Repent now or regret in hell – Luke 16:19-31

Much of what Jesus has been saying in recent chapters in Luke’s gospel is summarised here in shocking terms – essentially, “repent now or regret in hell.”

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is unusual in a number of ways, but none more so in that it’s the Bible’s only description of an individual’s experience of hell.

Jesus told the parable to people who loved wealth and comfort. He told it in the context of you making sure that you understand you have an eternity ahead of you.

  • There’s a Twitter account called “You will spend eternity somewhere.” It just tweets that same truth every day!
  • The message here for you is to be sure you know where that will be. 

These notes accompany a sermon on YouTube delivered at Bromborough Evangelical Church in July 2023. You can find more in the series in our sermon index.

Your eternity is determined now (19-26)

Meet the two men in this parable: A rich man, and a poor man called Lazarus.

Read Luke 16:19.

  • Everything about him was lavish and to be seen.
  • Some rich people are under-stated in their wealth, but this man was all bling.
  • And he feasted “lavishly every day.”

Now there’s no sin in being rich. There’s no virtue in it either. But as we follow our money and see where it goes, we get a good idea of what we really value.

Read Luke 16:20-21.

  • It’s a terrible picture.
  • Lazarus was obviously clearly visible at the gate, but at the same time he was totally unseen.

There’s no sin in being poor. There’s no virtue in it either.

But we saw last week in v9 Jesus told you to “make friends for yourselves by means of worldly wealth so that when it fails, they may welcome you into eternal dwellings.” It’s clear that the rich man could have provided Lazarus with food and drink, but didn’t. And that would have eternal consequences.

  • The rich man is immediately portrayed as enjoying his life now, but in a way that’s all about his own pleasure.
  • Lazarus, the poor man, is shown as hungry and sore – but without any greed, envy, or malice.

They’re worlds apart, and yet only yards apart too. The rich man could have helped Lazarus, but chose his own pleasure. And then they died. Read Luke 16:22.

Life after death

What does it mean that Lazarus was carried away to Abraham’s side?

  • Way back in Genesis 12, God chose to bless Abraham.
  • God promised him that the whole world would be blessed through him. 
  • The nation of Israel was descended from him and was blessed to have the Old Testament – blessed even more to have the Messiah born to them.
  • As Christians, the New Testament says that we’re children of Abraham too – credited with righteousness by God by faith, just as Abraham was.

So to be at Abraham’s side means that this poor man was now ultimately blessed by God in heaven, in bliss, in peace. You might ask what he’d done to deserve it?

In truth, no-one deserves heaven. God doesn’t have pity on people just because they’ve had a hard life. Sin is punished; justice can’t be biased. But he is gracious and ready to forgive anyone who repents of their sin and turns to him. You won’t go to heaven for doing good things. But you can go if you turn to God and ask for his gracious forgiveness. And God delights to forgive. And he’ll count Jesus’ death as punishment in your place.

There is no detail on the faith or repentance of the poor man. That’s because the focus of the parable is the rich man. And he was in trouble: Read Luke 16:23-24.

The rich man knew Lazarus’s name. He’d seen him at the gate and ignored him. But not now.

What’s in a name?

As a side note, this is the only parable where one of the characters is named. Why?

Some have suggested it’s a true story, but that seems doubtful. More likely is the emphasis on the honour given even to the poor man: His name is known and recorded in heaven. In contrast, the rich man is unnamed because he has had such a drastic fall from being “someone” to “no-one.” There’s also the point that the poor man is in heaven not because he was poor, but because he was known to God.

An eternal agony of perfect knowledge

In any event, the rich man now calls for mercy.

We can’t know the agony of hell, but there’s no comfort in any biblical image of it: “I am in agony in this flame.” There is no comfort, no friendship, no relief in hell. Will his plea for mercy be answered? Read Luke 16:25.

He answers the plea in the v26, but v25 is a crucial point: Your eternal destination is determined by what you do in this life.

Where there’s no fear of God, there’s just living for yourself.

  • Looking after number 1; no value in caring for others.
  • Your life’s your own and you live as you choose.

But where there’s fear of God, you experience his love to you.

  • You’ll repent of your sin and offence, and ask him to forgive you.
  • You become a Christian, a child of God, united to him.
  • And you know his love is to flow through you to others.
  • You’ll have a generosity of heart and body; even if you have no money, you’ll be a giver of blessing to others.

The poor man must have loved God and had faith in him, even in his awful circumstances. And he was raised up to heaven. The rich man loved only himself; his sin and attachment to the world had finally excluded him from heaven.

If you reject God in this life, you will have your rejection confirmed in the next. He’ll reject you.

