybody who dies is an illustration of what’s going to happen to everyone. And if you’re still alive, you’re living on borrowed time.
I remember when 9/11 happened, on a Tuesday, and obviously all of us were trying to figure out the realities of it. It became apparent soon, and I decided to scramble and see if I couldn’t give a sermon the following Sunday to bring some clarity to it. I gave that sermon, and it came out as a book called Terrorism, Jihad, and the Bible—this is probably the fastest-printed book I’ve ever written in my life. 9/11, and it was published by December—that’s pretty fast for publishers. Because people wanted to know what was going on. And perhaps the most important chapter in the book is “Where was God [on September] 11?” What’s going on? I’ll tell you where God was: He was doing His work of giving and taking away. God is the one who takes life, just as God is the one who gives life.
And then a few days later was my first venture into CNN with Larry King, and subsequent to that we were together many times on his program. But I’ll never forget that first program, when he sat across from me about three feet away from my face, and he said, “What is the lesson of 9/11?” I said, “The lesson is you’re going to die, and you’re not in charge of when or how; that’s the lesson.”
It’s the lesson of the Tower of Siloam. It’s the lesson of going to worship and being sliced up by Pilate’s soldiers for no apparent reason. Everybody else is living on borrowed time, “because the wages of sin is”—what?—“death,” and “the soul that sins, it will die.” And you will all die. And I said to Larry King that day, I said, “Nobody died that wasn’t going to die.” We all die.
Now for us as Christians, that’s a glorious anticipation, a glorious anticipation because our eternity is settled, and is far better. But as we saw last time in Ephesians 2:12, unconverted people are without Christ in the world, without the commonwealth of Israel or citizenship in God’s kingdom. They’re without God, and they’re without hope. What creates dread facing death is having no hope for what is coming next. And you can play pretty smugly about it; you can act like you’re confident. But there is profound agony down in the heart of every person who thinks rationally about the reality that death could introduce something horrible, because everybody knows their sinfulness.
You know, hope is a common grace. Hope is a common grace. People can’t live without hope. And I’m not even talking about eternal hope here, I’m just talking about hope. Everybody hopes. I mean you hope next week will be better. You hope next week your boss will treat you better; you hope sometime you’ll get a raise. You hope sometime somebody will thank you for what you’ve done. You hope to meet a life partner. You hope to have children. You hope to get well. That’s a common grace. It’s deposited in human DNA so that we can survive the moment.
And along with hope is ignorance of the future, which aids our hope because if we knew what was coming we wouldn’t have any hope—because we would know what was going to happen, and that would define it all. So fortunately, we can’t know the future, and so we can live in hope. And I’m not talking about eternity, I’m just saying life itself; you’ve got to be able to say something is going to get better. People need that.
And “hope deferred,” says Proverbs, “makes the heart sick.” When people lose hope, it’s anxiety, it’s depression, it’s fear, it’s suicide. You can’t live without hope. People survive life’s troubles by hoping it’ll get better. And when there’s no sense of hope that it’s going to get better, despair takes over. People can’t live in despair.
We’re living in a time in our culture and our world when the hopelessness is exacerbated at a massive level. Fear is propagated endlessly. This adds to people’s anxiety and has added to the number of suicides. Most people, most people in our culture expect heaven; you can find that in a survey. “But everybody talkin’ about heaven ain’t going there,” as the old spiritual says. This life—you want hope in this life. But if you have hope only in this life, the Bible says, you’re of all people most miserable. You have to have hope beyond the grave, beyond death, or death is just totally paralyzing; and that is what the Christian faith provides. The worst thing is not to live in this life without hope, it’s to end up in the next life without hope eternally.
Now with that in mind, look at the sixteenth chapter of Luke, verse 19. This is Jesus giving us a story about a man in hell. This is the worst of all possibilities. This is the most terrifying of all parables Jesus ever told. This is a disappointment that is gut wrenching and permanent.
The main character is a rich man. He’s the feature, and he expects heaven, he expects heaven. He’s very likely part of the Pharisees, who have been discussed back in verse 14; you see them mentioned there. So this would be a Jewish man, perhaps a Pharisee, but a very religious man whose theology was sort of like Job’s friends. He was rich, which in their ideas was God’s affirmation—if you’re rich, you’re good; if you’re rich, you’re righteous. Job’s friends told him when he had trouble, “You’ve got sin somewhere in your life,” because that was the theology. “If you’re living a wretched life, you’re a wretched sinner; if you’re living a full, rich life, you’re a very righteous person.”
