“I Was Only Borrowing It!”
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“I Was Only Borrowing It!”

Exodus 20:15  (ID: 1700)

The eighth commandment’s instruction not to steal seems straightforward, but we are often tempted to view stealing in relative terms. Alistair Begg explains that because everything belongs to God, stealing causes harm to others and is an offense against God’s rule. When the Gospel transforms our lives, we view others and their resources from God’s perspective and respond to the eighth commandment with generosity.

Series Containing This Sermon

Pathway to Freedom

Exodus 20:3–17 Series ID: 20501

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you once again to take your Bibles, and we’ll turn together to the Old Testament, to the book of Exodus. Exodus 20, and the focus of our study this morning is the fifteenth verse: “You shall not steal.”

In our visitors’ book which we have at home—which, like most of you, we forget to have people sign when they come to our house about 80 percent of the time—on the nineteenth of June 1978, there is an entry against the name of a young couple which simply reads, written in the margin, “Next Sunday, maybe preach on Exodus 20:15.”

Now, if you were just to flip through the visitors’ book and notice that, you would be surprised by that somewhat cryptic comment. You would probably wonder just why it is that somebody would want for me to preach concerning the problem of stealing. And I can tell you just why: this young couple—it was a young, engaged couple—they were making their way from America to Africa. They were children of missionary parents. They were going to Africa to be married. And en route to Africa, they stopped in Scotland to visit my wife and I. And spending, I think, just two nights with us, we were looking for things for them to do and thought that they might enjoy going to visit the Dr. David Livingstone Memorial Museum, which is in Blantyre, in Lanarkshire, in Scotland, and not far from our home. After all, they were from Africa; Livingstone, the great missionary explorer in Africa—we thought there probably would be a point of contact. Well…

So they went on the Saturday afternoon to explore the museum, and while they were exploring the museum, somebody decided to explore their car, and took access to it by the means of putting a brick through a window, and then removed their possessions, including the girl’s wedding dress, which she was carrying with her to be married in Africa. She did get the wedding dress back. I know you ladies are concerned about that. She did get the dress back. Many of the other possessions went south, never to be seen again.

Now, that story is simply illustrative of an endemic problem in cities all across our world. It doesn’t matter which continent of the globe we put our feet down upon but we encounter this problem of theft. They are of such dramatic proportions that thieves are making off every year with billions and billions of dollars in tax-free income. The reported figures for theft, which in themselves are astronomical, do not usually contain the figures which are even larger which relate to theft at a high level—namely, fraud, forgery, embezzlement, bribery, and extortion. The fact is that from petty larceny to multimillion-dollar fraud, stealing in the United States of America is at an all-time high. It is now higher than it has ever been.

Now, since respect for other people’s property is foundational for society, we have here yet another example of what we’ve been finding all the way through the study of God’s law— namely, an example of the erosion of our foundations and the crumbling of our moral fabric. Here, when we turn our gaze upon this simple, straightforward statement, “You shall not steal,” we are once again left in absolutely no doubt as to whether we are a nation of lawbreakers or not.

Now, all of that would be bad enough if there were at the same time a shared conviction concerning the wrongness of stealing—if we could go from person to person, as we might have been able to do at an earlier point in society, and say to one another, “Do you think it’s wrong to steal?” and people would answer, “Yes, categorically so,” and many times because they had been taught so clearly the Ten Commandments. They knew that you shouldn’t steal.

But today that isn’t true. And the Robin Hood principle, if we may call it a principle, is prevalent all over the place—the kind of thing encapsulated in Oliver Twist with that remarkable scene in the musical where Fagin sings that song when Oliver gets picked up by the Artful Dodger and brought up to that cavernous hovel in which the Artful Dodger lives with all of his little cronies, and Fagin sings to him, “You’ve got to pick a pocket or two, boys.” You know?

Take a tip from Bill Sikes,
He can [nick] what he likes.
[But] I recall, he started small. …

You’ve got to pick a pocket or two, boys.
You’ve got to pick a pocket or two.[1]

“I just steal from rich people. See, it doesn’t count when you steal from rich people. They’re rich. I just steal from institutions, ’cause institutions are as bad as rich people are rich.”

