Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 32: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
19. There was a certain rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen, 306 and feasted sumptuously every day: 20. And there was a certain beggar, named Lazarus, who lay at his gate, full of sores, 21. And desiring to be fed from the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: and even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22. And it happened that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; 23. And, lifting up his eyes in hell, when he was in torments, he seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. 24. And he, crying out, said, Father Abraham, have compassion on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. 25. And Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and Lazarus likewise evil things: but now he enjoys comfort, and thou art tormented. 26. And besides all these things, a vast gulf lieth between us and you; so that they who wish to pass hence to you cannot, nor can they pass to us thence. 27. And he said, I beseech thee, therefore, father, to send him to my father’s house: 28. For I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come into this place of torment. 29. Abraham saith to him, They have Moses and the prophets: let them hear them. 30. But he said, Nay, father Abraham; but if one went to them from the dead, they will repent. 31. And he said to him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead.
Though Luke introduces some things between them, there can be no doubt that this example was intended by Christ to confirm the discourse which we have last examined. He points out what condition awaits those 307 who neglect the care of the poor, and indulge in all manner of gluttony; who give themselves up to drunkenness and other pleasures, and allow their neighbors to pine with hunger; nay, who cruelly kill with famine those whom they ought to have relieved, when the means of doing so were in their power. Some look upon it as a simple parable; but, as the name Lazarus occurs in it, I rather consider it to be the narrative of an actual fact. But that is of little consequence, provided that the reader comprehends the doctrine which it contains.
19. There was a certain rich man He is, first of all, described as clothed in purple and fine linen, and enjoying every day splendor and luxury. This denotes a life spent amidst delicacies, and superfluity, and pomp. Not that all elegance and ornaments of dress are in themselves displeasing to God, or that all the care bestowed on preparing victuals ought to be condemned; but because it seldom happens that such things are kept in moderation. He who has a liking for fine dress will constantly increase his luxury by fresh additions; and it is scarcely possible that he who indulges in sumptuous and well garnished tables shall avoid falling into intemperance. But the chief accusation brought against this man is his cruelty in suffering Lazarus, poor and full of sores, to lie out of doors at his gate.
These two clauses Christ has exhibited in contrast. The rich man, devoted to the pleasures of the table and to display, swallowed up, like an unsatiable gulf, his enormous wealth, but remained unmoved by the poverty and distresses of Lazarus, and knowingly and willingly suffered him to pine away with hunger, cold, and the offensive smell of his sores. In this manner Ezekiel (Eze 16:49) accuses Sodom of not stretching out her hand to the poor amidst fullness of bread and wine. The fine linen, which is a peculiarly delicate fabric, is well-known to have been used by the inhabitants of eastern countries for elegance and splendor; a fashion which the Popish priests have imitated in what they call their surplices.
21. And even the dogs came. It was quite enough to prove the hardened cruelty of the rich man, that the sight of wretchedness like this did not move him to compassion. Had there been a drop of humanity in him, he ought at least to have ordered a supply from his kitchen for the unhappy man. But the crowning exhibition of his wicked, and savage, and worse than brutal disposition was, that he did not learn pity even from the dogs There can be no doubt that those dogs were guided by the secret purpose of God, to condemn that man by their example. Christ certainly produces them here as witnesses to convict him of unfeeling and detestable cruelty. What could be more monstrous than to see the dogs taking charge of a man, to whom his neighbor is paying no attention; and, what is more, to see the very crumbs of bread refused to a man perishing of hunger, while the dogs are giving him the service of their tongues for the purpose of healing his sores? When strangers, or even brute animals, supply our place, by performing an office which ought rather to have been discharged by ourselves, let us conclude that they are so many witnesses and judges appointed by God, to make our criminality the more manifest.
22. And it happened that the beggar died. Christ here points out the vast change which death effected in the condition of the two men. Death was no doubt common to both; but to be after death carried by angels into Abraham’s bosom was a happiness more desirable than all the kingdoms of the world. On the other hand, to be sentenced to everlasting torments is a dreadful thing, for avoiding which a hundred lives, if it were possible, ought to be employed. In the person of Lazarus there is held out to us a striking proof that we ought not to pronounce men to be accursed by God, because they drag out, in incessant pain, a life which is full of distresses. In him the grace of God was so entirely hidden, and buried by the deformity and shame of the cross, that to the eye of the flesh nothing presented itself except the curse; and yet we see that in a body which was loathsome and full of rottenness there was lodged a soul unspeakably precious, which is carried by angels to a blessed life. It was no loss to him that he was forsaken, and despised, and destitute of every human comfort, when heavenly spirits deign to accompany him on his removal from the prison of the flesh.
