A Man up a Tree
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A Man up a Tree

Luke 19:1–10  (ID: 2970)

Zacchaeus was a short man with a bad reputation who had an irresistible desire to see Jesus as He passed through Jericho. Alistair Begg explains that although Zacchaeus went to great lengths to see Jesus, their encounter played out according to the Lord’s purposes. Just as a radical transformation took place in the life Zacchaeus, our lives cannot be the same once salvation comes.

Series Containing This Sermon

An Extraordinary Encounter

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 27001

Sermon Transcript: Print

Luke chapter 19:

“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[’s] 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.’”


Father, help us now as we turn again to the Bible. Help us… Take our minds and help us to think properly. Take our hearts and make them soft and pliable to your truth. Take our wills and constrain them in order that we might walk in the path of righteousness for your name’s sake.[1] Amen.

Well, if you look carefully at the material that surrounds this, you will be aware of the fact that what Luke is providing us with here is a description of Jesus’ last personal encounter before he arrives in Jerusalem. Back in chapter 5, Luke recorded the party at the house of Levi, who was also a tax collector. And on that occasion, Luke tells us that the religious authorities had complained about the way in which Jesus was apparently choosing his companions. And they had asked him, “Why do you eat and drink with [the] tax collectors and sinners?”[2] And on that occasion, Jesus had made it clear to them that you don’t go to the doctor unless you need him.[3] And once again, here in 19:10, Luke summarizes for us the ministry of Jesus: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Now, let’s say just a word about the background here in terms of, first of all, the place. The place itself was a desirable place—that is, Jericho. And if you, again, take a good commentary, or perhaps Edersheim’s book, you will be helped on these things. It was known as the “City of the Palms.” It was regarded as “a little Paradise.” It was full of sycamores and cypress trees and balsam plantations. If you are familiar with Antony and Cleopatra, as many of you will be, it was these balsam plantations that Antony gave as a gift to Cleopatra. In the city of Jericho there were four forts. There were the gardens of Archelaus. And the description of the place at that time was of waves of feathery palms, endless stretches of rose gardens, large sweet-scented balsam plantations behind the royal gardens, and perfume carried on the breeze—perhaps the key to why it was called Jericho, which actually means “perfumed.”[4] Its climate was wonderful, too, even in the winter. The residents “could only bear the lightest” of clothing on their backs.

It was a strategic place on the caravan route from Damascus to Arabia. It was both a military center as well as a commercial center. And so the population was diverse. If we’d been there on this occasion, we would have found families, many of whom were employed in the forts, gardeners, soldiers, publicans (plenty of taxes to be collected), travelers, priests, robbers, religious zealots, the mixture of lives that we might expect in such a setting. Some had been born there; others had moved there, presumably encouraged by the climate and by the opportunity.[5] You just try to get a sense of the vibrancy of it and the dimensions of it and the way in which, if we had from a vantage point looked down on it, we’d have seen life going on, all of the bits and pieces of life—families gathering for breakfast and people going out to work and coming home again and asking questions of their children. And in the midst of all of that, this little man whom we’re about to meet.

For the procession as it came through town was a matter of significance—not just this procession but any procession. Jericho was the last station on the road that was taken by festive pilgrims from Galilee and Peraea on their way up to Jerusalem. And it was the custom for the townsfolk, when a festive band came through, to go out in order to greet them, perhaps to sell to them if they were trading, to catch an opportunity of purchasing from them things that couldn’t be purchased in Jericho, to welcome them and to watch, and hopefully to encourage some of them to spend a night with them in order that they might get revenue from that.

In the crowds there would be men who wondered about who would be there—and particularly this procession, insofar as the word would have preceded them that included in this group was none other than Jesus of Nazareth. And so there would be those who would be wondering, having heard something of Jesus, whether he would speak, whether he would perform a miracle. Perhaps some of the women made sure that they had their wee ones with them, in order that they might offer them up to Jesus, in the way that people apparently do with the president of the United States so that they might have a picture taken. They couldn’t have a picture taken, but they’d heard that he’d said, “Suffer the little children to come to me, and don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of God belongs to such as these,”[6] so maybe they had the hopes that that would happen. They would be left wondering, “Will he just pass through the town quickly? Will he perform a miracle while he’s here? Will he teach us one of his parables? Will he be the guest of one of the leading religious or social figures?” And of all the possibilities in the minds of the citizens, probably none—although maybe one—had the farthest notion of what was about to take place.

