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Zacchaeus: Hope for a Hardened Sinner Luke 19:1-10

I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.


Introduction: God's Power to Transform a Life

Mel Trotter founded and directed the Grand Rapids, Michigan City Rescue Mission for more than forty years. It later became known as the Mel Trotter Mission and is still operating today. Trotter became a leader in American fundamentalism during the first four decades of the twentieth century. Here is a short summary of his life that I found on the website It tells us:

Mel Trotter was an alcoholic. At one point his child was ill. Looking for money for a drink he took the boots off the child’s feet and sold them. When he returned home he discovered that his child had died. He staggered out into the night, unable to overcome the pull of drink. He thought of throwing himself into Lake Michigan and committing suicide.

In this condition, however, he stumbled into the Pacific Garden Mission and heard Harry Monroe share his testimony of how God delivered him from drunkenness. Trotter was saved that night. He went on to direct a rescue mission in Grand Rapids and then founded over 30 more around the country. He was transformed by the power of Christ.

The truth is that God the Father, through His Son the Lord Jesus Christ, can take the most hardened of sinners and make them into trophies of His grace. And there is an account that demonstrates this fact in Luke 19:1-10. It is a story that many of us have heard as children and may have even sung about it. I'm referring to the story of Zacchaeus.

Let's take a look at this section of Scripture and find out the lessons that we can learn from this familiar biblical account.

We will begin by looking at just who this man was.

I. Who Was Zacchaeus?

The Scripture tells us that Zacchaeus was chief tax collector in the city of Jericho. Now none of us like to see the tax man coming but in Jesus' day this was particularly bad.

The term telónés or tax collector is found in the first three Gospels. You can see it nine times in Matthew, three in Mark, and ten in Luke. In the King James Version the word is incorrectly translated as publicans. The word publicani is from the Latin and is used of rich men who paid for the privilege of collecting taxes in certain localities. The publicani, or publicans were often Romans, though it appears that Zacchaeus, the Jew, was one of them in this passage because he is called a chief tax collector.

The publicans usually didn't collect the taxes themselves. These tax farmers would normally hire local Jews to do the dirty work for them. These disloyal Jews who were hired by the Roman government through the publicans were the ones who were designated by the word telónés. They were hated by their fellow Jews because they represented the foreign domination of Rome. Also, they were crooks who took far more than the taxes that were levied and lined their own pockets with the excess. And Rome looked the other way as they became rich off of their fellow countrymen. In the Bible, they became symbols of the worst kind of people.

In the rabbinical writings they were classified as robbers. In the Gospels they were bracketed along with sinners. This shows the common attitude that the people of Israel had for these men who sold out their own brothers and sisters for money.

Jesus even recognized this common attitude of the day. In His Sermon on the Mount, for instance, he stated:

“For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matt 5:46).

And once when he was rebuking the self-righteous Pharisees, He told them:

“Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (21:31).

In this verse Jesus was not condoning the sin of any of these groups. He was merely implying that there is forgiveness for the worst of sinners who repent. The Pharisees' sin was the refusal to acknowledge their sinfulness and repent. So even a tax collector or harlot who repents is far better off than the Pharisee who doesn't think that he needs to repent.

Interestingly, Jesus had just told a parable to point out this fact in chapter 18 of Luke about a self-righteous Pharisee and a tax collector who both went up to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee thanked God that he was not like other people including robbers, evildoers and the tax collector next to him. He bragged that he fasted twice a week and gave a tenth of all that he got.

While at the same time the tax collector looked up toward heaven, beat his chest and said:

"God have mercy on me, a sinner!"

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Jesus' conclusion to this was simply:

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14).

Then in chapter 19 we get a real life example of a tax man who truly repents and turns to Jesus for salvation. That man is, of course, Zacchaeus. And the Lord lovingly forgave and welcomed him.

Now lets take a closer look at the account that is told by Luke.

II. The Account of Zaccheus in Scripture

This section begins with Jesus passing through Jericho and being noticed by a the rich chief tax collector, Zacchaeus. We see that this man wanted to get to Jesus and find out just who He was. However, because of the huge crowds and he being such a small man, he wasn't able to do so.

Jesus was probably traveling with a large entourage of pilgrims who were headed to the Passover in Jerusalem. And there was, undoubtedly, also a large number of people lined up along the street to see Christ. Our Lord had recently raised Lazarus from the dead in Bethany, less than 15 miles away, and they wanted to see the man who could perform such a miracle.

Zacchaeus was no exception. He was interested in viewing this great healer and teacher who had caused such a stir. And since he was unable to do so any other way, he decided to run ahead and to climb into a sycamore tree to get a better look.

This is a sturdy type of tree with low spreading branches that could accommodate a short person who wanted to climb it in order to craw onto a limb that was hanging over the road. Now this would have been undignified for a person of Zacchaeus' rank. However, he didn't care. He wanted desperately to see the Lord.

When Jesus did pass by he looked up and saw Zacchaeus and called to him:

"Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.." (5).

This was given in the form or a command rather than a request. Interestingly, this is the only time recorded in the Gospels where Jesus invited Himself to someone's home. But Scripture says that Zacchaeus:

"hurried and came down and received Him gladly." (6).

Why would a crook and a sinner such as Zacchaeus want to spend time with the perfect sinless Son of God whose very presence must have convicted the tax collector and demonstrated to him his own sinfulness? It would seem that his heart had been prepared by the Spirit of God to understand that Jesus had something to offer him that money and power couldn't buy. Obviously, he saw his life as missing something and he had a desire to talk with Jesus to see if the Lord could help him. And, by the power of God, Zacchaeus realized that he was a sinner in need of a new life which only Christ could offer.

