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Digging Deeper Into God’s Word: Lazarus and the Rich Man

Jesus pulls back the curtain and gives us a glimpse of eternity. He does so by speaking about a certain rich man and a poor beggar named Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). These two men experience a great reversal after death. The rich man, ostentatious in life, finds himself tormented in hell. Lazarus, pitiful in life, finds himself comforted after dying. More than the images Jesus paints, the words he reports unveil a vital truth.

The ensuing dialogue in this pericope is between the rich man and Abraham, the great patriarch of faith who is alive in eternity. In v. 29, Abraham is responding to the rich man’s request that someone be sent to warn his brothers, who have not yet died. In his eternal anguish, the rich man realizes that his brothers are in jeopardy and he has
compassion on them.

The remarks between the rich man and Abraham are always introduced by an aorist tense verb in the Greek text (εἶπεν in vv. 24, 25, 27, 30, 31) with the one exception of Abraham’s statement in v. 29. Here, Luke chooses to employ a so-called historical present tense (λέγει), which marks Abraham’s response to the rich man as emphatic and therefore critical for understanding the Author’s purpose in this text. Abraham’s grammatically marked statement is the key for properly interpreting Jesus’ teaching in this account.

A literal rendering of v. 29 is as follows: “Now Abraham says (vs. “said”), ‘They have Moses and the Prophets, they must listen to them.’” Moses and the Prophets, of course, is a first-century reference to Scripture. Abraham tells the rich man that nobody need go to his living brothers from the dead in order to warn them about hell because they have the Bible and they should read it and obey it.

The present-tense introduction, “Abraham says,” elevates the status of the patriarch’s statement from a simple response which is bound to the immediate context of the rich man’s request and instead places it on the level of an unchangeable truth (gnomic). They have God’s written word and they must listen and obey. So the idea of obeying God’s written word emerges as the crux of the matter for the rich man and for Jesus’ listeners (and Luke’s readers), and for us.

Abraham is affirming that God’s primary method of revealing himself is his written word. This is not to deny the work of his Spirit (see Joel 2 and Acts 2) or the revelation of his Person through his handiwork in creation (Psalm 19:1-6), or through the testimony of his people (Psalm 9:11). Nevertheless, the revelation of God through creation, sometimes called general revelation, is incomplete without special revelation: God’s written word (see Psalm 19:7-11). In addition, God’s Spirit works through his written word by illuminating the Bible to the human heart (Luke 24:45). Moreover, the spoken word of the prophet/apostle (and the witness of every believer) is empowered by God’s Spirit to reflect the apostolic message with precision, that is, to express accurately in a given historical context the universal truth revealed by Scripture (Matthew 10:19; see also Romans 10:17).

The rich man in Jesus’ teaching erred when he discounted the critical importance of hearing and acting on God’s written word. His hard-hearted response toward the poor man (Lazarus) who was left begging at his gate every day was the visible manifestation of his rejection of God’s word (which repeatedly enjoins God’s people to be gracious toward the poor; see Exodus 23:11 and many more OT examples). The rich man ignored the poor man because he ignored God’s word. The rich man’s indifference toward the poor man was a symptom of his indifference toward Scripture, which reveals an indifference toward God himself. This understanding of the rich man’s error keeps us from missing Jesus’ real point in Luke 16.

Jesus’ presentation strongly implies that the rich man’s cavalier attitude toward the poor man at his gate contributed to his disappointing eternal destination. As a result, some readers of this text might conclude that one’s merciful attention to the poor is the desired end result, therefore, any who care for the poor have no real need for the Bible. After all, they are obeying God’s word on their own impetus. In fact, they might decide that they are morally superior to those who study the Bible because they have no such need for God and the Bible to inspire them to do the right thing, no need to be frightened into acting right by an eternal fiery hell. But this would be a grave mistake as surely as the rich man’s error.

