The Life of Christ in the Synoptic Gospels
Golden Text: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost” (Lk. 19:10).
Devotional Reading: Psalm 24:1-6
1. Jesus Honors Zacchaeus (vs 1-7)
2. Zacchaeus Yields to Jesus (vs 8-10)
Time: March, A.D. 30, in the last month before the crucifixion. Christ spent about three months largely in Perea, but is now on His way to Jerusalem.
Place: Jericho, between the Jordan and Jerusalem.
Research and Discussion: The mission of Christ, as shown in His dealings with Zacchaeus. Christ’s wayside ministries. Christ with publicans and other sinners. New Testament light on conversion. Matthew and Zacchaeus. The bad business of publicans. Note: For additional information on Zacchaeus see previous lesson titled, “The Friend of Sinners.”
Introduction: In Chapter 19, we have the record of Jesus’ announcement of Himself as the Messiah of Israel, the hope of all nations, and the King of God’s kingdom. Actually, the public declaration of His Messiahship began with the healing of the blind man, a sign which Jesus did as ‘the Son of David,’ as twice proclaimed by the beggar (18:37, 38). (a) This first ‘announcement’ (it was actually that) was founded on the fact that restoring sight to the blind was one of the prophetic signs of the Messianic age (4:18; 7:21; Is. 29:18; 35:5). (b) Jesus’ calling of Zacchaeus, a prominent publican, as a ‘son of Abraham,’ stressed the religious rather than any political quality of His kingdom (1-10).
Scripture Reading: Luke 19:1-7
1. Jesus Honors Zacchaeus
There is no more entertaining story in the Bible than this one which tells how Christ found Zacchaeus, and how Zacchaeus found his Lord. “And he entered and was passing through Jericho” (v 1). The opening of the eyes of blind Bartimaeus had just occurred, the crowd was eager with anticipation of what might be next. Jericho (called the city of Palm-trees) is about six miles from the Jordan and fifteen miles from Jerusalem, where Jesus was going. This is the city captured so wonderfully by the Israelites under Joshua. It became a rich and famous town, but is now only a village.
v 2 ... “And behold, a man called by name Zacchaeus.” “The talmud mentions a Zacchaeus at Jericho of a later date, possibly a descendant of Luke’s Zacchaeus” (New Century Bible) ... “And he was a chief publican.” He was head of the Roman revenue office. Roman tax-collectors were not salaried. The office was farmed out to the highest bidder. The man who got the job set the tax-rate, which also provided his profit. Zacchaeus was the collector of Jericho’s custom house. The center of the balsam trade, distributing to Egypt and other lands, Jericho’s commercial importance is readily understood. We may take an oral picture of Zacchaeus in four words: He was a ‘grafter.’ He belonged to the ‘ring.’ He was the duly accredited, justly hated, heartily despised ‘boss’ of Jericho’s Tammany Hall. He was a social ‘parasite.’ He sucked up the blood of humanity without making any return for his crimson cash.
v 2 ... “And he was rich.” Zacchaeus was probably a little above the average, with no doubt a few soft places in his heart. But since he had grown rich collecting taxes, it’s likely his hands were not completely clean.
v 3 ... “And he sought to see Jesus who he was.” Of what sort this famous Teacher was; this miracle-worker who was kind to despised publicans.
v 3 ... “And could not for the crowd, because he was little of stature.” Luke must have secured his facts from someone well acquainted with all the circumstances. Jesus was usually surrounded by crowds, especially toward the end of His life. Many in this crowd were no doubt Galilean pilgrims going to the Passover in Jerusalem.
v 4 ... “And he ran on before.” Evidently a man of abundant energy ... “And climbed up into a sycomore tree to see him.” The fig-mullberry, or Egyptian fig, a tree with low, spreading branches, easy to climb. It is different from our sycamore tree, more so than just in the spelling. Zacchaeus was as eager to see Jesus as any child in Jericho. Like a child he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycomore tree to see Jesus. Simple things like this always seemed to touch our Lord’s heart. Wonder if the Lord perhaps thought of children, as He observed in Zacchaeus such childlike simplicity, self-forgetfulness, naturalness, and impulsiveness; “Of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Many of us would not have done what Zacchaeus did, because we have too much ‘adult’ in our souls.
v 4 ... “For he was to pass that way.” It was known that Jesus was traveling the road leading to Jerusalem ... “And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up.” He had divine knowledge of who was there and why. J.C. Ryle wrote: "The Lord’s perfect knowledge is clearly shown in this case. He knew not only the name of the man in the sycomore tree, but the state of his heart." We are unable to find any grounds of accommodation with those who question whether or not the omniscience of Jesus is in view here, asking, ‘Did someone identify the rich tax-collector in his unusual perch for Jesus?’ nor with the conclusion that ‘In the synoptics there is none of the emphasis in John on Jesus’ remarkable intuitive knowledge of men.’ On the contrary, there is such an emphasis here. Furthermore, the synoptics repeatedly stress it: Matthew 9:4; 12:25; 22:18; 24:25; Mark 2:8; 5:30; Luke 5:22; 6:8; 9:47. Furthermore, the incident before us, as well as that in Luke 22:10, make it absolutely certain that the gospel authors intended that we should understand that Jesus was omniscient. Of Jesus’ knowing Zacchaeus, Matthew Henry said, “Commentators in general rightly refer our Lord’s knowledge of the name and circumstances of Zacchaeus to His divine omniscience.”