Of course, the crowd, as they often are, were judgmental of Zacchaeus. All they knew was what they'd heard and had seen because of the bad reputation that this man had built. They didn't see his heart. And if they did, likely most didn't care. They didn't like Zacchaeus. Nor did they want to see Jesus pay any attention to him. And, at the same time, they were judging Jesus for even talking to such a 'sinner' as this evil tax collector. They said:

"He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner!." (7).

But Jesus didn't care. This repentant tax collector was exactly who the Lord was looking for. Many of the people judging probably didn't see that they also needed what Christ had to offer at least as much as Zacchaeus. And their pride was keeping them from doing what they should have done.

But, because of Christ, this man, whom everyone hated, became another trophy of God's grace and mercy. .

The next section of this text might be misunderstood by some who think that good works save people. No matter what age someone is living in, they are never saved by works. If a person could attain salvation in that way, then Jesus would not have to die. Scripture points out over and over again that works of righteousness will not save. Even in the Old Testament, Isaiah compared our works of righteousness to filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).

What Zacchaeus did next was not what caused his salvation. It was rather the fruit that comes from a person who is saved by the transforming work of Jesus. Here is what he said:

"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."

This vow, which we can feel confident from the text that he carried out, was proof that his conversion was genuine. It was the fruit of a truly changed heart.

It is interesting that the law didn't require such extreme measures. The penalty for money acquired by fraud was to give one-fifth as restitution. The only time that the Law of Moses required a four-fold restitution was when an animal was stolen and killed. However, if it was found alive, only a two-fold restitution was required.

Zacchaeus was seeing himself as being just as guilty as any other common robber. And it is likely that all, or most, of the riches that he had were acquired by fraud. So, we are talking a great sum of money here that he was pledging to repay. But he considered that the spiritual riches that he had just received were worth far more than all of the gold that he had acquired on this earth.

Once again, if we look back, this is in stark contrast to the rich young ruler, found in the previous chapter, who refused Jesus' request to sell all that he had and give it to the poor. (Luke 18:18-27).

This young ruler became very sad because he was extremely rich. And he was unwilling to part with his money because it had become an idol to him.

Jesus' response to this man's refusal was:

"How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God."

When those around heard this hard saying of our Lord, they responded:

"Then who can be saved?"

Jesus then replied:

"The things that are impossible with people are possible with God." (27)

It wasn't the riches that was keeping this young man out of an eternal relationship with the Son of God. It was, rather, his love and reliance upon those riches. They were his god. And he could never see himself being without them, even if it meant that he would never inherit eternal life.

Again, compare that with Zacchaeus, who was willing to trade all of his earthly wealth for the riches that he could never lose. He had truly experienced salvation that day

And the Lord acknowledged this fact by telling everyone:

"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." (9,10).

III. Lessons We Learn from Zacchaeus

So what do we learn from this true story of Jesus' encounter with the tax collector named Zacchaeus?

There are many lessons, but one major glaring one is that we should never count anyone as being beyond the reach of salvation. No one, in a million years, would have thought that the rich and powerful Zacchaeus would ever have such a radical change in his thinking and come to the Savior so humbly. The crowd certainly didn't believe it. They thought that:

"Once a crook, always a crook!"

However, they weren't taking into consideration the power of the Almighty Lord of the Universe.

We have to remember what Jesus Himself said:

"The things that are impossible with people are possible with God."

There is no one, in our family or amongst our friends, that is beyond the reach of the Lord. And we can't forget that fact when we are dealing with an enemy either. We should never give up on praying for anyone, or telling them what the Lord has done for us. For God, in His own time, may yet be merciful to them and save them.

While they have breath, there is hope for the most hardened soul that is melted by the gospel message.

Further, we have to also start to look at a truly repentant and saved person just as the Lord looks at them. It is easy for us to hold the past against someone, especially if they have done something to us or to our family.

However, God now accepts them as a son or a daughter and they are just as much an heir and joint heir with Christ as we are. We need to start making every effort to accept them as the Lord has accepted us.

Also, what is true of others is true of each of us individually as well. We should never think to ourselves:

"God could never love me! Look at all the things wrong that I have done! Look at the people I have harmed!: How could God ever care for me and save me!"

Well, just like He did for Zacchaeus and as He did for the Apostle Paul who called himself "the chief of sinners" because he had hunted down, beat, imprisoned and killed Christians, He will do the same for you if you turn to Him in faith. God will change your life like He did for these two men. His grace is truly amazing!.

Finally, this passage clearly teaches God's heart for the lost. Jesus' mission was to seek them out and lead them to salvation. We too must develop a heart for those who are lost.

Every single day, it is estimated that 150,000 people will die. That is a quite staggering number and it also means that every hour 6000 people will enter into eternity. Many, if not most, of these persons, will not go to heaven. They will spend eternity in Hell separated from a holy God. Do we care about that? If we want the heart of God, we will care deeply, for God loves them greatly.


There was a story which came from the 'Sunday School Chronicle' that might help to summarize this message. It goes like this:

In one of Dr. J. Wilbur Chapman's meetings a man rose to give the following remarkable testimony:

"I got off at the Pennsylvania depot one day as a tramp, and for a year I begged on the streets for a living. One day I touched a man on the shoulder and said, `Mister, please give me a dime.' As soon as I saw his face, I recognized my old father. `Father, don't you know me?' I asked.

Throwing his arms around me, he cried, `I have found you, I have found you, I have found you! And all I have is yours.'

Men, think of it, that I, a tramp, stood begging my father for ten cents, when for eighteen years he had been looking for me, to give me all he was worth."

Such is the love of the heavenly Father for His sinning children.

As that love reached out to Zacchaeus many years ago, it has reached out to each and every one of us who know Jesus as Savior.

Now may we who love Him offer that love to everyone whom we meet. Because we might just be the only ones who ever will.

© 2021 Jeff Shirley

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