So here is this “righteous” man, this rich man. Let’s see what happens to him, verse 19, “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,” or Abraham’s side, “and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades,” or hell, “he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus” by his side. “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, ‘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.’”
The drama of this is obvious. This is a man, this rich man, who obviously was religious. He believed in heaven and hell, we can assume. He believed in sin and righteousness, he believed in judgment. But he also believed he was headed to heaven. That is the delusion of self-righteous, religious people: He deserved heaven, and so did everybody in his family, and God had validated that belief by making them rich, which they saw as God’s stamp of approval on their righteousness.
It’s a shocking story. In fact, it’s so shocking that you wonder why Jesus would even tell such an agonizingly sad story. The answer to that is as a warning. And any warning is both merciful and compassionate, to teach people who expect heaven but end up in hell what went wrong. How vital is that?
Now the whole story is just loaded with contrasts and reversals. Go down to verse 25; that’s the heart of the contrasts and reversals: “During your life”—the rich man—“you received your good things, likewise Lazarus bad things; now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony.” This is a great reversal. It looked like Lazarus was the most wretched of all beings because life was so horrible for him. Surely that is evidence of how much God had cursed him; the rich man must have become rich because God honored him. But Jesus says just the opposite is true. The rich man had everything in this life and hell in the next; the poor man had nothing in this life and heaven in the next.
The contrasts are constant. Story starts with the poor man outside, the rich man inside; it ends with the rich man inside hell and the poor man in heaven. The poor man at the beginning of the story has no food, the rich man has food; it ends the poor man is at a feast, and the rich man can’t even get a drop of water. It starts with the poor man with all kinds of needs and the rich man with no needs, and then it ends with the poor man having all his needs met and the rich man having nothing. The poor man is being licked by dogs, and the rich man is sumptuously feasting. And then the poor man is standing by Abraham, and the rich man is alone in hell without relief. Starts with the poor man being the one who suffers and the rich man satisfied, and it flips to the rich man being the one who suffers endlessly and forever and the poor man satisfied. The poor man wants a crumb from the table, the rich man is a feaster; at the end the poor man is at Abraham’s feast, and the rich man has nothing.
This is our Lord’s way of attacking that theology that goes all the way back to the book of Job. The story starts with the poor man seeking help and the rich man needing none, and it ends with the poor man having no need for help and the rich man having all kinds of need for help but none to help. Story starts the poor man is a nobody, the rich man is well known; but it ends up with the poor man having a name, and the rich man having no name. The poor man had no dignity in death, the rich man had dignity in death; the poor man had dignity in heaven, and the rich man had no dignity in hell. The rich man had hope, but it was a false hope; the poor man had no hope, but in the end he was in the kingdom of God, and the rich man was not.
The poor man never speaks in the story. He’s silent; he’s only there for contrast. He does have a name, and that’s because everybody in heaven has a name, and nobody in hell has a name. Rich man never had a name, even though he’s the main character; it’s a story about a rich man without a name. He had a burial with honor, but no name. The poor man had a terrible end; he was thrown in Gehenna, the dump, the Jerusalem dump, to be burned with the trash; but he ended up standing beside Abraham in heaven.
So the man says in the parable, “If somebody came back from hell and warned us, we wouldn’t end up there.” Well, here in Jesus’ parable is a testimony from hell. This is the reality of hell. Even though Jesus invents a parable, He invents a parable that is related to reality.
Now it has three parts: life, death, and life after death. So look at the beginning of it: life, verse 19, “There was a rich man, and he was habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day.” Extravagant, habitual, lavish; he would be on the television program The Filthy Rich. He’s got it all, and all the time. This is as extreme as riches can be: “habitually dressed in purple and fine linen,” very costly, and “joyously living in splendor every day.”
On the contrast, there’s “a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores.” This is a poor man, ptōchos— it means essentially “extreme poverty.” Some places translate it “worthless”; he’s worth nothing, he has nothing. He’s got sores, no doubt ulcers and oozing lesions because of his disability. He is a disabled man, because it tells us he was laid at the gate of the rich man; the word “laid” is a strong word, ballō. It means “to throw.” Somebody got sick of this guy; theoretically, somebody was tired of this guy begging in his neighborhood, so he somehow picked this beggar up and threw him down in the front of the gate of the richest man in town. A gate—the word for “gate” here is a large, wide gate. This is an estate. And his name is Lazarus. Why does he have a name? He has a name because that name means “whom the Lord has helped,” “whom the Lord has helped.” It’s the same as the Old Testament Hebrew name Eleazar. So the rich man has no name because no one in hell has a name, which is to speak to the issue of no relationships in hell that have any value or any meaning or in any way alleviate torment.
