Jesus starts a series of lessons that are in parable form (Luke 15:3). (Parable = one thing said, another thing meant). The parable found in Luke 16:19-31 is called “The Rich Man and Lazarus”. At first reading, the text seems to say that this rich man was being tormented in hell because he had enjoyed the “good life” and that Lazarus was in Abraham’s bosom, which most people interpret to mean heaven, because he was poor and sick. If we take this all literally, it really starts sounding absurd and doesn’t agree with other scriptures. Let’s sort through this.
The rich man died just like Lazarus. We are told that he was buried (v. 22) and Lazarus was carried to Abraham’s bosom. But Abraham is not in heaven. Gen. 25:9 says that Isaac and Ismael buried Abraham in the cave of Machpelah. Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matt. 11:11 NAS)
King James Version says that the rich man was in “hell,” but most other translations render it “hades.” Verse 23 in Phillips translation reads: “and from among the dead he looked up.” This is a more accurate translation as the Greek word here is “hades,” which really means the place or state of the dead, without reference to happiness or not. If you are dead, you are not hurting, nor are you having a conversation, etc. Ecclesiastes 9:5 says, “For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten.” Regarding “suffering in hell,” Jer. 19:5, and Jer. 32:35 both say that burning people never entered God’s mind.
Obviously, this whole passage must mean something completely different than what we think on a first read. This parable is teaching a dispensational change in the fortunes of the Jewish people as a result of their failure to recognize and accept Jesus as their Messiah. The rich man represented the Jewish nation. At the time Jesus gave the parable and a long time previous, the nation had fared sumptuously every day—being special recipients of God’s favors. The promises to Abraham and David invested this people with “royalty” (purple). The ritual and typical sacrifices of the Law gave them, in a typical sense, a holy nation status, righteous, represented by the rich man’s fine linen. (Rev. 19:8)
Lazarus represented the Gentiles—all nations of the world aside from the Israelites. At the time Jesus gave the parable, they were entirely destitute of those blessings which Israel enjoyed, but they witnessed the favorable status of the Jews. In effect, they laid at the gate of the rich man hoping for even a few crumbs of favor from God. Eventually the rich man died—the Jewish nation rejected Jesus and lost all its riches (favor) and were scattered abroad among all nations where they have suffered persecution and trouble for centuries. (John 1:11-13) Lazarus also died; the condition of the Gentiles changed and many Gentiles were carried by the angels (messengers, apostles) to Abraham’s bosom (enjoying being in a relationship with God because of faith, as Abraham had been). Abraham is represented as the father of the faithful and receives to his bosom all the children of faith—who are recognized as the heirs to all the promises made to Abraham. “The children of the flesh are not the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted for the seed” (Romans 9:8), “which seed is Christ”, and “if ye be Christ’s then are ye (believers) Abraham’s seed (children) and heirs according to the (Abrahamic) promise” (Gal. 3:16, 29).
After the Babylonian captivity of Israel, the Jews who returned to their homeland were principally from just two tribes—Judah and Benjamin. Hence comes the phrase, “the 10 lost tribes of Israel.” If the two tribes living in Judea were represented by one rich man, it would be in harmony to assume that the five brethren represented the remaining 10 tribes who had “Moses and the Prophets” as their instructors. All special favor of God ceased to the 10 tribes, as well as to the two to whom Jesus directly addressed this parable. This parable seems to teach what Paul explained in Rom. 11:19-31. Because of unbelief, the natural branches were broken off and the wild branches grafted in to the Abrahamic promises. Jesus leaves us hanging as to the outcome, but Paul does not. He assures us that when the fullness of the Gentiles—the Bride—come in “they (the Israelites) shall obtain mercy through your (the Church’s) mercy”. (v. 31) Paul assures us that this is God’s covenant with fleshly Israel; they lost the higher, spiritual, promises, but are still the possessors of earthly promises to become the chief nation on earth in God’s coming kingdom.