A Warning for Life
Preached by Jason Abbott
When I was in high school, two of my friends got in trouble with the police. I honestly don’t recall what they did, but I do remember them having to visit prison on a Saturday for an eye-opening “scare” tour. Essentially, they were escorted around the prison grounds by some guards, as an inmate described in graphic detail what incarceration was like. The goal of this, I imagine, was to impress upon them that how they choose to live their lives—whether they’d obey or disobey the law—would inevitable have consequences for their future.
And, in today’s text, Jesus in a similar fashion gives the religious authorities of his day, as well as us, a glimpse of the afterlife. And, his point is to demonstrate that what we believe now, and how we live-out those beliefs, fixes our forever.
19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
Jesus highlights three truths in this story: (1st) that life after death happens; and, since life after death happens and is real, (2nd) that life before death matters; then, finally, (3rd) that belief in the testimony of Scripture leads to salvation.
1. Life after death happens (vv. 22-23).
This wasn’t a question Jesus needed to debate with the crowd. They believed in life after death. They might have had questions, perhaps, concerning the nature of that afterlife, but they’d have broadly agreed that there was one.
Yet, in our time and in our context, this is no longer a given. Many people will scoff at the concept of the afterlife—at the conception of some heaven or hell. Maybe, you’re here today, and you are that person. If so, we’re glad you’ve come because Jesus wants you to meditate on this story too. Jesus wants to confront you and me with the certainty of our deaths and with the question of what comes next. It’s an immensely important question since what we believe about it—as we’ll see in a moment—should ultimately transform the way we live now.
Well, Jesus certainly believes in the afterlife. And, he implicitly teaches us about its supreme importance. What do I mean by that? Well, think about his story. Think about its structure. Consider the amount of material about life before death and compare that to the amount of material about life after death. When we do that, we find there are just three verses given to the former and ten verses to the latter. Jesus basically tells us: This is how these two dudes lived on earth. Now let’s talk about how they’ll live forever and ever and ever more. So, implicitly, this parable from Jesus tells us that death is just the beginning of our history.
I think C. S. Lewis picks up on this in the final book of his Narnia series—The Last Battle. There, his youthful protagonists are all entering into the afterlife. And, this is how he describes the scene:
But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read; which goes on forever…. 1
Let me make a couple of observation before we move on. First, if this life is, in reality, only the cover and title page of our existence, then shouldn’t that truth transform how we live now? Shouldn’t that truth change how we look at sufferings and temptations in this life? Shouldn’t that help us to persevere—even to persevere with contentment and joy?
I’ll illustrate what I mean. I shared a few weeks back that I don’t like to fly. Being squeezed between two strangers, in a sweaty tube, some forty thousand feet above the earth is pretty low on my list of pleasures. Yet, I will gladly endure that for seven straight hours if it means I’m headed to Europe for a three-week vacation with my wife. You see, the prospect of a holiday—with the person I love most—makes seven hours of sweaty, smelly awkwardness seem like nothing. I can even, in the midst of that trial, be joyous as I consider what’s to come.
Shouldn’t we, as Christians, view trials in a fallen and sinful world like that, as we consider the imminent reality of eternity in heaven with our God?
Here’s my second observation. Jesus doesn’t simply picture eternity in bliss but eternity in bliss and eternity in torment. In short, Jesus doesn’t teach us here that all dogs go to heaven. There is an afterlife for those who are in God’s favor (i.e. Lazarus resting with Abraham) and there’s also one for those outside his favor (i.e. this miserable rich man). Friends, this is the biblical view; heaven really exists and so does hell. And that too should change how we, as believers, live.
Magician Penn Jillette, of the duo Penn & Teller is an outspoken atheist who, I believe, actually understands the importance of this matter better than many of us do. Just listen to what Jillette has to say about how our belief in a real heaven and real hell should transform the way we live in relationship with all those people who don’t believe in them. He explains:
If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? 2
Friends, our beliefs must change how we live. How, then, is the biblical truth of heaven and hell transforming you—transforming how you behave?
Well, because there’s an afterlife, next Jesus shows us that:
2. Life before death matters (vv. 19-21, 24-26)..
Let’s look briefly at the three verses that describe these men’s earthly lives. Jesus explains their situations in this way:
There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs…licked his sores (vv. 19-21).
Now, when we read this, we recognize a contrast, but we may not recognize how much of a contrast is really there. Consider just a few specifics more closely with me. First, let’s zoom in on the description of the rich man.
- Purple colored clothing was the attire of kings and queens. The dye used for such garments was extracted from snails. Think of the work it took simply to get enough die for one robe. This was an extreme-luxury item.