Stealing may be wrong sometime, somewhere, but by and large, it’s really not wrong in the minds of many. This is illustrated in a story I read just the other day concerning a schoolteacher who, in seeking to teach her children the importance of not stealing, asked the class this question: “Suppose you found a briefcase with half a million dollars in it. What would you do?” One boy immediately raised his hand and replied, “If it belonged to a poor family, I would return it.” Now, that is illustrative of what we’re talking about—the idea that it isn’t wrong as long as no one feels it or it’s not affecting the immediate person next-door to me or somehow or another I can explain it away.

And categorically, Exodus 20:15: “You shall not steal.”

Why Is It Wrong to Steal?

Four questions. Question one: Why is it wrong to steal? Why is it wrong to steal?

Well, the Bible tells us that it is wrong to steal because when we steal, what we’re doing is we are abusing God’s law, and we are defiling God’s creation, and we are neglecting to do what his law calls us to. Inherent and underpinning this are two very important biblical principles, and they’re these: number one, the right to private property, and number two, the sovereign ownership of God over all that he has made. The eighth command presupposes not that we’re living together in some kind of communistic commune but rather that we are living with the privileges of private property, which are sacrosanct to the owner of the property. So that is fundamental to the command that we have a right to have stuff that is our own. God is not concerned about whether we have stuff that is our own. God’s not a communist, if you like.

But at the same time, God wants those of us who have things which are our own to understand that the only things which are our own are not really our own. Because all ownership is a derived ownership. You need to study in Genesis 1 and chapter 2, and you’ll find this: that when God puts Adam and Eve in the garden, he gives them the mandate to oversee it, to take care of it, to exercise their authority over all the rest of his creation, and it is their responsibility to be stewards but not owners of what he has given them—so that all the things that we have, in the same way, we have as a result of God’s kindness towards us.

When we steal from another person, we do not simply sin against them; we sin against God.

James 1:17: “Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father above, in whom there is no variableness, neither shadow due to turning.”[2] All that I have is God’s, not mine. Forget this “90 percent is mine and 10 percent is God’s.” A hundred percent is God’s. It’s not mine. We’re looking after it for a while, but it’s not mine. The reason that we’re so preoccupied with it is because we regard it as the ethos of our lives, the expression of our identity in many cases, when in point of fact, it’s all going to go in a garage sale one day in any case. And we’re gonna leave it behind, and it’s irrelevant. Most of the stuff we’ve been most concerned about in the past week is a bunch of junk—elaborate junk or unelaborate junk, but it’s junk. And we have yet—and this is another message altogether—we have yet, most of us, to understand Paul’s injunction to Timothy where he says, “Godliness with contentment is great gain.”[3]

So when we steal from another person, we do not simply steal from them or sin against them, but when we steal from somebody else, we sin against God. When we steal from somebody else, what we do is we harm them, we disregard them, and we devalue them. And in doing that, we sin against God, because it is he who has given them what they have, it is he who has given them regard, and it is because of him that they have value.

So when I interfere with somebody else’s property, at whatever level it may be, what I’m saying is “My benefit is of more significance than your harm, my having this is of more importance than any regard that I may have for you, and irrespective of the impact of what I do upon your life, I feel free to devalue you.” And it’s just not right.

This is exemplified so perfectly when David in his great prayer of confession in Psalm 51, after his sin with Bathsheba, comes before God, acknowledging what he had done, and he cries out to God in the phrase—Psalm 51:4—“Against you, [and] you only, have I sinned.” Now, what were the facts? He’d sinned against multiple people. He’d sinned against his friends. He’d sinned against Bathsheba. He’d sinned against Bathsheba in taking her to himself, also in killing her husband. He violated her reputation. He had violated the sanctity of her home. His theft was all over the place. And yet when he expresses it before God, he says, “Against thee, [and] thee only, have I sinned.”[4]

You take the Prodigal Son. After he’d gone off to a far country—Luke 15—and he had squandered “his substance with riotous living,”[5] as the King James Version says it, and he says—and then “he came to himself”—and he said, “I’ll arise and go to my father, and I’ll say to my father, ‘I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.’”[6] Well, his sin had taken place on the level of interpersonal relationships all over the place. But when you boil sin down, the greatest offense in sin is not what it does to me, not what it does to you, but what it does to him.

