As we enter a new year there are lots of questions we may be asking ourselves. How will my health be in the months ahead? Will I still have a job by 2014? These are just two examples of the questions people may ask at the start of 2013. Yet, while these questions are not insignificant, for the Christian at least, these questions are far less important than the ultimate question of our spiritual condition: ‘Am I converted to God?’ This question is of more than academic interest because how we answer it will have serious implications in two areas of our experience. Firstly it will affect us in the here and now. Our understanding of what a converted person should be will have a bearing on how we behave and relate toward others, impacting the wellbeing of society in general as a result. Secondly, how we understand conversion will affect us in the there and then. That's because conversion is wrapped up with our relationship to God. Whether we are converted or not ultimately determines how we respond to God and in turn how he will respond to us on the Day of Judgment. The person who misunderstands what Christian conversion is treads a dangerous path that may lead to eternal loss and destruction.
So what is Christian conversion? Fortunately the Bible doesn't leave us in the dark on the subject. In Luke 19:1-10 we read of the conversion experience of a man called Zacchaeus. The key verse in this section of Luke's gospel comes at the end in v.10. There Jesus states his mission aim: 'For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.' Conversion to God comes through making a personal response to the mission of God in the ministry of Jesus. When we do this we shift from a position of being spiritually lost to spiritually found, from being outside God’s kingdom to inside of it. Let’s explore how this came true in the life of Zacchaeus.
1. An unpromising start
Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. (v.1-2)
I want us to notice a couple of things about Zacchaeus that tell us the kind of life he led before his conversion. To begin with he was a chief tax collector. If you're familiar with Bible history you'll know that tax collectors were despised by the Jews because of their collaboration with the pagan Roman government and also their dishonesty in overcharging others for their own profit. It was from this profession that Zacchaeus gained a living. In fact he'd done so well in this job that he was a chief tax collector. That meant he was at the top of his trade, organising and training other tax collectors to do their work. Such a position would have meant that he was despised by the nation of Israel. Although a Jew, he was hated by his own people and regarded as an outsider.
The next thing we're told about him is that, unsurprisingly, he was rich. Jericho was one of the wealthiest towns in Palestine and so drew a large amount of taxation from which Zacchaeus would have benefited. Now it was this financial status that presented the biggest problem spiritually speaking. That's because in Luke's gospel riches are regarded in a negative light. Earlier Jesus is quoted as saying: "...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." (Luke 18:25). This is not to say that rich folk cannot receive salvation. It is just to acknowledge that sinful people are so prone to make an idol out of material wealth that a great abundance of it often sadly does block people from looking to God for deeper satisfaction. So not only was Zacchaeus shut out from the people of God, but also he was far from the Kingdom of God.
With this by way of background we might expect Luke's gospel to hold this man up as an object of contempt and scorn. But actually our passage surprisingly concludes with Jesus commending him by saying "Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham" (v.9). Naturally the question arises: 'How can this be? How can such a lost cause be commended as being fit for God's Kingdom?' Well, the answer is found in the details of our passage. You see, despite Zacchaeus's shady history, we find in his behaviour toward Jesus all the true signs of spiritual conversion.
2. Zacchaeus: A desire to see Jesus
And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was going to pass that way. (v.3-4)
What stands out in these verses is the fact that despite all of the flaws in his lifestyle, Zacchaeus was a man who had a serious desire to see Jesus. We don't know all of the motives that lay behind that desire but we do know it was a serious one. We can see this because despite obstacles in his path that would have given many people a reasonable excuse to give up the search, he persisted in his pursuit of catching a glimpse of Christ.
The main obstacle given in the passage was his size. Verse 3 tells us he was 'of short stature' and because of this was unable to see over, or push through, the crowds surrounding Jesus. However, notice how Zacchaeus was not prepared to allow this difficulty to become an excuse to stop seeking his goal. Instead we read that he 'ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him' (v.4). For a grown man to do this was quite something because in the culture of the day it was considered undignified for a grown man to run in public. And to climb a tree as he did was probably just as humiliating.
So as we read this account we can see the qualities about this man that tell us how serious his desire to see Jesus was. To start with he was more concerned to make excuses to see Jesus rather than excuses to not see Him. As we've already noted, he could so easily have used his disadvantaged position in life as an excuse to avoid searching for Christ. Yet he refused to do so. Hand in hand with this he was prepared to lay aside his pride in order to see Christ. How tempting it must have been to put his own self-image before admitting his need of the Lord Jesus. Perhaps others looked at the lack of dignity and self-control they saw in Zacchaeus as he ran as fast as he could and awkwardly shinned up the tree to see this great teacher. Yet Zacchaeus didn't care. So concerned was he to catch a glimpse of Christ that he was willing to swallow his pride and do what was necessary.
3. A life touched by grace
And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and saw him, and said to him, "Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house. So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully. (v.5-6)
This part of the account is perhaps the most moving. One commentator puts it like this: 'Zacchaeus's desire to see Jesus, though commendable, was surpassed by the fact that Jesus wanted to see him.' (Liefeld) In other words, Zacchaeus could have climbed as many trees as he liked that day in order to get close to the Saviour, but it would have meant nothing unless the Saviour had first decided to get close to him. This is important because it underlines that the gospel not about humanity’s search for God. It is about God’s search for humanity. It is all about God's grace and kindness toward undeserving sinners.
