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Christ’s Meeting with Zacchaeus (Luke 19.1-10)

C Cann, Glastonbury

It was the time of the Passover and the Lord Jesus, accompanied by His disciples, was making His final journey to Jerusalem. He had said to His disciples, "Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished" (Lk 18.31).

The events of the Passover were centred upon the Temple in Jerusalem and crowds of people journeyed there from all parts of the country. Jesus and His disciples would have been part of a larger group that travelled from Galilee. It was a wonderful and delightful occasion for those who were with Him: He taught them as they walked along, and He authenticated His teaching with signs and miracles (Lk 18.35-43). The journey took several days, and the travellers would have needed to seek shelter in towns through which they passed. Jericho was one of these towns. We read that Jesus "entered and passed through Jericho" (v.1). Young’s Literal Translation renders this as, "having entered, he was passing through Jericho", suggesting the meaning that He "lingered for a while" there.

Jericho was a beautiful, garden city chosen by Herod the Great as the site for his winter palace. It enjoyed a pleasant, warm climate and the plain on which it was built was renowned for the palm trees that grew there. Its streets were lined with large leaved "sycomore" or fig trees which provided welcome shade. The climate of the area was particularly suited to the cultivation of a shrub which exuded a gum from which was obtained balsam, much sought after as an ingredient for perfumes and medicines. Its sale and export along the trade routes that passed near Jericho generated rich taxes for the Romans and the town became the centre of one of the several Roman tax regions. Many tax collectors lived and worked there, supervised by a chief tax collector.

Jericho was an ancient city and we read of it in the Old Testament in Joshua 6. The residents opposed the Israelite armies when they journeyed to the land of Canaan and God placed a curse upon the city. The curse still remained at the time Christ visited. Many religious Jews, for this reason, refused to enter Jericho. The Lord Jesus did not bypass the city but lingered there to meet a sad, lonely and despised man - the chief tax collector in the area. His name was Zacchaeus. His position and duties made him a man of considerable importance to the Romans and amongst the people generally. Like most (probably all) tax collectors, he was rich. Tax collectors, and more so chief tax collectors, were generally disliked because they took more from the people than the Romans levied and pocketed the difference.

Zacchaeus had not met the Lord Jesus before, but a man in his position and in the employ of the Romans would have heard about His teaching and miracles and the reaction and response of Jewish leaders to these. Verse 3 reveals that he wanted to see "who he (Jesus) was". This was difficult for him amongst the crowds that lined the road because of his short stature. Others also wanted to see and hear Jesus and would never give way or space to a despised tax collector. Zacchaeus’ plan was to run ahead, climb up into one of the fig trees, hide himself among the leaves and watch and listen as Jesus passed below him.

Zacchaeus must have been surprised that the Lord Jesus knew of his plan and his hiding place in the tree, and even more surprised when Jesus announced His intention to visit him in his home. Zacchaeus hastily came down from the tree (v.6), and "received him joyfully". His quick response reveals an eagerness to meet Jesus and suggests that, in a way not revealed to us, God had already prepared Zacchaeus for this meeting that was to lead to his salvation.

Verses 6 to 10 reveal the progress and sequence of events. In v.7 those who watched "murmured, saying, that he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner", showing that the scene had moved from the foot of the fig tree to the home of Zacchaeus. There is much in the Gospels that reveals the gracious way in which the Lord Jesus conducted Himself as He moved amongst the people. We read: "Never man spake like this man" (Jn 7.46); "the people were astonished at his doctrine; For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Mt 7.28-29); "all…wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth" (Lk 4.22); and "were beyond measure astonished, saying, He hath done all things well" (Mk 7.37). These were not qualities spasmodically revealed in Christ’s life but graces that always fragranced His actions and His presence. His life was always the fine flour and sweet frankincense of the meal offering of Leviticus 2 and these qualities would have graced and illuminated the home of Zacchaeus that day. It is not difficult to understand how Zacchaeus would have felt able to unburden his soul to the Lord. In return, he would have learned of the purpose of the journey Christ was making to Jerusalem at that time, what would happen to Him when He arrived there, and what would be the consequences for humanity generally and for him, Zacchaeus, in particular.

There can be no doubt that Zacchaeus believed and accepted what the Lord Jesus said to him and received the blessing of salvation. There are two clear indications of this. The first is the statement made about Zacchaeus: "Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord; Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold (v.8)". Salvation is a secret work of the Spirit of God in the heart of the believer; in its origin it is known only to God and the believer. The Lord Jesus taught Nicodemus in John 3 that regeneration is like the wind in that it cannot be seen but its presence is clearly shown by results that follow. The words of Zacchaeus were not expressions of facile emotion generated because he lost face and climbed down from the sycomore tree. Christ had graciously and clearly spoken to him and true faith was now evidenced in the "fruits meet for repentance" of which the Lord Jesus speaks in Matthew 3.8. The Apostle Paul taught this principle when he wrote to believers in Rome about the "gospel of Christ" (Rom 1.16). We read, "For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation" (Rom 10.10).

The second confirmation that Zacchaeus had come into the blessing of salvation is shown in the words of the Lord Jesus: "This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham" (v.9). Zacchaeus, like all Jews, would have claimed some merit from being a son of Abraham despite his dishonest life style. Paul, again writing to believers in Rome (Rom 4), explained that the privilege of being a Jew, even when linked with sincere attempts to keep the moral principles of the Mosaic Law, can never produce salvation. Salvation is possible only through faith in the person and work of Christ. This was revealed personally to Zacchaeus, and its acceptance resulted in a new relationship with Christ of which He spoke in Matthew 12.48-50. There His mother and brothers desired to speak with Him and the response was, "he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!". He never ceased to love and respect His mother and His family; even when in the deep physical pain of the cross He thought of her and commended her to His disciple John’s tender care. The words indicate the new relationship enjoyed with Christ by those who put faith in Him. That relationship transcends the most tender human bond. This, not his physical birth, constituted Zacchaeus a true son of Abraham.

Often the acts of Christ as recorded in the Gospels are little cameos of His larger purposes and work. This was true of His meeting with Zacchaeus. John 1.14 records that the Lord Jesus "did tabernacle among us" (Young’s Literal Translation) in the sense that He "pitched His tent", or "lingered" amongst us who labour, since Adam’s day, under the curse of sin. In the darkness on the cross He bore the judgment that was our due because of the curse. He established the way of salvation and made it available through repentance and faith. It is this secret work of regeneration by the Holy Spirit that produces evident spiritual graces and Godly purpose in the life of the believer. The converse is equally true: Christian conduct expresses the reality of what is professed to have occurred in the secret place of the heart of the believer. We see then, the wider purposes of God revealed in this simple but delightful account of Christ’s meeting with Zacchaeus the despised chief tax collector when He lingered in the cursed city of Jericho.



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