And when we steal, we sin against God. That’s why it’s wrong. ’Cause God said, “Don’t do it.” And he’s God, we’re not. “Do you mean it’s as simple as that?” Yeah! But why don’t people do this? Well, number one, because they don’t believe in a God who has authority over creation, and even if they do, they don’t believe that he should have authority over us.

So, we need to be very clear. We need to be clear for the sake of our children as well. We are sinning against God, it offends his holy name, it disregards his law, and it devalues his creation when we steal. That’s the first question.

How We Break the Eighth Commandment

The second question is: In what ways do we break this commandment? In what ways do we break this commandment? I want to move through this as quickly as I can with you. You do well to take notes on this. I have thirteen points under this question. All right? Eight of which are obvious and five of which aren’t—or eight of which are more obvious than the other five. In the first service I said there was three; my wife came to me and said, “Don’t say there’s three; there’s five.” I said, “Okay, fine.” So I now have cleaned that up as well.

All right. Here we go. I’m not gonna preach a sermon on each one of them, because that would be thirteen sermons’ worth. But if the cap fits, put it on. In what ways do we break this commandment?

Number one, we break it by blatant theft. By blatant, obvious theft. Going in somewhere where we shouldn’t be and taking stuff. As a boy in Scotland growing up, I lived in the framework at school with some of the greatest thieves and vagabonds ever seen in the west of Scotland. I don’t say it because I think it’s funny. I say it because it’s true. I had guys who were my acquaintances and played on the soccer team with me who could steal a small confectioner’s shop blind right in front of the woman as she was standing there. I mean, we’re not talking about one or two little candies. We’re talking about huge pound-and-a-half boxes, golden boxes of candy coming out of glass cases. Blatant, obvious theft. It’s addressed in Exodus chapter 22, the kind of thing that is mentioned there: “If a man [steals] an ox, or a sheep,”[7] “If a man is caught breaking into a house,”[8] and so on—that’s the kind of thing. It’s obvious. We understand that. We don’t need to beat it to death. So, we break the command by blatant theft.

Secondly, we break it when we borrow and fail to return what has been borrowed. First one is fairly obvious. The second one kinda creeps up on us. Because most of us are going [checking-off sound]. We’re thinking through our garage. We’re going through the garage, thinking, “tools.” Then some of us go in our basement: others kind of stuff. Then we go in our libraries, we go “books,” “tapes.” Okay?

Now, if you and I make a career of borrowing stuff which we never return, we’re actually making a career of theft. We just call it borrowing. You see, because borrowing that never gets repaid is actually theft. “Oh! Hello! Are you Mr. Dillard?”


“I would just like to borrow this briefcase from the luggage department. Thank you very much.”

Say, no, that’s not borrowing, that’s stealing. That’s correct! Don’t come in my library and take my books and not bring them back. I don’t have anybody in mind. Don’t look all pained like that. And I shouldn’t do it to you, right?

“The wicked borrow and do not repay” what they borrow—Psalm 37:21. A guy has helped you out. He’s given you money. He made it possible for you to get over a hurdle, and you still haven’t paid him back. A lady did this for you, and you still haven’t paid it back. Are you stealing it, or are you borrowing it? What are you doing with it?

Now, that brings me to the third point: failure to clear oneself of debt when we are able to do so is theft. I’m not talking about paying off your mortgage prematurely. I’m talking about personal relational debt, where somebody makes it possible for you or I to get out of a problem, and then we refuse, even though our circumstances have now dramatically changed, to go back and to repay the debt. What we’re actually doing is stealing from that individual. Oh, we may still have it in our mind that we’re going to pay it back, but we’re stealing from them the benefit of them having back that money in their own possession, either to help another out or to provide for their family or to do whatever else it is with. It is just a form of stealing.

Fourthly, we break this commandment when we fiddle the books, if you like—when we use false weights and measures. You get a lot of this in the Minor Prophets. I’m quoting here from Amos and from chapter 8. And there, the prophet of God speaks to these people, and he calls them back to the purity of their lives. And if I could ever find Amos, I would quote this to you. Here it is. Amos 8:5:

“When will the New Moon be over
 that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath … ended
 that we may market wheat?”—
skimping the measure,
 boosting the price
 and cheating with dishonest scales.

