Today’s text tells the story of a man whom I sang about when I was a child. Even unbelieving children of my generation in America knew the story of Zacchaeus, because Zacchaeus was small—very small. As a kid I enjoyed that story because I was small too, and I identified with the little guy, and his struggles to see over the crowds.
But in my mind, it didn’t go any further than that. This story was cute—Jesus calls the little man down from the tree and has lunch with him.
This story is so much more than “cute.” This story is, in fact a kind of culmination of everything we’ve seen so far, of the whole work of Jesus’s ministry up to this point.
So let’s remember where we’ve been.
Jesus has spoken a great deal about material possessions, and those who are attached to them; he said in Luke 17.33 that the only way to “find” our lives is to “lose” them.
Jesus told the parable of the persistent widow, who has to pester a judge until he’ll finally give her justice; and he said that unlike this wicked judge, God doesn’t wait to give justice to his children, but answers them when they call on him (18.7-8).
He told the parable of the humble tax collector, who won’t even lift up his eyes in the temple, but who beats his chest and simply begs God to “have mercy on me, a sinner” (18.13-14).
He told his disciples to let the little children come to him, because to such belongs the kingdom of God (18.15-17).
He called a rich man to sell all of his possessions and give them to the poor, and then to come follow him; but the rich man couldn’t do it, because he was too attached to his possessions (18.22-23).
And finally, as we saw last week, when Jesus is passing near Jericho a blind man cries out to him for help, and Jesus heals him, and then proceeds to follow him, glorifying God (18.35-43).
All of these events have a bearing on this story; they all find a divine echo here.
So let’s read the text first together, and then we’ll try and see why Luke has put it here, and tells it the way that he does.
19.1 He entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. 4 So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. 5 And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. 7 And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” 8 And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
So this man Zacchaeus is very short—as Luke puts it, he was small in stature. Theologians have toiled much over what his “shortness” has to do with this story. Was it a metaphor for his spirituality? a fitting punishment for his sin?
Probably not. More than likely, his shortness was just a fact, and Luke needed to tell us Zacchaeus was short in order to explain why he was in a tree in the first place: because he couldn’t see over the shoulders of the people around him.
Jesus is coming through Jericho, where Zacchaeus lives (this would be just a short time after he healed the blind man outside the city), and Zacchaeus wants to see him. We don’t know exactly why—we don’t know what he’s heard about Jesus—but we know from his reaction later on that he badly wants to see this man he’s heard about.
And the huge surprise of the first part of this text is that apparently, Zacchaeus isn’t alone in looking for Jesus—Jesus is looking for him.
5 And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”
So we need to see that this is not a merely accidental exchange; there is something more going on here. Jesus and Zacchaeus don’t know each other (v. 3: he was asking to see who Jesus was). And yet, Jesus lifts his eyes, and sees him in the tree, and calls him by name. Zacchaeus doesn’t know Jesus, but Jesus knows Zacchaeus; he came by this sycamore tree on purpose.
And what was his purpose? Jesus says (v. 5), “I must stay at your house today.”
It would be easy to imagine that Jesus is coming through Jericho simply because it’s in his road on his way to Jerusalem; but Jesus says that he’s coming through this city because he has to spend time with Zacchaeus.
So Zacchaeus comes down out of the tree and, Luke says (v. 6) that he “received [Jesus] joyfully.” He’s not intimidated by Jesus; he’s not offended at Jesus’s audacity; he is filled with joy at Jesus’s self-invitation.
Now, in v. 7 we see that this was not a small thing. When the people see that Jesus goes with Zacchaeus to his house, they all grumbled.
Why are they grumbling? Because Jesus has made himself the guest of this man who is a “sinner.”
How could they presume to know that? Were the people of Jericho just hyper-judgmental people?
No: they know Zacchaeus is a sinner because they know him. Zacchaeus is a tax collector, and not a honest one.
Tax collectors, as we’ve already seen in this series, were among the most hated members of the Jewish community. Israel was under Roman occupation at the time, and the Romans employed some Jews to collect taxes for them. These tax collectors could exact the price they wanted from the citizens, give the Romans what they were owed, and pocket the difference—and this is what they regularly did.
And, as we’ll see in a minute, this is exactly what Zacchaeus did. He cheated and abused the people of Jericho, and did it with the full support of the authorities.
