The parables of Jesus still confound us after two thousand years. This is partly because they were intended to make us think very hard about the meaning of what He said. But it is also because we most often fail to take these stories in context: not their historical context so much as their legal, or Covenant, context. Joel McDurmon writes:
Most people don’t realise that many if not most of Jesus’ parables were intended not as general morality tales, but as particular pronouncements of coming judgment and change. Jesus was warning Jerusalem to repent and to accept its new King (Jesus) or else fall under ultimate condemnation of God. In fact, much of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels pertains primarily to that pre-AD70 crowd, and without reading it in this light, we misunderstand it. And when we misunderstand it, we misapply it.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is a prime example. Its meaning has been hotly debated, since it appears to teach salvation by works. However, close attention not only to its historical and Covenant context, but also to its delicious literary allusions and meticulous structure, bears a great deal of fruit.
Parsed by Chris Wooldridge. Notes by Michael Bull.
OVERVIEW OF STRUCTURE
The overall structure of the passage recapitulates both the fivefold Covenant pattern and the sevenfold Creation pattern.
It subtly prefigures the entire first century history, but more obviously, you can align each of these points with the first seven books of the Bible.
(Creation) The Characters Named and Described
(Division) The Characters Separated by Death
(Ascension) Altar Curses and Table Blessings – (LAW GIVEN)
(Testing) A Great Chasm – (LAW OPENED)
(Maturity) Testimony Requested – (LAW RECEIVED)
(Conquest) A New Confession
(Glorication) The Rulers Cut Off
As usual, the text is a fractal, so if we zoom in we can see the same pattern repeated in each of these major points.
CREATION – ARK – SABBATH
“There was a rich man
(Creation – Sabbath: Initiation)
who was clothed in purple and fine linen
(Division – Passover: Delegation)
and who feasted sumptuously every day.
(Ascension – Firstfruits: Presentation)
And there was a poor man named Lazarus,
(Testing – Pentecost: Purification)
laid at the gate and covered with sores,
(Maturity – Trumpets: Transformation)
who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table.
(Conquest – Atonement: Vindication)
Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.
(Glorification – Booths: Representation)
- The rich man is not named because he represents Adam, “the Man” with Sanctuary access. (Various women in the Bible remain unnamed for the same reason: they represent “the Woman.”)
- This is supported by the fact that Adam’s “robe” is both kingly (purple) and priestly (fine linen). In the architecture, this is the Temple Veil, mediating between God and men. This man is thus a stand-in for the “man of sin,” the Herodian High Priesthood, which used the Aaronic priesthood as a means of taking advantage of the people.
- Thus, the rich man’s table corresponds in the literary architecture to the Table of Showbread, the “bloodied face” of the priestly man who can rise and face God, the faithful man who is willingly broken that others might draw near to God. Adam himself was created in the Land and lifted up like a Levitical “firstfruits” into the Sanctuary. Like Adam, like the sons of Eli, these ministers abused their priestly office for their own gain, seizing the Lord’s portion for themselves (1 Samuel 2:12-17). The Table represented the holy Firstfruits offered to God that He might pour out a “Pentecostal” harvest on the entire Land. Seizing what was devoted to God brought a curse upon all Israel. Their eyes were opened, and they were naked.
- So, at Pentecost, instead of the sons of Abraham as kingly “stars,” we have Lazarus representing the cursed commoner, the servant suffering because of the tyrants who rule the Land. This analysis shows that the story is not simply about generosity but abuse of office. In Israel’s case, the people were once again exposed to demonic forces (Garden) and Gentile oppressors (World) because of the failure of the priesthood (Land). Moreover, the elites even looked down upon their own people, let alone the Samaritans and Gentiles, as those deserving of curses.
- Significantly, the poor man is named, which is unusual for a parable. The name is thus itself significant, and another allusion to Genesis, since this is the Genesis/Creation stanza of the parable. Lazarus is derived from the Hebrew name Eleazar, the name of Abraham’s oldest servant, the man who would have been Abraham’s heir had the Lord not intervened and given him a son according to the flesh. Jesus’ purpose here is to show that the inheritance, the Covenant Succession, would be given to those sons who had the faith of Abraham, sons according to the Spirit, not the flesh. Claiming to be sons of Abraham, the Pharisees were mistreating, swindling and neglecting Abraham’s true heirs.
- The gate was the place of judgment, where those who were condemned would be exiled from the city. As a beggar, Lazarus was neither inside nor outside the city. The Laws instituted to humble Israel and teach about sin were being abused as a means of exaltation and elitism.
