There is nothing more remarkable in the Word of God than the mixture of grandeur and simplicity which is there. Take the oldest of wise men: he will find something too magnificent for him to grasp. Take a little child, and he will find the profoundest truths simple. There is nothing great, and nothing little, to God. The universe is but one thing to Him, and something of that appears in the Bible.
Here, for example, is a parable setting forth some of the most awful truths that ever solicited thought from man; yet they are made so simple and rendered so plain that the child who can lisp his mother’s name may both understand and enjoy the pictures. The very words are pictorial. The purple, the fine linen, the daily sumptuous fare of the one, are significant in themselves, but became doubly so in contrast with the beggar – a second Job – laid at the gate, the sores upon him, his hungering even for crumbs, and the dogs licking his ulcers. No greater contrast can be pictured: on the one side we have revelry, riot, and oblivion of God, selfishness ascendant, and pleasure the only divinity; on the other we see disease, wretchedness and, apparently, approaching death.
But the great leveller is at hand. In one respect, the rich man and Lazarus are alike – they die. The one was conducted to Abraham’s bosom, a Hebrew phrase for blessedness; the other was just buried. The rich man must away to the tomb after all his revelry. He might have some “sepulchral column” reared, but that did not retard the last enemy. “He was buried” – that summed up his earthly account.
Nor should we fail to notice what is often pointed out: that Jesus does not accuse this rich man of oppression; he did not crush the weak or despitefully use the dependant – at least that is not said. He was just selfishly wrapped up in his own enjoyments. His engrossing cares were: What shall I eat? What shall I drink? Wherewithal shall I be clothed? And as he believed in nothing regarding the next world, he sank without restraint into the poor pleasures of this. He continued thus till his earthly career was run.
We say his earthly career. But what of him beyond the grave? Did the joy of the rich man and the sorrow of Lazarus continue there? Nay, all was now put right. The rich man was wretched, not because he was rich, but because he had forgotten God and His riches and lived only for pleasure; the poor sufferer was blessed, not because he was poor and suffering, but because he was a son of Abraham indeed.
And how shall we measure the wretchedness now mentioned? A drop of water, one drop, would have been a relief, a respite from the burning consciousness of a life misspent – sin heaped upon sin, God forgotten, pleasure made their chief good, and eternal joy eternally lost. But no relief could be granted. On earth man may change; he may flee from the wrath to come, but beyond the grave there is no change for ever. And as the rich man had chosen his good things in this world, he could not have them in the next. There are not two heavens – at least for guilty men – one here and one hereafter, and that delusion was dispelled when the rich man died. He was tormented, and a great gulf was placed between him and blessedness.
A great gulf – who can say how great? It is the gulf which separates a sinful soul from a holy one – a man who lives without God from a man who lives for God and in Him. It is the gulf which parts a lost soul from a saved soul – a believer in Jesus from one that disregards Him. It is the gulf, in short, which separates life from death – a wide gulf, an eternal one, and one that none but Jesus can bridge over. But that bridge must be constructed on this side the grave; there is no place for it beyond.
Now this is one great lesson taught in this parable. There is an everlasting distinction between those who die in sin and those who die in the Lord. No mortal power can break down that distinction or fill up the gulf. Here I must make my choice of life or death – of blessing or curse. Here I must take my place among the lost or the saved; among those who believe or those who believe not. On the other side of death, there is no room for such decisions; the choice made here is eternal.
But while we recoil with a kind of shudder from the rich man’s torments, who can declare the blessedness of Lazarus? Is the long-lost seaman glad when he has reached his haven? Is the weary exile glad when he has reached his home? Is the hireling happy when his day is done? But what are all these to the exceeding weight of glory – to sin all pardoned and all past, and Jesus seen as the eternal portion of the soul? Surely it is true that eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor heart of man conceived, the joys which are in store for the saved of the Lord. Poverty is hard. Sores are vexing. Hunger is gnawing, and countless are the griefs of earth; but the Spirit of God calls them “light afflictions”, and so shall we when we get home to glory. Abraham’s bosom, the Hebrew’s second Eden, will compensate for all.
But when the rich man could not escape from torment himself, he tried to prevent his brothers from rushing upon woe. They were living as he had lived, and might perish as he had perished. But he would fain prevent that result, and idly wished a messenger from the dead to be sent to warn them of their peril. Here the great Teacher shows that beyond the grave all men believe. They make a mock of sin and of torment here; but in the eternal world it is a dire reality – a curse, an everlasting death. Men will for ever wail forth the dirge, “I weep the more because I weep in vain”.
Again, those who were the means of helping others to sin on earth, deplore that madness when the other side of the grave is reached. Hence the cry of the man, once lapped in luxury but now in torments, for some messenger to go to his brothers. O prevent this woe! Arrest them amid their folly! Tell them that perdition is a dread reality, however men may deny or disbelieve it! The desire, however, was alike vain and foolish. It was vain, for no such messenger could be sent; and it was foolish, for though one had gone from the dead, he could not have said more than Moses and the prophets had said already. It is not a spirit from beyond the grave; it is the Spirit of God that turns men from their sins. It is not a phantom; it is the inspired Word of God that must be the means of winning sinners away from death to life. They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. If deaf to such instruction, what could a mere apparition do. When One did rise from the dead – Jesus the Son of God – how many, or how few, believed on His name?
The end of the whole matter is this: to live in pleasure here is the way to woe hereafter. To suffer here may be blessed as the means of preparing us for joy for ever. The Word of God is man’s sovereign guide to glory; whatever is not there is delusive, feeble and unavailing. The youngest may learn these things, and perhaps learn them best.
1. A chapter, slightly edited, on the parable in Luke 16:19-31, from Tweedie’s book, Parables of Our Lord. Born in Ayr in 1803, Tweedie was a minister first in London, then in Aberdeen, and finally till his death in 1863 he was pastor of the Free Tolbooth congregation in Edinburgh. Among his many other books is the Life of John Macdonald, Calcutta.