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Jesus Saves Sinners -- the Story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10)

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

Zacchaeus didn't know exactly why he wanted to see Jesus so badly . . .

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Luke 19:1-10

In this, the final turning point in Luke's Gospel, we discover exactly what Jesus' mission on earth is -- to seek and to save the lost. And we see it demonstrated beautifully in the life of a very extreme candidate, a hated chief tax collector.

For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost. Luke 19:10


Who needs an icebreaker when I know you're all singing the song in your head! Maybe just launch in by singing the song from memory and reminiscing about other Sunday School songs you remember. *If* you do that, you need to take it to this conclusion: from those songs, what do you remember about those Bible stories? And, how close are those memories to the actual point of the Bible passage? (You can absolutely miss the point of Luke 19 if you're zeroed in on the Zacchaeus song.)

Because I love to share Go Fish music, here's my favorite version of the Zacchaeus song in a fun medley of stories in the Bible; Zacchaeus starts at 0:30, but the whole song is great. Bonus points if you learn and do the VBS choreography. Double bonus points if you video it and post it to Facebook.

*91* Zacchaeus Crafts, Oh My!

Leave it to Pinterest to have a page with almost 100 Zacchaeus-related crafts and activities. (A bunch of them are generic tree crafts, which isn't really the most important detail in the story, but one of these is a Rice Krispy treat tree with a candy bar trunk. Seems like a perfectly reasonable teaching tool for the Zacchaeus story to me. Yes, I do like Rice Krispy treats, why do you ask?)

This website ( has more Sunday School-oriented crafts related to Zacchaeus ("Pin Zacchaeus in a Tree" is a bit of a stretch, but I LIKE IT!). I really like her "Jesus knows my name" craft, which is a priceless lesson for kids (and adults) and does actually get to the heart of this passage.

Yes, those ideas are certainly geared toward children, but this is one of those passages has become a favorite "children's story". It speaks to children, and it speaks to adults. There's nothing wrong in letting adults remember being a child. Perhaps you can do some kid-oriented activities this Sunday . . .

But -- if you're going to do that, it would be important to transition into a more adult discussion before moving on into the passage.

Not Being Able to See or Reach Your Goal

We've all been here, if not for ourselves then for the short person or child with us. You've gone to the parade or the festival or the opening or whatever, and you get completely swallowed up by the crowd and can't see a thing. Sometimes, there are nice people around you who notice you and let you move up front so you can see. A lot of times, you're on your own. What memories do you have of being blocked by a crowd?

Now let's take it up a notch. How many of you are (were) Black Friday shoppers? Or how many of you like to go to Grand Openings or product releases? People will literally grab things from right over you or just push you out of the way. I don't need to tell you how dangerous those scenarios can turn out to be. Have you ever been there? Maybe you're an autograph hunter. If the celebrity isn't really paying attention, the person with the longest arms seems to always get the autograph.

Getting a cheap television or an autograph might not be that important in the scheme of things, but these situations play out in refugee camps, shelters, and other very serious settings. A larger person will absolutely push a smaller person out of the way in order to get food, clothing, medicine, whatever, unless someone is there to keep order.

What is the most important thing you've ever stood in a crowd for? How did it go? Did you eventually get what you were waiting for?

Or, have you ever served or a festival in a shelter or somewhere you had to keep order to make sure that everybody safely got what they were in line for? (This can include school when there's any sort of giveaway, right?) What was that experience like?

Our passage this week is about a short man whom nobody liked that really wanted to see Jesus as Jesus passed through his town. He had to go to unusual measures to do so, and it was absolutely the right decision.

Our Context in Luke

Two weeks ago, I mentioned that this Zacchaeus passage is the turning point in Luke. Jesus clearly declares His mission, and Luke basically transitions from here into Holy Week,

If we look at the way Luke has arranged this part of his Gospel, it becomes clear that he finds this event to be extremely important. See this outline:

  • 18:1-8 -- The Parable of the Persistent Widow talks about the importance of persistence in seeking justice.

  • 18:9-14 -- The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector literally tells us about a repentant tax collector who is justified by God.

  • 18:15-17 -- Jesus tells us to remove all barriers between Him and anyone who would come to Him in childlike faith.

