I told you last week that we were going to endeavor to embark on a study of conversations with the Lord Jesus. There are so many compelling and riveting incidents like that in the four gospels that we’re going to be looking at them for an undetermined time, at this juncture, until the Lord gives us some different direction. Focusing on Christ is the most important, most transforming thing that we can do. So let’s look at Him in a conversation in the nineteenth chapter of Luke. Luke chapter 19, a very familiar story, the one that illustrates the greatest truth of His life.
Luke 19, “He entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way. When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, ‘Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.’ And he hurried and came down and received Him gladly. When they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’ Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.’”
That last verse is a definitive declaration of the purpose for the incarnation. Jesus came into the world to seek and to save lost sinners. This is the divine enterprise in God’s redemptive plan.
From the fall of man, God has always sought out sinners. All the way back in the book of Genesis, after Adam and Eve had sinned, God comes into the garden and says, “Where are you? Where are you?” And ever since then, God has been seeking sinners, seeking the lost. In one of the most beautiful Old Testament texts, Ezekiel quotes God saying this: “I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick,” Ezekiel 34:16.
God is a seeking God. He is not in some form of isolation, waiting for us to figure out a way to get to Him; He, rather, seeks us. And by the way, Romans 3:11 says no man seeks after God. We’re neither able nor willing to seek after God; He is beyond human discovery. God has to seek us. And that is the story of the Bible. That is the story of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. He seeks sinners. He seeks the sinners.
And that’s what this story’s about, and it’s really counterintuitive. If you were a Jew in Jericho and you were there this day, you would have been in utter shock and dismay that He would have sought the sinner that He sought. But this is the work of “the Son of Man.” “Son of Man” is the messianic title that we find in Daniel chapter 7, emphasizing His humanity as well as His glory. And verse 10 says He “has come”—meaning at His birth in the incarnation, why?—“to seek and save that which was lost”—or “ruined,” or “destroyed”; that word can mean any of those.
The Lord Jesus came into the world on a quest to seek and save doomed sinners. He didn’t come for philanthropy. He didn’t come to alter culture, as such. He didn’t come to demonstrate benevolence. He didn’t come to merely show kindness. He came “to seek and to save that which was lost.” And if there was to be any salvation at all, He would have to do that. He would have to seek the sinner because the sinner does not seek Him, and He would have to save the sinner because no sinner has the capacity for self-salvation.
Ephesians 4 says about all sinners, they are alienated from the life of God. They don’t seek after God. “There’s none righteous, no, not one.” But God in His eternal love determined that He was going to seek and save sinners.
And again, this goes against the grain of all typical religion. Religion basically says if you’re good enough, God will accept you. And if you seek Him by being good enough, or religious enough, you’ll find Him. That’s the devil’s lie. You can’t be good enough. You have no capacity to find Him. The only way you can be saved is if He seeks and He saves. And that is exactly what this verse, verse 10, is saying.
You go back to the birth of Christ, you remember these words in Matthew 1:21: The angel said, “Call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” “Call His name Jesus; He will save His people from their sins.” In the words of 1 Timothy 1:15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Nothing produces greater joy in heaven than the seeking and saving work of God.
Go back to chapter 15 in Luke—very, very dramatic chapter where our Lord told three stories: one about a lost sheep, another about a lost coin, and then finally about a lost son. In each case, the sheep was found, the coin was found, and the prodigal son was found. And then you get a commentary, immediately, on how important that seeking and finding was. If you go back to verse 7, the last verse in the story about the sheep, “I tell you that in the same way”—as there was joy in finding the sheep from verse 6—“I tell you in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” If you’re in the category of those who think they’re righteous, you bring no joy to heaven. Ninety-nine self-righteous people who don’t repent give no joy to God or the angels or the redeemed in His presence, but the recovery of a sinner makes heaven ring with joy.
The next story, verses 8 to 10, is about a woman who lost a very valuable coin, and when she found it, in verse 9, she called all her neighbors and said, “Rejoice with me!” And “in the same way,” verse 10, “I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” This is a validation of the whole purpose of God in human history: to save sinners. It only takes one sinner to set heaven into exuberant joy.
Then you have the longer story of the prodigal, and you know how that story ends—verse 32: “We had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.” And again, this is a picture of heaven’s joy; and that means God’s joy, and the joy of the angels, and the joy of “the spirits of just men made perfect,” dwelling in heaven. God’s joy is found in seeking and saving sinners.
Scripture makes much of this joy. Back in Isaiah 62:5 it says, “And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride”—in a wedding, and that’s got to be the most joyful human event—“as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so your God will rejoice over you.” Or Jeremiah 32:41, “[And] I will rejoice over them to do them good and I will faithfully plant them in this land with all My heart and with all My soul.” God is fully involved in joy and rejoicing over the salvation of a sinner. That’s His enterprise in the world.
