The Great Reversal
Heaven, Hell, Afterlife, Conversion
Anyone who is a sports enthusiast has had the experience of heading home or turning off the television because your team was desperately behind or comfortably ahead, only to discover later in the day that your team did not lose or win as you were expecting. These times prove the old adage that the game is not won until the game is over. Comebacks and surprising finishes are always the lead stories on the sports shows.
But this isn’t true just in sports. Many multimillion dollar businesses today began with many people concluding “it would never work” or saying “such a product would never sell.” Many successful authors can show you a file filled with rejection letters.
This morning we are going to look at an account of one of the greatest reversals of all. It is the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
Scene One: On Earth
Jesus tells a story with two primary characters,
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
The rich man was not simply rich . . . he was “filthy rich”. The fact that he was dressed in purple indicated his wealth. Purple dye apparently had to be extracted from shellfish and was a very expensive process. It might help to think of this man as one who wore a Gucci suit and silk underwear every day! Their daily clothes budget would exceed what the average middle class person would make in several weeks (or months) of work. This man ate gourmet food every day. (It would be like eating at a fancy restaurant every day!)
In stark contrast to this rich man was a very poor man by the name of Lazarus. The name Lazarus is a Latinized version of Eleazar which means “God is my help!” However, from all appearances this man did not seem to be getting any help from God.
We are told that he was laid at the gate (and this isn’t a gate like you would have with a chain link fence….this was the kind of gate would have at the entrance to a mansion like you might see at Graceland, the former home of Elvis Presley.) Lazarus was “laid” at the gate probably because he was crippled or so malnourished that he could no longer walk. His legs were covered with ulcerated sores. He came to the gate of the rich man hoping that maybe he could get some of the rich man’s scraps. In those days they didn’t have napkins so people often wiped their hands on pieces of bread and then tossed them away. Lazarus hoped to get even one of those pieces of bread that was tossed away as garbage. All he received was torment from the dogs that licked his wounds. He was so weak he could not even defend himself from the dogs.
Scene Two: After Death
The next scene is set in Heaven and Hell.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.
Both men died. We are only told that the rich man was buried. It is likely that Lazarus was simply brought out to the city garbage dump. However, at the moment of death Lazarus was greeted by angels who carried him to Abraham’s side (this is an image of Heaven. Abraham was considered the Father of the Faithful. Since this is before the resurrection of Jesus this may have been considered the holding place of the believing dead until Christ opened the door of Heaven to those who put their trust in Him.)
The rich man, who had been honored in life and appeared to have reached the pinnacle of success in the world’s eyes, was in Hell and in torment. His torment is multiplied by the fact that he sees the former beggar Lazarus at the side of Abraham. Talk about a great reversal!!
It’s interesting that the rich man knows the name of the beggar. This makes the rich man more despicable. It may indicate that he knew Lazarus was out at his gate and did nothing to help him. The rich man is still looking for favors,
So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
The man feels justified in making requests to Abraham and to ask for Lazarus to still serve him! After he is told that it was impossible for Lazarus to come to him (because the chasm is fixed), he asked that a warning be given to his brothers.
One of the questions raised by our text is: How much of what we are told here is what life will really be like after we die? Since Jesus is the one telling the story (the One who actually knew what eternity would be like) the questions become more intriguing. We must be careful of making the story teach too much but there are some things we probably can conclude from this glimpse of eternity.
- Heaven and Hell are real places
- We will be aware of where we are
- Hell will not be a place of partying with friends; it will be a place of great torment. The blessing of God will be removed and all joy, happiness, friendship, laughter, and delight will be absent. We will not want friends of family to be there.
- Our destination will be a FINAL destination. There will be no second chance once we die. There is no possibility of our friends and family “praying us out” of Hell.
- A person’s final destination is not determined by their status in the world.
This however is not the end of the story.
Scene Three: Those Still Alive
Abraham told the Rich man that he had his “heaven” (the heaven he pursued) while he was on the earth. It was too late now. It is interesting that the rich man does not say, “That’s not fair”. He has no protest. He seems to grasp the righteous nature of the judgment. He knows God has given him exactly what he deserves and has chosen. In fact, the rich man actually adopts the viewpoint of Christ and Abraham. He sees the emptiness of the way he lived and we are told he makes a request of Abraham,
I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”
He can’t do anything about his own destiny but he is concerned that his family will end up where he is and wants to warn them. This man doesn’t say, “I can hardly wait until my friends get her because we are going to have a good time now. The beer will be flowing and the party will begin.” That is not the case at all. This man understood that his family was heading toward an eternity that would horrible. He does not want those he loved to follow in his footsteps.
I wonder how many people are on the other side of the grave saying the same thing. I wonder how many captains of industry, stars in the media, famous authors, outspoken atheists, and leaders in the field of academia are in Hell wishing they could keep people from following in their footsteps. What a horrendous sense of regret that must be.
The rich man figured that if someone from the dead (like the beggar Lazarus) could come back from the dead, his brothers would realize that they were headed in the wrong direction and repent. Jesus said they have “Moses and the Prophets), in other words, they have the Bible (in this case the Old Testament). The rich man thinks they need something more. Jesus says pretty clearly, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced if someone rises from the dead.”
This very truth was illustrated in the resurrection of another Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha. Jesus brought him back from the dead and rather than become followers of Christ, the leaders became all the more determined to kill Jesus AND Lazarus!
God has revealed Himself clearly and fully in the Word of God. If people will not read the stories and see the character of God and submit to His commands; if they will not respond to the Son of God who healed the lepers, cast out demons, cared for the sick, and taught with authority, no great miracle will change their heart. These people will always find some way to explain away the work of God.
