Many years ago I was asked to conduct a funeral for an unbelieving man by his family. He had attended church off and on, but had not given clear evidence of faith and repentance. Tragically, he died in his sinful behaviors. As I prayerfully struggled over what to preach at his funeral, I was reminded of our Lord's own preaching in the midst of difficult situations.
I recalled how he used parables for two primary purposes: to reveal truth to the believing and to conceal truth from the unbelieving (Matt. 13:10-17). I realized I could use a parable of our Lord's in a similar way. I could preach the gospel clearly, but also not put myself in a situation at a family funeral where I was pronouncing the eternal destiny of the deceased.
Thus, I was led to a particular text. I preached from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus found in Luke 16:19-31.
Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house — for I have five brothers — in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’
After reading this parable, I stressed the following four thoughts to the gathered family and friends of the deceased.
A funeral is for the living to remember the dead and consider their own eternal destiny. I told them that there was one thing I knew for certain their loved one would want them to know. He would want them to know of what lies beyond this life as revealed in this story. For even a hateful rich man would want his family to know of the eternal realities he was now experiencing.
For whatever your circumstances of life may be, one day you will die. Jesus told this story to remind his hearers that a time is coming when they too will die, rich and poor alike. I asked them, "Are you preparing yourselves for where you will be at the time of your funeral?" I reminded them of the certainty and inescapable reality of death.
Your destiny in eternity is fixed based on what you believe and how you live in this world. Jesus explained in this story that there is no way to cross the great chasm between heaven and hell once you die. One will either be in the sweet comforts of heaven where the poor man went or in the agonies of hell that the rich man was suffering. I told them there was only one reliable source for knowing now which place they were going.
You have a proven witness in the Bible. Jesus said that the Bible itself is better for knowing your eternal destiny than having your loved one come back from the dead and explain it to you. I showed them how the Old Testament predicted Jesus' coming, death, and resurrection, and how the New Testament confirms these truths about him. I then called on them to trust in Christ for life, salvation, and a new heart for God and others.
I share this idea here in the hope that a family or preacher in a similar circumstance might be aided by it.