Encounters with Christ – Zacchaeus

Grace For The Journey

My usual practice, in the pulpit and through this blog, is to preach/write through Books of the Bible, but every once in a while, I will hit the pause button and have a special series.  This is to be contrasted with a kind of preaching usually called “Topical Preaching,” where the preacher thinks of a topic he feels the congregation needs to hear and then locates a number of different passages from the Bible to support what he wants to say – so he will have a verse from here and a verse from there and another verse from somewhere else.

That’s not wrong in and of itself; it’s just unfortunately easier to miss the context of what those verses are actually teaching when we hop and skip through the Bible.  It is also notoriously difficult to follow a preacher who is doing that.  So, I like to take one main passage and study it to determine the topic and let the text preach itself.

When I do a series like this, I actually like to call it “Topositional Preaching,” because we continue to do exposition, but it is exposition in a topical subject.  Well enough of that.  I’m guessing you really didn’t want a seminary lecture on Preaching 101.

So today we begin “Encounters with Christ,” and will be seeing how an encounter with Jesus changes everything.  I am going to begin our series with the delightful story of Zacchaeus and his encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ.

How many of you have heard of Zacchaeus?  The short guy, right?  Do you know the children’s song?  How many of you want to sing it?!

Zacchaeus was a wee, little man,
And a wee, little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree,
For the Lord he wanted to see.

And as the Savior came that way,
He looked up in the tree,
And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down from there,”

For I’m going to your house today.
For I’m going to your house today.

Yes, this was the wee little man’s big day, his encounter with Jesus Christ, the One who changes everything.  

I thought a lot about what Zacchaeus would look like today.  You know, who would be like Zacchaeus today; what kind of person would he be?  I heard about a weekly television show on AMC; it is a spin-off of a show called “Breaking Bad.”  I bet a number of you have heard of it or seen.  I have read enough about it to conclude that I cannot recommend it to you.  The spin-off of the show is a television show called, “Better Call Saul.”  According to the reviews, the show portrays the life of a shady attorney named Saul Goodman and it recounts his earlier years of practicing law, how he got started, and the hardships he faced and how he turned bad.  Saul Goodman is the typical “Ambulance Chaser” type of lawyer, if you know what I mean.  His tactics are sneaky, his ethics are shaky, and he is not liked at all by the well-to-do, more respected lawyers and professionals.

He’s a shady guy.  At the same time, however, there’s something about Saul Goodman that’s kind of endearing.  He has got a great sense of humor and a dogged perseverance that keeps him moving in spite of repeated setbacks and disappointments.  There is something about his character that’s even lovable at times and you find yourself pulling for him.  Isn’t that crazy how good writers make you do that?  You can watch a character on TV and start pulling for the con-man!

Well, I believe Saul Goodman is the modern-day incarnation of Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus was not an unscrupulous attorney, but he was close.  We’re told in the Bible that he was a tax collector, and we have to remember what that meant in New Testament times.  Tax collectors were more like independent businessmen who profited themselves by overcharging others.  Each tax collector collected money from all the people living in a local Roman province or district.  That was their job.  And these positions were largely farmed out contractually.

Aspiring tax collectors would appear before a Roman governor and say, “Look, if you appoint me tax collector over such and such a province, I’ll collect this much money,” and then another guy would say, “Well, I’ll collect this much money.” And of course, the contract would be awarded to the highest bidder, to the one who promised the highest money to be collected for Rome.

You can imagine how this system could become corrupt.  You’ve got a “Saul Goodman” type of extortioner who doesn’t think twice about overcharging the citizens so he can take home more money himself; you’ve got some serious swindling going on. Add to this the fact that Zacchaeus is a Jew and working on the wrong side, working against his Jewish brethren and for the Roman Gentiles and you will understand why he was no doubt despised by other Jews.