In another place (Matthew 5:14-16), Jesus tells his disciples that they are the light of world, so they should let their light shine before people so that people will see their good deeds and glorify their Father in the heavens. Helping the poor is good. Glorifying God is the goal. Helping others without bringing glory to God will ultimately bring glory to the helper instead of the Maker. The Maker of the heavens and the earth who is the Giver of life is also the one who provides us with the resources to help the poor. To take his resources and help others without giving him credit is robbing God of the honor that he rightfully deserves. In other words, helping people without worshiping God is an eternal mistake.

The rich man emphatically denies the necessity of God’s word in his rejoinder to Abraham by beginning with a strengthened form of a Greek negative particle (οὐχί vs. οὐ): “No! Father Abraham, but if . . .” (see Luke 16:30). His personal conviction is that God must do more than merely provide his written word (at least for important people like the rich man; he and his five brothers deserve more from God!). He insists that someone return from the dead and convince his brothers to change their ways. And this is the rich man’s eternal miscalculation, insisting that a miracle is necessary to inspire belief and obedience, insisting that he can demand of God how God must do his business, and dismissing the power of God’s written word (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and Hebrews 4:12).

How many people today respond to the Bible by saying “No! God, but if . . .”? They reject the idea that God’s word is sufficient. They imply that their unbelief and disobedience is God’s fault for not doing more, for not giving them the obligatory miraculous sign. If only God would do right, then they would act right, so they imply.

Others assert that they have discovered a way to experience the Living God which circumvents or minimizes Scripture. But anyone who suggests that there is an avenue to God and to his truth which trivializes or ignores the Bible should be corrected quickly and rejected completely if they persist in promoting such a dangerously incorrect notion.

For instance, those who seem to elevate God’s Spirit above God’s word are apparently unaware that the Spirit of God is committed to the word of God. The primary revelation of Christ is the New Testament. Our choice is not between Spirit and word. The choice is between Spirit-word and confusion-ignorance (which leads to eternal disaster).

No doubt the rich man had concluded before he died that his apparent success in life, which came without serious attention to Scripture, meant that God’s written word was of little or no consequence, at least for him and people of his privileged status (or his intellectual superiority). He was assuming an elite position, either not knowing or not considering seriously enough the truth revealed in God’s word that the Lord opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (Proverbs 3:34; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5).

The rich man exemplifies the proud. Lazarus exemplifies the humble. The rich man, pampered in life, finds himself in hell after death. Lazarus, poor and pathetic in life, finds himself carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom in death (a place of honor at the heavenly feast). Jesus’ teaching in this text shatters the rich man’s deadly illusion that Scripture is somehow insufficient or optional. The Bible is more important than the most impressive miracle: even someone rising from the dead.

The statement about rising from the dead is ironic because Jesus would be resurrected and show himself to eyewitnesses with many proofs of his conquest over the grave. After a cruel and shameful execution on a cross at Calvary, in fulfillment of God’s written word, Jesus was raised alive by God from his tomb, also fulfilling God’s written promise. But despite the magnitude of Jesus’ greatest miracle, his resurrection, some would still refuse to believe (Matthew 28:17). So this teaching about the rich man and Lazarus is prophetic, predicting with accuracy that his own resurrection would be insufficient to inspire faith for some who were eyewitnesses.

Miracles cannot take the place of the Bible. We must accept the reality that God’s word is sufficient for saving faith. And the written words of the Prophet, in this case the Lord Jesus Christ himself, are worthy of our greatest and most careful attention. Eternity demands it.

Brother Richard Foster

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Why Do So Many People Love Spock So Much?

Spock died. That is, Leonard Nimoy passed away. Devoted fans of Star Trek sometimes have trouble separating the man from the myth, or the pop-culture icon.

In fact, Nimoy’s autobiography was titled I Am Not Spock. But fans were so unhappy that he subsequently published another book titled I Am Spock.