And we’re introduced to Zacchaeus. “He entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus”—or Zakkai, or Zack for short. Ironically, his name means “the just” or “the pure.” His mom and dad had taken him and said, “Let’s call him Zacchaeus. Let’s pray that he will be the embodiment of his name: that he will be just and for justice, that he will be pure, that he will be righteous.” It’s an amazing irony, isn’t it, in light of what we know of him, in light of the way in which he had been running his life? Because we’re told that “he was a chief tax collector.” In other words, the way in which the system worked, into which we need not go, you could, in the kind of multiplicatory, exponential growth factor that was built into the duplicity and the bribery that was part of it, you could really line your nest if you were a tax collector, but particularly if you had risen to be a chief tax collector.

Now, the disrepute in which these folks were held is really significant. And those of us who are Second World War buffs might be able to get close to it by realizing that Zacchaeus and his kind were as hated as Nazi collaborators in occupied France. That’s the extent of the disdain for this character in the population. It’s not that he was parking his car opposite somebody’s driveway and annoying them. It’s not that he had a dog that was barking in the middle of the night. It’s not that his children were kicking balls up on the roof of the next-door neighbors. It’s nothing superficial like that at all. It’s a deep-seated hatred of this kind of individual and of what he represented in terms of lining his own nest at the expense of his own people. His disrepute is hard to quantify.

Zacchaeus’s Motivation

He had a house, probably a nice one. He had a job, a despised job. He had money, he was small, and he had a desire that he wanted to see Jesus. That in itself is of significance. Because not everybody wants to see Jesus. If you go down into Speculator just now and say, “Hey, we just came out of the camp, and we’ve been thinking about Jesus, and we wanted to know if you would like to read a little bit about Jesus in the Bible,” I guarantee you nine people out of ten would say, “Well, no thank you. Not today. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps never! No,” by and large. Now, you may come upon someone who says, “I’ve been waiting for somebody just to come and say this,” in which case we know that God has been at work in that individual’s life.

But this little man was seeking to see who Jesus was. He went to his bed that night, presumably, and he said, you know, when he set out his clothes for the morning, when he put his shoes under his bed, he said, “When I get up in the morning, I’m gonna get up pronto; I’m gonna go see who this Jesus person is. I may at least get a glimpse of him tomorrow.”

Jesus was a compassionate soul. He seemed to go for the least likely individual. He was always looking for the person who was at the end of the line, for the left-out individual. He hadn’t come just looking for cheerleaders and quarterbacks.

I wonder why. It possibly was simply curiosity. Maybe he’s a curious kind of person. He doesn’t want to miss much. He’s probably not the kind of individual that wants to be behind the trends. Curiosity.

Or it might have been connection. Maybe a connection—a tenuous connection, but one nevertheless—with Levi. The word may have gone right through the system—the tax collectors and publican system—that one of their own had actually been hosting a big party at his house for none other than Jesus of Nazareth.[7] And that would have made them nudge one another and wonder. Perhaps it was that connection.

Perhaps it was his conscience. Perhaps when he laid in his bed at night and he realized exactly what he was doing, he tried to explain it away, but he couldn’t. And his conscience kept accusing him. Perhaps he laid in his bed, and he said, “You know, I can’t keep on like this. I’m going to have to make a change.” Was it conscience?

Was it compassion? Was it the fact that the word that had spread concerning Jesus was that he was so unlike the religious fellows who were always picking faults, who were always finding everything wrong? And the word was out that this Jesus was a compassionate soul, that he had time for individuals—that, in point of fact, he seemed to go for the least likely individual, that he was always looking for the person who was at the end of the line. He was looking for the left-out individual. He hadn’t come just looking for cheerleaders and quarterbacks. In fact, he didn’t really seem to be very concerned for those folks. Maybe it was compassion.