Once God is seeking a sinner, the sinner will respond, and that’s why there are verses like Proverbs 8:17, “Those who diligently seek me will find me.” When God begins to seek you, you respond by seeking Him. Or Isaiah 55:6, “Seek the Lord while He may be found.” As He begins to seek for you and awaken the heart of the sinner, the sinner responds by seeking Him in return. And the promise of Matthew 7:7 is, “Seek, and you shall find.” If God comes seeking for you, you will also seek, and you will find—but not left to yourself.
And as far as religion goes, the assumption in religion is you take yourself to God by your religious deeds, moral deeds, some level of righteousness or quality of life or goodness. But that’s not how it works. God does not receive the righteous. “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance,” so that salvation comes not to religious, self-righteous people, but to the very opposite: sinners. This is the foundation truth of redemptive history.
So that’s what’s behind this story in chapter 19; let’s go back to it.
Jesus has come south from Galilee, and it says in verse 1, “He entered Jericho and was passing through,” because you enter Jericho in the Jordan Valley about six miles north of the Dead Sea, and you went from Jericho up the mountain to Jerusalem. And it was Passover time, and so there were large caravans of pilgrims coming down from Galilee and Perea, and crossed the Jordan in Judea through Jericho, headed for Jerusalem.
Jericho was called “The City of Palms.” It was sort of the Palm Springs of Israel. It was well watered; two springs were there, and the water was basically distributed through aqueducts. It was a wonderful city, we’re told, with a wall around it and four massive forts on the wall. It has a theater, an amphitheater built by Herod. Herod also put a new palace there. And Archelaus had developed some magnificent gardens there. It was a formidable city. It was a crossroad city because roads north and south and east and west went right through Jericho. You might say that it was the Eden of paradise. And Jesus comes through that city, headed for Jerusalem, and He’s going to show us in this one account why He came, why He came.
Now the man that we meet here is named Zaccheus. “Zaccheus” means “pure,” “clean”; but he was anything but. That is an irony that probably indicates his parents had different hopes for him than materialized. But the pilgrim crowd is now coming, surging through Jericho on the way to what was called the Jericho Road, which you ascend to Jerusalem. They come right through the main part of the city. And the word is out that this one who claimed to be the Messiah and did miraculous works is in the group, and there are people who want to get a look at Him to find out if it’s really true, what is said about Him: Is He the Messiah, or is He not? And this one encounter demonstrates to us the divine purpose of God to save sinners in such a dramatic fashion, particularly in the light of what we read in chapter 18.
In chapter 18 there was a rich young ruler. Remember the rich young ruler? He was very rich, he was trusting in his riches. And when he talked with Jesus, he had no interest in Jesus; he had no need to confess his sin, and he wanted to hang onto his life and his money. Verse 23 of chapter 18, “He was extremely rich. And Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ So those who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved?’”—“If rich people can’t be saved, and they’ve got all the money with which they can buy their way into the kingdom, who can be saved?” Verse 27, that familiar phrase, “The things that are impossible with people are possible with God.” It’s not possible for the rich sinner, on his own, any more than you could stuff a camel through the eye of a needle.
And then you have the story of Bartimaeus, the blind man, at the end of chapter 18, and again, Jesus heals this blind man. “He regained his sight,” verse 43; he was “glorifying God;” and even the people couldn’t deny the miracle. So He saved a pathetic blind man—you could see that as an act of mercy. He talked to a rich man. The blind man, the destitute man responded to our Lord; the rich man did not.
Can rich men be saved? Well, it doesn’t take very long to find out, because when we get to chapter 19 we run into one named Zaccheus. You see it in verse 2: “He was a chief tax collector and he was rich,” “he was rich.” This is the beginning of an outrageous story—literally outrageous—because Jesus seeks and saves a tax collector. Why is that so unique? Because tax collectors were the pariah of Jewish culture. They were Jewish people who had purchased tax franchises from the occupying Romans, whom the Jews hated, and with those tax franchises they extorted money from their own people. They were the worst of the worst of the worst.
And while this city of palms, Jericho, was a little paradise in terms of its setting, it was an onerous place because it was one of three main tax collection centers in the land of Israel: Caesarea, Capernaum, and Jericho. Why? Because it was a crossroads: the road north to Damascus, Tyre, and Sidon; the road south to Egypt; the road west to Caesarea and Joppa; and the road east all went right through Jericho. And the tax system basically came down to a poll tax for everybody, we think, from fifteen to sixty-five, and for any other thing they wanted to tax you on. They would tax people traveling with duty tax. There was a tax on the cart; there was a tax on the wheels; there was a tax on whatever was in the cart; there was a tax on grain, oil, wheat—anything.
