ZACCHAEUS, THE TAX COLLECTOR

 

My Molly taught children in Bible classes to sing: "Zacchaeus was a wee little man, / and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree, the Savior for to see. And when the Savior came along, / he looked up on the tree, and said, Come down from that there tree, /I'm going to stay with thee." Since I could not find Molly's song sheet that contained this little song, I am not sure I have quoted it exactly as the children sing it. But I think I have captured the message of the song. I have two questions for you: Who was Zacchaeus? What can we learn from studying what the Bible says about this man? Zacchaeus appears only in Luke 19. I invite you to turn in your Bibles to that chapter.

 

On his way to Jerusalem where our Lord would be crucified in the not too distant future, he was passing through Jericho (Lk. 19:1). "And, behold, there was man named Zacchaeus, who was chief among the publicans, and he was rich" (Lk. 19:2). I am not sure how significant his name was—except perhaps to him—but the name both in Hebrew and in Greek means pure or righteous. Since he was involved in an occupation that provided many opportunities for fraud and even for violence, his name may not have had much to do with his character. He does seem to imply that his wealth may not have been obtained honorably (Lk. 19:8).

 

The publicans (or tax collectors) had the responsibility of collecting several different kinds of taxes for the Roman Empire. That within itself made their fellow Jews distrustful of them. Most Jews could not understand how a fellow Jew could cooperate with their oppressors. The Jews hated the Roman Empire with a passion and wanted to see it destroyed. The tax collectors had to send to Rome the amount of taxes Rome demanded. But in some cases, though probably not in all, the publicans intimidated the people and collected extra money for themselves. Apparently Rome did not care what the publicans did so long as they sent the right amount of money to Rome.

 

Zacchaeus was chief among the publicans, although we have no way of knowing how much territory he and his fellow publicans covered or how many men worked under him. The territory was almost certainly broader than Jericho. We know this: in his service as a tax collector for the Roman government, Zacchaeus had become rich. We are not told about the source of his riches, but the implication seems to be that he had become rich through his activities—both legal and illegal—as a tax collector.

 

The Bible nowhere condemns riches as such. Some of God's greatest servants, such as, Job and Abraham, were rich men. Have you ever had someone say to you, "You know what the Bible teaches: 'Money is the root of all evil?'" As a matter fact, that is not what the Bible teaches. Paul told Timothy: "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (1 Tim. 6:10). From a biblical viewpoint, money is neutral. It depends on how it is obtained and how it is used. If men and women become rich through stealing and gambling—and gambling is legalized stealing—their behavior is immoral. But if they work hard and invest their money wisely, prosperity is not immoral. But, contrary to the "health and wealth gospel" preachers, prosperity is not a sign of God's favor either. Some of the wickedest people who ever lived have prospered and some of the godliest people who ever lived have been poor—sometimes even poverty stricken. If the godly people always prosper, how can you explain Christ's and Paul's poverty and the poverty of the great churches in Macedonia (2 Cor. 8:2)?

 

Did Zacchaeus accumulate his wealth by "hook and crook?" Did he use his power as a representative of the Roman government to cheat the poor and the disenfranchised? Zacchaeus made a confession of wrongdoing when he said to Jesus: "If I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold" (Lk. 19:8). Dr. A. T. Robertson's set of Greek word studies, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), makes the following observations on that verse: "A most significant admission and confession. It is a condition of the first class that assumes it to be true. His conscience was at work. For he may have heard audible murmurs from the crowd" (volume 2, p. 240). Even though he had almost unquestionably obtained some of his wealth by immoral and illegal means, his conscience seems to have been tender enough to respond to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

 

Zacchaeus had learned—but from what source we do not know—that Jesus was passing through that area. "He was seeking to see who Jesus was; and could not for the crowd, because he was little of stature" (Lk. 19:3). The fame of Jesus was widespread in Judea. What had Zacchaeus heard about Jesus? Did he know of the great miracles Jesus had performed? Had he heard about the great teaching Jesus had done? The scriptures do not answer those questions. We know that Zacchaeus was eager to learn who Jesus was. But he had a problem in a crowd: He was small of stature and could not see Jesus because taller people in the crowd blocked his view of our Lord.

