May 17, 2015

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Luke 19:1–10

When Jesus looked up at Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree, He saw a lost soul whom the Father had given Him to save. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his expositional series in the gospel of Luke to consider the appointed day when salvation came to the house of a notorious tax collector.


We are going to start a new chapter, and I will be reading Luke 19:1–10. I would ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:

He entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And 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.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

We have been blessed to hear the very Word of God in this account of Jesus meeting Zacchaeus. The Holy Spirit superintended and inspired this text, and I pray that He will also bring it to our minds and hearts this morning. I ask you to please be seated. Let us pray.

Our Father and our God, we thank You for the truth of Your Word that we can rest in and live by, and that by the knowledge of Thy truth we have been able to come to our salvation in Jesus Christ. I pray that in this hour, if any among us have not yet embraced the truth of Christ, if any person remains lost among us, by the hearing of Your Word today they might come to saving faith in Christ. For we ask it in His name. Amen.

Why Zacchaeus Climbed the Tree

I think Zacchaeus is one of the most popular characters in all the New Testament, especially among children who learn of him through the song they were taught in Sunday school. It went something like this: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man; a wee little man was he. He climbed up into a sycamore tree; the Lord he wanted to see.”

I would like to ask a single, simple question this morning: Why was Zacchaeus up in that tree? There are several possible answers to that question, some of which are quite simple and indeed superficial, but I believe there are other answers to the question that are more significant and important for us to understand.

Jericho’s Vegetation

Let me start with the simple and superficial answers. The first answer as to why Zacchaeus was in the sycamore tree is because he could be. That is not something that we take for granted, because we understand that this whole event took place in New Testament Jericho.

If you are familiar with the geography of Palestine and the southern part of Judea, you know that the area close to the Dead Sea is mostly a barren wilderness and desert. Jericho, however, was built on a large oasis. In contrast to the neighboring area, Jericho was lush with vegetation, including trees, even sycamore trees. So, the first answer is simple. Zacchaeus was up in a sycamore tree because a sycamore tree was there.

The Crowds

The second answer to the question regarding why Zacchaeus was in the tree is provided in the text itself. It tells us that he was small in stature, and therefore, he was quite short.

Zacchaeus had a profound desire to see Jesus, whom he had never laid eyes on before. We know throughout the gospel accounts that everywhere Jesus went, He was accompanied by a thronging crowd or multitude of people eager to see the latest miracle He might perform or hear the remarkable words that came from His mouth.

Zacchaeus knew enough about Jesus to understand that wherever He went, He would be surrounded by masses of people. Zacchaeus likely would not be able to see Him. In anticipation of that opportunity, he searched for a vantage point to look over the heads and shoulders of the surrounding crowds to be able to see Jesus.

His Own Safety

There is a third reason Zacchaeus was in the tree. We are told that he was a chief tax collector and that he was rich. If you know anything about tax collectors in the New Testament, you know they were some of the most despised people in the country. They collected taxes for the conquering Roman government, which oppressed the Jewish people and imposed burdensome taxes upon them.

Tax collectors worked on a commission, so they squeezed every penny they could out of their own countrymen. They were considered traitors, quislings, people who worked for the enemy. As a result, they were despised. If you consider how despised the tax collectors were in general, consider that Zacchaeus was not just a tax collector. He was a chief tax collector. He ranked at the highest level of tax collectors, which made him lowest for those who despised him.

Zacchaeus understood his societal position. He was not just interested in being able to see Jesus, but he also wanted to seek some sort of safety from those who would surround him with hatred. He sought refuge in the sycamore tree.

Those are the simple answers to why Zacchaeus was in the tree, but I think there was a more significant answer.

Given to Jesus

Zacchaeus was not so much in the sycamore tree so that he could see Jesus, but rather he was in the sycamore tree so Jesus could see him.

Touching Jesus’ human nature, He probably knew nothing about Zacchaeus. Touching His divine nature, however, there never was a time that Zacchaeus was unknown to Him. George Whitefield commented in a sermon that, touching His divine nature, Jesus knew Zacchaeus from the foundation of the earth, just as Jesus knew Nathaniel in a supernatural way before He ever met him in John’s gospel. He knew him in advance.

Let me take a brief detour and look at the sixth chapter of John’s gospel to consider an element of the activity by which Jesus knew Zacchaeus from eternity. In John 6:35–40, Jesus says:

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.

Beloved, this passage in John’s gospel contains the doctrine of election on steroids. What Jesus pronounced, to the disgruntlement of some present in that day and many who read the passage in our day, was that the Father planned from all eternity to save people out of fallen humanity and give them as a gift to His beloved Son.

Jesus said, “All that the Father gives me will come to Me, and of that number who come to Me, not one will ever be lost.” When Jesus saw Zacchaeus in that tree, He knew that he was one whom the Father had given to Him. He interrupted His trip into Jericho when He saw Zacchaeus perched in the tree. He looked at him, recognized him, spoke to him, and said, “Zacchaeus, get down out of that tree, because I must come to your house today.”

