The Conversion of Zaccheus, Part 1.

Written by George Whitefield (1714-1770)
Taken and adapted for space

“And Jesus said unto him,
This day is salvation come to this house,
forasmuch as he also is a son of Abraham.
For the Son of man is come to seek
and to save that which was lost.”

— Luke 19:9-10

Salvation, everywhere through the whole Scripture, is said to be a free gift of God…

…through Jesus Christ our Lord. Not only free, because God is sovereign agent, and therefore may withhold it from, or confer it on whom He pleaseth; but free, because there is nothing to be found in man that can any way induce God to be merciful to him. The righteousness of Jesus Christ is the sole cause of our finding favor in God’s sight. This righteousness apprehended by faith (which is also the gift of God – Eph 2:8) makes it our own; and this faith, if true, will work by love (Gal 5:6).

These are parts of those glad tidings which are published in the gospel; and, of the certainty of them, next to the express word of God, the experience of all such as have been saved is the best and the most undoubted proof. That God might teach us every way, He has been pleased to leave upon record many instances of the power of His grace exerted in the salvation of several persons, that we, hearing how He dealt with them, might thence infer the manner we must expect to be dealt with ourselves, and learn in what way we must look for salvation, if we truly desire to be made partakers of the inheritance with the saints in light (Col 1:12).

The conversion of the person referred to in the text, I think will be of no small service to us in this matter, if rightly improved. I would hope most of you know who the person is to whom the Lord Jesus speaks; it is the publican, Zaccheus, to whose house the blessed Jesus said salvation came, and whom He pronounces a son of Abraham.

The evangelist Luke introduces the account of this man’s conversion thus, verse 1: “And Jesus entered and passed through Jericho.” The holy Jesus made it His business to go about doing good. As the sun in the firmament is continually spreading his benign, quickening, and cheering influences over the natural, so the Son of Righteousness arose with healing under His wings (Mal 4:2), and was daily and hourly diffusing his gracious influences over the moral world. The preceding chapter acquaints us of a notable miracle wrought by the holy Jesus on poor blind Bartimaeus; and in this, a greater presents itself to our consideration. The evangelist would have us take particular notice of it; for he introduces it with the word behold: “And behold, there was a man named Zaccheus, who was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich” (Luk 19:2).

Well might the evangelist usher in the relation of this man’s conversion with the word “behold”! For, according to human judgment, how many insurmountable obstacles lay in the way of it! Surely no one will say there was any fitness in Zaccheus for salvation; for we are told that he was a publican, and therefore in all probability a notorious sinner. The publicans were gatherers of the Roman taxes; they were infamous for their abominable extortion; their very name therefore became so odious, that we find the Pharisees often reproached our Lord as very wicked, because He was a friend unto and sat down to meet with them. Zaccheus then, being a publican, was no doubt a sinner; and, being chief among the publicans, consequently was chief among sinners. Nay, he was rich. And one inspired apostle has told us, “that not many mighty, not many noble, are called” (1Co 1:26). Another saith, “God hath chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith” (Jam 2:5). And He Who was the Maker and the Redeemer of the apostles, assures us that “it is easier for a camel [or a cable rope] to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Mat 19:24). Let not therefore the rich glory in the multitude of their riches.

But rich as he was, we are told, verse 3, that “he sought to see Jesus.” And that was a wonder indeed! The common people heard our Lord gladly, and the poor received the gospel. The multitude, the very mob, the people that knew not the Law, as the proud high priests called them, used to follow Him on foot into the country, and sometimes stayed with Him three days together to hear Him preach. But did the rich believe or attend on Him? No. Our Lord preached up the doctrine of the cross; He preached too searching for them, and therefore they counted Him their enemy, persecuted and spoke all manner of evil against Him falsely. Let not the ministers of Christ marvel, if they meet with the like treatment from the rich men of this wicked and adulterous generation. I should think it no scandal (supposing it true) to hear it affirmed, that none but the poor attended my ministry. Their souls are as precious to our Lord Jesus Christ, as the souls of the greatest men. They were the poor that attended Him in the days of His flesh: these are they whom He hath chosen to be rich in faith, and to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Were the rich in this world’s goods generally to speak well of me, woe be unto me; I should think it a dreadful sign that I was only a wolf in sheep’s clothing (Mat 7:15)—that I spoke peace, peace, when there was no peace (Jer 6:14), and prophesied smoother things than the gospel would allow of (Isa 30:10). Hear ye this, O ye rich. Let who will dare to, do it. God forbid that I should despise the poor—in doing so, I should reproach my Maker. The poor are dear to my soul: I rejoice to see them fly to the doctrine of Christ, like the doves to their windows. I only pray that the poor who attend may be evangelized, and turned into the spirit of the gospel; if so, blessed are ye; for yours is the kingdom of heaven (Luk 6:20).

