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