- Maturity is the step which speaks of multiplication or “swarms.” Regarding the Law, it meant either plunder for obedience or plagues for disobedience. Lazarus is bearing the curse of the rich man’s sin. The rich man has the plunder and Lazarus carries the plagues. Covered in boils, he is cursed like Job, but also rendered ceremonially unclean. “Covering” at Maturity speaks of priestly robes, and the false covering of Adam’s fig leaves. The priesthood has let Lazarus down.
- At Conquest/Atonement, the benefit of the twofold approach for priesthood and people is limited to the elite. Lazarus is a scavenger, and all scavenging animals were unclean. For Lazarus, the Temple veil remains closed, and the Land under a curse. It is no coincidence that Israel in the first century was suffering from demonic oppression and possessions. She had reached the end of her history, her “Day 6.”
- The mention of dogs at Booths makes Lazarus the meat on the table. Indeed, Israel’s elitism would result in scavenging armies tearing her apart, a scattering rather than an “Ingathering.” But dogs are scavengers inside the city, Jewish opportunists, not Gentile ones, thus the term usually refers to false prophets.
- Finally, aligning this Creation stanza with the structure of Genesis 1 reveals exactly how crafty is the Spirit of God in His architectural allusions.
|There was a rich man
||And there was a poor man named Lazarus,
|who was clothed in purple and fine linen
||laid at the gate and covered with sores,
|and who feasted sumptuously every day.
||who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table.
||Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.
- Forming speaks of priesthood, and Filling of the resulting kingdom. Acting like kings in the Sanctuary (Adam, Cain, Lamech…) always results in the loss of true kingdom. Jesus’ ascension as our High Priest (Firstfruits) is what brought true kingdom at Pentecost.
- Comparing the first stanza above with the Creation Week “Tabernacle” below reveals that something is missing from the order.
|Day 1: Light and Darkness (Ark of the Testimony)
||Day 4: Governing Lights (Lampstand)
|Day 2: Firmament (Veil)
||Day 5: Swarms/Hosts/Clouds (Golden Incense Altar)
|Day 3a: Land and Sea (Bronze Altar)
||Day 6: Mediators (Beasts & the Man/Bronze Laver)
|Day 3b: Grain & Fruit (Golden Table)
||Day 7: Rest and Rule, Bread and Wine (Shekinah)
- Although the rich man feasted sumptuously every day, in the architecture of the passage, the Table is missing. The rich man failed to offer his “tithe” or firstfruits to God, and spiritually-speaking was in fact feasting at the Bronze Altar which represented the four-cornered Land, that is, devouring those whom the sacrifices were intended to represent. As Adam’s devouring of the fruit “devoured” the fruit of the Land and the womb, so the failure of the old High Priesthood brought an end to the Land of Israel and all the children of Israel — the promises to Abraham — in AD70.
- The Table is also missing when John sees the realities in heaven which the earthly Tabernacle furnitures were intended to represent. He weeps until He sees the slain lamb, the bread and wine of the world’s first truly meek Man.
- Regarding the modern Western diet, it has been said that we are digging our graves with knives and forks. This was exactly the case with the rulers of first century Israel. Following the completion of Herod’s Temple, the Feast of Passover was celebrated in greater and greater glory, drawing Jews from all across the empire. The Romans besieged the city during one of these festivals. The table which they believed made them an exalted people instead of a humble people was made a snare, and the entire Land was turned into an Altar with bloodied horns, a witness that the Law had been satisfied.
And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia. (Revelation 14:20)
DIVISION – VEIL – PASSOVER
The poor man died (Creation)
and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. (Division)
The rich man also died and was buried (Ascension)
and in Hades,
being in torment, (Testing)
he lifted up his eyes (Maturity)
and saw Abraham far off (Conquest)
and Lazarus at his side. (Glorication)
- The New Testament consistently pictures first century Israel as not only a new Sodom and a new Babylon, but a new Egypt. For evidence, we need look no further than Matthew 2, with Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and the ironic protection of Jesus in old Egypt. The structure here makes the death of Israel a new Passover, one that would cut off the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod, but free the true Israel from bondage (Mark 8:15; Galatians 4).
- The mention of angels highlights their administration of the Old Covenant. Just as Israel, Yahweh’s “firstborn” (Exodus 4:22) was carried out of Egypt to Canaan on eagle’s wings, so Lazarus was carried to Abraham’s side as his true son by faith. Those whom Israel’s Aaronic priests had failed once again now had a new High Priest who was faithful in all things (Hebrews 4:15).
- Abraham’s “side” is literally his “bosom.” Lazarus is not only carried like a precious gemstone upon the breastplate as a true son of Israel, he is part of the Bride, placed into a better Adam until the “open flesh” of the Circumcision was closed up.