It’s no surprise that Spock leaves such a big footprint on our generation. He portrayed the character of an intelligent, thoughtful, courageous and sacrificial man. Even his one apparent fault, a lack of emotion, was mitigated by the fact that he chose to live with those who thrive on emotions (After all, he was half-human. . . .).

Spock leaves behind some well-known sayings. “Live long and prosper” (Can you make the Vulcan “V” with your fingers?) “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” or of the one.

That last statement is speaking about sacrifice. A few, or one, should be willing to make great personal sacrifice when necessary in order to benefit the many. And in one of the Star Trek movies, Spock does just that, selflessly giving up his life in order to save his friends.

Then with a great Hollywood twist, Spock is resurrected from the dead. Alive again and reunited with his friends (and able to continue making more movies!).

These themes should be familiar to many of us, not merely because we grew up watching Star Trek, but because we have read our Bibles. That’s right, our Bibles.

The Bible includes the record of the greatest one-for-many sacrifice ever made. In an upper room in Jerusalem during the Passover Feast almost 2,000 years ago Jesus spoke these words: This is my blood of the covenant, poured out for many” (Mark 14:24).

Later that night he surrendered himself to his enemies. They executed him on a Roman Cross. After giving sight to the blind, casting out demons and feeding the hungry, it turns out that his death was his mission. He came to give his life as a ransom for many.

Then they laid Jesus’ broken body in a tomb, thinking that his story was finished. But on the third day that tomb was empty. Death lost its grip on Jesus.

Is Hollywood borrowing material from God?

Now I know that Star Trek presents a utopian view of humanity’s future. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, envisioned a future when human effort has wiped out war, poverty, racism and all the other evils entangling our race now.

More than that, Star Trek finds its setting in a universe where life evolved on many different planets. All of this seems so secular that any comparison with the Bible and Christianity would be absurd.

But then there is Spock. Yes, he is the ultimate scientist. But surprisingly, he has a spiritual side. Maybe Spock is a reminder that science is not enough. Spirit cannot be denied.

The Bible assures us that God is Lord of the heavens and the earth, Maker of the visible and the invisible. He penned the laws that regulate matter and time and energy. He also revealed the truth that governs morals and ethics and worship. He gives the words that bring eternal life.

Why does a fictional character like Spock resonate with such power in our culture? Maybe because he points to more than secular scientific data. He reminds us that we are spiritual beings after all, searching for ultimate truth.

We live in the great age of science, but secular science has not erased our deep yearning for something more, something metaphysical. That something more has been revealed and awaits our discovery. God promises that if we seek him with
all our hearts, we will find him.

Richard Foster, Grace Baptist, March 2015

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What Are We Doing?

God did not save us so that we can do whatever we want. God saved us so that we can do whatever he wants. When we were doing whatever we wanted, we were doomed. But God graciously called us to salvation so that we would escape the disaster of doing whatever we want.

Salvation is more than going to heaven when we die. To be saved is to be serving God now. God’s forgiveness is not a spiritual safety suit that protects us from disaster while we go on ignoring the Lord and his kingdom. Nobody should fool himself into thinking that he has a mansion on a hill in eternity while caring little or nothing for the Master’s work now.

Jesus was very plain and outspoken about the signs of salvation in a person’s life. “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit,” he said, “nor can a bad tree produce good fruit” (Matthew 7:18). In other words, saved people act saved and those who do not act saved are lost.

Jesus also said, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of the heavens, but only the one doing the will of my Father in the heavens” (Matthew 7:21). Words without works are worthless.

The Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, “With Christ I am crucified, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live now in the flesh, by faith I live through the Son of God, the one loving me and giving himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). As followers of Jesus, we have left behind our old lives.

Baptism is a wonderful picture of this great spiritual truth. Jesus’ followers are buried with Christ through baptism, representing the death of our former way of life, when we did whatever we wanted. We are raised to live a new life, the life of doing what God wants, participating in his kingdom (see Romans 6).

