First, a little story.
The setting is apparently a place where tax collectors and sinners were gathering to hear Jesus teach – but some Pharisees observed and listened too. He tells stories – of a lost sheep; a lost coin; a lost son. He relates the peculiar parable of the dishonest manager, and when the Pharisees sneer at him, He tells about a sick beggar and a rich man.
Luke 16:19-31 – “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell (hades), where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 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.’
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
” ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“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.’ “
Perhaps it’s just a story, told to emphasize the prophetic condemnation that “they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Luke doesn’t recount His restoring life to His friend Lazarus; John does, but it seems to happen just days before His own arrest and trials there – so it’s hard to tell whether Jesus is making a joke referring to it.
Perhaps it’s a story to convict the Pharisees, whom Luke says “loved money” a few verses before. Jesus seems to equate “poor” with “good” and “rich” with “bad.” Which seems consistent with many of His other teachings, and frankly gives me the willies.
But if it’s not just a story – if it is a story which accurately describes the reality of eternity – there are some interesting things about the place where the dead are apparently living (the word is “hades” – Greek for “place of the dead”; not precisely the same as what we call “hell”):
- The poor man is separated from the rich man; the rich man is in torment. Have they already been judged? Have they been judged based on what they did? Or what they had/didn’t have? If they have been judged, is it permanent – or do they face another, “final” judgment? Why would two be needed? The rich man feels compelled to warn his brothers; does he believe it’s permanent?
- They are separated by a gulf that cannot be crossed, yet they are aware of each other.
- Abraham – “Father Abraham” – is portrayed as alive as well, and comforting Lazarus. This is also consistent with Jesus’ assertion that God is “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ ” He is quoting Exodus 3:6, adding: “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive” in Luke 20:37-38.
- The living dead are aware of the peril that the living living still face; the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers and warn them – and Abraham refuses again: “They have Moses and the prophets.”
- So time seems to pass in this afterlife – and Abraham is aware of biblical heroes who lived long after he died.
- If Abraham represent’s God’s fatherly nature in this story, is there something in the fact that he addresses the tormented rich man as “Son”? Does God still love those whom he reproves – even in eternity? Yet without extending hope to them at all?
As always, I don’t have answers to this. Just questions.
Let’s skip on a few verses. It’s getting hot in here.
Luke 17:20-37 – Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within (among) you.”
Then he said to his disciples, “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. Men will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them. For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.
“Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.
“It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.”
“It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. On that day no one who is on the roof of his house, with his goods inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.”
“Where, Lord?” they asked.
He replied, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.”
Where to start? Once again, Jesus seems to be connecting the coming of God’s kingdom with a judgment yet to come. It doesn’t come by strict observation – presumably of the law, which the Pharisees might have seen as the way to force God’s hand in bringing judgment in their favor. Its coming isn’t a readily-apparently, easily-visible thing. It is – and here again we have a Greek word with more than one meaning – “within you” / “among you.” Could it be that this is the perfect word to use because it has a double meaning? That the kingdom is a personal thing that is within us – AND it is a communal thing that is among us?
Then the tantalizing phrase is used – and only here, as far as I can find it – “one of the days of the Son of man.”
I would have asked right there and then, “Lord – do you really mean there’s more than one?”
But that wasn’t his point. They would long for the comfort of His return, but they would not immediately see it. Liars would try to make them think He was back, but it wouldn’t be time. When He truly returned – “in His day,” singular – it would happen everywhere, not just in one place.
First they would have to see Him suffer. Then they would suffer themselves. And the survivors would have to see Jerusalem suffer – completely unaware of the years-long, disastrous siege about to befall her. Like the sinners of Noah’s day. Like the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah “on the day the Son of man is revealed.” Revealed to have told the truth in His prophecy? Revealed, therefore as the Son of God? Is this the correct intepretation of His warning?
One would be taken; one left behind. (Sounds like a title for a best-seller.) This time, His friends ask Him what I would have asked: “Where, Lord?”
I wonder if they understood His answer, because I sure don’t.
Let’s see how Luke records the Olivet Discourse:
Luke 21:5-38 – Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
“Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”
He replied: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”
Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.
“But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. All men will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will gain life.
“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
“There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
“I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
“Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap. For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
Each day Jesus was teaching at the temple, and each evening he went out to spend the night on the hill called the Mount of Olives, and all the people came early in the morning to hear him at the temple.
Luke and Mark agree on the phrasing of the disciples’ question. They both agree with Matthew that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.”
Some loudly-spoken folks have made a lot out of the phrase “until the time of the Gentiles is fulfilled.” I don’t see a lot of significance in it. What I see significant is the phrase “your redemption is drawing near.” Out of the calamity, out of the terror of judgment, Jesus sounds a note of hope. Does this redemption mean His coming, His revelation, the coming of His kingdom?
The instruction to “watch out,” “be careful” and be alert for each sign echoes the parable of the traveling householder that Luke records in 12:35-48 (and following). I didn’t include it here since He doesn’t directly refer to His return or kingdom or judgment. Though I didn’t point it out in the post about Matthew’s gospel, there Jesus follows the Olivet Discourse with teachings about being ready – like the five young women who had oil for their lamps; like the servants who invested their traveling householder’s talents wisely.
And He promises to separate the sheep from the goats when He comes in His glory, judging them by what they did for Him through others. There, in Matthew 25, is the only place I’ve found where the “punishment” itself, rather than just the place of punishment, is described as “eternal.” It could mean eternal torture/torment. It could mean obliteration. Either would be permanent. Either would be well worth the effort of avoiding.
Yet I feel compelled to point out that at the end of this citation, verses 47 and 48, Jesus teaches: “That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
Whether He teaches here – and in Matthew 25 with the story of the talents – different levels of punishment and reward in eternity, I don’t know. I just get the willies all over again when I think about how much I have been given, and how much might be expected of me.
In either this life, or the next.
Luke 23:40-43 – But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Timing is everything. Is paradise the same as heaven? Is it the same as Abraham’s bosom? Did the thief get special treatment? Or the same as anyone and everyone else? Was it appointed to him once to die, and then to face judgment? Did he believe? Did he repent? Did he confess? Was he not guilty? Was he judged guilty and forgiven anyway? Or did he just get to wait in paradise until a second, final judgment yet to come in which God might still lower the boom?
What comfort would that be to a dying man who saw his last Hope and poured out his heart to Him?
No proof here; just opinion. I think he was guilty. I think he was judged. I think he was forgiven and saved. That very day.
I am completely willing to be proved wrong.
But I believe in a Sovereign God who is God of time and eternity and causality and whose Son’s blood carried the power to wash away sin (How many times did He tell someone, “Your sins are forgiven”?) even while it flowed in and from His veins.
That’s Who I believe in. That’s my little story.
And I’m sticking to it.