Now, we don’t know what happened between Jesus and Zacchaeus during that lunch; we don’t know what they talked about. But we know that it had a profound impact on Zacchaeus. After this exchange, he is a changed man.
And we see his change in what he does with his wealth. First of all (v. 8), he gives 50 percent of everything he has to the poor. And then, from the 50 percent left to him, he commits to making restitution to anyone he has cheated—not just giving them back what he stole from them, but giving each of them back four times what he had taken. If you do the math, it was a monumental sum: in all likelihood, after giving back what he had taken, he would have virtually nothing left.
And here, Jesus says something incredible. V. 9:
9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house...
Not because Zacchaeus was giving away everything; not because he had received Jesus into his home.
But rather, Jesus says,
“Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
In other words, Zacchaeus has found salvation because Jesus had come to seek him out and to save him. This was Jesus’s doing.
And indeed, as I said before, we can see in the story of Zacchaeus a kind of culmination of everything Jesus has been doing and saying over the last fifty or so verses.
Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus, and it happens: he sees him, and is seen by him (think of the blind beggar who cries out for to regain his sight, 18.35-43).
Zacchaeus gives all that he has to follow Jesus (think of the rich man who couldn’t do the same, 18.22-23).
Zacchaeus’s small stature gives a physical call-back to the children of 18.15-17—to such belongs the kingdom of God.
Zacchaeus responds with humility and repentance, like the tax collector in the parable of 18.13-14, but with the joy and outward change that rightly accompanies such repentance.
Zacchaeus goes looking for Jesus, and finds him immediately—unlike the widow who must annoy the judge to get his attention (18.7-8).
He is ready to lose his whole life, and in so doing, finds it (as Jesus said in 17.33).
Zacchaeus’s story is a summary picture of nearly everything we’ve seen over the last couple months.
And in this way, Luke gives us a picture of the way Jesus saves his people. Zacchaeus has a series of experiences here, and if we know Christ, we will have these same experiences, in one way or another.
Sovereignly sought (v. 1-5, 10)
What happened to Zacchaeus to bring him to that sycamore tree happens to all of us at some point, Christian or not.
We’re going about our lives, and we’re relatively happy in our lives, and then something happens that makes us vaguely uneasy. It may be something huge that happens in our lives, or it may be something that seemingly comes out of nowhere. But we begin to feel like we’re missing something: like something fundamental is lacking in our lives, and we don’t know what it is. This feeling of “existential unease” is nearly universal.
And when that happens, we will do one of two things. Either we’ll ignore that feeling, and tell ourselves to not be stupid, and move on with our ordinary lives; or we’ll start looking for this “thing” we feel we’re missing. And we’ll look all over the place: in hobbies, in relationships, in philosophy, in education, in our jobs, in different religions… We’ll try these things like we’re trying on a new pair of shoes: we give it a go to see if it fits, and if it doesn’t we move on to the next thing.
And for a good number of us, this search for “the thing we’re missing” will lead us to Jesus. We’ve heard that Jesus has some interesting things to say (even if his followers seem kind of weird), so we’ll take some time to listen to what he has to say.
It doesn’t occur to us until later to consider that this feeling of malaise that drove us to seek Jesus out was put there by God himself. Jesus doesn’t go to Zacchaeus’s house; he goes to the tree. He goes to the tree because he knows Zacchaeus will be in the tree. And Zacchaeus is in the tree (and not somewhere else) because something was driving him to seek Jesus out. He couldn’t just sit by while this man Jesus walked by; he needed to see him. So he climbed that tree, at that time, to be exactly where Jesus knew he would be.
Which of course brings us to this fact. Jesus called Zacchaeus out; he called him by name, he came to that tree. He was going there to meet him, to go to his house.
If God was driving our search for him, it wasn’t merely in order to give us the opportunity to meet him (a take-it-or-leave-it chance); he drove us to seek him because he was seeking us.
Now, by itself, this may not be entirely convincing from the text (for example, Luke doesn’t give us Jesus’s motivations in v. 4-5). But we have verse 10. And in that verse Jesus explicitly says this is what he was doing. He says that salvation has come to this house,
10 For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.
What does it mean that Jesus “seeks” the lost?