  • 18:18-30 -- A rich man fails to enter the kingdom because he is unwilling to part with his wealth.

  • 18:35-43 -- A blind man outside of Jericho receives his sight.

  • [The Zacchaeus Passage]

  • 19:12-27 -- The Parable of the Ten Minas tells us how God will reward those who have been faithful with their gifts and talents and punish those who have rejected God's purposes for their lives.

And right in the middle of that, we have the story of Zacchaeus,

  • a tax collector

  • who is being kept from Jesus

  • who persists in seeing Jesus

  • and immediately responds to Jesus with incredible repentance,

  • is completely generous with his wealth,

  • and is put up by Jesus as an example of how sinners can come to faith.

Is that not an exact model of everything Jesus has been teaching in the surrounding passages? It seems clear that Luke arranged these verses in such a way to make it clear how anyone can come to faith in Christ (and how we can get in the way of others coming to faith in Christ!).

Absolutely tremendous. A great passage.


This Week's Big Idea: All About Jericho

When I say "ancient Jericho", I'm actually talking about two different cities.

  • There's the ancient Jericho -- one of the oldest cities in the world -- that Joshua conquered and that Jews eventually resettled off and on during their history.

  • There's Herod's Jericho which King Herod built as a vacation palace for himself and his friends. In Jesus' day, "Jericho" was Herod's Jericho.

Ancient Jericho

We covered this in depth when we studied Joshua in 2017. I haven't posted those lessons online yet, but honestly this passage has nothing to do with ancient Jericho. I just like talking about it because it was such a very important part of human history!

In that article from that passage in Joshua, I mentioned this interesting article about Jericho's walls from Again, it has nothing to do with our passage this week. It's just for your personal edification.

Herod's Jericho

About two miles south of ancient Jericho (which was uninhabited in Jesus' day) was Herod's Jericho. Herod didn't found the city -- it had been established by the conquering Greeks as a spot for their "winter capital" hundreds of years before -- but he made it grand.

Jericho is about 740 feet below sea level (still well above the Dead Sea) and it only gets about 7" of rain a year. But it is watered by massive springs from under the surrounding hills, making it a literal oasis in the desert. Large fields of grapes, wheat, and more thrived there, attracting active settlements. Herod built parks, gardens, pools, villas, and more, including a large fortress. The pictures above are of the ruins of Herod's buildings. His palaces covered multiple acres. Many members of the upper classes of Jerusalem came to Jericho in the winter. When Herod died, later Roman rulers moved their base to Caesarea on the coast, causing Jericho to fall into slight disrepair in Jesus' day, but it would have still been a very impressive, active city.

Jericho was on a major north-south road, making it a great place for a "chief tax collector" to establish his headquarters.


Part 1: Desperate (Luke 19:1-4)

[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 There was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but he was not able because of the crowd, since he was a short man. 4 So running ahead, he climbed up a sycamore tree to see Jesus, since he was about to pass that way.

This is why I used the Black Friday reference above; I'm trying to make sense of what is otherwise a very underrated detail of this story. There are so many people around Jesus that Zacchaeus can't even get a glimpse of him! There are two types of crowds like this that I can think of (maybe you can think of others): the stationary absurd crowds that line the roads for something like the Tour de France, and the mobile absurd crowds that follow Tiger Woods around at something like the Masters in Augusta.

Do any of you have that kind of crowd in mind for the Zacchaeus story?

This event happens right before the Triumphal Entry (Palm Sunday) which we covered a couple of weeks ago (on Palm Sunday).

There, I mention a few other details from the timeline that set the stage. Most importantly, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, that put the excitement of the people over the top and it put a proverbial price on Jesus' head from the Sanhedrin. Jesus took His disciples a bit north for a few weeks to lie low until the Passover. But as we read in Luke 19:28-40, once the people heard about Jesus' approach to Jerusalem, they lined the roads and waved palm branches and spread their cloaks on the road. All of that happened the day (or two) after our Zacchaeus event. The crowds are at a fever pitch!