They invented ways to tax people. And there was really no recourse. And to make it worse, if you had a tax franchise, you were required to pay a certain amount to the Romans. In other words, there was an annual collection that they established; but anything you get beyond that, you can keep. And that’s exactly what Zaccheus did. You shouldn’t be rich if you’re a tax collector, but he was.
There were all kinds of taxes, and these people were surrounded by thugs and lowlife, kind of mafia-types who had to strong-arm the people to get the money out of their pockets. They were surrounded by the riffraff of society—also Jewish traitors, who would work for a tax collector and do the dirty work. Because of the kind of people they were, they were also surrounded by prostitutes and petty criminals. It was a mafia operation, and they basically extorted whatever they wanted.
No one would have been hated more than Zaccheus, no one, because it says, “He was a chief tax collector.” Literally that means he was the commissioner of taxes, which probably meant that he was getting a bite into every tax. He was the commissioner of taxes. He was at the apex of that hated, despised profession, and he was good at it; he could pull it off, and became very rich.
But in his sordid life and in the madness of his corruption there must have been some dissatisfaction; and more than that, some heart guilt, because he’s very interested in seeing Jesus. And he knows that Jesus has claimed to be the Messiah, and others have claimed that He is. It says in verse 3, “Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was”—pick Him out of the crowd—“and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree”—probably what we would know as an oak tree, with low-lying branches—“in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way.”
This entourage is moving through Jericho, headed for the road to Jerusalem. He wants to get ahead of the crowd so he can see Jesus and pick Him out. Is it curiosity? Well, of course. Is it more than that? Was there some longing in his heart for forgiveness? We don’t know that; we’re not told that. But we do know this: He was a pariah. He couldn’t go to the synagogue; he had no place in society. He had made his choice to be a traitor, and he was totally isolated from the Jewish population. So for whatever reasons, he’s interested in seeing Jesus.
He has two problems: The crowd is too big, and he’s too small. So he gets “on ahead,” having run, and climbs into a tree, basically shunning all self-consciousness and all self-protection. He knows he’s hated, and he’s now exposed, but he can’t help himself; so there he sits in the tree as Jesus passes by.
Verse 5, shocking: “When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, ‘Zaccheus’”—that must have jolted him. How did He know his name? How in the world did He know his name?—“Zaccheus”—this is who He is seeking. The Lord is seeking this man, this wretched, this worst of the worst, this outcast, and He says—“hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” He probably never expected to catch the eye of Jesus. He certainly never would have expected that Jesus knew his name. He would not have expected that Jesus would ask him to come down and open his home to Him so He could stay in the house. He would never have thought that. Why? Because nobody ate with him; nobody went into his house.
That simple statement, “I must stay at your house,” means to spend the night. This is not a request; this is a command. And to everybody in town this is beyond comprehension, because this is Jesus. He’s supposed to be the Messiah, and He’s going to go into the house of the most corrupt and wretched sinner in town.
Well, Zaccheus responded, verse 6, “He hurried and came down and received Him gladly.” Joy. Joy. Not fear, joy. This was joy to Zaccheus, because somebody was willing to come to his house, and that somebody was the One who they said was the Messiah. This was joy to the Lord, because the Lord finds His joy in the salvation of sinners.
What about the population? What did they think? Verse 7, “When they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’” They wouldn’t assume that the Messiah would come, and go to a man who’s a sinner. That was part of the whole drama with Jesus, because when Jesus came in the incarnation into Israel, He spent time with sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes, and He ate with them. That’s how chapter 15 begins, verses 1 and 2, just remind you of it.
“Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. But the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” What happened to Zaccheus wasn’t particularly rare in the ministry of our Lord. But the crowd was profoundly affected: “How can this be the Messiah?” They knew that He had given sight to a blind man, He had demonstrated miracle power, but He’s the guest of a man who is a sinner. This, in one statement, shows you why the Jews rejected Jesus: because He came for the sinners. And if you thought you were righteous, you were offended by Him—seriously offended, so offended you crucified Him at the hands of the Romans.
The massive offense of Jesus was that He came to save sinners. This was unacceptable to the self-righteous people of Israel. They had tried so hard to be righteous with the minutia of the law. And Jesus actually said, “I have not come to call the righteous”—sarcastically—“but sinners to repentance.” The attitude that you have in verse 7, “He’s going to be the guest of a man who’s a sinner,” was the fixed national attitude toward Jesus that resulted in His rejection and His execution. That’s why the nation rejected Him.
