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Another Look: The Rich Man and Lazarus

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The story that Jesus rendered on the subject of the rich man and Lazarus is found in Luke 16:19-31. This story is the primary justification that Bible teachers use for the existence of a Hades type of structure that consists of two compartments. One is the resting place for the righteous dead and the other is the final destination for the unrighteous sinners and lawbreakers. One side represents a restful place and the other a place of torture. The story also claims there is a vast chasm separating the two compartments.

Jesus in Hades

Some exegetes claim, with no convincing scriptural proof, that when Jesus died, He went to this Hades and preached to the unrighteous and took the righteous to heaven. However, this is not true. Jesus did not preach to anyone and he did not return to heaven until after He had risen from the dead and spoke to Mary Magdalene.

John 20:17 NET Jesus replied, “Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father. Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ “

The misunderstanding that Jesus preached to the unrighteous Hades inhabitants is taken from 1 Peter 3:19. Most versions translate kērússō as “preach” except for the Concordant Literal Version which uses the word “herald”.

The Word Study Dictionary: defines kērússō as “to proclaim, announce publicly”.

1 Peter 3:19-20 NET In it he went and preached to the spirits in prison, (20) after they were disobedient long ago when God patiently waited in the days of Noah as an ark was being constructed. In the ark a few, that is eight souls, were delivered through water.

Jesus did not preach a sermon to the unrighteous but proclaimed to “the spirits now in prison” that He was King of the earth. These spirits are the Watcher angels who were the first to attempt to usurp the throne by unlawful means. They took the daughters of Adam as wives in order to lay claim to authority over the earth. But God destroyed the earth by a flood and imprisoned them in chains of darkness.

Peter was not talking about Jesus preaching to men in Hades, but about a proclamation to the spirits or angels enchained in Tartarus. Preaching to the unrighteous would be a waste of time since all people, who are not the elect, chosen, overcomers, will be preached to at the second resurrection.

The concept of Tartarus as written and understood by Peter also differs from Greek mythology. Yet the Bible borrows the Greek terminology in order to describe a place that is different from Hades, the place where “spirits” and “angels” are imprisoned.

Truth or Parable

The critical question concerning this story would be: Is this a story based on truth or is it a parable based on various understandings or misunderstandings held by the current Judean people during the days of Jesus? The knowledge of the Greek place called Hades was familiar to most since the publication of the Septuagint. This translation from Hebrew to Greek by 70 or 72 scholars began around 280 BC. The Hebrew word “Sheol” was translated to the nearest Greek equivalent which is “Hades”.

Hebrew teaching claimed that the soul went to Sheol and was considered a place of rest or sleep. Psalm 13:3 “enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.” Daniel 12:2 “and many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake.” Matthew 9:24 “Depart; for the girl has not died, but is asleep.” 1 Corinthians 15:18 “Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” There are several other examples.

However, the Greek religious term “Hades” consisted of various types of torture and pain. The Septuagint was written because many of the Judeans only spoke Greek while Hebrew became a dying language. The Judeans simply adopted the Greek concepts of Hades rather than their historic understanding of Sheol.

The Parables

The majority of Jesus’ parables, if not all, are lessons concerning various aspects of the Kingdom of God. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is just one of many parables of the kingdom that tell essentially the same story but in different ways. 

The series of parables leading up to the rich man and Lazarus actually begins in Luke 15: 3-7. These parables are telling the story of the “so-called lost” nation of Northern Israel, although they were not lost and Jesus knew their location. This series begins with the parable of the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Although the parable is specifically related to one individual, it is actually speaking of a deported nation of ten Israeli tribes named Israel rather than Judah.

2 Kings 17: 6 In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria and carried Israel away into exile to Assyria, and settled them in Halah and Habor [the same as Chebar], on the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.

Ezekiel and Jeremiah were contemporaries. Jeremiah remained in Judah, however, Ezekiel was told to go as a missionary to the house of Israel.

Ezekiel 3:15 NET I came to the exiles at Tel Abib, who lived by the Kebar (Chebar KJV; Chobar LXX) River. I sat dumbfounded among them there, where they were living, for seven days.

In Ezekiel 34 the prophet prophesied against “the shepherds of Israel,” that is, the priests and civil leaders, who had fleeced the sheep but did not care for them responsibly. Part of the condemnation was that they had not “sought for the lost”

Ezekiel 34:4-6 NET You have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bandaged the injured, brought back the strays, or sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled over them. (5) They were scattered because they had no shepherd, and they became food for every wild beast. (6) My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over the entire face of the earth with no one looking or searching for them.

Ezekiel 34:11-13 NET ” ‘For this is what the sovereign LORD says: Look, I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. (12) As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will seek out my flock. I will rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered on a cloudy, dark day. (13) I will bring them out from among the peoples and gather them from foreign countries; I will bring them to their own land. I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams and all the inhabited places of the land.