 

In his strong desire to see Jesus Christ, "he ran before, and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him: for he (Christ) was to pass that way" (Lk. 19:4). Zacchaeus must have been a man of considerable determination. He would not allow his smallness to prevent his seeing Jesus. So he climbed into a sycamore. The Greek word translated "sycamore" indicates that the tree was a fig-mulberry tree. The tree bore a poor fruit that poor people ate. Dr. Robertson says the tree was wide open "with low branches so that Zacchaeus could climb into it" (volume 2, p. 239). He was not going to miss the opportunity to see Jesus and to learn about him.

 

"And 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 your house" (Lk. 19:5). This verse raises some pertinent questions. Was Zacchaeus sitting on a low branch of the tree where Jesus could hardly avoid seeing him? Or did Christ's supernatural ability discover Zacchaeus sitting in the sycamore tree? We know Jesus had supernatural knowledge since he knew the name of Zacchaeus, although no one had told him who the man was. Zacchaeus obeyed the Lord's command. "He made haste, and came down quickly, and received him joyfully" (Lk. 19:6). The verb "received" is a present participle and means "he kept on receiving him joyfully."

 

Please remember that the Jews despised publicans because the publicans were collecting taxes for the hated Roman Empire. The Jews were suspicious of anyone who had any kind of personal dealings with the tax collectors. "And when they (the Jews) saw it (that is, Christ's dealing with Zacchaeus), they all murmured, saying, That he was gone to be guest with a man who is a sinner" (Lk. 19:7). It is obvious from this verse that the Jews had difficulty separating the sin from the sinner. They seem to be asking, "How can a man who claims to be a prophet of God not know the kind of man Zacchaeus is? How can any Jew have any communication with the enemy of the Jewish people?" Jesus knew about the sins of Zacchaeus, but he also knew he was a person of infinite value—one who was made in the image of almighty God. So how could the Son of God ignore the opportunity of teaching Zacchaeus and helping him to establish a relationship with God?

 

This is not the only time some of the Jews murmured against Jesus for associating with sinners. Luke provides the following example: "And after these things he went forth, and saw a publican named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he said unto him, Follow me. And he left all, rose up, and followed him. And Levi made him a great feast in his own house: and there was a great company of publicans and of others who sat down with them. But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do you eat with publicans and sinners? And Jesus answering said unto them, They who are whole need not a physician, but they who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Lk. 5:27-32).

 

Zacchaeus knew he was standing in the presence of perfect holiness. He "stood, and said unto the Lord: Behold, 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" (Lk. 19:8). We can discern from this verse that Zacchaeus recognized he had done wrong, but had a desire to make a change in his life. It is apparent that he was a generous man. He said, "The half of my goods I give to the poor." Maybe he had the attitude of Robin Hood. He robbed the rich to give to the poor. Incidentally, may liberal politicians, theologians, and academicians believe we must be forced to divide what we have with those people who have less of this world's goods than we have. They call it distributive justice, but it is nothing more than an attempt to turn our nation into a communist state. Those liberals should learn how communism has absolutely failed wherever it has been tried.

 

The tense of the verb "have taken" makes it plain that Zacchaeus was aware of the immoral means by which he had become rich. In the presence of the holy Son of God, Zacchaeus knew that he needed to get right with God. His offer to restore fourfold what he has taken illegally is evidence of his penitence.   He appears to be willing to do whatever God demands of him to get right with God. Although he had not lived in harmony with God's will, he certainly seems to want to obey the Lord. God approves of that attitude and will help honest people to come to the knowledge of the truth. Jesus told some of his Jewish hearers: "My doctrine is not mine, but his, who sent me. If any man will to do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself' (John 7:16-17). Dr. Charles Williams renders verse 17: "If anyone is willing to keep on doing God's will, he will know whether my teaching comes from God, or merely expresses my own ideas."

 

It does not take an especially knowledgeable Bible student to understand how absolutely vital repentance is. Although Christ did not use the word often, it is impossible to read his teaching without seeing that he demands repentance of those who would come to him for salvation. After Jesus had experienced all the temptations Satan could throw at him, he began to preach and to say, "Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt. 4:17). Luke tells of people who told Jesus of some Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. Jesus asked them: "Do you suppose that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, No; but, except you repent, you shall all likewise perish" (Lk. 13:1-3). Luke's account of our Lord's Great Commission reads as follows: "Thus it was written, and thus it behooved the Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning in Jerusalem" (Lk. 24:46-47).