It’s righteous people who can’t accept the gospel. In order to come into the kingdom, you have to be unrighteous and know it. Remember the Beatitudes: meek, hungering after righteousness. But that also was not the Jews. They were smugly satisfied with their righteousness. Jesus couldn’t be the Messiah no matter how many people He healed, no matter how many dead people He raised from the dead, no matter how many profound words He said; He couldn’t possibly be the Messiah because all He did was spend time with sinners.
Well, this one sinner, Zaccheus, “hurried and came down and received Him gladly.” And then verse 7 says they’re in shock and they complain. And after verse 7, the curtain falls; scene one is over. The curtain falls, and He is gone. Notice how it’s worded: “He has gone to be the guest of a man who’s a sinner.” So He’s gone. He went with Jesus to his house. We don’t know how much time elapsed; likely that night, the next day.
And in verse 8, the curtain rises again on the next scene. And what’s going on? “Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord’”—let me just stop there. If you get that right, you understand what salvation is. “Whoever confesses Jesus as”—what?—“Lord.” “Behold, Lord”—“Look”—“half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I’ll give back four times as much.” This is a dramatic transformation. From being a thief and a professional extortioner, he becomes a philanthropist in one day.
Jesus said in verse 9, “Today salvation has come to this house.” “Today”? Can you be saved in a day? Isn’t there a process involved? No. “Today salvation has come to this house.” How did Jesus know that? Well, He knew it because Zaccheus brought forth the fruit of repentance and the fruit of salvation, contrary to the rich young ruler, who didn’t want to give up anything. This man is ready to divest himself of half of his entire fortune, and a whole lot more of whatever was left, if you’re going to pay back people “four times.” So whatever the conversation was at his house ended in his accepting Christ as his Lord. This is the confession of lordship; and with that confession comes salvation, and he is a transformed man, lavishly giving away everything he has. You can always identify the true Christians by their fruit, by their life.
This is a mark of a changed man. He hold everything lightly. He wants to make things right. He wants to, as much as he can, undo his corruption and his sin. “If I have defrauded anyone”—and he had, probably many—“I’ll give them back fourfold.” At that pace, giving the poor half of what you have and giving back fourfold what you extorted, you could virtually wind up penniless. Didn’t matter to him; he wanted to do restitution, he wanted to make it right; and it becomes an immediate expression of a salvation transformation.
And Jesus says in verse 9, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham.” What does that mean? Well, isn’t he already “a son of Abraham”—a Jewish guy? Yeah, he was naturally, but not spiritually. He fits into the category of Romans chapter 2, verses 28 and 29, and you’ll remember this, where the apostle Paul says, “He is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit.” You could tell this is not the man he was; something on the inside has changed. And Paul makes it clear in Galatians, as well as in Romans, that if you have trusted Christ, you are a son of Abraham. You may not be Jewish, but you have followed Abraham’s faith, you have followed his faith.
In Galatians 3, just to give you another text to look at that, “So”—verse 9—“those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.” Verse 29, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants.” So there’s a sense in which all of us, Jew or Gentile, who have come to know the Lord through the gospel and through faith are children of Abraham. He’s the prototype of faith, and we have followed his pattern.
Salvation came in one day, and it showed up that this was such a dramatic transformation, it was inconceivable that this man could change so totally, so fast. This was just another reason to kill Jesus. That’s right, just another reason for the elite religious leaders of Israel to hate Him. But He’s in the business of saving sinners.
Let me close with one final illustration: 1 Timothy chapter 1, the apostle Paul. The apostle Paul met Jesus on another road, didn’t he, the road to Damascus; and the Lord sought him there and stopped him in his tracks, and blinded him, and saved him, and commissioned him. But look at how Paul views that. This is personal testimony, 1 Timothy 1:12: “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service, even though I was formerly a”—“scribe,” “a Pharisee”? No—“I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief”—it was all mercy—“and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus.” And then this marvelous verse 15, “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.”—“He came to save sinners, and I know it because I’m the worst.” “Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost [sinner], Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life.” That deserves praise: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”
God is in the business of saving sinners. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” When we were enemies, He died for us. He came to save the ungodly. This is the exact opposite of every religion in the world, which offers some kind of salvation for goodness and righteousness and religious conduct. The gospel is for those who know they’re sinners and need mercy and grace. And if you’re the worst sinner in the world, God may save you to put His mercy on display. That’s what He did with Paul.
Jesus came to save sinners. He seeks and saves. I wonder if He’s knocking on the heart of some of you. Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” If He’s seeking you, in one day—this day—you can be transformed. Respond by embracing Him. Let’s pray.
Lord, the message is clear. We can’t earn salvation by being good; it only comes as a gift to those who know they’re bad, sinful, wicked, and cry out for mercy. I pray, for Your glory, that You would seek and save some who are lost, even this day. I ask in Christ’s name. Amen.
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