So the contrast in life is extreme. The rich man has family, friends, wealth, lifestyle, feasting, splendor, honor—needs nothing; the poor man alone, rags, disabled, sores, repulsive, hungry, humiliated. In fact the rich man would have disdained the poor man. And that’s the implication here, because he would have thought this man is what he is because he’s been cursed by God. He would have no interest in him whatsoever. In fact he would say that, “If I did anything for the man, I might be acting against the will of God who has cursed him, because he’s so wretched.” So he offers no hope, he offers no compassion and no mercy. And the man who’s been thrown down at the gate and can’t move himself just lies there.
Verse 21, he wanted “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.” That’s a very interesting verse. In ancient times you used a lot of bread at a meal. And they would take older stale bread and put it on the table as a kind of a napkin. Your hands got oily because you were dipping bread in some kind of sauce, and you were eating. And how did you clean your hands? You took some of that stale bread, and you used that stale bread to wipe the oil off your hands, and then they would throw it under the table or off to the side where the dogs would be able to eat it. This rich man wouldn’t even give this poor man the filthy crumbs with which the wealthy at the feast washed their hands. And we know there were dogs around because when the dogs were finished with the crumbs, it appears they went to lick the poor man’s sores. This is roadkill, nothing else. The rich man is completely indifferent, smugly self-righteous. So that’s their life.
Now secondly, death, verse 22: “Poor man died”—everybody does—“was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s side.” This is just beyond shocking. The Jewish people who were listening to this, certainly Pharisees, they would have gagged immediately; they would have choked. They would not be able to accept the fact that such a wretched, vile person under such a curse would stand beside Abraham, the father of the faith, the father of Israel, the father of the faithful, the greatest of all Jews, the first Jew, the one who started the entire race. This wretched beggar is standing next to Abraham?
When he died, it doesn’t say anything about a funeral. He died, he was “carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.” That means his soul. His body would have gone to the dump, Gehenna, would have been thrown in the dump outside Jerusalem. The word Gehenna, from which we get the idea of hell—where fire burned continually as the picture of hell. No funeral, final disgrace: Throw his body in the dump; throw him in hell for a hellish life.
On the other hand, “The rich man also died and was buried”; he had an appropriate funeral. Both died because we all do. But what the Jews would have thought—the rich man would be next to Abraham, and the poor man would be in hell—was the opposite of the truth. This is a death blow to self-righteousness, and it’s a death blow to the fact that the circumstances that you may have in your life are no indication of God’s favor on you. There are wretched people who are poor, and righteous people who are poor; and there are wretched people who are rich, and righteous people who are rich.
The issue here is the third category. First life, then death, and then life after death, verse 22: “Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.” This is impossible. The angels? Shocking, inconceivable. God sends His angels to bring this man into the presence of Abraham? Now we know why he had the name Lazarus, the one whom the Lord helps. The poor man is taken to the father of the faithful. In this world he was an outcast; in heaven he stands right next to the greatest Jew of all time, and that is the ultimate place of heavenly honor. It’s just so stunning. On the other hand, “The rich man also died and was buried. In” hell, or “Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment.” Here is somebody who thought he was going to heaven, who ended up in hell. The rich man was buried, but the rich man wound up in hell and in torment.
And by the way, hell is a conscious place, not soul sleep. Our Lord makes sure that we understand that, because when he “died and was buried, in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said . . .” He’s very conscious of his surroundings. He knows he’s there. He knows he’s there—are you ready for this?—forever because he doesn’t ask to be given a release. He doesn’t say, “Get me out of here.” All he can say is, “Have mercy on me.” He knew he was where he was going to be forever.
So the merciless one wants mercy, and he cries out to father Abraham. When he says, “Father Abraham,” he’s sort of connecting the Jewish line; “Hey, I’m one of you, I’m one of your children generations later. You owe me this. I’m a Jew. Have mercy on me, and send Lazarus.” Oh my, he still thinks Lazarus is inferior to him. “Send Lazarus,” like Lazarus was just a messenger, “that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool of my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.” This is hell, and he knows he’ll never be anywhere else, and all he wants is a moment of mercy and a drop of water to relieve the agony of the flame of hell.
Jesus talked about hell as fire, darkness, torment, weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth. No crumbs for the poor man, and no relief for the rich man now. Why? Because everything has changed, verse 25: “Abraham said, ‘Child, remember during your life you received good things, and likewise Lazarus had bad things. Now he’s being comforted here, and you’re in agony.’” That’s how it is. You may be very successful in this life. “What does it mean to somebody if you gain the whole world and lose”—what?—“your soul?” Heaven reverses that.