Okay? So you take the bag, you fill it with more air and less chips, you increase the price, and you spend the money that you just made off the top on a big advertising campaign. It’s stealing. It’s stealing if you have a little grocer’s shop, and you work out the vegetables, and you tell the people that that is so much for so many, and then you give them one less, and you still charge the same amount of money. It’s the same when you’re giving out any kind of service to the public. False weights and measures, the fiddling with dishonest scales, is a form of stealing.

Fifthly, it is theft when we misuse our employer’s property or our employer’s time. In Titus chapter 2, Paul, in instructing Titus, he says, “You know, you should teach these people not to steal but to show rather that they can be fully trusted.”[9]

In a book entitled The Day America Told the Truth, we learn in there that “workers around America frankly admit that they spend more than 20 percent … of their time at work totally goofing off.”[10] Twenty percent of every day is a goof-off. That works out at a four-day week, right, if you’re working a five-day week? So basically, we’ve got America working a four-day week. We wonder why it is that the productivity of the Japanese is so much greater. Well, one of the things is they work a six-day week or a seven-day week. We wonder why it is that the European education system is significantly advanced. It’s because they go to school for significantly longer periods of time, and when they’re there, they actually do stuff.

Half the people “admit to chronic malingering, calling in sick when [they’re] not sick, and doing it regularly.”[11] The number of man-days in productivity that are lost in the United States of America as a result of this form of stealing is astronomical. It’s almost unquantifiable. And it’s factored into every company’s balances. They have to factor in the theft that they know will happen in the space of a year. ’Cause they know that their employees, no matter what they say in their salary reviews, are going to rip them off.

So, we steal when our time is not what it should be, we steal when our work is not what it should be, we steal when we use the phone when we shouldn’t, we steal when we fiddle our expense accounts, and we steal when we walk out the door with a bucketful of supplies to do a little job on our backyard when, in point of fact, that material was only there for doing work for our employer.

Sixthly, we break the eighth commandment when we just flat-out waste other people’s possessions. In Luke 16:1, there’s the story of the “rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions.” So, perhaps we rented a house, and we said, “Hey, this isn’t our house. We pay the rent. So what if the carpet’s trashed? So what if the hinges don’t work? So what if I don’t take care of the windows?” What we’re saying is it’s okay just to steal from our landlord. We’re wasting what belongs to someone else.

Seventhly, we steal from others when we paid bad wages or we withhold wages, delay the payment of wages. James 5:4: “The wages you failed to pay your workmen are crying out to you from the fields,”[12] says James. Failure to pay the workmen. Failure to pay properly.

Now, obviously, I don’t live my life in the world of macroeconomics. I don’t live my life in the world of business day to day. But something inside of me says just because a guy is prepared, because of his country of origin, to work for very little in comparison to somebody in the United States of America, that does not validate our payment of that individual at that level. I don’t see how it does. And yet we do it. We do it on a huge, national scale. We tell ourselves that we are now free of the slavery that once marked this empire and its growth. We have other kinds of slavery whereby we control people’s lives, holding them in economic bondage as a result of decisions made at a high level. And why are we so good at it at that level? ’Cause we’re jolly good at it at the small level and the local level. The Christian’s supposed to be different.

Eighthly, we break this commandment when, as adult sons and daughters, we fail to make return to our parents when they need help. When we decide that all that our parents have provided for us we can just take and forget them in their point of need, we steal from them. Proverbs 28:24:

He who robs his father [and] mother
 and says, “It’s not wrong”—
 he is partner to him who destroys.

In other words, if you cheat from your mom and dad like this, and I do too, then we’re robbing them; therefore, we’re stealing, and we’re party with a murderer.

Now those eight ways are very obvious, I think. We would all write them down if we thought about it for a moment or two.

Let me give you five other ways that are perhaps not so obvious in which we break the eighth commandment.

Number one, we steal when we steal the reputation of others by the sin of slander. We steal when we steal another’s reputation by slandering them. To slander somebody essentially means to run them down, to backbite them, to speak in a derogatory fashion about them behind their backs and usually when they have no opportunity of responding to it.

You have that great scene in Othello, where one of the characters cries out,

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.