Lost sheep were the responsibility of all shepherds. Shepherds were not to ignore lost sheep. Applied to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, it has always been the responsibility of the Shepherds to find God’s lost sheep. It is written in the divine law. Yet most have been content to turn the other way.

Jesus came as the great Shepherd (Heb. 13: 20), the Good Shepherd (John 10: 11), and the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5: 4). He came to find His lost sheep, but in finding them, He also has brought in other sheep which were not of that fold. That is the subject of other parables such as the “hidden treasure” in Matthew 13:44 followed by the “pearl of great value” found in Matthew 13:45-45; the parable of “the net”; and “new and old treasures”.

Matthew 13:44 NET “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure, hidden in a field, that a person found and hid. Then because of joy he went and sold all that he had and bought that field.

The parable of the lost coin is found in Luke 15:8-10. It is said that this was no ordinary coin, but was part of a wedding bracelet that was traditional in those days. The prophets speak of Israel as being God’s wife, especially in the context of His divorce from her in later years (Jer. 3: 8-14; Hosea 2: 2). Again, it can be said that Christ came to seek out the lost coin, representing the lost house of Israel.

The prodigal son is the next parable recorded in the latter part of Luke 15:11-32. The prodigal was the house of Israel (called “My son” in Hosea 11: 1), while the older brother with the begrudging attitude was Judah. The younger brother left home to see the world which was fine with the older brother who thought the remainder of the inheritance would be his.

The citizens of Judah never bothered to seek out the nation of Israel. As long as the house of Israel is lost (in the eyes of those who refuse to seek them out) the Jews or Judeans are more than happy to lay claim to the inheritance of the birthright. 

Considering that the parables of: the lost sheep; the lost coin; and the prodigal son are interpreted as the lost sheep of the house of Israel then the next appearing story of the rich man and Lazarus should also be construed as a parable of the same nature.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

The rich man was dressed in purple and fine linen like the temple priests who ruled the people. Thus, the rich man is identified with the rulers of the Judean nation. The rich man also had five brothers as did Judah from which the nation of Judah got its name. The rich man feasted every day. Perhaps this refers to the daily feasting on the Word of God which apparently offered the rich man no benefit or advantage at all.

The poor beggar Lazarus, on the other hand, first represents the lost house of Israel, which, at that time, was “laid [ballo, to cast down] at his gate.” The Greek word, ballo, is usually translated “cast” in the New Testament. For example, in Matt. 3:10, a tree that does not bear good fruit is “cast” into the fire. In Matthew 7:6, we are told not to “cast” our pearls before swine. 

The pearl/swine picture does not convey a man lovingly and carefully laying pearls in front of pigs. Neither does it convey the concept of Lazarus being carefully laid at the gate of the rich man. Rather, it portrays Lazarus as being cast down. 

Lazarus represents the house of Israel that had been cast down and cast out of the land from 745-721 B.C. This is recorded in 2 Kings 17: 20, 

2 Kings 17: 20 And the Lord rejected all the descendants of Israel and afflicted them and gave them into the hand of plunderers, until He had cast them out of His sight.

Thus, Lazarus represents the House of Israel deported by the Assyrians. They had been absent from the land and from the Word of God for several centuries prior to the time of Jesus Christ. If the rich man’s banquets represent the Word of God then the house of Israel only had a few crumbs, if any. Other than the brief visit from the prophet Ezekiel they were largely cut off from the Word of God until Paul and other missionaries brought the message of the risen Messiah to their attention in various parts of Europe.

The parable portrays both Lazarus and the rich man dying. Since these men represent Israel and Judah, the parable reveals the ultimate fate of each nation after these nations were destroyed (Israel by Assyria, Judah by Babylon, Greece, and ultimately the Roman Empire) (the Persians allowed them to return to Judea). 

The house of Israel, like Lazarus, would be reestablished to Abraham’s bosom (the promise of God, the New Covenant). The majority portion of the house of Judah, which rejected Jesus, would go into a time of “torment,” which they themselves presently affirm continuously. The rich man wanted someone to go to his living brethren and warn them. However, we read in Luke 16: 31 But he said to him, If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead, and the majority were not persuaded.

John 5:46-47 NET If you believed Moses, you would believe me, because he wrote about me. (47) But if you do not believe what Moses wrote, how will you believe my words?”

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus should not be taken as a literal account of some person taken to a fiery Hades after their death. The rich man is a metaphorical prophecy foretelling the condition of “torment” that the Jews would experience in the 1,900 years of exile after the destruction of Jerusalem. Also, the parable does not teach that rich people will be sent to a fiery hell.



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