Maybe it was companionship. He’d heard that Jesus had become a friend to many. Indeed, they had said of him that he was a friend of sinners. That was the bum rap that he got: that he was a friend of sinners.[8] Well, the Pharisees didn’t like that. That was a matter of disdaining him. But for a sinner, you could… “He’s a friend to sinners?” That’s why, when you go back to Luke chapter 15, the story of the lost coin and the lost sheep and the lost boys, it starts off by saying that all the Pharisees were muttering, and the sinners were coming to hear what he had to say.

Well, he wouldn’t have had very many friends, would he, except his own kind? And he would have been playing James Taylor on his CD, you know:

When you’re down and troubled
And you need a helping hand
And nothing, [no], nothing is going right,
[You can] close your eyes and think of me,
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest [night].

Hey, ain’t it good to know
That you’ve got a friend?
[’Cause] people can be so cold.
They’ll hurt you and desert you,
[And] take your soul if you let them.
Oh [now], … don’t you let them.[9]

That kind of sense, the longing for friendship.

On the superficial level, everyone would’ve said, “There he goes. There he goes into his big house. There he goes with all of his cash. There he goes with all of his apparent influence.” And on the outside, it must have looked okay. But on the inside, all of that superficial stuff could not compensate for the fact that his feet never actually went down onto a solid foundation. There was no rock beneath him that could sustain him. All of that and more besides, presumably, is wrapped up in his longing to see Jesus. Somewhere inside of this wee man there was a deep, nameless, irresistible urge to meet Jesus.

But he was hindered. He was actually as hindered as the blind man who had been calling out. The blind man couldn’t see. Neither could Zacchaeus. He couldn’t see for a different reason. But he was a determined little character; he wouldn’t have done as well in business if he hadn’t been. And he cast aside all restraint, we’re told in this well-known account. “He ran … ahead,” small in stature, “and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him.”

You know, that’s not what you’re supposed to do. You know, can you imagine if the local bank manager in your small town in Chagrin Falls, in Ohio, when we had the Memorial Day parade, and everybody’s just coming with their lawn chairs and everything else, and the local bank manager starts climbing up a lamppost in the middle of the town? And the people are looking around, saying, “What is Mr. Jenkins doing up there?” “Well, apparently he hasn’t been able to see this last little while, and he thought if he would climb up there…” People said, “That looks absolutely ridiculous to me. I mean, how important is it for him to see?” And someone says, “Apparently, it’s very important.” Because, you know, his friends must have been saying, “Man, Zacchaeus has apparently lost his mind.”

He climbs up into the wide, welcoming branches of a sycamore tree. The only road that Jesus can take is the road that he is on. He’s coming. Zacchaeus is waiting. Dum da-dum dum dum! Okay? There he is. The scene is set. “So he ran … ahead … 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.”

Jesus and Zacchaeus

First of all, he “came to the place.” That’s remarkable in itself, isn’t it? I mean, there’s a lot of places he could have stopped, presumably. But he stops in that place. You’d almost think it was planned, wouldn’t you? Zacchaeus must have been freaked out just by that himself. He said, “Can you believe this?” The procession stops. It’s like, you know, when the president comes or something, and you go, and you stand in the street, and the cavalcade stops right where you are. You go, “Can you believe this? He stopped right here.” That’s Zacchaeus. He’s looking down now at the head of Jesus, saying to himself, “This is fantastic! This is more than I hoped for. I thought I might be able to see him.”

And then he says, “Oh, he’s looking at me.” And “he looked up.” “He looked up.” All those faces, all those eyes at eye level. But he looks up. He looks up into the branches. And there’s Danny DeVito, sitting up there. And wee Danny, he thinks, “This is amazing!” And then he says, “Zacchaeus.”

Well, Zacchaeus must’ve almost fallen out of the tree at that point. Because, after all, when he went to bed the previous night, he was hoping for a glimpse. Now he’s involved in a conversation. Now it’s as though they had agreed to meet at this tree. It’s as if all of eternity had planned this moment. It’s as if God in his inestimable plan of salvation had determined that in this moment and at this place and at this tree, a divine encounter would take place. That’s exactly what was happening. That’s exactly what was happening. That is what is always happening. Some of you can remember a place where you met Christ. Might even have been here. It’s precious to you, and understandably so.