- The Ascension here is ironic. The rich man does not ascend as fragrant smoke but falls into the Altar as ashes, something which is revisited later on.
- The rich man now dies on the Altar upon which he feasted, but Jesus’ use of the darkness of Hades might suggest a “Gentile” grave rather than burial in the Land like Sarah. Being the place of shadows, this single use of Hades might also be an ironic inversion of the light of the Lampstand shining upon the Table as the “face” of the Man.
- The fire of the light of the Law is his torment. Like idolatrous King Manasseh (and Adam, the first idolater), and Paul after his confrontation with Christ, his eyes are finally opened at Maturity. He understands good and evil.
- Abraham is positioned at Division/Delegation (Circumcision – the womb) and Conquest/Vindication (the “second” Circumcision [Joshua 5:2] – the Land). As in Israel’s history, he serves as bookends, the Alpha and Omega of the circumcision, from earthly country to the heavenly one.
- Outside of this, at the beginning and end of the actual stanza, is Lazarus. He is named at the end, not the beginning, perhaps to highlight his Succession as the true heir of the Covenant promises.
Francesco Hayez, Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem
ASCENSION – BRONZE ALTAR – FIRSTFRUITS
And he called out, (Initiation)
‘Father Abraham, (Delegation – Circumcision)
have mercy on me, (Presentation)
and send Lazarus (Purification)
to dip the end of his finger in water (Transformation)
and cool my tongue, (Vindication – Baptism)
for I am in anguish in this flame.’ (Representation)
- We now come to the threefold Ethics section of the passage, the “blood, fire and smoke.”
- The Bronze Altar stanza highlights the sacrificial thread of the matrix pattern: reconciliation (peace) through substitutionary bloodshed.
- The rich man is now the penitent at the Bronze Altar, but it is too late. Just as he treated the least of Israel as sacrificial meat, so he is now himself the meat on the Altar.
- Lazarus is now the “fiery Spirit” of Pentecost, the angelic messenger who can bring salvation.
- The mention of his finger is a strange one until we see Lazarus as a prophet, one who “walks on the sea” of the nations. The fiery finger of God gives the Law at Ascension. The rich man desires grace at Maturity, the Law written on flesh.
- The tongue is deliberately mentioned at Conquest/Vindication to reflect the Covenant Oath and also the Bronze Laver. The rich man possessed a stolen “tongue of gold” like Achan, but he desires a drop of water from the purifying Laver, the place where the priests and sacrifices were washed as mediators. Instead, like Isaiah, his unclean lips would be purified by a coal from the Altar. But Isaiah was a faithful mediator, and for the rich man the time for mediation and testimony had passed.
- Instead of the glory of Shekinah filling the Temple at Glorification, God is a fire who will return to consume the house once again.
ASCENSION – TABLE – FIRSTFRUITS
But Abraham said, (Sabbath)
remember that you received your good things, (Firstfruits)
in your lifetime (Pentecost)
and Lazarus in like manner bad things; (Trumpets)
but now he is comforted here, (Atonement)
and you are in anguish. (Booths)
- It is telling that Abraham, from his position of authority at Creation/Genesis, refers to the rich man as “son.”
- Like the grain and fruit plants on Day 3, Ascension is always a taste, a promise, of greater glory to be possessed by faith (Day 7), bread and wine enthroned at God’s table as a friend, confidant and co-regent. Like Israel following the Firstfruits promise of the grapes of Eshcol, the rich man failed to interpret the promise and enter into God’s rest.
- At Pentecost, the rich man failed to believe, rejecting the Spirit of God.
- But Lazarus was like the new generation of Israel, the ones who saw the carcasses of old Israel fall in the wilderness, believed the promises and entered in.
- The rich man’s anguish at Booths/Succession takes the place of the promised rest.
TESTING – LAMPSTAND – PENTECOST
And besides all this, (Creation)
between us and you (Division)
a great chasm has been fixed, (Ascension)
so those who desire (Testing)
to pass from here to you (Maturity)
may not do so, (Conquest)
and none may cross from there to us.’ (Glorification)
- At first pass, it is strange to find a “great chasm” as the subject of Testing. It seems to represent the impassable distance between the true sons of Abraham as the (Day 4 / Numbers) stars of heaven, and the false sons whose Altar has broken into two and whose unclean ashes have been poured out. The first allusion is to the destruction of Jeroboam’s idolatrous altar in 1 Kings 13. The first century correspondence was the splitting of the rocks at the crucifixion, and the subsequent splitting of the entire Land through the testimony of the apostles, culminating in the destruction of the Altar in AD70. The second is to the rebellion of Korah the Kohathite in Numbers 16, whose members were consumed when a chasm opened up in the earth, much like the splitting of the Altar. The fragrant smoke ascends and pleases God, but the Adamic “dust and ashes” collected inside the Altar must eventually be emptied out to be consumed by the serpent.
