The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. —Luke 19:10
Who is Jesus? The four gospels of the New Testament answer that question. Luke’s gospel is the longest of the four. In fact, it’s the longest book in the New Testament. As author of this gospel and the book of Acts, Luke wrote more of the New Testament than anyone else. He wrote his gospel for a man named Theophilus (Luke 1:1-4). We don’t know Theophilus was. But it appears he was a young Christian with questions about Jesus. He needed answers, like any young Christian. So Luke did the research and gave Theophilus – and us – an account of who Jesus is.
Luke’s gospel is organized like this. Chapters 1-2 are Jesus introduced, starting even before his birth. Chapters 3-9 are Jesus revealed, Jesus presenting himself to us, offering himself. Chapters 10-19 are Jesus controversial and rejected. In chapter 19 Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, because “you did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:41-44). Finally, chapters 20-24 are Jesus victorious – victorious on the cross, in his resurrection and in his ascension to heaven. He was rejected, but he was not defeated. Luke goes into great detail to tell that story. He answers questions like, If God started out with the Jews, why are Jewish people mostly against Jesus? Why is Jesus opposed at all? Why did he die? After he ascended to the Father, how does he make himself real to us now? How does he want us to serve him today? How does he help us to serve him today?
Looking at Jesus through the lens of Luke’s gospel, we get answers to these and other questions. But Luke’s portrait of Jesus becomes clear in one incident. Let me show you who Jesus is, from Luke’s gospel, through one representative passage: Luke 19:1-10. This is quintessential Jesus:
He entered Jericho and was passing through. And 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 of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Here is the distilled essence of Jesus and the epitome of Luke’s gospel. Let me show you five things here.
Zacchaeus had a need. Everyone in town hated him, and he deserved it. He was not only a tax collector lining his pockets by charging people in excess of their Roman taxes, but he was “a chief tax collector.” He’d worked his way up the food chain by being more effective at extortion than others. He was over other tax collectors, more responsible, skimming off what the others had already taken, keeping the pressure on the other tax collectors to make their quotas, defrauding people he didn’t have to face personally because others were doing his dirty work for him. He didn’t have to listen to dads begging that their families not be sent into homelessness and poverty and ruin. He just got richer and richer, at a safe distance. No one liked Zacchaeus, and it was his own fault.
But those who hated him did have one advantage. Zacchaeus was short. As he tried to squeeze through the crowd that day, I can imagine people knowingly closing ranks in front of him, not letting him through, maybe stepping on him, maybe even knocking him down, saying, “Oh, so sorry, I didn’t see you there, you’re so short!” Anything to get in a dig.
Over in the book of Titus there is a terrible phrase that describes the human race: “. . . passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). There is only one power in the universe great enough to meet that need – the grace of God.
The grace of God for our need is a major theme in Luke. Who is Jesus? The living embodiment of grace. Remember how the story of the prodigal son begins in chapter 15 – Jesus is befriending bad people, and it makes him stand out (Luke 15:1-2). In Luke’s gospel Jesus has grace also for the weak and vulnerable. He saw rich people contributing large sums to the temple, but he got excited about the poor widow who gave a little but it was sacrificial (Luke 21:1-4). He also shows grace for children. When the disciples would have shooed the kids away, Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16). He also shows grace to women, all women. When a prostitute washed his feet with her tears and wiped them dry with her hair, he wasn’t embarrassed. He didn’t embarrass her. He honored her (Luke 7:36-50). Who else among the world’s religious leaders is gracious like Jesus?
Zacchaeus needed grace – not that he would have defined his need that way initially. My hunch is that he was just curious about Jesus. Men like him want to be aware, to keep ahead of things. But what Zacchaeus needed was a friend. And Jesus came along. This man stumbled onto the question of questions: “He was seeking to see who Jesus was,” Luke says. Zacchaeus was seeking Jesus out of curiosity (verse 2). But Jesus was seeking Zacchaeus out of love (verse 10). C. S. Lewis wrote, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful . . . . There are traps everywhere – ‘Bibles laid open, millions of surprises, . . . .’ God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.” Curiosity may have been all Zacchaeus felt about Jesus, but it was enough. His heart started cracking open.
“Jesus 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” (Luke 19:5-6). Jesus didn’t wait for an invitation. He invited himself over. Unasked, he initiated the friendship. Unasked, he sent a change into that man’s heart. We tend not to link grace with authority. To us, the word “grace” feels soft and inviting, and the word “authority” feels hard and off-putting. But in the gospel, grace and authority go together. If Zacchaeus had earned Jesus’ notice and favor and friendship, then he’d have bargaining power with Jesus. But grace means God loves us for no reason in us. We have no bargaining power. Grace means we’re loved so much we’re glad to say yes to whatever God wants. Grace and authority go together. We see it here in Jesus bursting into Zacchaeus’ life without asking permission. Would we want him to be different? We should revere his authority. Who do we think we are, to say no to him, to set limits on him, to say, “You can have this part of me, but not that part of me”? People touched by his grace don’t think like that. They want all of him he’ll give.
If you’ve read Luke, you know the titles of Jesus that show up along the way: the Son of God (1:35), the Holy One of God (4:34), Lord (5:8), Son of David (18:38-39), King (19:38). Who is Jesus? He is the King of grace. He comes to us with authority over us, and he never apologizes for it. Jesus literally deserves our total openness and our detailed obedience. He has every right to expect that of you and me.