But Jericho is large. Not even being able to get a glimpse of Jesus anywhere along the road seems unbelievable (a blind man sitting by the road got within arm's length of Jesus outside Jericho!), unless, of course, a larger crowd from inside the city swarmed Jesus after Jesus healed that blind man. Here's my imagined progression:

  • A crowd from Galilee going to Jerusalem for Passover noticed Jesus on the road through Jericho and joined His entourage (for obvious reasons). That crowd would have grown as more people caught up to them, but it wouldn't have been huge.

  • The blind man wouldn't have been too far outside of Jericho, so when Jesus healed him, the word would have gotten to the city very quickly. By this point, Jesus was quite famous in this region (for raising Lazarus), so people probably dropped what they were doing and came out to see Him.

  • It would have been during "work hours" when Jesus arrived in Jericho. So, I imagine that Zacchaeus would have been at work in his booth, and he would have heard "word on the street" about Jesus coming through town. No one would have told him directly because, as we will see, no one cared about him.

We don't know why Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. The Bible doesn't say. Luke's wording implies that it was simple curiosity. It's possible that Zacchaeus had already heard of Jesus' teachings (he responded very quickly), but that's not necessary. It could also be that Zacchaeus was living under some kind of conviction about his sinful dealings, and he sought Jesus out much like the sinful woman we read about in Luke 7 (read that passage again and note the parallels -- Luke is telling the reader that anybody can repent and come to Jesus). It's also possible that some of the tax collectors mentioned in Luke 15 worked for Zacchaeus and had told him about Jesus (which reminds us of the importance of telling our friends about Jesus). Any scenario teaches us something important.

Anyway, by the time Zacchaeus got to Jesus, a thick crowd surrounded Him, making it impossible for Zacchaeus to get anywhere near Jesus. Unlike the scenarios I mentioned above where people might be nice and let the short person through to the front, no one was going to be nice to Zacchaeus (more on him below). Zacchaeus was completely cut off from Jesus.

I want you to think about another parallel -- take another look at the story of the paralyzed man and his four friends in Luke 5 (it's been a few months since we studied that). In what ways does the experience of the paralyzed man correspond with Zacchaeus's? What do you think Luke is trying to say through these events? What other encounters with Jesus has Luke reported that prepare us for this week's passage?

Zacchaeus found a sycamore fig tree to climb (more on it below). That combination is extremely unexpected, and it's another hint at how important Luke found this event. This particular kind of tree was easy to climb -- that's not the strange part -- but it would be unheard of for a powerful man like Zacchaeus to climb it! Powerful people don't stoop to undignified measures to see a folk teacher. And powerful people certainly don't take a measure that draws attention to their physical limitation (in his case, his height). This is not what readers would have expected.

One more parallel. Go back and read Jesus' encounter with the rich young ruler in Luke 18:18-30. What is Luke setting up as the same and as different between that ruler and Zacchaeus? The answer to that question tells you how this encounter is going to apply to your life today.


Aside on Zacchaeus -- Chief Tax Collectors

Luke uses the same word for chief tax collector that Matthew does for chief priest (Matt 16:21), but it's a different word than Luke uses for chief priests in 19:47. It basically means "leader" (for example, in Luke 11:15, Beelzebul is the chief of demons). This means that Zacchaeus was the lead tax collector for the region. Jericho was the second-largest city in Judea, so Zacchaeus could have just been over Jericho (and not also Jerusalem).

We've talked a lot about tax collectors in Luke. Tax collectors were despised. Being a "chief" tax collector meant that Zacchaeus contracted directly with the Roman government for the amount of taxes to collect, and then he hired men to actually collect the taxes (men like Matthew -- "tax collectors").

If you think about what it meant to be the "chief tax collector", you can probably imagine that the people had a very special place in their heart for men like Zacchaeus. Well, maybe not in their heart.


Aside on Sycamore Fig Trees

Technically, we're supposed to spell this as a "sycomore" tree to distinguish from the American sycamore tree which has nothing to do with this species of fig tree. But nobody does that, so neither will I.

The sycamore fig tree is native to central Africa. The Egyptians brought it to the Nile corridor, and the Philistines later took it to Israel. It grows very well in rich soil like that around the Nile or the Jordan. It was not cultivated for its fruit but for its wood. Fruit production was unpredictable and related to a complex ecosystem of insects (as those insects were killed off over the centuries, the trees largely died out in Egypt and Israel).

