By Lori Gardner
What’s the one thing that pops into your mind when you hear the name “Zacchaeus”? It is probably that he was a “wee little man.” Most of us remember his stature because of the children’s Sunday school song, but there is much more that we can learn from his life.
It is in Luke chapter 19 where we meet Zacchaeus. His name means “pure” and it is probably safe to say that at that particular time there was not much about his life that was pure. Luke 19:2 says that he was the chief publican or tax collector. That means he held a position of authority in Jericho’s tax administration. Then, just as now, tax collectors were not very popular. Under the rule of the Romans, they were especially hated. The Jews were taxed simply because they were Jews. That was in addition to all the other exorbitant taxes that had to be paid. The Romans hired local men to collect and in turn they were given a percentage. The more the publicans could wring out of the people, the more they could keep for themselves. The Bible describes Zacchaeus as being “rich”. This word means that he wasn’t just well-off financially, he was abounding in wealth. More than likely it was all acquired at the expense of his own people.
Zacchaeus met Jesus as the Lord was passing through Jericho. Like always, there was a crowd pressing to get a glimpse of Him that day. Verse 2 says that Zacchaeus “sought to see Jesus, who he was …” but was hindered because of his size. He was simply too short to see over the crowd (Luke 19:3). So, he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to get a good view of the Lord as He passed by.
Verse 5 says, “… when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said unto him, Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for today I must abide at thy house.” Jesus called him by name because He already knew His purpose for the man. He then told him to hurry down because He “must” abide at Zacchaeus’ house. That means it was necessary.
It was necessary for a couple of reasons. First, He knew that the short, little man needed salvation. That was the first priority and there is no doubt that Zacchaeus became a changed man after his encounter with the Savior. Verse 6 says that the tax collector came down from the tree and “received Him joyfully” (Luke 19:6). He not only received Christ into his house, but into his heart as well.
It would be logical to assume that the crowd would rejoice over this event. After all, a converted tax collector must have seemed like a miracle! Unfortunately, the reaction of the Jews was just the opposite. Verse 7 says, “And when they saw it, they all murmured, saying that he [Jesus] was gone to be a guest with a man that was a sinner.”
The crowd’s opinion didn’t seem to matter too much to Zacchaeus, though. He probably had much more important things on his mind. The change in him was obvious right away. Verse 8 says he stood and said, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.” Notice, he promised to make restitution after his salvation. He was not trying to purchase it or buy favor with the Lord. This was simply the outward sign of the change that had occurred on the inside of Zacchaeus.
Under the Law of Moses if a Jew had taken something that did not belong to him, he was to confess his sin, and pay back what he had taken and more (Exo. 22:1; Num. 5:7). Zacchaeus now had the desire to follow the Law and make right some of the wrongs he had committed.
The complete change in Zacchaeus is a wonderful picture of the change that Christ can make in all people. The moment we place our trust in Him we truly are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). We are justified freely by His grace (Rom. 3:21; 5:1). He declares us righteous no matter what we have done in this life. However, there is also a bigger picture to be seen from the events of that day.
There was a second reason that Jesus singled out Zacchaeus at that particular moment of time. In verse 9, the Savior makes a special point to call Zacchaeus a “son of Abraham.” Technically, he was a physical son of Abraham, being born a Jew, but because of his profession as a tax collector, he had lost his rights to worship as one. Tax collectors were considered to be so vile and wicked that Zacchaeus was not allowed to enter the Temple. After Zacchaeus’ conversion Jesus declared him to be a complete son of Abraham; he was now righteous, allowing him to freely come into the worship of God.
This was all done in full view of the crowd in order for them to see that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Matt. 16:16). He wanted them to realize that He was their promised Messiah and King and what He did for Zacchaeus, He could do for the entire nation. It was God’s will that they would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19:6; 1 Pet. 2:9). They were to bring the rest of the world to God, but it was necessary that they be brought back to God first (Acts 3:19-21).
In verse 10, the Lord clearly states that He came to “seek and to save that which was lost.” He was not only speaking about lost sinners; He was also referring to His chosen people, “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). However, they didn’t see the big picture.
This was a source of terrible sadness for the Lord. He knew where the results of their disbelief would lead. Later on, in verse 41 of Luke 19, as He neared the city of Jerusalem, Jesus wept over it. The word “wept” means He was crying audibly for His beloved people.
This was the time of His visitation, but they were blind to it. As a result, they would eventually be overtaken by their enemies, their city and their temple would lay even with the ground. There would not be one stone left upon the other (Luke 19:42-44).
Thankfully, we have the completed Word of God today and we can see the big picture. Romans 11:26 says, “And so all Israel shall be saved.” One day, they will look upon the One they rejected and they will be brought into their kingdom just as God promised.