One theologian describes Zacchaeus as, “a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job.”   Luke tells us in verse 2 that Zacchaeus was not just a tax collector, but “a Chief Tax Collector,” a title used only here in the New Testament. Whatever else being a chief tax collector may have meant, it certainly carried huge financial rewards – hence Luke’s descriptive statement of Zacchaeus in the last few words of verse 2, “he was rich.”

He was rich largely because he had taken from others.  But he was rich.  And I am struck immediately by the fact that while Zacchaeus was rich in earthly terms, there was a great void in his spiritual bank account.  This explains the tree climbing, don’t you think?  I mean it wouldn’t be unusual for a child to climb a tree, but for a full-grown man to scurry up a tree suggests a spiritual longing that money cannot buy.

I am sure that Zacchaeus had heard of Jesus.  How could he not have heard?!  It had not been that long ago just over in Bethany, less than 15 miles away from Jericho, where Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11).  Everyone had heard of that! And given all the other healings of people who had been sick or blind, it’s no wonder verse 3 tells us that Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus “because of the crowd.”  There’s probably a huge crowd lining the streets of Jericho, people just waiting to catch a glimpse of the miracle worker from Nazareth.

Verse 4 says Zacchaeus “ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him,” because Jesus was going to passing through in that direction.  

It is a picture of intense desire

If not desperation;

A longing to see Jesus Christ.

I read in my devotion time this morning Psalm 84.  In verse 2 the psalmist says, “My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.”  I think that’s what’s going on here, an intense desire, a yearning to see the Lord. 

I like the way Luke puts this back in verse 3, “And he sought to see who Jesus was,” and then it reads, “but could not because of the crowd,” and his being “of short stature,” but it’s that initial phase in verse 3, “And he sought to see who Jesus was.”  The phrase suggest more than a casual look; more than a glance, and more than just being able to say that he had seen Jesus in Jericho.  Kind of like the way we might say that we saw a celebrity or a someone important from a distance.  The phrase seems to convey the idea that Zacchaeus really wanted to know more about Jesus.  He was looking for some kind of experience.

He sought to see Jesus for who He was, who is this Man?  The JB Phillips paraphrase captures this nuance.  It describes Zacchaeus in verse 3 as, “wanting to see what sort of person Jesus was.”  

It is not even that Zacchaeus was

Wanting to see Jesus

For what He could do,

But for who He was.

Zacchaeus is intrigued and deeply interested.  He really wants to know more about Jesus.  And again, what does this say about the inability of wealth, treasures, and toys to satisfy the soul’s greatest yearnings and longings?

I wonder do you have that kind of yearning for Jesus?  To look upon Him, as the writer of Hebrews tells us in Hebrews 12:1-2, “…Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith…”

Isaac Ambrose wrote about this in his Puritan classic, Looking Unto Jesus.  We look far too easily at so many other things – some bad, some good – but not looking enough unto Jesus, experiencing a vibrant up-close-and personal walk with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Zacchaeus is searching.  If the story took place today I can see him running down the busy city street, this short guy elbowing his way through the crowd of people, before grabbing hold of a low-lying branch and pulling himself upwards, scuffing up his Italian shoes, his Tommy Hilfiger necktie catching on a twig, the crystal of his fine Swiss watch, a gold encased Jaeger-LeCoultre, smudged with dirt and grime in an effort to hoist himself to a vantage point that he may see the One who, though He was rich, had become poor, that Zacchaeus through his actual poverty might become truly rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).

At the end of the day . . .

Earthly riches, earthly pleasures,

The so-called “finer things of life”

Mean very little to us when we

Come to realize that

Apart from Christ we

Are lost and undone,

Our sins unforgiven,

And we are dead spiritually.

Zacchaeus needed an encounter with Christ.  He ran ahead and climbed up into that sycamore tree to see Him, to see Jesus for who He was.

You know what happens next!  Verse 5 tells us that, “When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.’”