- At the central point, the “Pentecost,” is the word desire, which commonly appears here as either zeal for God, holy fire, or as strange fire, as offered by the sons of Aaron. Strange fire pictures idolatry in the Garden and adultery in the Land, a rejection of the Ethics of the Covenant.
MATURITY – INCENSE ALTAR – TRUMPETS
And he said, (Genesis)
‘Then I beg you, father, (Exodus)
to send him to my father’s house— (Leviticus)
for I have five brothers— (Numbers)
so that he may warn them, (Deuteronomy)
lest they also arrive (Joshua)
into this place of torment.’ (Judges)
- Maturity is the ministry of the prophet, the man who has heard the Lord and now responds as His representative. Here, however, the rich man answers back. He still has not “received” the holy words. But the theme of testimony, legal witness, remains. He requests that Lazarus be sent from the dead as a prophetic witness to his brothers.
- As the word “son” appeared at Passover, now we have Abraham addressed as “father.”
- The position of the father’s house at Ascension gives us the location of the “Table.” It is Levitical.
- Usually, the “brothers” appear at Trumpets, as mustered, united troops, a host. But the word for “warn” is diamartyrētai, and martyrdom (witness) always appears at Trumpets. So the five brothers must refer to the five brothers of Judah, as represented by the five visible planets (the other two “governing lights” being the sun and moon).
- The Revelation pictures the ministry of the apostolic church in a number of ways, one of which is the “two (legal) witnesses” who are slain and resurrected as a testimony, repeating the sufferings and witness of Christ just before the Roman siege (Revelation 11:1-14; see also Acts 14:19-23). This is the context of Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11. The apostolic witness would awaken some Jews but harden others.
What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.”
And David says, “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever.” (Romans 9:7-10)
- Just as Israel was dominated by Gentiles instead of ruling over them as wise judges, so the new age would be a place of torment for Jews. This is not to take anything away from the doctrine of eternal judgment, since those judged in the Jewish War will also stand before the throne of God.
CONQUEST – MEDIATORS – ATONEMENT
But Abraham said, (Day 1 – Greater Light)
‘They have Moses and the Prophets; (Day 2)
let them hear them.’ (Day 3 – the Land)
And he said, (Day 4 – Lesser Lights)
‘No, father Abraham, (Day 5 – the Testimony)
but if someone from the dead goes to them, (Day 6 – Mediators)
they will repent.’ (Day 7 – Sound Judgment)
- The context here is both Oath and Sanctions. The rich man desires a legal (Covenant) testimony, an Oath, that his brothers might not suffer the curses of the Covenant, the Sanctions.
- The two witnesses had the power of Moses (turning water into blood) and of the Prophets (shutting the sky), that is, the waters below and the waters above. Here they are positioned as the Firmament, the sea waters parted for the establishment of a holy Land.
- At Ascension, we the command to Israel to “hear,” and we know that the authority of Moses and Elijah was superseded by that of Jesus at His transfiguration (Matthew 17:5). Jesus raised another Lazarus, and of course Jesus Himself would be the first raised from the dead as a testimony to Israel. But His own words would be vindicated. They would reject Him.
- Conquest corresponds to the Day of Atonement, the two cherubim flanking the sprinkled blood a picture of the angels in the empty tomb.
GLORIFICATION – REST & RULE – BOOTHS
He said to him, (Transcendence)
‘If Moses and the Prophets (Hierarchy)
they do not hear, (Ethics)
neither if someone from the dead should rise (Oath/Sanctions)
shall they be persuaded.’” (Succession)
- The parable finishes where Old Covenant Israel finished: in torments. The fact that, even after the testimony of Jesus was resurrected, the Lord not only sent His Spirit, but gave Israel one final generation to repent and believe, shows that until the final few years Israel was not entirely like Egypt, or Sodom, or Babylon. There was always a faithful remnant (Romans 9:29), and the patience of the Lord was indeed Israel’s salvation (2 Peter 3:15).
- The word “persuaded” or “convinced” is from the root word for “faith.”
- Finally, notice that the last stanza is only fivefold, representing a Covenant scroll that has not been “opened,” that is, has not become incarnate, in obedient faith. Only the enthroned Firstfruits Lamb, the missing “Table,” could open the New Covenant scroll and pour out the Pentecostal harvest.