Do you think of Jesus in terms of total grace and total authority? Maybe you think of him as someone whose attention you have to earn. The truth is, he is more ready for you than you are for him. “I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, I was ready to be found by those who did not seek. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’ . . . . I held out my hands all day long” (Isaiah 65:1-2). If there was anyone who didn’t ask and wasn’t ready, it was Zacchaeus. So Jesus didn’t wait. He made the first move. Something inside us tells us we have to get better first, and then Christ will visit us. But the gospel says, he is inviting himself into your life today, just as you are – if you’ll have him. Zacchaeus “received him joyfully” (verse 6). He wasn’t guarded and suspicious and thinking, “What does Jesus want from me?” He opened up gladly. He was disreputable; but when he received Jesus in his gracious authority, his life started getting better.
“And when they saw it, they all grumbled, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner’” (Luke 19:7). This time the Pharisees aren’t singled out as the grumblers. It says they all grumbled, everyone looking on. That’s how much Zacchaeus was hated. But the very thing that offended everyone, Jesus was open about. Do you think these words, which were intended as an accusation – “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner” – do you think Jesus back-peddled when he heard that? He could own those same words as a boast. He says in verse 10, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Yes, we’re all nice people here today. We might not feel “lost.” But the deeper reality is, we’re nice, evil people. We’re so nice and so evil, with our niceness covering over our evil, that we are easily confused, even “lost.” It can be hard for us to swallow that we’re so bad we need grace. That’s why God allows us to fail. Then we can finally see ourselves. Then we can receive Jesus joyfully. I can’t remember who it was, but someone put it this way:
There will come a time when you simply fail, inexcusably, terribly. You will feel yourself standing among the shattered pieces of a beautiful work of art that you just broke. You will surprise yourself that you were that stupid. No, not just stupid, bad. Morally weak. You will fail at something incomparably important. You will feel that you are a failure. You will feel no compensation. You will feel despair and hopelessness.
The experience of our own faults comes as a surprise to us, because our teachers no longer talk about sin. They no longer tell us about our inner Judas, about that spiteful little coward who lives in the basement of the soul.
You will hurt the ones you love. You will lie about it. You will do something embarrassingly bad and not face up to it. You will give others excuses, because you will first give yourself excuses. . . . And if you don’t confess to yourself, then you won’t be able to confess to God and to those you hurt either. And then the rot will stay there inside and spread until it rots your life so obviously that you can no longer deny it.
When Jesus came into Zacchaeus’ life, instead of grumbling, everyone could have said, “Maybe there’s hope for me too.” But they were too good in their own eyes, too good for Jesus. Their self-image was threatened by his grace. We see this opposition repeatedly in Luke’s gospel, especially in chapters 10-19. It’s there in the Bible, because it’s here in our hearts. If you find yourself reduced to need and coming gladly under the authority of Jesus, don’t be surprised if some people misjudge you. It isn’t about you. It’s about Jesus. But it is so freeing to stay open and follow him wherever he leads. Here’s why. The grace of Jesus changes us:
“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’” (Luke 19:8-9). Zacchaeus proved that the grace of Jesus was making an impact. He couldn’t accept reconciliation with God without reconciling with others. He started changing right away. You’ll notice that he didn’t revise his will, to be generous to the poor after he died, while continuing to live large until then. He speaks in the present tense: “I give to the poor,” not future tense “I will give to the poor someday when I get around to it.” He acts immediately. And as for the people he had robbed, he restored the amount fourfold. And Jesus said – and I paraphrase – “Now that’s what I’m talking about! That is salvation and healing and humility and honesty and newness of life.” The apostle Paul, who was a close friend of Luke’s, summed up his message to the world this way – that we should repent, turn to God and do deeds in keeping with repentance (Acts 26:20). That’s high-impact grace, changing us.
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Everyone around grumbled. They found fault with Zacchaeus and with Jesus. How does he respond? “This is why I came. If you don’t like this about me, you won’t like me at all, because this is my mission – to seek and to save the lost.” He was not ashamed to be with Zacchaeus. He sought him out. He was not powerless toward Zacchaeus’ sins. He saved him. Jesus even called him “a son of Abraham.” What was Abraham famous for? Faith in God. What did God do with that faith? He justified Abraham. Every guilty secret in Abraham’s past instantly became irrelevant to God. God redefined Abraham with a bright future he didn’t deserve, he redefined Zacchaeus with a bright future he didn’t deserve, and he’ll redefine you with a bright future you don’t deserve – if you don’t mind being saved.
Being saved is humiliating. The very language of “being saved” is offensive to people today. I understand. I remember one day during high school at the beach in San Clemente, I was out in the surf, far from shore, and suddenly a lifeguard came swimming toward me. I said to him, “Who are you going to save?” He said, “You.” He swam up to me, grabbed me around the chest and hauled me back up to shore. I was humiliated. All my friends were there. I didn’t want to be saved. I wanted to look cool. I couldn’t see the riptides taking me out to sea. That life guard could see them. So he didn’t wait for me to ask for help. He just came out and saved me. I still haven’t forgiven him. And aren’t we all like that – so proud, so sure of ourselves, so careful of our precious egos? But anyone, anyone at all who needs to be saved, anyone who is tired enough of lugging abound their past that they can stomach the humiliation of grace – if you’re open to that, you are already being sought by the Son of Man. Will you receive him joyfully today?
Who is Jesus? He is the King of grace. And he’s moving your way.