Zacchaeus had never met Jesus and yet Jesus calls him by name.  Jesus knew him. Just like Jesus knows your name.  He knows you and he knows what you are thinking. He knows what is in your heart.  He knows what are your greatest wants, desire, fears, and hopes.

Jesus knows everyone in your house.  He knows your mom, your dad, your brother, your sister, your son, your daughter, your husband, and your wife.  Jesus knows.

I am intrigued by what Jesus says in the last part of verse 5, “For today I must say at your house.”  My mother told me when I was small that it was not polite to invite yourself over to a friend’s house.  You just didn’t do it.  But Jesus is doing it!  This is the only place in all of the Bible where Jesus invites Himself over to someone’s house.  Jesus knew Zacchaeus.  He knew Zacchaeus was searching.  He knew Zacchaeus was not likely to invite Jesus over to his house, given his deplorable career as a swindler.  Jesus actually honors Zacchaeus by inviting himself over.  It’s just amazing.  Yet, it is so like Jesus.

I don’t know at what point Zacchaeus becomes a true believer.  The evidence of his saving faith comes later.  We will see that in a moment.  But he may have crossed over from spiritual death to life as he was coming down out of that tree.  Because, right after Jesus says, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down!” we read in verse 6, “So he made haste and came down and,” – and here’s the phrase that has my attention – “and received Him joyfully.”  That phrase may indicate that Zacchaeus had a new heart.  Regeneration is a mystery.  At one moment a lost person is dead in trespasses and sin; in the next moment God graciously gives us a new heart and awakens spiritual life. Confronted with our sin and the truth of the Gospel, we believe in Christ and are saved. It is a most joyful experience.

It is not automatic.  It does require a decision.  We have to place our faith in Jesus.  And while Revelation 3:20 is written to church members at Laodicea, it is no less true when applied to lost people.  Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”  We must receive Christ as our personal Lord and Savior and when we do, we have unspeakable joy in the Lord!  Zacchaeus received Him joyfully.

Not everyone thinks people like Zacchaeus should be so joyful.  Zacchaeus was a swindler, a deceitfully devious, and corrupt criminal.  Some religious people would say he had no business being anywhere near Jesus.  That is the way the religious scribes and Pharisees felt.  Luke tells us earlier in his Gospel that the scribes and Pharisees often grumbled against Jesus and His disciples saying, “Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and other sinners?” (Luke 5:30).

And Jesus gives that classic reply, remember?  He says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick have such a need. I haven’t come for those who think they are well, those who think they are already righteous. I have come for those who know they are sick, those who know they are sinners. I have come to call sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).  These religious haters are back in the streets of Jericho, shaking their heads as Zacchaeus joyfully makes his way down that sycamore tree.  We read in verse 7, “But when they saw it, they all complained saying ‘He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.’”

Well, what were they?!  I mean, how self-righteous!  You can almost hear their conversation among themselves, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner, and of course, I am no sinner!  Are you?”  “Well, of course not!  I’m no sinner, either!”

How far off was their thinking.  How could they be “students of the Word” and think this way. 

The more deeply we learn the things of the Lord,

The more aware we are of the depth of our sinfulness

– Much as the more we are drawn to light, the more we see dirt.

Even as redeemed Christians, while sin no longer reigns, it remains.  

We battle sin all our lives as we grow in Christ. But we are sinners!

Undaunted and unwilling to be discouraged by the spiritual naysayers, Zacchaeus receives Jesus joyfully into his home.  And the scene shifts to the house in verse 8 where Zacchaeus is moved to stand up and make an announcement.  He says there in verse 8, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.”  Now that is an evidence of true conversion.  Here was a guy who had genuinely believed in Christ, turning to his Savior in true faith, and turning away from sin in true repentance.  

If we have a real encounter with Christ,

It changes the way we think and live.

The Bible says in Luke 3:8, that we are to, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.”  As a result of who we are in Christ . . .

We will live differently . . .

We will think differently . . .

We will talk differently . . .