So read Luke 16:26.

  • As J C Ryle put it, hell is truth known too late.
  • Not only have the rich man’s sins put him in hell, now he discovers that it’s permanent.

A tough reality

Remember this is a parable, and the description is stylised a bit for the purposes of the story (so don’t expect conversation between the real heaven and hell).

But the image is clear nonetheless:

  • Hell is as real as heaven.
  • Your actions in this life determine your destination.
  • There is no purgatory. That’s a human invention, not a biblical truth.
  • Repent now or regret in hell.

You might be a mature Christian thinking, “I’m not really either of these men.” But follow your money. Where does it go? Are you investing in other people’s eternity or just indulging yourself with pleasure? Does the blessing of God flow through you, or stop at you?

But there’s a further challenge here: Something to learn from the rich man.

You have urgent news to tell (27-31)

The rich man knows why he’s in hell. It’s his sin. Hell is truth known too late. You can repent now or regret in hell, and it’s too late for him. But not for his brothers at home: Read Luke 16:27-28.

He knows his brothers are living the same kind of life, and they’ll join him in hell unless they repent and turn to God. But Abraham is clear: Read Luke 16:29.

And that “should” is a command. They must, they have to, there’s no alternative: They are to listen to Scripture. What kind of thing does Abraham mean?

  • Deuteronomy 1017-18 17 For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and awe-inspiring God, showing no partiality and taking no bribe. 18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the resident alien, giving him food and clothing.
  • Jeremiah 22:16 He took up the case of the poor and needy; then it went well. Is this not what it means to know me? This is the Lord’s declaration.
  • Amos 8:4 & 10 Hear this, you who trample on the needy and do away with the poor of the land… I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentation

The sin of treading on the poor, the asylum seeker, the widow, the orphan runs throughout the Old Testament. The law reveals God’s own love and concern. The prophets repeatedly call for repentance and compassion.

And you must hear the word of God. Fear God and live for him. Still the rich man asked for more: Read Luke 16:30-31.

Why is that true? Because “Moses and the prophets” is the word of God. If someone won’t believe God, then no amount of persuasion will change that.

Two resurrections

But we need to think about two resurrections in the New Testament.

First, consider the real man called Lazarus in John 11. He did die, and Jesus did raise him from the dead! How did everyone react?

  • John 12:10-11 But the chief priests had decided to kill Lazarus also, because he was the reason many of the Jews were deserting them and believing in Jesus.
  • It’s about as blind and hard-hearted as you can get. A deliberate refusal to see the wonder of Lazarus raised from the dead, and a refusal to accept God’s truth.

But what about Paul (Saul) on the road to Damascus? He was persuaded because he saw Jesus raised from the dead!

  • Clearly, his was not a typical conversion story.
  • Paul’s role would be to be an eye-witness of the risen saviour in the growth of the early church.
  • Besides which, the testimony of that resurrection was coming from Jesus, Son of God and the very fulfilment of Moses and the prophets. This was the word of God directly received!

You and I stand where the rich man’s brothers were in the parable. You’re not dead yet. You still have access to God’s word, now made complete. Everything you need to know for eternal life is in the Bible.

  • You have sinned against a holy and angry God.
  • And yet he loves you, and sent his Son to become human to live and die in your place.
  • Jesus now lives and reigns and calls you to turn in repentance and faith.
  • And then live for him, with God’s blessings and good news flowing out through you to others.
    • To the poor, to the lost, to the hurting.

God has spoken

You’re kidding yourself if you want more evidence. God has spoken. “This is the declaration of the LORD.”

You can repent now or regret in hell. And because all you need to know for life and godliness is in the Bible, you should beware add-ons: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and the Roman Catholics have all added to God’s words – doctrines and traditions made up by men, not revealed by God.

And for Christ’s people who live among those brothers (as it were), the power of God’s word should give great encouragement. It means that we should be confident of using Scripture in our evangelism. It’s why things like Christianity Explored and Hope Explored are actually simply Bible studies – people need to hear what God has said.

But above all, don’t miss the dreadful realisation of the rich man himself: You have urgent news to tell.

  • You know many, many unsaved people.
  • They do deserve hell, just as you do.
  • The good news of life in Christ is to go to everyone. Unless they hear it, they will drift into hell.

If you have never turned from your sin to God, you need to be very clear on this: You need to repent now or regret in hell. Hell is truth known too late.

For those who have, praise God for his grace to you. Praise Jesus for taking the punishment your sins deserve. Have confidence in God’s word to save. And look at how you spend your time and money: Are you self-indulgent, or does God’s blessing flow through you to others?

Lord, have mercy.