Which, being interpreted: there’s nothing more important to us than our names and our reputation. Says the character,

[He] who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
’Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands:
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.[13]

You steal another person’s reputation, or I steal another person’s reputation, and that is far more harmful than what we would ever do in stealing something out of their home. You steal the reputation of another person in business, and that may be far more harmful than ever having taken elicit funds out of their till, because our reputation is of such significance. And yet, in the context in which many of us move, whereby we would never take anything out of the plate—“Oh no, when the offering plate comes by? No! Exodus 20:15! ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ I couldn’t do that.” We’re probably not going to go in the store and take stuff away—although some of us may live with that problem secretly. But many of us don’t think very much about stealing the reputation of somebody else by stabbing them in the back when they’re not present. We steal. Steal!

Sixteenth-century preacher, addressing this issue, speaks to a lady in his congregation who confessed to being a slanderer. He said, “Do you frequently fall into this fault?”

“Yes, very often,” she said.

“Your fault is great, but the mercy of God is still greater,” he said. “Go to the nearest market, and purchase a chicken just killed and still covered with feathers. You will then walk a certain distance, plucking the bird as you go along. When you finish your work, return to me here.” She did as she’d been instructed and returned anxious for an explanation.

“Well,” said the man, “you’ve been very faithful to the first part of my instructions. Now what I want you to do is to retrace your steps and gather all the feathers up one by one.”

“But,” explained the woman, “I cast them carelessly on every side. The wind carried them in every direction. How can I ever recover them?”

“Well,” he replied, “so it is with your words of slander. Like the feathers, they have been scattered. Call them back, if you can.”

Done any stealing this week? Stolen anybody’s reputation this week, so that you would get a business deal, so that you would look better in front of your schoolteacher, so that she wouldn’t go out on a date with him but might go out on a date with you?

Dr. David Livingstone, when he went to Lake Niassa and was building his first home at the point of his missionary explorations there, was on the receiving end of a whole bunch of slanderous criticism concerning his life, and primarily his marriage. “If he had a marriage worth talking about,” the people said, “surely his wife would be here.” He’d left his wife back in Britain to preserve her from all the rigors that he knew himself to be going through. He wanted to provide for her and make sure things were medically and in many ways put together before he invited her to come. But such was the slanderous oppression on him that he invited his wife to join him prematurely, and within months of her arrival, she was dead and buried—all brought on by the thieves that surrounded him, the thieves with the slanderous tongues.

Secondly, and not so obviously, we steal from other people when, as a result of fornication, we take away their moral purity. You say, “Well, isn’t this last Sunday?” Well, in some ways it’s last Sunday, it’s this Sunday, it’s every Sunday. I want to say to you—and you can at least say afterwards when I’m long gone, you’ll say, “Well, I remember old Begg. He used to tell us…” Yeah, I told you. And in telling you, I tell myself. And in telling you, I haven’t forgotten what it was like to be a teenager. But I tell you again this morning: you cannot play fast and loose with the moral life of the girl you’re dating or the fellow you’re dating. You cannot steal from them that which can never, ever be repaid without being a manifest lawbreaker, sinning your soul, disrupting life, and creating a pattern of heartache which will actually walk with you through your days, even though you’re forgiven. So to those of you who have the opportunity to make wise decisions, ask God to help you not to go stealing in the realm of moral purity.

Thirdly, we steal when we take work which was done by someone else and we make it appear as if it were our own. That’s called plagiarism. It’s particularly true in the academic world. It’s true to some degree in the business world. It’s what many of the battles are fought over patents in the business and manufacturing world is about. Somebody says, “I did it.” They didn’t do it. They stole it from somebody else. They wanted to make it look like their own, and endeavoring to do so, they exalt themselves. There are not a few people walking around with a horrible guilty conscience, I’m sure, because they have “PhD” after their name, and if truth were told, they never did 80 percent of the work. They filched it all from materials dead and buried and long gone. They plagiarized it. They’re thieves.

Fourthly, we steal from others when we cheat in the context of the classroom. When we follow someone else’s work, we cheat, because we steal their time, we steal their intellect, we steal their endeavor. And again, we seek to exalt ourselves on the basis of the harm and disregard and devaluation which we demonstrate towards them.

It’s not like cheating at golf. In cheating at golf, it’s different. I don’t mean in competition. I mean when you’re by yourself. You cheat at golf when you’re by yourself? Do you give yourself putts that you missed? And then do you mark the card? Then do you take it home and leave it on the vanity so your wife can see it? We’ll have a sermon on that one day, but not this morning.