Preachers often use an illustration to describe Jesus’s seeking; they use it because it’s an illustration that every parent can identify with. Imagine you’re walking down a busy street with your small child; you’re holding his hand; and then at some point he lets go of your hand, for just a second. You look around; and he’s gone. There are people everywhere; you start trying to butt your way through the crowd to get to where he was.
You will look for your child with desperation in that moment, because you love him.
These preachers will say, “This is how desperately Christ seeks us.”
I get why they say that, but I'm sorry, but this is a terrible illustration to describe the way Jesus seeks us.
At every step in the road, Jesus knows those who are lost, and he knows where they are. He knows every detail of what needs to happen to save them. He is never desperate; he is never panicked.
The lost are lost, not because God doesn’t know where they are, but because they don’t know where he is.
Here’s a better illustration. Imagine you’ve spent a long time away from someone you love. And you know that finally, after all this time, they’re coming back home. You go to the airport; you have their flight information; you know where they’re going to get off the plane and when. And when those doors open at the airport and the wave of people start coming through, you start looking: not with fear or desperation, but with excitement, with joy, because you KNOW they are there, and you’ve come to get them.
That is how Jesus seeks us. He knows exactly where we are, and exactly what we need; and at exactly the right time, he comes to get us. And even this illustration isn’t perfect, because not only does Jesus know where we’ll be—he’s the one who BRINGS us there!
He does it in a variety of ways. Sometimes he seeks us through other people (like he did with me). Sometimes he seeks us through circumstance, through a series of events in our lives that bring us to this place at this time to meet him. And sometimes he seeks us through nothing exterior at all, but rather through an inward stirring of our hearts that seems to come out of nowhere.
But whatever means he chooses to get us there, if we ever find Christ, it is not because we were looking for him; it’s because he came to look for us. He brought us exactly where he wanted us to be, and he met us right there.
We have to be really clear on this: the idea that you are a Christian because you came to Christ, and you made the decision to follow him—that it was you who did that—is dead wrong.
Imagine a man whose heart has stopped; the paramedics administer CPR; the man’s heart starts again; and then the man sits up and proudly proclaims, “Hey, hey! Look at me! Did you see what I did? I just sat up!”
Dead men can’t choose to come alive. They’re dead. Before they can do anything, and in order for them to do anything, someone else has to come and resuscitate them. And it is pure folly for a resuscitated man to pat himself on the back for being alive.
Paul says in Ephesians 2.4-5 that we were dead in our trespasses, and that God made us alive together with Christ. Every Christian chooses to follow Christ, yes; but we make that choice because he made us alive, and the choice between life or death, when you want to live, is the easiest choice in the world.
We only seek Christ because he sought us; we only find Christ because he found us. If you think you are a Christian mainly because one day you made a decision to look for Christ, you need to get on your knees and ask for forgiveness and thank him for making the decision to come and find you.
Sovereignly changed (v. 3, 6-9)
And here’s where this story really begins to hit us where it hurts. Zacchaeus doesn’t just meet Jesus; he is profoundly changed by him.
We can see that God is changing him even before meeting Christ, because he went looking for Jesus in the first place (v. 3)—again, that was God’s doing. We can see that he is being changed because he received Jesus with joy (v. 6)—even though he had every reason to hide from Jesus, because he was a sinner.
And we see that he is transformed because he responds to Christ with extreme self-sacrifice (v. 8)—essentially, he does what the rich man in Luke 18.22-25 could not bring himself to do: he gave away everything he had to follow Christ. He went through the eye of the needle, and came out the other side.
Now, many people read too quickly and jump immediately from Zacchaeus’s behavior to his salvation—Zacchaeus is saved because he is generous, right? So if I “do good things” then I can be saved in the same way.
But that is not what Jesus says.
What does he say? v. 9:
Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.
It’s a little hard to know at first what to do with this, because the “sons of Abraham” were typically thought to be the Jews: it almost looks like he’s saying Zacchaeus has received salvation because he’s Jewish.
But we have to remember that Jesus is speaking through the power of his Holy Spirit, and this same Holy Spirit already touched on this idea in this gospel, through John the Baptist. Remember what he says in Luke 3.8? He tells the crowds:
“Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.”
In other words, it is not your Jewishness that shows that you are children of Abraham. It is the change that God works in you that shows you are children of Abraham, and you can see this change by the way you respond to Jesus Christ.