By faith in Jesus, God gives us a new life that changes even more than our actions. God’s indwelling Spirit also changes our desires. As a result, followers of Jesus begin to want to do what God wants. The desire for the old things fades away in the lives of those who are really saved.

In the Psalms God promises, “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). Seeking and following God is a life-changing activity. Godly desires are born and nurtured in the hearts of God’s people. We no longer find true joy or satisfaction in the old ways of the world, but we discover a passion for obeying God and contributing to his great kingdom work.

When we are truly saved, we share in the resurrection of Jesus, not just because we will someday be raised to live in his Presence forever, but because we live in his resurrection power every day, doing things that are pleasing to God.

As we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus this Easter, let’s rejoice not just in the fact that Jesus was raised in the past and that we will be raised in the future. Let’s rejoice in the fact that we have been raised to walk in newness of life now. Because he lives, we can face today!

May the power of the Risen Christ keep on changing us,

Brother Richard Foster

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Our Promise for Eternity

Jesus went to many of the same places that we go to in life. He attended at least one wedding, went to many worship services, accepted dinner invitations, visited at friends’ homes, and also showed up at some funerals. Marvelous things often happened when Jesus went to these events. Water turned to wine at the wedding. Demons were cast out of people at worship services. Arrogant rulers were humbled at dinner parties. Physically ill folks were healed at friends’ houses.

Nobody could ever forget what happened when Jesus appeared at funerals. One time a little girl had died and the house was full of mourners wailing and crying (Mark 5). Her parents were devastated at the loss. Jesus went into the room where the dead girl’s body had been placed. He gently took her hand and spoke to her. “Little girl, I say to you, get up!” And she did.

Another time Jesus and his followers came to a town where they were having a funeral (Luke 7). A widow had lost her only son. A large crowd from town was with her, carrying his body out for burial. Jesus’ heart went out to the woman. “Don’t cry,” he told her. He touched the coffin and spoke, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” He sat up and began to talk, no longer dead.

Perhaps Jesus’ most dramatic and memorable funeral appearance was when Lazarus died (John 11). Lazarus and his sisters were friends of Jesus. When he arrived they had already buried Lazarus but his sisters and many of their friends were still mourning. The sisters, Mary and Martha, each told Jesus that if he had come sooner, their brother would be alive. After hearing this the second time, Jesus wept. But he went on to the tomb where they had buried Lazarus and after praying he cried out to the dead man, “Lazarus, come out!” And he did.

Jesus told Martha, Lazarus’ sister, that he is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25). On another occasion he said that he had God’s power and authority to lay down his own life for God’s people and then to take it up again (John 10:17-18). He also said that a day is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out (John 5:28). Some will rise up to a resurrection of life, others to a resurrection of judgment.

Jesus is the resurrected Lord who is the source of resurrection power for all his people. This great truth is our promise for eternity. We can face living and dying with confidence because Jesus is our resurrection and our life. The proof is his own resurrection, the foundation of our faith. We remember Jesus’ resurrection power always, but we turn our hearts and minds toward his empty tomb in a special way each Easter. Let us prepare our hearts to do so once again.

May God’s Spirit fill us with the power and the joy of Christ’s resurrection,

Brother Richard Foster

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Offended or Overjoyed?

It was a legal hearing to determine the charges against him.  The Roman commander had called for the Jewish ruling council to investigate Paul.  If the council was able to prove its charges against him, then the Roman commander would probably turn Paul over to them, and they would almost certainly execute him.

With his own life hanging in the balance, Paul stood to defend himself.  He started by claiming his innocence but the council refused to hear that.  What would he do?  What could he possibly say to a group that was so hostile toward him and bent on ending his life?  Here’s what he did say, “I am on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead.” (See Acts 22:30-23:10)

For the Apostle Paul, everything he believed and everything he lived for came down to the resurrection.  The resurrected Jesus Christ had appeared to Paul on that road to Damascus and everything changed.  Since Jesus was really resurrected, then the resurrection became the most important thing in life.