Here, Jesus stops and addresses the least likely to be noticed (he’s hidden up in a tree); the most hindered in coming, on account of his stature; and yet the most concerned of all to see Jesus. Well, it just reinforces what the Gospel writer is telling us: that Jesus is committed to seeking out the least and the last and the left out.

When he told the story of the coins, he said the lady had a necklace, or she had the deal, and it had ten pieces, and nine of them were intact, but one of them was missing. And when she found the missing piece, she called in all her friends and neighbors, and they had a cup of tea and said, “How wonderful this is!”[10] That’s the sort of revised, revised version that I’ve invented. The tea creeps into most things in the United Kingdom. As you know, it’s the answer to just about everything from arthritis to presenile dementia: “Let’s have a cup of tea.” Anyway, and when the shepherd had all of the ninety-nine safely in, he goes out on the hillsides to get the one, and the same story is recorded.[11] So why would we be surprised at this? Throngs in the street and one up the tree. Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles. Who’s looking for who in this story? You got it.

“Zacchaeus, hurry up and get down, for I’m going to stay at your house today. I must stay at your house today.” Why must he stay at his house today? The answer is in verse 10, isn’t it? “So he hurried and came down.” I don’t know how high up he was. “So he hurried and came down.” It’s interesting. How do you hurry down a…? Anyway, he came down the tree. Boom! He’s down the tree. And he “received him joyfully.” Says Edersheim… And Edersheim’s book on Jesus is just absolutely super. It’s hundreds of pages, but he writes as a converted Jew and does so with great insight. Here’s just one of his sentences concerning the fact that he hurried and came down the tree. Edersheim says, “In that dim twilight of the new day, and at this new creation, the Angels sang and the Sons of God shouted together, and all was melody and harmony in his heart.”[12] Nothing was as yet clear to him, but all was joyous in his soul.

The whole current of Zacchaeus’s life has been turned by Jesus. The robber has become the giver.

And then the murmurs, the grumblers begin in verse 7. “And when they saw it,” they all praised God. No. “They all grumbled.” “They all grumbled.” Back to the same old story: “We just don’t get it. Why does he keep hanging around with these same wretched, sinful people?”

Now, we have no record of the private conversation between Jesus and Zacchaeus in the home. Verse 8 tells us of the transformation which gives evidence of the new life that is now his. The whole current of his life has been turned. The robber has become the giver. And so Jesus says, “If you want to know what has happened here today, salvation has come to this house.”

A Crucial Explanation

Now, with this we will stop. But let’s note that the explanation is absolutely crucial. Zacchaeus had not found purpose in his life, right? He didn’t need purpose in his life. His purpose in his life was absolutely clear: “Get as much as you can get by whatever underhanded means you need to use in order to satisfy your wretched soul.” That was the purpose in his life. So Jesus, in the privacy of the conversation, obviously didn’t have a conversation with him about “Are you feeling a little lost, Zacchaeus?” or “Are you feeling purposeless, Zacchaeus?” or whatever. No, no, no, no. No, he probably said to him, “Zacchaeus,” he said, “let’s just take the law of God for a moment. Let’s just start with what you know. Have you loved the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength?[13] And have you loved your neighbor as yourself?”[14] And Zacchaeus would have said, “No, I absolutely have not.” And he said to him, “Well, you see, what you need, Zacchaeus, is not purpose. It is salvation.”