And the rich man also died, and was buried. In the rich man we see, as in a bright mirror, how undesirable is that temporal happiness which ends in everlasting destruction. It deserves our attention, that Christ expressly mentions the burial of the rich man, but says nothing of what was done to Lazarus. Not that his dead body was exposed to wild beasts, or lay in the open air, but because it was thrown carelessly, and without the slightest attention, into a ditch; for it may naturally be inferred from the corresponding clause, that no more attention was paid to him when he was dead than when he was alive. The rich man, on the other hand, buried magnificently according to his wealth, still retains some remnant of his former pride. 308 In this respect, we see ungodly men striving, as it were, against nature, by affecting a pompous and splendid funeral for the sake of preserving their superiority after death; but their souls in hell attest the folly and mockery of this ambition.
And Lazarus was carried by angels. When he says that Lazarus was carried, it is a figure of speech by which a part is taken for the whole; for the soul being the nobler part of man, properly takes the name of the whole man. 309 This office is, not without reason, assigned by Christ to angels, who, we are aware, have been appointed to be ministering spirits (Heb 1:14) to believers, that they may devote their care and labor to their salvation.
Into Abraham’s bosom. To detail the variety of speculations about Abraham’s bosom, in which many commentators of Scripture have indulged, is unnecessary, and, in my opinion, would serve no good purpose. It is quite enough that we receive what readers well acquainted with Scripture will acknowledge to be the natural meaning. As Abraham is called the father of believers, because to him was committed the covenant of eternal life, that he might first preserve it faithfully for his own children, and afterwards transmit it to all nations, and as all who are heirs of the same promise are called his children; so those who receive along with him the fruit of the same faith are said, after death, to be collected into his bosom. The metaphor is taken from a father 310 , in whose bosom, as it were, the children meet, when they all return home in the evening from the labors of the day. The children of God are scattered during their pilgrimage in this world; but as, in their present course, they follow the faith of their father Abraham, so they are received at death into that blessed rest, in which he awaits their arrival. It is not necessary to suppose that reference is made here to any one place; but the assemblage of which I have spoken is described, for the purpose of assuring believers, that they have not been fruitlessly employed in fighting for the faith under the banner of Abraham, for they enjoy the same habitation in heaven.
It will perhaps be asked, Is the same condition reserved after death for the godly of our own day, or did Christ, when he rose, open his bosom to admit Abraham himself, as well as all the godly? I reply briefly: As the grace of God is more clearly revealed to us in the Gospel, and as Christ himself, the Sun of Righteousness, (Mal 4:2,) has brought to us that salvation, which the fathers were formerly permitted to behold at a distance and under dark shadows, so there cannot be a doubt that believers, when they die, make a nearer approach to the enjoyment of the heavenly life. Still, it must be understood, that the glory of immortality is delayed till the last day of redemption. So far as relates to the word bosom, that quiet harbor at which believers arrive after the navigation of the present life, may be called either Abraham’s bosom or Christ’s bosom; but, as we have advanced farther than the fathers did under the Law, this distinction will be more properly expressed by saying, that the members of Christ are associated with their Head; and thus there will be an end of the metaphor about Abraham’s bosom, as the brightness of the sun, when he is risen, makes all the stars to disappear. From the mode of expression which Christ has here employed, we may, in the meantime, draw the inference, that the fathers under the Law embraced by faith, while they lived, that inheritance of the heavenly life into which they were admitted at death.
23. And, lifting up, his eyes in hell. Though Christ is relating a history, yet he describes spiritual things under figures, which he knew to be adapted to our senses. Souls have neither fingers nor eyes, and are not liable to thirst, nor do they hold such conversations among themselves as are here described to have taken place between Abraham and the rich man; but our Lord has here drawn a picture, which represents the condition of the life to come according to the measure of our capacity. The general truth conveyed is, that believing souls, when they have left their bodies, lead a joyful and blessed life out of this world, and that for the reprobate there are prepared dreadful torments, which can no more be conceived by our minds than the boundless glory of the heavens. As it is only in a small measure—only so far as we are enlightened by the Spirit of God—that we taste by hope the glory promised to us, which far exceeds all our senses, let it be reckoned enough that the inconceivable vengeance of God, which awaits the ungodly, is communicated to us in an obscure manner, so far as is necessary to strike terror into our minds.