Not everybody agreed with Paul about the importance of the resurrection.  Paul’s Gospel made many people angry but at the same time it brought great joy to many others.  The message of a resurrected Lord Jesus who is the only Savior sent from God still has the same effects today.  Some are offended that Jesus is presented as the only way to eternal life.  Others are overjoyed.

At Easter we make it a special point to emphasize this one great truth: Jesus was raised again so we will be, too.  Jesus said that a day is coming when all will be raised, the just and the unjust.  Those who did good will rise to live and those who practiced evil will rise to be judged (John 5:28-29).  We rejoice about the resurrection because Jesus himself is our guarantee of goodness.

May God’s Spirit lift you up and fill you with the joy of his salvation,

Brother Richard Foster

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The Last Word

Jesus stood before Pilate.  A humble Jewish carpenter who had become an itinerant preacher was at the mercy of the powerful Roman governor.  Jesus stood bound by the chains of disgrace and Pilate stood adorned in the robes of honor.  The preacher was in submission and the statesman was in control—so it seemed.

Jesus had made some powerful enemies among the religious leaders in the city.  Pilate had forged some powerful connections in the ranks of the ruling elite.  Jesus apparently represented nothing more than a small spiritual movement confined to a relatively limited region, a movement that was embraced by just a handful of followers.  Pilate represented the mighty Empire that ruled much of the civilized world.

A lowly preacher was delivered into the hands of a powerful government official.  History thrust these two men against each other, but their conflict appeared to be one-sided.  As events unfolded that busy day in Jerusalem, anyone watching would have given the victory to Pilate and his Empire.  Before the day was done, Jesus had been brutally executed and Pilate still occupied his seat of authority.

Despite his honored status and impressive authority, despite the magnificence of his culture with all its wise laws and brilliant architecture and military might, Pilate and his Roman Empire would fade from its exalted place, left behind by the unstoppable advances of history.  On that Friday morning he seemed to be in command, but his power was not the last word.

Despite his public shame, his painful wounds, his broken body, his spilled blood, and the heavy stone that sealed his corpse in a tomb, Jesus would rise up and give birth to a spiritual movement that would challenge the powers and authorities of this world for two millennia, a movement that continues to challenge the powers and authorities of this world today.  On that Friday morning he seemed to be defeated, but his crucifixion was not the last word.

The turning point was Jesus’ resurrection.  Jesus, it turns out, was not simply a lowly preacher who left behind the life of a carpenter in Nazareth.  Jesus was, and is, the Leader of God’s Kingdom.  His resurrection firmly establishes his vital place in time and eternity.  All kingdoms and empires, all powers and authorities, every leader and every ruler, will not only step aside, but they will bend the knee and they will confess the supremacy of the One Lord sent by God: Jesus Christ the resurrected Savior.

Jesus’ resurrection makes everything clear.  Now we know which kingdom will finally be victorious.  Now we know which kingdom to support and to serve.  Now we know, despite any appearances in the meantime, that citizens of God’s Kingdom will share the ultimate victory for all of eternity.  Now we know that our participation in Christ’s Kingdom, no matter what the cost, is not in vain.

Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we should never lose heart, despite the apparent victories of the powers and authorities in this world.  Because of Jesus’ resurrection we know that all such victories are temporary, fleeting shadows in this passing age.  Because of Jesus’ resurrection we should gather on every Lord’s Day and worship, but especially on Easter.

Easter reminds us that Jesus Christ is the Living Word, the Word of Truth, and the Last Word—we need not wait for another Word from God, Christ is the fullest revelation of God’s glory.  The chains that bound him and the nails that pierced him have long since crumbled.  Jesus the Crucified and Risen One is seated at the right hand of God in glory!  What could possibly keep us from praising him?

May God’s Spirit fill us with the power and the joy of Christ’s resurrection,

Brother Richard Foster, Pastor
Grace Baptist Church, Camden, AR

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