In other words, if your life looks the same today as it did before you met Christ, then you haven’t met Christ. Meeting Christ will necessarily change the way you live—not just on the inside, but on the outside too.
You will begin to love things that didn’t interest you before; you begin to hate things that seemed important to you before, but which were fundamentally against what God calls you to do. Your priorities will be radically overhauled.
And because your priorities have changed, you will make different choices. You will say necessarily yes to certain things and no to others.
If that sounds like a tall order to you, do you remember Jesus saying how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God? And how everyone said, “Well then who can be saved?”
What was his response? Luke 18.27:
What is impossible with man is POSSIBLE with God.
Zacchaeus joyfully goes from rich to poor in a moment, and we have zero indication of any hesitation on his part.
HE IS CHANGED.
And it’s not because he mustered enough willpower to do the right thing. Zacchaeus is changed because Jesus sought him out, and because Jesus saved him.
Sovereignly Saved (v. 10)
And he does this because that’s the reason why he came (v. 10):
“For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.”
Jesus came to seek and save the lost.
Like Zacchaeus, he sought us: he came looking for us, and brought us to exactly where we needed to be in order to meet him.
And like Zacchaeus, he saved us. His seeking us out led him to the most horrific death imaginable.
He took our place, so we could be united to God. He took our sin, and gave us his perfect righteousness. If we belong to him, it is because he sought us and saved us.
Now there’s one last thing that’s really important to see here.
It would be easy to take this passage and make it very individualistic. God sought me, he saved me, he changed me, just like he changed this one man Zacchaeus. And that’s true…but there is, as usual, more going on here than just that.
On multiple occasions, Luke uses the word “today” in his gospel in a very particular way. It’s a fascinating subject, if you ever have the change to explore it. Every time Luke uses the word “today” or “this day” in relation to what Jesus is doing, he is putting a point on a fundamental aspect of his life and ministry.
For example, think back to chapter 2, way back at the beginning. It’s the text we usually read at Christmas. The shepherds are in the field, and the angel appears to them and says (Luke 2.10-11):
“10 Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born THIS DAY in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
THIS DAY, a Savior has come. The waiting is over. TODAY, he is born—the Savior, Christ the Lord. And he did not come for just one person, or just a small group of people; he came for all the people. This good news is a subject of great joy for everyone. The scale of this good news is global. God had promised Abraham that all the nations of the world would be blessed through his offspring; and TODAY, he is making good on that promise.
Second example, in Luke 4. Jesus is in the synagogue, reading from Isaiah 61 (starting in Luke 4.18). Jesus reads aloud to the people in the synagogue:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
When Isaiah wrote these words, he was speaking of God’s promised Messiah, the Savior he had promised to his people, the one who would bring blessing to the whole world as a descendant of Abraham. But look what happens next (v. 20):
20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “TODAY this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Those listening to Jesus could make no mistake: Jesus is saying that he is the rescuer God had promised. He is the chosen Messiah. They don’t have to wait for the fulfillment of the promise any longer: TODAY, this Scripture has been fulfilled.
The great plan of God has begun to come to fruition—TODAY, the kingdom has come. Jesus came to fulfill a mission, and that mission is global in scale.
Now, take those two massive, global examples, and set them against what Jesus says in this chapter.
At two different times, Jesus insists on the word “today.”
“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house TODAY.”
“TODAY salvation has come to this house…”
Given how Luke uses this word in the rest of this gospel, the repeated emphasis here is no accident.
The “todays” in Luke 19 are every bit as mind-blowing and massive as the “todays” in Luke 2 and 4…but the scale could not be more different.
In this case, his “todays” are focused on one man: Zacchaeus. Today, he has to stay at Zacchaeus’s house; and today, Zacchaeus has found salvation.
In other words, God has a plan for the world he created, and it is a plan on a global, universal, cosmic scale. But this massive plan God has set in motion for the entire world is not nameless or faceless, not purely and simply collective in nature: it isn’t just huge.
It’s small too. God’s plan is cosmic, but it is personal. His plan is for a people, and his love is for a people. But that love extends to even the smallest of his people, and seeks us out, and finds us where we are, as Zacchaeus can attest. “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.”
Now, the reason why all of this is so important—why this story is so important to the larger story we see in this gospel—is because the experience that Zacchaeus has here is the experience all of us should have if we know Christ.