Fifthly, we steal by failing to give God what we owe him. Turn to Malachi chapter 3 for just a moment. It’s the last book of the Old Testament. Malachi 3:8: “Will a man rob God?” Well, how could we rob God? He goes on to say, “The way in which you rob me is basically, you’re telling me one thing and you’re doing another. You’re telling me you’re committed to me, and yet there’s no apparent commitment on your part.”[14] And the issue is that they were holding back what they may have given away to God. They weren’t prepared to trust God to provide for them, to “throw open in the floodgates of heaven and pour out” the blessing that they couldn’t contain—verse 10. They were depriving God of the opportunity to show himself strong in their respect as a nation. And while there is a theocratic, nationalistic element in this promise, yet the principle remains the same: that when God’s people are prepared to trust God and not seek to steal from God, recognizing that everything comes from God, then the blessings which he will pour out upon his people are unimaginable. It has to do with money. Surely it does. It has to do with time. It has to do with intellect, with our will, and with our talents. It has to do, if you like, with living out the hymn that we often sing:

Take my life and let it be,
Consecrated, Lord, to thee;
Take my moments and my days;
[And] let them flow in ceaseless praise.[15]

Every time I sing that and then steal it back, I break the eighth commandment.

The Positive Side

The third question—you did well getting through that—the third question is: Well, what then is the positive side of this command? If this is all the negative side of the command, what is the positive side of the command?

Well, it’s very clear: if the essence of theft is getting, then the essence of obedient Christian living is giving. Ephesians chapter 4. You may want to turn to it. Ephesians 4:28: “He who has been stealing must steal no longer.” There’s not a full stop there; there’s a comma. “He who has been stealing must steal no longer”; instead, “but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.” So the thief is not somebody who, in coming to Christ, simply stops being a thief. But the thief is somebody whose hands have been used for taking, is to have his hands transformed by the power of God for giving. It’s a wonderful transformation. Where dishonesty once marked his life, now honesty is to characterize his work. Where it was that he would only take from people, now he is to give to people—1 Corinthians 10:24. We should do everything in our powers to prosper others. “Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.” Take that for a principle! “Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.”

Imagine everybody going around seeking the good of others rather than our own good. It would radically transform things! Imagine all of your children thinking about the good of their siblings rather than the good of themselves. Imagine our families being run on that principle. Imagine our church operating on that principle. It is a transforming principle. It is the flip side of the eighth commandment.

If the essence of theft is getting, then the essence of obedient Christian living is giving.

Also, we should strive after honesty in little things, because it is in little things that we set the pattern for larger things. Luke 16:10: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with [very] much, and whoever is dishonest with … little will also be dishonest with much.” It’s a fundamental principle. If you can’t be trusted with pencils, if you can’t be trusted with an expense account that runs to a hundred dollars a month, your employer is a crackpot if he gives you an expense account that runs to two thousand dollars a month. If you can’t be trusted with it here, you can’t be trusted with it there. Why? The problem is inside.

You see, a gambler will gamble on anything. Two raindrops running down the window, he goes, “I bet you the one on the left reaches the bottom first. I bet you don’t know what kind of coin I’ve got in my pocket.” It’s just endemic in the guy. He just can’t think without thinking gambling. And when we think in terms of stealing, a cheat and a thief, they just steal all the time. It’s sin!

A Good Example

Finally, is there a good example of the transformation of a thief given us in the Bible? Yes. We read it, and I’d like you to turn back there, ’cause we’re gonna finish up in Luke chapter 19. Is there a good example of a thief being transformed in the Bible?

Luke chapter 19: “Zacchaeus … was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.”[16] The two things were synonymous. You’re a chief tax collector, you’re wealthy. You’re wealthy? There’s a fair chance you’re a chief tax collector. The reason for this was, without going into all the details, that they had the responsibility for customs and for excise, for levying taxes and for levying tolls, and they had a measure of freedom, because they worked for a guy who owned a ton of stuff—I mean, so much stuff that he hadn’t seen a bank statement in a hundred years that he could pay any attention to because it was so astronomically large. Therefore, he trusted a number of these chief tax collectors to oversee areas of his territory. He told the chief tax collectors, “Look, out of this, what I need a month is x. I don’t care what happens before that or after that, as long as I get x.” Chief tax collector said, “Beautiful! Because now I know that he needs x. I will go out and get x plus y. Give him his x, give me my y, and we’ll be in the gravy.” That’s exactly what happened.