The trees are amazing. They can grow to 60' tall and even more wide, with their extremely strong branches spreading very wide (which is why they were so popular for wood). The picture on the right is from Ethiopia; those tiny things in the far foreground are full-grown men (!).


Part 2: Friended (Luke 19:5-7)

5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down because today it is necessary for me to stay at your house.” 6 So he quickly came down and welcomed him joyfully. 7 All who saw it began to complain, “He’s gone to stay with a sinful man.”

[**Struggling not to sing the song.**]

These verses are astounding. We've heard them so many times that we take them for granted. Jesus looked up in the tree and called Zacchaeus by name. This does not have be some supernatural knowledge, although it could be. Equally impressive to me is the possibility that Jesus had taken the time to learn Zacchaeus's name and in this moment, remembered it. (If it's not supernatural, then it cuts to the heart of every pastor and church leader -- we absolutely should put in the energy to learn the names and occupations of the community leaders around us.)

Note the odd details of urgency in Jesus' words. "Come down quickly (hurry)" "I must stay". What's so urgent? Jesus is just passing through!

Have you ever heard the term "divine appointment"? This is one.

If you Google "divine appointment", you'll get a lot of sermonizing and spiritualizing. Set that aside. Basically, a divine appointment is when God wanted you to encounter someone else. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 is a divine appointment. When one of these encounters happens, it can't be "I hope I run into that person again sometime" but must be "God has business for us right now". You need to act on it now.

Think about it. Jesus would never set foot in Jericho again. His divine appointment with Zacchaeus was then or never.

Did Jesus know that this was going to happen? Of course He did. But that doesn't change the fact that Jesus -- in the middle of His final march to Jerusalem -- stopped to spend time with a hated sinner to bring salvation to that sinner. If anybody could say they had more important things to do in the moment, it was Jesus!

Adding the urgency to His words accomplished at least two things: (1) it helped Zacchaeus take Jesus' request seriously, and (2) it circumvented any misunderstanding on the part of the crowd. The crowd immediately complained that Jesus chose to spend time with Zacchaeus, a sinner (or were they just envious?); by putting words of necessity into the invitation, Jesus made it absolutely clear that there was no mistake in this choice. Jesus needed to stay with Zacchaeus.

Can we not have a little fun with the fact that Jesus invited Himself to someone's house using the language of divine imperative? Do you think I could get away with that? ("Mr. so-and-so, it is necessary that I come eat dinner at your house.") Well, no, I couldn't. You see, Jesus wasn't imposing on Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus would absolutely have loved to invite Jesus to his house, but he would not do so out of fear of the crowd. Jesus sidestepped that completely. And brilliantly.

And what was Zacchaeus's response? He did! Joyfully! Immediately! If you've become jaded, thinking that sinners don't respond to the gospel, let this be a reminder to us all that God is in the business of saving sinners (see verse 10).

If curiosity brought Zacchaeus to the roadside, being confronted by Jesus changed everything. This kind of reminds me of John 1:

47 Then Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said about him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” 48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you,” Jesus answered. 49 “Rabbi,” Nathanael replied, “You are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel!”

Well, that's unbelievably abrupt. But that's also the point. When a person encounters Jesus -- truly encounters Jesus -- that person changes.

Zacchaeus changed. What other examples from the Bible can you think of where a person was changed by Jesus?

It's possible that Zacchaeus already knew Jesus or knew His teachings. But the impression is that this is their first encounter. Even if Jesus learned Zacchaeus's name by purely natural means, this moment they shared was completely supernatural, driven by the Holy Spirit. The proof of that is in the next verse.


Part 3: Repentant (Luke 19:8-10)

8 But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, I’ll give half of my possessions to the poor, Lord. And if I have extorted anything from anyone, I’ll pay back four times as much.” 9 “Today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus told him, “because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.”

Here, Jesus makes everything clear. And I mean everything.

Luke does not say when Zacchaeus verbalized his repentance. It certainly could have been much later, after lunch, after Jesus explained basic truths of the kingdom of God to him. If that's the case, it still doesn't change anything about the true life change expressed by Zacchaeus.