v 5 ... “And said unto him, Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down.” The crowd was probably shouting derisively at Zacchaeus; still our Lord did not hesitate to join up with a man who was plainly very unpopular ... “For today I must abide at thy house.” “This is the only time so far as we know that Jesus invited Himself to be a guest, but we are certain that He is ever ready to abide with those whose hearts are open to receive Him” (Charles R. Erdman).
v 6 ... “And he made haste, and came down.” Zacchaeus has his faults, but sluggardliness was not one of them. Whatever he was, he was not a slow man. Perhaps a chief factor of his success was not letting a good bargain slip away. Therefore, Zacchaeus made haste, and came down ... “And received him joyfully.” Ever ask the question: Could I bear Jesus suddenly coming to visit? Would He find me in any mood, with any company, at any work, in any form of self-indulgence, at any questionable amusement, which would cause me to feel even a momentary shame in His holy presence? Wishing for a moment’s delay to get over a feeling of nervous flutter and confusion, summoning up enough courage to welcome Him, unembarrassed and unabashed. Remember that He is an unseen visitor, scrutinizing every minute of our lives.
v 7 ... “And when they saw it, they all murmured.” Not primarily because Zacchaeus had oppressed the poor, but because as a Jew he had fallen to the low level of serving the hated Romans. The whole crowd seem to share this feeling; everyone that is except Christ ... “Saying, He is gone to lodge with a man that is a sinner.” The word “Publican” does not mean much to us. Perhaps we can better understand the feelings against him by making up some modern day possibilities: assume for a moment that Zacchaeus is a contractor, notorious for extortions; or the owner of pornographic outlets, selling to children; etc. The great spiritual Master comes to town, and declining all courtesies of the clergy and chief citizens, He goes to dinner with a man people think should be in jail. Christ is at home with sinners, with the person that education and science can do nothing for, with the person that the world give up on as a piece of waste, as a burden to be carried.
Scripture Reading: Luke 19:8-10
2. Zacchaeus Yields to Jesus
“And Zacchaeus stood” (v 8). Reclining during the meal, he now suddenly stands. “Takes his stand” in the literal and symbolic sense. The word translated ‘stood’ shows a man with tense muscles, and set jaws, taking a deep breath as he turns over a new leaf ... “And said unto the Lord, Behold, Lord.” He didn’t speak to the crowd, for they had nothing but contempt and hatred for him. He spoke directly to Jesus, perhaps because during dinner he felt the love of Christ for his nobler self ... “The half of my goods I give to the poor.” Why did he do that? Perhaps Zacchaeus awoke that morning without a single generous impulse or thought. Perhaps he awoke that morning with a keen intent on getting every possible dollar from his neighbors, maybe caring little for the poor. And now, no doubt to the amazement of his friends, and probably to his amazement as well, he stands and gives away half his fortune. What touched the heart of Zacchaeus? Perhaps a fraternal word? It is possible that no respectable person had spoken pleasantly to him for a long, long time.
v 8 ... “And if I have wrongfully exacted aught of any man.” The “if” implies doubt, though not much of a doubt ... “I restore fourfold.” A bigger thing was taking place than shows on the surface. Under Hebrew law, the extreme penalty provided for theft was fourfold restitution. In other words a criminal was compelled to restore to the plaintiff four times the value of the stolen goods. But this extreme penalty was imposed only upon the malicious thief who out of spite wantonly destroyed what he burglarized. On the other hand, a thief caught with the goods on his person suffered a penalty equal to double the value of the loot. But if the guilty man confessed, voluntarily offering to make amends, the law let him off with a refund of the principal and twenty per cent. The last penalty which fitted Zacchaeus’s case. No one had accused him of theft. By his own words he pleaded guilty. He was his own judge and jury, self-imposing the most extreme penalty reserved for the worst sort of villain. He went further: after making amends, half of the residue would go to the poor.
v 9 ... “And Jesus said unto him, Today is salvation come to this house.” When a person rises rapidly into such vigor, restoring fourfold for every dollar taken wrongfully and bestowing half of the remaining to charity, you know it is a plant the Lord has planted. “Salvation comes to a house when the head and master of it is saved” (J.C. Ryle). Verily salvation came to the house of Zacchaeus.