On these subjects the words of Christ give us slender information, and in a manner which is fitted to restrain curiosity. The wicked are described as fearfully tormented by the misery which they feel; as desiring some relief, but cut off from hope, and thus experiencing a double torment; and as having their anguish increased by being compelled to remember their crimes, and to compare the present blessedness of believers with their own miserable and lost condition. In connection with this a conversation is related, as if persons who have no intercourse with each other were supposed to talk together. When the rich man says, Father Abraham, this expresses an additional torment, that he perceives, when it is too late, that he is cut off from the number of the children of Abraham
25. Son, remember. The word son appears to be used ironically, as a sharp and piercing reproof to the rich man, who falsely boasted in his lifetime that he was one of the sons of Abraham. It seems as if pain inflicted by a hot iron wounded his mind, when his hypocrisy and false confidence are placed before his eyes. When it is said that he is tormented in hell, because he had received his good things in his lifetime, we must not understand the meaning to be, that eternal destruction awaits all who have enjoyed prosperity in the world. On the contrary, as Augustine has judiciously observed, poor Lazarus was carried into the bosom of rich Abraham, to inform us, that riches do not shut against any man the gate of the kingdom of heaven, but that it is open alike to all who have either made a sober use of riches, or patiently endured the want of them. All that is meant is, that the rich man, who yielded to the allurements of the present life, abandoned himself entirely to earthly enjoyments, and despised God and His kingdom, now suffers the punishment of his own neglect.
Receivedst THY good things. The pronoun thy is emphatic, as if Abraham had said: Thou wast created for an immortal life, and the Law of God raised time on high to the contemplation of the heavenly life; but thou, forgetting so exalted a condition, didst choose to resemble a sow or a dog, and thou therefore receivest a reward which befits brutal pleasures. But now he enjoys comfort When it is said of Lazarus, on the other hand, that he enjoys comfort, because he had suffered many distresses in the world, it would be idle to apply this to all whose condition is wretched; because their afflictions, in many cases, are so far from having been of service to them, that they ought rather to bring upon them severer punishment. But Lazarus is commended for patient endurance of the cross, which always springs from faith and a genuine fear of God; for he who obstinately resists his sufferings, and whose ferocity remains unsubdued, has no claim to be rewarded for patience, by receiving from God comfort in exchange for the cross.
To sum up the whole, they who have patiently endured the burden of the cross laid upon them, and have not been rebellious against the yoke and chastisements of God, but, amidst uninterrupted sufferings, have cherished the hope of a better life, have a rest laid up for them in heaven, when the period of their warfare shall be terminated. On the contrary, wicked despisers of God, who are wholly engrossed in the pleasures of the flesh, and who by a sort of mental intoxication, drown every feeling of piety, will experience, immediately after death, such torments as will efface their empty enjoyments. It must also be recollected, that this comfort, which the sons of God enjoy, lies in this, that they perceive a crown of glory prepared for them, and rest in the joyful expectation of it; as, on the other hand, the wicked are tormented by the apprehension of the future judgment, which they see coming upon them.
26. A vast gulf lieth. These words describe the permanency of the future state, and denote, that the boundaries which separate the reprobate from the elect can never be broken through. And thus we are reminded to return early to the path, while there is yet time, lest we rush headlong into that abyss, from which it will be impossible to rise. The words must not be strictly interpreted, when it is said, that no one is permitted to pass who would wish to descend from heaven to hell; for it is certain, that none of the righteous entertain any such desire.
27. I beseech thee, father. To bring the narrative into more full accordance with our modes of thinking, he describes the rich man as wishing that his brothers, who were still alive, should be warned by Lazarus. Here the Papists exercise their ingenuity very foolishly, by attempting to prove that the dead feel solicitude about the living. Any thing more ridiculous than this sophistry cannot be conceived; for with equal plausibility I might undertake to prove, that believing souls are not satisfied with the place assigned to them, and are actuated by a desire of removing from it to hell, were it not that they are prevented by a vast gulf. If no man holds such extravagant views, the Papists are not entitled to congratulate themselves on the other supposition. It is not my intention, however, to debate the point, or to defend either one side or another; but I thought it right to advert, in passing, to the futility of the arguments on which they rest their belief that the dead intercede with God on our behalf. I now return to the plain and natural meaning of this passage.