Perhaps you know someone who says, “I will believe in God when He proves to me that He is real. If He’d come down and show me some sign . . . then I would believe.” One wonders, “What more you expect God to do than what He has already done?” Yet, God is still giving us evidence. He has led people to the discovery of DNA and the invention of the electron microscope which shows that each individual is unique and complex . . . too complex in fact, for evolution to possibly be true, but people continue to resist the notion of a Creator, much less a Creator who wants to have a relationship with us.
God has given us the testimonies of radically transformed lives. Miracles still take place. The vibrant and detailed history of God’s dealing with Israel has been verified by archaeology again and again. But most of all we have the history of Jesus from eyewitness testimonies. God does not ask us to believe without evidence.
The real problem is that most people don’t want evidence . . . they just want to believe what they have always believed. No matter what evidence you give them it will never be enough. The only hope for such people is a Sovereign work of God in their hearts. The Holy Spirit must change the direction and bent of that person’s heart. He must open their eyes to the truth of Scripture.
Let’s draw some conclusions. First, we are reminded that things are not always what they seem. We can’t be sure what is going to happen in a person’s life until that life is actually lived. We can’t determine who will win the contest until the contest is completed. We can’t know whether a plan will be effective until it is actually implemented. In the same way we should not draw conclusions about the destiny of an individual based on their circumstances in this world.
Practically this is a warning to those who are richly blessed (and that would be most of us). We must not conclude that we are children of God simply because we go to church, live in America, are elected to a position of spiritual leadership, or are applauded by the world. God does not judge on the basis of human standards. God looks at how we serve.
- If we talk about love but don’t practically seek to help those who are hurting then we must not expect more than the rich man.
- If we speak about our “commitment to Christ” but push Him to the side whenever His commands are inconvenient God is not fooled. He sees that our commitment is shallow and spurious.
- When we claim to be a follower of Christ but are ignorant about the Bible we have to question whether or not we are following the true Christ or have created a Savior of our own imagination.
- If we live defiantly against God we should not realistically expect that we will have time (or the desire) to repent and turn to Christ before we die.
We must heed the warning of the rich man.
On the other hand, this is a message of encouragement to others. You may be one who is largely overlooked in this world. You may have had more to cope with in your life than most families have to face in several generations. You may be ridiculed, abused, and made fun of by others. People may look at you like you were cursed by God. However, God sees the real you. He sees your faith as you hold on to Him even though life is hard. He sees your faithfulness in the way you live your life even if no one else does.
A day of vindication is coming! It may be in this life and it may not be . . . but it will certainly be in the next. The Lord will carry you to His side and declare you to be His own. Imagine what it would be like to be in line outside of the White House waiting for a tour. Suddenly a Secret Service agent taps you one the shoulder and asks you to come with them. You naturally ask, “Have I done something wrong?” The agent responds, “No, the President saw you standing out here and he would like you to come in so he can sit and visit with you.”
Imagine the looks of those around you. Some might even quickly snap a picture of you. You would certainly feel special and honored. That wonderful feeling is nothing compared to how wonderful it will be when God puts His arm around you and says to the rest of the world, “I would like you to meet my child.” God is just. Justice will be done. . . it may not be swift but it will be certain.
Second we are reminded that, our eternal destiny is decided by the choices we make now. People act like everyone goes to Heaven. It has been said that most people believe the only thing you need to do in order to go to Heaven is to die. Everyone thinks they or their loved one will be in Heaven. However, we don’t make that decision, God does.
What can we do to prepare for that day? First, we need to realize that we are headed to Hell if we have to be measured by our lives alone. Not a one of us has lived even in the vicinity of a good life that can earn a spot in Heaven. Without a Savior every one of us will, like the rich man, not be able to utter one word about the justice of our own eternal destiny. We deserve Hell.
Second, we need to realize that faith in Christ is about more than membership and words. The Bible tells us to be doers of the word and not hearers only. In other words, our faith should result in a changed life.
We should be changed in our relationship to the Lord. No longer do true followers try to keep God at a distance. Instead we look for ways to honor Him. We should be trying to get to know Him We exalt Him by seeking to introduce our friends to Him. We put Him first in our lives. And we will seek to align our lives with what He says is right and wrong.
But we will also be changed in our relationships with each other. True followers don’t ignore the beggars who sit at their gate. We can’t solve the problems of the whole world but we can show love and kindness to the people we can help. This parable reminds us that part of our job is to represent the Lord in this world. We do this by trying to
- Provide for the needy
- Care for the sick
- Counsel the troubled
- Befriend those who are cast off or made targets by the world
- Teach and protect the children
- Help those who are overwhelmed by life
- Stand up for those who are victims of our society
We are to be known as those who are wonderfully willing to forgive and give people a chance to begin again. We are to be known as those who will work hard to share the love of Christ with everyone. You see, a person who is a follower of Christ knows what it is like to be rescued.
I am of the opinion that pound puppies see to be filled with love and gratitude. They act like they know they have been rescued from a sad life or premature death. That’s the way a person who has experienced the grace of God should live. We should be those who celebrate life and embrace the broken.
If the rich man had taken the time to really compare the image he saw in the mirror with the Word of God, he might have seen that he was self-absorbed. If he had seen this maybe he would have seen that he and Lazarus were both in need of the mercy of God. Maybe he would have fed some scraps to Lazarus. Maybe he would have even brought him a meal, found him a Doctor, or become his friend. Maybe his heart would have changed and then the story might have had a different ending.
We must not measure ourselves by our scrapbook of clippings. When all is said and done we will be surprised by the many reversals. Some who appear to be winners will turn out to be losers and others who appear to be losers will be revealed as children of God. It’s too late for the Rich man and for countless others who were too busy or too distracted during the course of their lives. You still have time. Take advantage of it.