- “Fine linen” refers to his underwear. This man had designer underpants.
- And, of course he eats extravagantly too—feasting daily.
Now, let’s zoom in on poor Lazarus.
- Lazarus “was laid” at the front “gate” of this rich man. The verb suggests that Lazarus was probably unable to move himself—either he’s crippled or too weak from hunger to walk. 3 Someone has to lay him there.
- Lazarus was so hungry that he “desired” to eat even the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. He longs for the rich man’s garbage.
- And, he’s covered with sores, and dogs even come by and lick his sores. This is not a positive image. (Share a dog-lover’s false apologetic.)
What a stark contrast between how the two lived…right next to one another! What’s Jesus’ point? Why this contrast? Well, he does it to show that what we do with this life will determine how we spend eternity in the next. Our beliefs matter and our choices matter; and, they have eternal consequences—final consequences which cannot be reversed in the afterlife.
This is what Abraham clearly tells the rich man when he asks, from Hades, for a simple drop of water; isn’t it?
[The rich man] called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us’ (vv. 24-26).
Friends, the name Lazarus means “God helps.” His name is clearly intended as a shorthand way of showing that his faith is in God. And, friends, the selfish acts of the rich man display his faithlessness. This rich man’s stomach and desires are without question his god; a god he continues to worship in hell; just ask yourself—What is his focus in hell? His thirst; his desires. What is his view of Lazarus there? Just a pawn who should serve him—Send him for water! Send him to my brothers! He’s always thinking—Me…me…me!—even in hell.
Friends, who you become now, through what you believe and how you act, will work itself into your eternal DNA. If you place your faith in Christ Jesus now, you will progressively act more and more like him in this life, and, for all eternity, you will reflect his glory. However, if you place your faith in the pleasures of life, if you trust in your appetites now, then you’ll progressively become self-centered and self-focused on into eternity. What you worship, you will forever resemble.
Are you starting to see how much life before death matters? Now is the time for change. Now’s the time for turning from your sinful ways and turning to Christ. Brothers and sisters, this life is only the start of the story—the cover and title page of the great and glorious forever that’s ours in Jesus. So, make it count!
Finally, we come to what may be the most enigmatic thing that Jesus shares in his little story; namely, Abraham’s claim concerning the power of the testimony of Moses and the Prophets. Essentially he says that:
3. Belief in the testimony of Scripture leads to salvation (vv. 27-31).
The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his 5 brothers—at the close of the story—so they can avoid making the same mistakes he made during his life; so that they may, in the end, avoid his torment. Here’s their exchange:
Abraham said [to him], ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And [the rich man] said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ [Abraham] said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead’ (vv. 29-31).
Let’s begin by acknowledging the elevated, powerful, and persuasive view of Scripture presented here. The witness of Scripture, says Jesus, is better equipped to convince and convert the lost than a miracle—even the miracle of resurrection. This is an unbelievable statement about the preeminence of the Bible’s testimony in God’s salvation work. I wonder if we rightly cherish Scripture and its testimony in our lives and the lives of others—because Jesus shows us that it is unparalleled in its authority and power to bring spiritually dead people to life.
As I was thinking over this, it occurred to me that Jesus didn’t just teach this but lived it out in his ministry as well. In short, he relied on the testimony of Moses and the Prophets when he made disciples. For example, consider what Jesus does at the end of Luke, after his resurrection. There, he meets a couple of his disciples who are kept from recognizing him. As they talk along the road, the two followers tell him about his crucifixion and how they’d hoped he was the Savior.
So, here’s Jesus walking beside two disciples who are down in the dumps because they think he’s dead and that his ministry was a failure. If you were Jesus, wouldn’t you be tempted to immediately reveal yourself and urge them to believe because of the resurrection? I would. But, Jesus doesn’t. Instead, Luke tells us:
…beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:27).
Friends, Jesus does not consider it enough to simply believe on the miracle of his resurrection. Instead, he thinks his resurrection is important and trustworthy because it’s the fulfillment of his Father’s salvation plan revealed in the Scriptures. They work together; they must not be separated.
As a pastor, let me just encourage you to be men and women of God’s word. Do you want your faith in Christ to grow and strengthen? Then, study your Bible! Scripture testifies and affirms that Jesus is the Christ—that he’s the world’s Savior. And, if you want to understand your Bible, read it in light of the person and work of Jesus—read it in light of his resurrection. The two must not be separated!
(Close with the question—Is Abraham being too harsh with the rich man when he denies his request to send Lazarus from heaven to his brothers? Not at all, because God has chosen to send someone far greater to warn and to save.)