29. They have Moses and the prophets. In the persons of the rich man and Abraham Christ reminds us, that we have received an undoubted rule of life, and that therefore we have no right to expect that the dead will rise to instruct and persuade us. Moses and the prophets were appointed to instruct, while they lived, the men of their own age; but it was with the design, that the same advantage should be derived by posterity from their writings. As it is the will of God that we should receive instructions, in this manner, about a holy life, there is no reason why the dead should assure us of the rewards and punishments of the future state; nor is there any excuse for the indifference of those who shelter themselves under the pretext, that they do not know what is going on beyond this world. Among irreligious men, we are aware, is frequently heard this wicked saying, or rather this grunting of hogs, that it is foolish in men to distress themselves with fears about a matter of uncertainty, since no one has ever returned to bring us tidings about hell.
With the view of counteracting every enchantment of Satan of this description, Christ draws their attention to the Law and the Prophets, agreeably to that passage in the writings of Moses:
It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou shouldest do it,
They who ridicule as fabulous what Scripture testifies as to the future judgment, will one day feel how shocking is the wickedness of giving the lie to the holy oracles of God. From such lethargy Christ arouses his followers, that they may not be deceived by the hope of escaping punishment, and thus fail to improve the time allowed for repentance.
Abraham’s reply amounts to this: By Moses and the prophets God had sufficiently made known to his people the doctrine of salvation, and nothing remains for us but that it obtain the assent of all. So thoroughly infected is the mind of man with a depraved curiosity, that the greater part of men are always gaping after new revelations. Now as nothing is more displeasing to God than when men are so eager to go beyond due bounds, he forbids them to inquire at magicians and soothsayers respecting the truth, and to consult pretended oracles after the manner of the Gentiles; and in order to restrain that itching curiosity, he promises, at the same time, that he will give prophets, from whom the people may learn whatever is necessary to be known for salvation, (Deut. 18:9, 15.) But if the prophets were sent for the express purpose; that God might keep his people under the guidance of his word, he who is not satisfied with this method of instruction is not actuated by a desire to learn, but tickled by ungodly wantonness; and therefore God complains that He is insulted, when He alone is not heard from the living to the dead, (Isa 8:19.)
The division of the word of God, which Abraham makes, into the Law and the Prophets, refers to the time of the Old Testament. Now that the more ample explanation of the Gospel has been added, there is still less excuse for our wickedness, if our dislike of that doctrine hurries us in every possible direction, and, in a word, if we do not permit ourselves to be regulated by the word of God. Hence too we infer how solid is the faith of Papists about purgatory and such fooleries, when it rests on nothing but phantoms. 311
30. Nay, father Abraham. This is a personification, as we have said, which expresses rather the feelings of the living than the anxiety of the dead. The doctrine of the Law is little esteemed by the world, the Prophets are neglected, and no man submits to hear God speaking in his own manner. Some would desire that angels should descend from heaven; others, that the dead should come out of their graves; others, that new miracles should be performed every day to sanction what they hear; and others, that voices should be heard from the sky. 312 But if God were pleased to comply with all their foolish wishes, it would be of no advantage to them; for God has included in his word all that is necessary to be known, and the authority of this word has been attested and proved by authentic seals. Besides, faith does not depend on miracles, or any extraordinary sign, but is the peculiar gift of the Spirit, and is produced by means of the word. Lastly, it is the prerogative of God to draw us to himself, and he is pleased to work effectually through his own word. There is not the slightest reason, therefore, to expect that those means, which withdraw us from obedience to the word, will be of any service to us. I freely acknowledge, that there is nothing to which the flesh is more strongly inclined than to listen to vain revelations; and we see how eagerly those men, to whom the whole of Scripture is an object of dislike, throw themselves into the snares of Satan. Hence have arisen necromancy and other delusions, which the world not only receives with avidity, but runs after with furious rage. But all that is here affirmed by Christ is, that even the dead could not reform, 313 or bring to a sound mind, those who are deaf and obstinate against the instructions of the law.
“De pourpre et de soye;” — “in purple and silk.”
“Quelle sera hors de ce monde la condition de ceux;” — “what will be out of this world the condition of those.”
“De l’orgueil de sa vie passee;” — “of the pride of his past life.”
“A bon droict on dit simplement, L’homme, encore que cela ne convient qu’a l’ame;” — “we properly say simply Man, though it applies only to the soul.”
“D’un pere terrien;” — “from an earthly father.”
“Veu qu’elle n’est appuyee et fondee qu’en des apparitions et vaines imaginations d’aucuns cerveaux esventez;” — “since it rests and is founded only on apparitions and vain imaginations of certain giddy brains.”
“Les autres, que Dieu parlast a eux du ciel en personne;”— “others, that God would speak to them from heaven in person.”
“Ne s’amenderont point, mesmes quand les morts viendroyent parler a eux, et les advertir;” — “will not reform, even though the dead should come to talk to them and warn them.”