So as he went and exercised these tolls and exercised the taxes and everything, the people had a sneaking suspicion that little Zacchaeus was creaming some off the top, but they couldn’t put their hand on it, because they couldn’t say exactly what the man over here wanted on a monthly basis. But they knew that he was a cheat. They knew he was a thief. They knew he was at the fiddling. So he was wealthy, and they didn’t like him. He had prominence, and yet people resented him.

He’s a little man as well—a short man. I don’t know if you’re allowed to say that anymore today. There’s probably a clever phrase for that. What is it? Yeah, vertically challenged. That’s it! Yes! Zacchaeus was a vertically challenged individual. On account of this peculiar vertical challenge, he did not figure that he would see Jesus when he came to town. So, seeking to respond to this unique challenge, he climbs up a tree. Sycamore tree branches tend to hang down low, which is how somebody who is that small would have… Because, you know, I’m saying, “Hey, how come he got up the tree in the first place? Did he use a ladder or something?” No, the branches hung down. He got on, got up. He’s hoping to see who Jesus was, “since Jesus was coming that way.”[17]

“When Jesus reached the spot…”[18] What spot? The spot! The spot that Jesus planned to reach. It was the spot under Zacchaeus’s tree. Zacchaeus is up the tree, and he’s going, “This is unbelievable. Of all the spots at which he may have stopped, he stops at my spot!”

Well, it wasn’t his spot. It was Jesus’ spot. And he must have said to himself, “What an amazing view of the top of Jesus’ head! I mean, I’ll be able to tell my kids…” And then, he’s suddenly looking down, and he’s looking straight into the eyes of Christ. And a door of opportunity is about to swing open.

And Jesus said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”[19] “I must.” Sometime you’re interested, go through the New Testament, and watch all the times that it says Jesus “must” do something. “I must stay at your house today.” And, you see, Zacchaeus, when he looked into the eyes of Christ and heard that through his own ears, and he heard Jesus say, “I must stay at your house today,” Zacchaeus must have said, “You’re right.”

We don’t know, and we won’t know till we get to heaven, just exactly what had been going on in his mind, but we do know this: What would it profit a man if he gained the whole world and lost his own soul?[20] What advantage is there to be driving around in a wonderful car and have a stash of money in stocks and bonds and yet to be sick in the very heart of your life, to know that some of it is well-maintained and well-achieved and others of it has just been pilfered and filched from all over the place? And when somebody like Christ, who is the Savior of sinners, looks into your eyes and says, “I must stay at your house,” the answer of your heart has got to be “You’re right! You must!”

Didn’t matter what anybody else thought. All the Pharisees, all they could think was “Why would he ever go to this guy’s house? After all, we organized the trip. We’re the ones that put the procession together. We led it in the front so that everybody would clear a way. We have him coming. We figure he’ll take us to Burger King after the service.” And who does he go with? He goes with this squirt, who has been stealing the whole place blind! The whole of Jericho knows you say “Zacchaeus,” you say “thief.” Why would he go with him? The answer’s in the tenth verse: because the Son of Man came seeking “to save that which [is] lost.”[21]

And when he went into Zacchaeus’s house, what do you think he did? I think he went through the Ten Commandments with Zacchaeus. I think he went through the law of God with Zacchaeus—said, “Zacchaeus, how are you doing?”

Zacchaeus says, “I don’t know.”

Say, “Well, why don’t we just run it up against the standard? Why don’t we just lay out the plan of the Father and see how we’re doing? How’re you doing with loving me with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength?”[22]

“Well, I… Quite good. Quite good on that one. Uh-huh. Yeah.”

“And how you doing here on the… Any idols in here?”

“No, no, nothing! Nothing, Lord! No, no idols. No. No.”

“And how you doing… Is your wife here?”

“Yeah, oh yeah, it’s cool. My wife and I, great! Oh, what a girl. Lovely. Lovely. Yeah. I mean I bought her a watch, just… You should see her watch. Ah, it’s unbelievable! Yeah.”