So he wants Lazarus to serve him—because he sees Lazarus as somebody beneath him—and to come and give him some relief, so cries to Abraham to send him. And Abraham says in that verse, 25, he said no. No, things are different now. You expected heaven, you got hell. You might expect it of him that he would be in hell, but he’s in heaven. This is the great reversal.
And hell is conscious, and hell is forever, and hell is agonizing, and hell is torment. And then father Abraham in the parable, verse 26, says, “And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed”—stērizō in the Greek; it means something set fast. There is a concrete chasm that can’t be moved, a great chasm “so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able; none may cross over there to us.” Nobody goes back and forth from heaven to hell. Hell is forever, hell is agonizing, hell is torment, and there’s no relief. You don’t even get a drop of water; you certainly don’t get a messenger from heaven to come and comfort you.
That’s the story. But what’s the point? The point is this: Why did that rich man end up in hell? Why did that happen? Why do people go to hell? The answer comes in verse 27: The rich man says, “I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house.” “OK, if you won’t send him here, if you won’t send him here to give me a dip of water, 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.” “If you won’t send him to me, send him to my brothers.” This is one more request, one more complaint. “Our family lacked information. We didn’t know about hell; no one ever came back from hell to warn us. We would have believed if somebody had come back from hell. We just needed more information. If we’d have known that hell was like this, we would have done whatever it required to avoid it. We didn’t know.”
And Abraham says, “You can’t claim ignorance.” Verse 29: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” “Moses and the Prophets” is just a title for Scripture—they have Scripture. That’s the whole point of the story. You want to avoid hell, go to the Scripture. You’re not going to find somebody who’s been to hell and back. There are a lot of fraudulent claims like that, crazy people. If you’re waiting for somebody to come back from hell and give you an eyewitness account, it’s not going to happen.
There is one who, in His death on the cross, showed up in hell—and that’s the Lord Jesus Christ—and declared His triumph over the demons; and He came back from hell and was raised from the dead. Scripture is the only thing that gives you the truth that allows you to escape hell and enter heaven. It’s not your good works; Scripture has the revelation that provides the way to escape hell. And it’s in the Old Testament; salvation is by grace through faith—we see that in Genesis. Substitutionary death of Christ in Isaiah 53. “The just shall live by faith,” Habakkuk 2:4.
So the Scripture gave you all you needed. And verse 31 is the capstone: “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.’” And He did that; and He had been to hell and back. The only way you’ll ever escape hell and enter heaven is by believing the Scripture. “Faith comes by hearing the word concerning Christ.” It is the Scripture that gives us life and salvation. We’re begotten again by the Word of truth. Believe the gospel; that’s the only hope of heaven, that’s the only escape from hell.
The world is filled with people who expect heaven and will get hell. How do you know that? Because at the judgment you have a scene in which Jesus says this: “Many will say unto Me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we do this and that?’ ‘Depart from Me, you workers of iniquity; I never knew you.’”
People without Christ need to be afraid. They need to be afraid; they need to be terrified. They need to see death as the king of terrors. And they need to understand this: that it’s death and then the judgment. There’s no purgatory, there’s no waiting place, there’s no soul sleep. Conscious and everlasting, unrelieved, eternal punishment in a no-name environment without any relationships. The only way you can escape hell is simply stated in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not”—what?—“perish, but have eternal life.”
And Christ went to hell and declared His triumph over the demons and Satan. It was Christ who took the power of death away from Satan. It is God who gives life, and it is God who kills, and it is God alone who judges. Let’s pray together.
Sooner or later, Lord, when we come to Your Word, we have to face the harsh reality of eternal punishment. If we have any love in our hearts, if we have any compassion, if we have any tender-heartedness, if we have any mercy, if we have any lovingkindness, if we have any care for souls, we have to talk about this. People are afraid of death; they’re afraid of it, and they don’t know what’s coming. Once they find out what’s coming—eternal, unrelieved punishment and torment in hell—they ought to be even more terrified, and that terror ought to drive them to You to confess their sins and acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, the one who died for our sins, the one who rose to give us eternal life.
Lord, I pray that there will be some even in this hour today who will fall down and worship You, and cry out for forgiveness and salvation from sin and hell. May this parable have profound impacts on all who hear. Those without Christ have every reason to fear, and they don’t fear even enough. Lord, we know most people fear only what they think is going to happen in this life, and they have no sense of this eternal punishment. When they understand that, and their fear and dread comes over them, Lord, by Your Holy Spirit draw them to Yourself for grace and mercy and forgiveness. That’s our prayer. Amen.
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