 

Zacchaeus probably understood from his reading of the Old Testament the necessity of repentance. His desire to correct the wrongs he had committed and to change his life for good serves as a wonderful example for people in every age. Later on the day of Pentecost, the apostle Peter commanded the believing Jews: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). In the Christian age, if an alien sinner wants to be forgiven and added to the Lord's church, he must repent and be baptized in the name of Christ in order to have his sins forgiven.

 

After Zacchaeus made his confession of wrongdoing, the Lord said to him: "This day is salvation come to this house, forasmuch as he also is a son of Abraham" (Lk. 19:9). What did Jesus mean when he spoke of salvation? He certainly was not affirming that Zacchaeus would be saved from the wrath of the Roman Empire. After all, Zacchaeus was collecting money for the Roman government. And apparently he had done his job very well. Our Lord was speaking of salvation from his sins and the hope of eternal life. Both he and the Roman government had profited greatly from the work Zacchaeus had done in collecting taxes.

 

We are not told what Jesus taught Zacchaeus about salvation. We know Zacchaeus had a penitent attitude. We know he was willing to right the wrongs he had committed. We do not know if there was more Christ required of him. But it would be presumptuous on our part to assume there was nothing more he had to do to be forgiven. We must not forget that our Lord and Zacchaeus lived under the Mosaic covenant. While Jesus Christ was on earth, he could forgive sins as it seemed appropriate to him. But since he has returned to the Father, he has given a plan of salvation that cannot be altered. The Lord himself outlined that plan in his commands to the apostles. "Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he who does not believe shall be condemned" (Mk. 16:15-16). According to Paul, those who preach another gospel will be accursed (Gal. 1:8-9).

 

What absolutely baffles me is how some preachers and theologians can speak at length about the gospel plan of salvation and never refer one time to the many conversions in the book of Acts. For example, Dr. D. James Kennedy's newest book, What If America Were A Christian Nation Again? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2003), includes a chapter with the title, "Religion Without Regeneration" (pp. 188-200). Dr. Kennedy emphasizes the necessity of the new birth. But not one time does he tell how the apostles and other first century preachers understood what the new birth entails. Jesus told Nicodemus: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a man be born of the water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:5). In his great sermon on the day of Pentecost, Peter did not use the figurative language Jesus used in his conversation with Nicodemus. He said very simply to the Penitent Jews: "Repent, and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). Nowhere in his discussion of the new birth or of salvation does Dr. Kennedy refer to Peter's complete answer on Pentecost. Please listen to one brief excerpt from Dr. Kennedy's book. "When Peter gave the first sermon of the Christian era at Pentecost (Acts 2), the people were pricked in their hearts and they said, 'Men and brethren, what shall we do?' and Peter said, 'Repent'" (p. 239). That was only part of what Peter said. He commanded the Jews: "Repent, and be baptized" (Acts 2:38). How can any person overlook what Peter commanded the believers on Pentecost to do?

 

Our Lord explained his mission to Zacchaeus. "For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost" (Lk. 19:10). Jesus did many wonderful works while he walked on God's footstool. Peter explained that truth to Cornelius and to his household. "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him" (Acts 10:38). Matthew, Mark, Luke and John furnish us wonderful insight into the words and works of Jesus Christ. But his teachings and miracles would have only temporary value were it not for the salvation he provides. He healed the sick; he raised the dead; he cast out demons; he provided the greatest moral and spiritual values in the history of the world. But the ultimate purpose of his every thought, word and deed was the salvation of lost souls.

 

I want to leave you today with two passages that explain the great love Christ had for us in his coming into this world of sin and sorrow. The Golden Text of the Bible reads: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world: but the world through him might be saved" (John 3:16-17). The apostle Paul added: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might be rich" (2 Cor. 8:9).

 

How can anyone fail to believe in Christ and to obey the gospel in view of what he has done for us?

 

Winford Claiborne

The International Gospel Hour

P.O. Box 118

Fayetteville, TN 37334

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