v 9 ... “Forasmuch as he also is a son of Abraham.” Jesus’ singling out Zacchaeus as the only man with whom the Lord ever invited Himself to lodge, and the further compliment here to the effect that Zacchaeus was a ‘son of Abraham,’ identifies the chief tax-collector as a part of the true Israel of God, ‘an Israelite indeed,’ as the Savior said of Nathaniel (Jn. 1:47), and, in such quality, contrasting dramatically with those who were sons of Abraham only by fleshly descent (as were the Pharisees), and further establishing the likelihood that Zacchaeus was a man of rugged honesty, piety, and devotion. It should be noted that Jesus did not say that ‘Today has this man become a son of Abraham!’ He was already that, in the highest and truest sense of the words. He was like aged Simeon, and others who waited for the kingdom of God. Zacchaeus was a son of Abraham, in spirit as well as by descent. The Jews denied the right of a publican to be considered a son of Abraham. If Christ’s critics had been asked whose son Zacchaeus was they would have probably said that he was ‘the son of perdition, the child of the devil.’ In their view Zacchaeus had forfeited all rights in God’s Israel when he entered the service of the detested Roman government. However, Jesus’ view of Zacchaeus was that he was still a son of Abraham. The Pharisees thought of Zacchaeus as waste ground, but Jesus saw in him the possibility and promise of rich and blessed fruit. Our Lord took the hopeful view of human nature, believing the best of men. We cannot lead men to Jesus and salvation if we see nothing but sin in men. It is the bit of Abraham in the worst man that Jesus uses as a lever to raise him into a son of God.
v 10 ... “For the Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost.” This is one of the greatest sentences in the New Testament. In it we have sketched for us Jesus’ conception of His mission. Christianity represents God as a seeking God. The Son of man seeks whatever is lost – lost courage, lost hope, lost temper, lost friendship, lost opportunity, abandoned ideal, undiscovered or perhaps unsuspected subconscious capacity. When the Son of man finds something lost, He seeks to draw it out into efficiency and power. Christianity is powerless without a conviction that people are lost without Christ. The reason why the early apostles turned the world upside down, the reason why the reformers were so mighty, the reason why talented Christians can still start a ground-swell of spiritual power, capable of rolling across the earth for Jesus, is because they see men as sinners, and with burning tongues, lips of fire and hearts of love they teach them to flee to the refuge of the Cross of Christ.
Illustration: Throughout history the sons and daughters of men have sought what each considered the most important. For instance, the quest of Midas was gold; that of Socrates, philosophy. The quest of Alexander was power; that of Louis XIV, pleasure. Jesus Christ, the universal Man, set before Himself the higher quest of souls, and Christianity has the same objective as its Founder.
Christ had many interests, but only one passion, the passion for humanity. Our Lord had much power, but only one use for it, saving men. Our Savior possessed abundant truth, but had only one pleasure in its use, that it would set men free. Christ is still seeking, just as He sought in the days of His flesh. He is still pursuing the wanderer with unwearied love, entreating through the long reach that comes to an end only when the lost are found. He is still seeking and as long as there is life as we know it, He will never cease. Christ is still seeking as the shepherd seeks a lost sheep, with eyes of eagles and ears attentive to the faintest sound. Our Savior continues seeking year after year after year after year that He may at last find the lost. Seeking and saving the lost was the great mission of the Redeemer: His mission was accomplished by the sacrificing of Himself on Calvary. Saving mankind from eternal damnation was, in the mind of our loving Savior, the only objective justifying so great a sacrifice. So when we read in God’s Holy Word about the cost of salvation, we are actually reading about the pathetic nature of our own state.
What is conversion? – Obviously it is turning from sin to Christ. This is what Zacchaeus did, and Jesus saved him. The Holy Scriptures teach that several times during our Lord’s ministry on earth He demonstrated soul-saving power; right up to the end, when on the cross He saved the thief. While Jesus was in the flesh, His power to justify man was unlimited, i.e., forgiving sin as He desired. What is conversion? Hopefully, we can basically agree that it’s doing what Christ commands? Salvation is not a matter of the future, but of the present. “Today is salvation come to this house.” Salvation is not rescue from a future hell, but rescue of a present self. It is not rescue for a future heaven, but for a present service. Salvation is living as a son through all of one’s being. It is living as a soul for other souls.
“Zacchaeus struggled with the crowd; A little man was he. ‘Vermin!’ he muttered half aloud, ‘I’ll make them honor me. Ah, when the taxes next are due, I’ll tower as is meet: This beggarly, ill-mannered crew Shall cower at my feet.’ Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore (He was a little man), And as he looked the rabble o’er He chuckled at the plan. 'I get the thing I want,’ he said, ‘And that is to be tall. They think me short, but by a head I rise above them all.’ ‘Zacchaeus, come! I dine with you,’ The famous Rabbi cried. Zacchaeus tumbled into view A giant in his pride. He stutter mightily before That silly, gaping throng: You’d think him six feet high or more, To see him stride along. Zacchaeus listened to the Lord, And as he listened, feared: How was his life a thing abhorred When that pure Life appeared! Down to a dwarf he shrank away In sorrow and in shame. He owned his sins that very day, And bore the heavy blame. But as he rose before the crowd, (A little man, alack!) Confessed his guilt and cried aloud And gave his plunder back, I think he stood a giant then As angels truly scan, And no one ever thought again He was a little man” (Frances E. Tyner).