The words we see in v. 10—The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost—are a summary statement of Jesus’s entire ministry, and if we know Christ, we are on the receiving end of that. We were made to know him, we were created to see his glory…and each of us had wandered so far from that goal that we were effectively lost. We had no idea where to find the thing we were lacking (for which we were created), and couldn’t have reached it even if we knew where to look.
So he sought us. He left his home with the Father and took on our humanity and suffered for us, to take our place and to give us his. He came to where we were, and found us, and lifted us out of the swamp in which we’d found ourselves. And he did it for us while we were his enemies, when we wanted nothing to do with him. HE did that for US. We did not save ourselves.
He sought us, and he saved us.
The reason we keep repeating that over and over and over again is because it is only that truth that is able to produce genuine, biblically sound joy in us; and it is only deeply-rooted joy in Christ that enables someone to give everything to him, like Zacchaeus did. As long as we love ourselves more than Jesus, true, complete obedience—and not just behavior modification—will be impossible.
But when we understand what Jesus has done for us—not just for “his people,” but for me—nothing in this world can come close. Every joy and every pleasure and every happiness of this world is eclipsed by the simple fact of seeing him, and being seen by him; of seeking him, and being found by him.
That’s how Zacchaeus was able to give everything he had—not so that he could know Christ, but because he had come to know Christ. Faced with the reality that Jesus came and sought him where he was, he was so overjoyed that the things he used to love held no value to him anymore. Giving everything away was easy, because it no longer meant anything!
So remember, brothers and sisters. Remember that if you know Christ, if you met him, if you found him, it is because he sought you and saved you. He pursued you from the moment of your birth to bring you exactly where you needed to be, to invite himself into your house.
Let the reality that Jesus chose you from eternity past and sought you and saved you make everything else tiny and insignificant in comparison.
And in response to that reality, welcome him with joy, and give him everything. Hold nothing back; because what could you possibly keep that would be better than what you have in him? What relationship could be better than him? What victory? What pleasure? What comfort?
Pass through the eye of the needle. Give him everything, because there’s nothing you have that could be more satisfying than Jesus.
And if you don’t know Jesus this morning, let me just say this. I don’t know what you’re going through, I don’t know why you’re here or what you’re looking for. But all of us are looking for something.
So if you don’t know Jesus, look for him. Climb the tree, to get a glimpse of him. If you have Christian friends, ask them questions—ask hard questions, even. Read the Bible for yourself, to find out what Jesus says. In a minute we’re going to put two prayers up on the screen during Communion; pray those prayers. God’s not bothered by the prayers of people who don’t believe in him.
Look for Jesus. Because you don’t know: it is quite possible that he brought you here, to exactly this place and time, because he’s been looking for you, and planned on meeting you here. It’s quite possible that he brought you here in order to look up and see you, and call you down out of the tree, and meet you.
1 Corinthians 11.23-26:
23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
For the next couple weeks we’re going to be taking a deeper look at what Communion is, and why we do it together every week.
People often look back over their week, and if they’ve struggled with sin, or failed God this week, they’ll stay in their seats.
Here’s why that’s a mistake.
Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper with his disciples at the Feast of the Passover just before his death. The Passover was the Jewish feast in which the people was called to remember God’s faithfulness in Egypt (Exodus 12).
So what Jesus does here is show that God’s faithfulness to the people in Egypt was actually a precursor, a foreshadowing, of the ultimate faithfulness he would show them in the person and work of Christ. In the same way that through the Passover, God’s people was called to remember his faithfulness to them in Egypt, through the Lord’s Supper, Jesus is calling us to remember God’s faithfulness to us in him.
So for that reason (and for others which we’ll see over the next couple weeks) this is not meant to be a solemn, sad, somber event. When Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me,” we are to remember his death; but not just his death. We are also called to remember everything his death obtained for his people, in fulfillment of God’s promises to them. The “remembering” he is speaking of is not the remembering of loss, but of God’s faithfulness. It is a song of celebration, not a funeral dirge.
And that’s why staying in your seat if you don’t feel worthy is such a mistake. Standing up and participating in the Lord’s Supper is not something you should do only if you ‘feel good’ about your week. You are COMMANDED to feel good about Christ’s faithfulness to you, regardless of how you feel about your week.
So if you have faith in Christ, if you have received his grace by faith in his finished work, stand up, come forward, and celebrate God’s faithfulness together with us.