We will love differently.

Here is a man who is showing the evidence of a dramatically changed heart, demonstrating proof that his conversion is genuine.  When an extortioner is willing to make restitution four times what he had taken, and willing to give away half of his belongings, a rich guy giving away his wardrobe of Armani suits, the collection of Rolex watches, the money, the stuff – here is a man who has truly encountered Christ and received spiritual riches.  Jesus changes everything.

Jesus comments on Zacchaeus’ true faith in verses 9 and following.  He says in verse 9, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham,” which is simply to say that Zacchaeus is a true Jew, a true believer (cf Galatians 3:7).  And then this statement in verse 10 which is a summary statement of Jesus’s entire mission and ministry, “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”  That’s why Christ came, to make possible these kinds of encounters, encounters with Christ that lead to change – namely salvation, and life, purpose, meaning, and a new identity.

As I was making notes in my study this week, I was thinking of all the application that surfaces from a passage such as this.  And we all could put our heads together and probably come up with a dozen or so points rather easily.  I would like to give you just three if you wish to reflect further upon them or discuss them in greater detail as a family or in a group setting.

First: There Are No “Incurable” Cases . . . Jesus Can Save The Outcasts!

More than any other Gospel writer, Luke stresses the truth that Jesus came to save all people without distinction and had a special love for the outcasts, the social rejects, the hated, and the Saul Goodmans of the world.  Jesus loves tax collectors, thieves, liars, adulterers, swindlers, murderers, and prostitutes.  So He loves you and He can save you, too.

There are no “incurable” cases.  The Good Physician can heal your soul.  But you must trust Him.  You have to accept Him and His redemptive work for you.  As the hymn-writer puts it, “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”

Secondly: Because Jesus Loved The Outcasts . . . We Must Love The Outcasts!

Let’s not fall into the sinful self-righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, looking down our noses upon sinners.  I pray that our church family will always be a church that thinks of herself as a hospital for sick people.  Remember, Jesus said He came for those who know they need a doctor.  So, let’s be the Doctor’s assistants; the hands and feet of the Good Physician, and provide spiritual triage and care for all who come into this hospital building.  Let’s love the outcasts. And while we’re talking about the outcasts . . .

Thirdly: Let’s Remember That We Are Outcasts Too!

The only difference between a saved outcast and an unsaved outcast is Jesus Christ –  

An encounter with Christ that leads

To forgiveness and change in Christ.

If we are Christians, we are still outcasts, still sinners.  We are forever in need of Christ and while sin no longer reigns in our lives, it remains in our lives.  Humility causes us to take sin seriously and to grow in our capacity to overcome sin, continually reckoning ourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:11).

May we always remember this quote from a Christian author and speaker . . .

“You wouldn’t be so shocked by

The sin of others if you

Didn’t have such a

High opinion of yourself.”

Christians are still outcasts, but not without hope.  We are a work in progress, growing in increasing measures and degrees of holiness.

To quote another children’s hymn:

He’s still working on me
To make me what I ought to be
How loving and patient He must be
He’s still working on

Have you had such an encounter with Christ?  There are no incurable cases!  Jesus really has, “opened the life-gate that all may go in.”  All you have to do is recognize that you are a sinner, admit that you cannot save your, recognize what Jesus did for you upon the cross and through the empty tomb, accept what He has done, and ask Him to be your Savior and Lord.  When we do this, we will be changed and be able to experience and enjoy the gift of eternal life.

As a result of our study today, may our prayer be: “Lord Jesus Christ, I admit that I am weaker and more sinful than I ever before believed, but, through you, I am more loved and accepted than I ever dared hope.  I thank you for paying my debt, bearing my punishment, and offering forgiveness. I thank you that when I turned from my sin and received you as Savior, you changed me for my good and for Your glory.  Let others see that in me!”

This is God’s Word …

his is Grace for your Journey …

Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!

Pastor Terry

Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”

Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

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