“Hey! How about stealing, Zacchaeus?”

“Now, Jesus, I’m not gonna have you come home to my house if you’re gonna start putting your finger on stuff like this.”

Then he walks out the door. Presumably, all the people hanging around see what’s happened, say, “I wonder what happened to Zacchaeus?” Jesus goes in the house, and he comes back out. He comes back out, and he informs the people, “Hey, I’m a new guy.”

The law required that he doubled it or he gave a fifth back. He comes out and he says, “I’m gonna give four times back everything I took, and I’m gonna take half of my total resources, and I’m going to give them to the poor.”[23]

Now there’s probably somebody out there saying, “Oh, I get it now. The way you become a Christian is you pay back four times everything you ever stole from anybody, and you reduce your net worth by 50 percent. And as a result of that, you get a credit, which you keep with you, and then you go to the gates of heaven, you go, ‘Hey, I did that deal—the Zacchaeus deal—with the four times plus the 50 percent of my net worth; therefore, on the base of this…’”

Excuse me? No, you got it completely, absolutely, totally, foundationally wrong.

Jesus would have told Zacchaeus, “Zacchaeus, if you were to work for the rest of your life and give money to everybody that walked the streets of Jericho, if you were never to steal again, if you were to become Mr. Nice Guy, if you were to labor with your hands, if you were to be zealous with your mind, you could never, Zacchaeus, repay the debt that you owe to Almighty God for breaking his law. Zacchaeus, you’re a dead man.”

And then he would have told him, “But Zacchaeus, if you would acknowledge who you are and what you are and look to me, Zacchaeus, then you will become a new man. And as a result of becoming a new man from the inside, you will live a new life on the outside.” And then he announces to the crowd, “Today salvation has come to this house.”[24]

Has Jesus ever stood outside your door and made such an announcement? Why not? Don’t tell me it’s because you don’t need salvation. So why not? And why not allow today to be “today”?

Let’s pray together:

Gracious God, we thank you for your Word. It’s such a wonderful thing. It shines out into the darkness of our days with such clarity and purity. It pierces to the very quick of our being and shows us our need of you, and then brings this wonderful news: that upon a life we didn’t live, upon a death we didn’t die, upon another’s life and death we may stake our whole eternity,[25] reminding us that

Not the labor of our hands
Could fulfill your law’s demands;
Could our tears forever flow,
Could our zeal no respite know,
All for our sins could not atone.[26]

Only Jesus alone can save and change.

Some of us this morning are painfully aware of the theft in which we’ve been involved, and we want to recognize it; we want to repent of it; we want, as we’re enabled, to make restitution for it. So we pray for your grace, that we might be granted faith, that we might cast ourselves upon your mercy, that you may announce for some of us, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

And now unto him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forevermore. Amen.

[1] Lionel Bart, “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” (1960).

[2] James 1:17 (paraphrased).

[3] 1 Timothy 6:6 (NIV 1984).

[4] Psalm 51:4 (KJV).

[5] Luke 15:13 (KJV).

[6] Luke 15:17–19 (paraphrased).

[7] Exodus 22:1 (KJV).

[8] Exodus 22:2 (paraphrased).

[9] Titus 2:10 (paraphrased).

[10] James Patterson and Peter Kim, The Day America Told the Truth: What People Really Believe about Everything That Really Matters (New York: Prentice Hall, 1991), 155.

[11] Patterson and Kim, 155.

[12] James 5:4 (paraphrased).

[13] William Shakespeare, Othello, 3.3.

[14] Malachi 3:9–10 (paraphrased).

[15] Frances R. Havergal, “Take My Life, and Let It Be” (1874).

[16] Luke 19:2 (NIV 1984).

[17] Luke 19:4 (NIV 1984).

[18] Luke 19:5 (NIV 1984).

[19] Luke 19:5 (NIV 1984).

[20] See Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36.

[21] Luke 19:10 (KJV).

[22] See Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27.

[23] Luke 19:8 (paraphrased).

[24] Luke 19:9 (NIV 1984).

[25] Horatius Bonar, “Upon a Life I Did Not Live.”

[26] Augustus M. Toplady, “Rock of Ages” (1776). Paraphrased.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.