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Jesus, Zacchaeus, and Expecting the Unexpected in Evangelism

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In his work on the life of Jesus, Alfred Edersheim called first-century Jericho “the Eden of Palestine, the very fairyland of the old world.”1 It was a beautiful and prosperous city on a major crossroads. And in this city, according to Luke 19, a prosperous man named Zacchaeus lived and worked as a chief tax collector.

There were plenty of taxes to collect in such a bustling place, so in material terms, Zacchaeus seemed to have it all. He would not have been a target for a typical evangelist. What need could such a man ever feel for a Savior?

But the story of Zacchaeus challenges our presuppositions about how and for whom evangelism works. In this account, we see that the Gospel has a way of reaching unexpected people in its unexpected way.

An Unexpected Desire

Despite his apparent successes, somewhere inside of Zacchaeus was an urge to see who Jesus was when He came to Jericho. In the pressing crowd, Zacchaeus tried to get close to Jesus, but he was short in stature, and he couldn’t see. Yet he was determined. He cast aside all restraint, ran ahead, and climbed a sycamore tree to get a good view (vv. 3–4). It must have been a strange sight, not unlike a local bank manager climbing a lamp post to get a better view of the Memorial Day parade.

Jesus is committed to seeking out the least and the last and the left out.

It may have been simple curiosity that drove Zacchaeus up the tree. Maybe he wanted to make an important connection. Perhaps he felt pangs of conscience. Whatever the reason, though, Zacchaeus’s desire to see Jesus was significant. Not everybody wants to see Jesus. If we were to go into our towns and ask people to simply talk a bit about Jesus, many would reject the offer. But when someone is interested, we can recognize the Spirit of God at work.

An Unexpected Mission

Scripture says that Jesus “came to the place” (Luke 19:5). There were many places that Jesus could have stopped, but He stopped in that place. Zacchaeus may have thought himself lucky to have gotten the view where Jesus had chosen to stop. But when Jesus looked up into the branches and called him by name, he may have almost fallen out of the tree. He was hoping for a glimpse; now he was in a conversation. And even more, Jesus said He must stay at Zacchaeus’s house. This was incredible news! And so Zacchaeus “hurried and came down and received him joyfully” (v. 6).

Jesus stopped where He could address the person least worthy of notice, the person most hindered in coming and yet most concerned to see Him. It reinforces what the Gospel writer emphasizes: that Jesus is committed to seeking out the least and the last and the left out. Indeed, the reason He came into this world was “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). God, in His inestimable plan of salvation, had determined that in that moment, in that place, at that tree, a divine encounter would take place.

An Unexpected Change

In a short time with Jesus, Zacchaeus underwent a transformation that gave evidence of new life: “Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold’” (v. 8). The whole current of his life was turned; the robber became the giver (Eph. 4:28). Jesus’ own words sum up Zacchaeus’s experience fittingly: “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9).

We have no record of the conversation that took place in Zacchaeus’s home, but we can guess at it by working backward from his statement. Perhaps Jesus started with the law of God, as He had with the rich ruler (Luke 18:20), asking, “Have you loved the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might?” (Deut. 6:5.) In his greed, Zacchaeus had loved something other than God—indeed, much more than God. “And have you loved your neighbor,” Jesus might have continued, “as you have loved yourself?” (Lev. 19:18.) No, Zacchaeus had cheated his neighbors to enrich himself.

Jesus had come to deal with Zacchaeus’s need: he was a sinner, alienated from God and therefore “having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). In his greed, he had spurned God’s commandments, and he faced the prospect of condemnation. This doesn’t exactly seem like a winning evangelistic strategy! Yet God have been at work in his heart. Jesus had been sent to His home, and in the mystery of God’s grace, Zacchaeus repented of his sin and set out on a new path. Salvation had come to his house in truth.

The Mystery of Grace

This world is full of unexpected people in whom the Holy Spirit has planted the desire to hear—the despised and hated, the seemingly self-satisfied. Jesus came for such people, and He came to bring them salvation.

When we speak to people about Jesus, we should keep our eyes open in unexpected places. And when we speak, we should be ready to address the real problem: that they are alienated from God and need to be reconciled to Him. When God is at work in a heart, the conviction of His Word and the promise of His grace will be the means He uses to bring repentance and salvation.

There are Zacchaeuses in our day too. Are we ready to stop and speak with them? Are we ready to tell them the truth about themselves and the good news about Jesus? Or are we prone to crowd them out and keep them from seeing the Savior? May our approach mirror that of our Lord, who, amid the riches of Jericho, took the time to give Zacchaeus the greatest treasure of all: Himself.

This article was adapted from the sermon “A Man Up a Tree” by Alistair Begg.

Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (n.p.: Hendrickson, 1993), 716. ↩︎

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