If you grew up in Sunday School, one of the songs you remember most was about a “wee little man” named Zaccheus. Its origins are unknown despite its popularity, and indeed, its biblical accuracy in memorializing the salvation experience of an ungodly tax collector who met Jesus. The gospel is a simple message with incredible results; Zaccheus bears this out. Comprised of only ten short verses (Luke 19:1-10), his story has been shared in countless sermons, blogs, devotions, and books for both kids and adults, as an example of what happens when you meet Jesus.
I’m fairly confident Zaccheus will be one of the most sought-after personalities in heaven, as all of us want to know first-hand what he was thinking when he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a tree. (Personally, I’m hoping God has a huge DVD library where we can watch the actual events of all the stories in the Bible, narrated by the people who experienced it themselves!)
There are two ways to look at Zaccheus’ story. One is from the perspective of the unbelieving person who needs to hear about Jesus; the other is from the viewpoint of those who already believe and are obediently striving to share the good news. Here are four things we can learn about the gospel in this encounter.
#1 – When a person receives the gospel, it reveals that God has already been at work in their heart.
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. (Luke 19:3-4)
Zaccheus was a tax collector, or publican. He had risen to a place of authority over his fellow Jews by being a loyal civil servant of the Romans who oppressed them. Tax collectors were assigned a certain amount to collect for Rome but were allowed to overcharge for their own gain. Needless to say, as a “chief” tax collector, he was hated by many. He had obtained wealth and status in the political system and was by all accounts a successful man in the world’s eyes.
Why did Zaccheus want to see who Jesus was? What drew him? What made him curious? We aren’t told exactly why but his actions indicate he was in a desperate position. No Jewish man would humble himself to run ahead of a crowd and climb a tree, unless he had recognized the spiritual emptiness within himself and somehow knew that this Jesus, whom he had heard about, could somehow meet his need.
God was already working in Zaccheus’ heart.
This is an important principle to remember. Jesus told us in John 6:44, No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. Unless God first works in a man’s heart to expose his spiritual need, he will never come to faith. A person will not seek a solution for a need they do not believe (or know) they have.
Zaccheus shows how to pray for our lost friends and neighbors; we ask God to draw them to Himself and expose their spiritual need. We ask Him to do the work that only He can do, which is to overcome their spiritual blindness and give them the knowledge of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:3-6). The gospel is essentially the good news about Jesus, and as His witnesses, we are introducing people to Him in the hopes they are ready to receive and understand. Zaccheus was blessed to meet Jesus Himself at a time when God had already been working in his heart.
Zaccheus’ story also identifies with those who are discovering their own spiritual need. When you find yourself searching for the meaning and purpose of life, recognize that God may be drawing you to Himself. Don’t let your pride keep you from responding; instead, seek Jesus with the same enthusiasm as Zaccheus did when he humbled himself and climbed a tree.
#2 – When a person receives the gospel, it results in immediate obedience.
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. (Luke 19:5-6)
Here is the real miracle in the story. Jesus saw Zaccheus. He stopped below the tree, He looked Zaccheus in the eyes, and called him by name. Jesus did not timidly ask Zaccheus if He could come to his house; instead, He commanded him to come down and informed him He would be staying with him. Zaccheus’ ready and joyful obedience reveals that something amazing and supernatural had taken place in his heart. He recognized Jesus’ authority over his life, and immediately surrendered to Him as Master and Lord, with joy.
There is no salvation without obedience and surrender. The heart of the gospel is redemption and restoration back to our original created state of perfect holiness and relationship with our Creator, God. We come home. We are brought back into alignment with the blueprint God established in the garden of Eden when He created Adam and Eve. True salvation, true acceptance of the gospel, results in immediate obedience to God’s call on our hearts and lives. This is what it means to receive Christ.
We fail to present the whole gospel if we leave out the part that requires obedience and surrender to Jesus as Master. We fail to receive the gospel if we acknowledge Him only as Savior but reject Him as Lord.
#3 – When a person receives the gospel, he responds with repentance and restitution.
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.” (Luke 19:8-10)
Zaccheus’ immediate response to receiving Jesus as Lord was to repent of his sins and turn away from his old life. He quickly recognized that he could no longer serve his old master. The deceptive lure of wealth, prestige, and status no longer satisfied him, and he acknowledged this by taking responsibility for his sinful deeds and committing himself publicly to making restitution to those he had defrauded.
The word repentance describes a change of mind. It is a reversal in direction, turning away from our old life to follow Christ. Paul described this as a sorrow according the will of God, that leads to salvation (2 Corinthians 7:9-10). A changed life is the greatest indication that someone has truly accepted Christ and is born again. Jesus proclaimed that salvation had come to Zaccheus when he saw his heart of repentance.
We preach the whole gospel when we communicate the importance of repentance from sin. No person can continue in sin and claim to belong to Christ (1 John 3:9-10).
#4 – When a person receives the gospel, it reveals their true friends.
When they [the crowds] saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” (Luke 19:7)
You would think that when someone experiences a dramatic change of heart and spiritual renewal, their friends and acquaintances would rejoice with them, even if they didn’t understand or agree with what happened. The response of the crowd to Zaccheus’ encounter with Jesus reveals that not everyone will be excited about a person’s salvation.
The crowds were most likely hesitant to believe Zaccheus would really change his behavior, and with good cause; he had a lifetime of cheating and stealing to account for. They also were unconvinced about Jesus, considering Him a blasphemer and a liar.
Why is this an important detail? We ought to warn those we lead to Christ that they may be met with doubt and skepticism when sharing their story of salvation with others. Human instinct is to distrust that anyone can profoundly change what they believe and who they are. New believers need to be encouraged to expect a mixed response, especially if they’ve hurt others or betrayed close friends. Jesus warned His disciples that they would be persecuted and hated, just as He was (John 15:18-20). We do a disservice to new Christ-followers if we fail to share the reality of rejection from the world; we must help them count the cost of committing to Christ (Luke 14:25-33).
We don’t get to know the “after story” of Zacccheus’ life, but we anticipate he changed his ways. As we’ve said, true salvation results in a changed life, and only over time will some people be convinced. In fact, the perseverance of a new believer to walk in truth is a great testimony to those who doubt the power of the gospel.
I doubt Zaccheus thought about the ripple effects his decision to climb a tree would have on the world. He was just a small man with a big need. When he got up that morning, he had no idea how his life was going to change because of a “chance” encounter with Jesus.
Yet look what God did!
He took Zaccheus’ pride and replaced it with humility.
He took Zaccheus’ selfishness and replaced it with generosity.
He took Zaccheus’ thefts and replaced them with abundance.
He took Zaccheus’ despised reputation and replaced it with joy and purpose.
He took Zaccheus’ failures and replaced them with significance.
He took Zaccheus’ sins and replaced them with salvation.
The gospel is a simple message with incredible results. Salvation came to Zaccheus when he recognized his need, responded to Jesus’ invitation, received Jesus gladly, and repented of his sins, resulting in a changed life. That’s a good word for us all, from a wee little man.