We've already seen that as far as spiritual attractiveness went, Zacchaeus had nothing. Yet the central message of the gospel is that Jesus Christ came to earth in order to love and save sinners despite their awful condition. Notice how Christ underlines this in v.5: "I must stay in your house." This statement carries with it the idea of Divine appointment. Christ had come to town that day with one purpose in mind - to seek out Zacchaeus, to offer him acceptance, love and kindness and to give him a fresh start by forgiving him of his sins and giving him the gift of new life.
This is perhaps one of the most glorious truths of the Christian message while at the same time being the hardest for people to grasp. That is that at the heart of the gospel is the message that God is willing to freely accept and forgive sinful men and women without any strings attached. In Ephesians 2:8 the Apostle Paul wrote 'For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.' What he was trying to explain here to the church was that our acceptance before God is not founded on how deserving we are but rather on how generous and kind He is.
In other words salvation is not something earned and deserved, salvation is something freely conferred. And because this is the case, the good news of the gospel is that even the worst of sinners can be brought into a relationship with God. The very thought of such an idea scandalizes us! How can God simply accept and forgive people without demanding some sort of payment or recompense? Certainly this seems to have been in the minds of the crowd as they looked on:
But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, "He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner. (v.7)
Yet this is the glory of the gospel. God is a God of grace and Christ is the Saviour of sinners. Of course, to say that God accepts sinners back without demanding some sort of recompense or payment needs to be qualified. Because the truth is that in order for God to accept people like Zacchaeus a price did have to be paid before God's sense of justice could be satisfied. But the astounding thing is that it would not be from the sinner that God would demand payment. That price would be paid later by Jesus himself after completing his journey to Jerusalem. It would be there that Christ would offer up his own life on the cross, dying in the place of sinners that they might go free.
Another qualification that needs to be made is that although salvation is not dependent on our work, but wholly on God's work in Christ, nonetheless whether we have really understood the message of acceptance and forgiveness in the gospel will be seen in how we practically respond to it. Notice that Luke is careful to point out how appropriately Zacchaeus responded to Christ's gracious command:
"Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house." (v.5)
So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. (v.6)
Zacchaeus took the command to follow Jesus seriously. He 'made haste and came down and received Him joyfully' (v.6). And this wasn’t just a superficial response to a kind invitation. It impacted this man with life-changing power. Notice what follows next.
4. A heart marked by change
Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold." And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost." (v.8-10)
Zacchaeus was so overjoyed that the Lord Jesus should be willing to stay in his house that he responded with a vow. The passage tells us that he promised to give half of his possessions to the poor and also return four times the value of anything he had falsely obtained from anyone. It's interesting to note that in the Old Testament – which Zacchaeus as a Jew would have been familiar with – the legal requirement for extortion was that the offender was to restore the full value of what was taken plus one-fifth of its value (Leviticus 6:5). Yet here Zacchaeus, so overcome with the kindness of Jesus in accepting him, promises to pay far above what was legally required of him.
But why did Zacchaeus go to such an extremity? He could quite simply have offered to pay the minimum necessary in order to straighten out his past crimes and no one would have batted an eyelid. Why such gratuitous generosity? The answer may well be due to the fact that underlying Zacchaeus's financial crimes lay a deeper problem. The real problem in Zacchaeus's life up to this point wasn’t just that he was greedy and dishonest. The real problem was that he was an idolater. He had dethroned God from the centre of his life and replaced him with the love of material riches instead. He had made money his god and looked to it for comfort and security. And all of his life was consumed with serving this idol, hence his corrupt behaviour.
When we understand things this way, we can see how much we are like Zacchaeus can't we? We may not worship money as he did, but most of us can think of something that occupies a place of prominence in our lives that stands in as a substitute for God. It may be our husband or our wife, our family, our career or something else. There is nothing wrong with these things in and of themselves. They are good gifts from our Creator to be enjoyed. Yet if these things become more precious to us than God Himself then we too have become idolaters. And knowing this naturally leads us to conclude that the mark of someone who is truly converted to Jesus Christ will be a joyful willingness to give up even these idols for Him.
When the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica he had nothing but praise for the spiritual condition he'd heard they were in. As he commended them for the way their reputation had spread far and wide he declared:
For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place. Your faith toward God has gone out, so that we do not need to say anything. For they themselves declare concerning us what manner of entry we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. (1 Thessalonians 1 v.8-10)
The mark of a truly converted person is that they have turned from idols to serve the living God and his Son. Like Zacchaeus they have repented – changed their mind - about living for the gods of this age and have given them up to live instead for Christ instead. Such an extreme act shouldn't surprise us when we consider what it cost God to secure our salvation. In John 3:16 we're told 'For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.' God gave that which was most precious to him so that we might receive new life. Surely it is only natural that once we have understood this uniquely sacrificial love we will joyfully abandon any idol that hinders our trust and obedience toward Christ. As Isaac Watts contemplated the love and grace God had shown to him in sending Jesus he wrote:
When I survey the wondrous cross,
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
Zacchaeus was so overcome with the kindness Christ showed to him that he turned from serving the idols of this life in order to follow and serve him instead. That's why, despite his dark past Jesus could say “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost." (v.9-10). Now set free from his guilt and idolatry he was a converted man, forgiven and reconciled to God. Once lost, now found and included in Christ’s kingdom family! Can you say the same is true for you? Have you responded to the gospel of God's grace in your life? Have you heard the command of Jesus to follow him, and obeyed it? If not why not make 2013 the year in which you do?