But I get the impression that this happened quickly. Maybe even right away. Zacchaeus did not let the crowd keep him from Jesus, and now that he's encountered Jesus, he's not going to let the grumbling crowd dissuade him from following Jesus.

So, where did Zacchaeus's declaration even come from? We have no record in the Bible of Jesus telling someone they needed to give half of their possessions to the poor. Zacchaeus came up with this on his own. A few verses before, Jesus told another rich man to sell all of his possessions and give to the poor (18:22), which that man refused to do. But Zacchaeus couldn't do that because he needed to repay the people he had cheated!

[Aside: none of this is about how much money Jesus wants us to give to the poor. Jesus wants to identify obstacles that prevent us from following Him with all of our hearts. For many people, they are too worried about their bank accounts to take on the risk of following Jesus fully (whatever they think that means). Zacchaeus had none of those obstacles.]

What about this "four times" thing?

  • Exodus 22:1 -- When a man steals an ox or a sheep and butchers it or sells it, he must repay five cattle for the ox or four sheep for the sheep.

  • 2 Sam 12:6 -- Because he has done this thing and shown no pity, he must pay four lambs for that lamb.

  • Lev 6:4-5 -- once he has sinned and acknowledged his guilt, he must return what he stole or defrauded, or the deposit entrusted to him, or the lost item he found, or anything else about which he swore falsely. He will make full restitution for it and add a fifth of its value to it.

The Leviticus passage was the Jewish law on the subject. Zacchaeus knew he wanted to go beyond that. Maybe he remembered those two random passages from the Old Testament in which the repayment was four times and latched on to it. He had defrauded people financially (the Greek phrasing implies guilt), and he was going to make voluntary restitution. Again, the amount is not actually the point here. The point is that this is as obvious a demonstration of repentance as there can be.

Think about the can of worms Zacchaeus was opening. Who would actually know about any extortion? Only him, because only he knew when he had defrauded someone. That means that every person who had ever paid taxes could come into his "office" and demand that Zacchaeus produce proof of fairness. Literally every person in town could come and make a claim against him. He willingly opened himself up to this.

And that's what becoming a Christian means.

It means that you treat people the right way. And when you find that you have not, you do everything you can to make it right. No matter how costly. (I find this to be good PR for just treating people the right way in the first place.)

This is very important to clarify: Zacchaeus's demonstration of repentance is not what saved him. His act of restitution happened because salvation had already "come to his house".

Here, we see the true beauty of Jesus' initial request. Re-read that with this final statement in mind: "it is necessary for Me to stay at your house". Isn't that amazing? We can trace this image all the way back to Luke 15:

All the tax collectors and sinners were approaching to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and scribes were complaining, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” [So Jesus said . . . ] 7 "I tell you, in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who don’t need repentance." . . . 10 "I tell you, in the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents.” . . . 32 "But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

Luke's mastery of the genre of Gospel is incredible. Everything fits together so tightly. Zacchaeus is now the living embodiment of that lost sheep, lost coin, lost son. And there was joy in heaven over his salvation!

The note about being a "son of Abraham" is interesting. I believe that it means that Zacchaeus was a wayward member of the Jewish people, but others have argued that this was another allusion to Jesus' ultimate world-wide mission. Either way, Zacchaeus was lost, and Jesus found him.

This final statement has become one of the easiest ways to define Jesus' mission to the world. He came to seek and save the lost (we've talked at length about "Son of Man" in recent weeks). And that is now our mission. The experience of Zacchaeus gives us an amazing picture of what this looks like, and it has encouraged Christians for all generations. We have all been Zacchaeus, and we all know Zacchaeus. This passage gives us hope.

A second application is to check our repentance levels. When we sin, how serious are we about making it right? How cut to the heart are we by our failures? How earnestly to we talk to God about helping us grow to be more like Jesus? This would be the perfect week to challenge one another to demonstrate repentance for past, undealt-with sin.

We don't know anything else about Zacchaeus. My guess is that his life became very hard. I can't imagine that Rome was happy with his admissions and actions. And we all know how hard it can be for a community to accept the possibility of life change. But I doubt that any of that stopped Zacchaeus! Doesn't he sound like a candidate for becoming one of the pillars of the future Jericho church?


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