Now, let me tell you, when you speak to your friends, you’ve gotta make sure that you don’t get yourself hung up on that felt-need journey, because there’s nowhere to go from there. You must stick with explaining the gospel. If you simply say to people, “Well, are you missing a little purpose in your life?” the guy says, “Purpose in my life? Let me show you my diary for the next six months. I’ve got purpose coming out my ears!” “Well, are you feeling unfulfilled?” “No. No, my wife is fantastic, and my kids are average, and the job’s okay. No.” So, where are you gonna go with this? “Oh, I was going to tell you, if you said you had no purpose, I could tell you about purpose. If you said you were unfulfilled, then I could tell you…” Or you could tell them that you’ve got Jesus in your heart, but he may say to you that he’s got Buddha in his heart. And then what are you gonna do then? Then you’re gonna have to say, “Well, one Jesus equals two Buddhas.” You know, and say, “Well, no, Jesus is this.” You’re at sea! You’re immediately at sea.

That’s why we’ve gotta use the Bible to explain the gospel to our friends, and first we need to understand it for ourselves. It is the law of God that convicts us of our sin, of our brokenness, of the fact that we have engaged substitute gods. You see, Zacchaeus had broken the first commandment. He loved something other than God—much more. And Jesus had come to deal with that. Salvation has come to his house.

It’s wonderful, isn’t it? I look forward to meeting Zacchaeus, all being well. You do too. Remember that song from Sunday school?

You have heard of little Moses in the bulrush,
You have heard of fearless David and his sling,
You have heard the story told of dreaming Joseph,
And of Jonah and the whale [I] often sing.
There are many, many others in the Bible.
I should like to meet them all, I do declare.
[And] by and by, the Lord will surely let us meet them
At that meeting in the air.

[’Cause] there[’s gonna] be a meeting in the air
In the sweet, sweet by and by.
[And] I[’m] going to meet you,
Meet you over there,
In that home beyond the sky.
[And] such singing you will hear,
Never[, ever] heard by mortal ear.
[It’ll] be glorious, I do declare.
And God’s own Son will be the leading one
[In the] meeting in the air.[15]

And if somehow or another we can all get together, I’ll call out, or Norm’ll call out, or Mr. Buirkle’ll call out, or somebody’ll call out, “The Camp-of-the-Woods people over here, down by the lake!” Then we’ll all go over there, and we will have… One evening we’ll have with Nicodemus. Another evening we’ll have with the guy who was on the bed. Another evening we’ll have with the woman at the well, see how good-looking she really is. Then we’ll have… And it’ll just be fantastic! Will you be there? By grace through faith, ’cause you met Jesus up a tree, on a bed, in the night, at the well? That’s what it’s all about.

We gotta stop.

Father, thank you. Thank you that the Son of Man came to seek and to save those that were lost.

When I was lost, you came and rescued me,
Reached down into the pit and lifted me.
O God, such grace: I am as loved by you as I could be.
You know all the things I’ve ever done,
And yet your blood has cancelled every one.
O God, such grace, to qualify me as your own.[16]

We thank you for the wonderful good news of the gospel. Thank you that in each of these little vignettes we see fresh evidences of your loving, initiative-taking grace and the necessity of repentance and faith and belief. What a difference it must have made for Zacchaeus, then, to open his home. All of that stuff, even when he’d given it away, he probably had plenty left—plenty to share, plenty to enjoy, plenty to have sanctified by the amazing goodness of God.

So, then, help us to respond accordingly as the Spirit of God works within our hearts, so that on that day when we stand before you, we may do so unashamed, clothed in a righteousness that we don’t deserve, imputed to us in Christ himself. For we pray in his name. Amen. Amen.

[1] See Psalm 23:3.

[2] Luke 5:30 (ESV).

[3] See Luke 5:31.

[4] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (n.p.: Hendrickson, 1993), 716. Some of the background in the paragraphs that follow draws further upon Edersheim.

[5] Edersheim, 715–16.

[6] Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16 (paraphrased).

[7] See Matthew 9:9–10; Mark 2:13–15; Luke 5:27–29.

[8] See Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34.

[9] Carole King, “You’ve Got a Friend” (1971).

[10] See Luke 15:8–10.

[11] See Luke 15:3–7.

[12] Edersheim, Life and Times, 718.

[13] See Deuteronomy 6:5.

[14] See Leviticus 19:18.

[15] Mae Taylor Roberts, “The Meeting in the Air” (1925).

[16] Kate Simmonds and Miles Simmonds, “When I Was Lost” (2001). Lyrics lightly altered.

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.