A Divine Appointment

There was a long tradition set in motion in the Pentateuch of the Old Testament that required Jewish people to give hospitality to strangers, but this was not simply a matter of fulfilling the hospitality requirements. When Jesus looked at Zacchaeus, He did not say: “Zacchaeus, it’s your duty and responsibility to be kind to Me when I get hungry. I would like for you to give Me an invitation to your home that I might be your guest for dinner.” Rather, He said, “Zacchaeus, get down, because I must come to your house today.” The word “must” communicates urgency and necessity.

Jesus was saying to the man in the tree: “It’s necessary that I come to your house today. I must do it. I have a divine appointment, and that appointment was established at the foundation of the world. We are at a crossroads, Zacchaeus.” We are told that Jesus frequently dined with His enemies, the Pharisees, but there was something different about this occasion.

The first reason Jesus said He must go to the home of Zacchaeus is obvious. Zacchaeus was lost. Jesus told us that He came to seek and to save those who were lost. Zacchaeus had some interest in Jesus and some indirect knowledge of Him, if only from the buzz of rumor and the crowds talking about the uncanny stranger. He wanted to see what it was all about. He was interested enough to take his point of observation in the sycamore tree to see what Jesus was doing, but he was lost.

Beloved, there are people in this church right now who are lost. They may be interested in who Jesus was. They may be curious about what Christianity is all about. They may be here to make business contacts, or because their spouses dragged them kicking and screaming, or as a matter of tradition because as children their parents made them come. They may just gather here out of habit on Sunday morning because that is what they’ve always done, but they are still lost, just as Zacchaeus was lost.

We are told in the text that, though Zacchaeus was in a lost condition at that moment, he did not remain in that state. Jesus said: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” The text says that he hurried, came down, and received Jesus, not reluctantly, but joyfully. When others saw it, they all grumbled. They said, “There He goes again, being the guest of a man who is a sinner.”

Zacchaeus’ Repentance

The text continues: “And 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.’” That is a puzzling comment, and I wonder at what exact moment he uttered those words to Jesus and what their import was.

There are different ways we could read the statement Zacchaeus made to Jesus. It could have been that when Jesus came with him toward his home, Zacchaeus said: “I am a tax collector, but don’t be too hard on me, Jesus. It’s been my practice to be careful how I have wounded people in the past, and if I have defrauded anybody, I make sure to return what I owe them. I just want You to know that if You’ve come here to seek and to save me, I’ve repented of my bad deeds in the past and am trying to do the right thing now. I hope You’ll trust that I have worked my way into the kingdom of God.”

If that was what Zacchaeus had in mind, it was one of the dumbest things he ever thought. If he knew anything about Jesus, he should have known that nobody can work their way into the kingdom of God. I suspect that is not what Zacchaeus was saying, as it depends on which moment he said it. I suggest that Zacchaeus was mentioning what he planned to do as a result of his conversion.

We are told that if we truly repent and come to Christ, we should go out of our way to make restitution to those we have injured or afflicted. We do not do this because we think doing works of restitution will save us, but rather that they indicate that our repentance from sin is authentic and genuine.

After spending some time with Jesus and coming to true saving faith, the fruit of Zacchaeus’ repentance was indicated by what he said: “Whatever I have done wrong, I am going to try to make right. I will give half of my goods to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone, I will restore it fourfold.”

Salvation Has Come

Listen to what Jesus said in response to Zacchaeus’ repentance, because this is the most important point: “Today salvation has come to this house.” Notice what Jesus did not say. He did not simply remark: “Today I have come to your house, and by the way, I am the Savior. Therefore, the Savior has come to your house.” The Savior came to lots of homes in the past, and when He left those homes, the people were not any different from when He came.

I mentioned earlier that some people in this room right now who are still lost. You have not found your way. You do not know Christ in any saving way. I can think of no greater tragedy that could befall any person on this planet than to be lost from God, lost from the Redeemer.

Jesus said that His mission was to seek the lost. They do not seek Him. The reason He wanted to seek them was so that He could save them. So, when He saw Zacchaeus, He sought him out to save him. The text says that on that day, salvation came to the house of Zacchaeus. It was not just the Savior who came, but the Savior brought salvation with Him to Zacchaeus.

Has salvation ever been to your house? Has salvation ever come to you? I saw some photographs recently that the president of Reformation Bible College took during a trip to Western Pennsylvania. I did not know he was going there, but he visited some important places I had been and took a picture of the Ligonier Valley Study Center, where Ligonier Ministries began. He also went to New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, and took a picture of Russell Hall, where I lived as a freshman, and room 108, where salvation came to my house.

I want to know: Has Jesus been to your house? You know if He has been there. You know if you are still lost. There was an urgency in the message of Jesus when He said, “I have to come to your house.” It is not an option.

Evangelists are constantly giving invitations for people to come to Christ. Jesus did not ask for an invitation to Zacchaeus’ house. He said, “I must come to your house.” God never invites sinners to repent. It is a command. It is an imperative. If you are lost, if you do not want to stay lost, it is necessary for Jesus to come to you.

Has salvation come to your house? If it does, do not let it go until you are found by Him. The text ends with these words: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.