But we must return to Zaccheus. He sought to see Jesus. That is good news. I heartily wish I could say it was out of a good principle. But, without speaking contrary to that charity which hopeth and believeth all things for the best, we may say that the same principle drew him after Christ which now draws multitudes (to speak plainly, it may be multitudes of you) to hear a particular preacher, even curiosity. For we are told that he came not to hear His doctrine, but to view His person, or to use the words of the evangelist, to see Who He was. Our Lord’s fame was now spread abroad through all Jerusalem, and all the country round about. Some said He was a good man; others, nay, but He deceiveth the people (Joh 7:12). And therefore curiosity drew out this rich publican Zaccheus to see Who this person was, of Whom he had heard such various accounts.

But it seems he could not conveniently get a sight of Him for the press, and because he was little of stature. Alas! how many are kept from seeing Christ in glory by reason of the press. I mean, how many are ashamed of being singularly good, and therefore follow a multitude to do evil, because they have a press, a throng, of polite acquaintance! And, for fear of being set at naught by those with whom they used to sit at meat, they deny the Lord of glory, and are ashamed to confess Him before men. This base, this servile, fear of man, is the bane of true Christianity; it brings a dreadful snare upon the soul, and is the ruin of ten thousands. For I am fully persuaded, numbers are rationally convicted of gospel truths; but, not being able to bear contempt, they will not prosecute their convictions, nor reduce them to practice.

Happy those, who in this respect, at least, like Zaccheus, resolve to overcome all impediments that lie in their way to a sight of Christ.

For finding he could not see Christ because of the press and the littleness of his natural stature, he did not smite upon his breast and depart, saying, “It is in vain to seek after a sight of Him any longer, I can never attain unto it.” No, finding he could not see Christ if he continued in the midst of the press, “he ran before the multitude, and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him: for he was to pass that way” (Luk 19:4).

There is no seeing Christ in glory, unless we run before the multitude, and are willing to be in the number of those despised few who take the kingdom of God by violence. The broad way, in which so many go, can never be that straight and narrow way which leads to life. Our Lord’s flock was, and always will be, comparatively a little one. And unless we dare to run before the multitude in a holy singularity, and can rejoice in being accounted fools for Christ’s sake, we shall never see Jesus with comfort when He appears in glory. From mentioning the sycamore tree and considering the difficulty with which Zaccheus must climb it, we may further learn that those who would see Christ must undergo other difficulties and hardships, besides contempt. Zaccheus, without doubt, went through both. Did not many, think you, laugh at him as he ran along; and in the language of Michal, Saul’s daughter (2Sa 6:20), cry out, “How glorious did the rich Zaccheus look today, when, forgetting the greatness of his station, he ran before a pitiful, giddy mob and climbed up a sycamore tree to see an enthusiastic preacher!”

But Zaccheus cares not for all that; his curiosity was strong. If he could but see Who Jesus was, he did not value what scoffers said of him. Thus, and much more will it be with all those who have an effectual desire to see Jesus in heaven. They will go on from strength to strength, break through every difficulty lying in their way, and care not what men or devils say of or do unto them. May the Lord make us all thus minded, for His dear Son’s sake!

At length, after taking much pains, and going (as we may well suppose) through much contempt, Zaccheus has climbed the tree; and there he sits, as he thinks hid in the leaves of it, and watching when he should see Jesus pass by; “for he was to pass by that way.” But sing, O heavens, and rejoice, O earth! Praise, magnify, and adore sovereign, electing, free, preventing love; Jesus the everlasting God, the Prince of peace, Who saw Nathaniel under the fig tree, and Zaccheus from eternity, now sees him in the sycamore tree, and calls him in time.

Meet the author and part of your Christian heritage:  (1714 – 1770), also known as George Whitfield, was an English Anglican preacher who helped spread the Great Awakening in Britain, and especially in the American colonies.

Born in Gloucester, England, he attended Pembroke College, Oxford, where he met the Wesley brothers. He was one of the founders of Methodism and of the evangelical movement generally. In 1740, Whitefield travelled to America where he preached a series of revivals that came to be known as the “Great Awakening”. He became perhaps the best-known preacher in Britain and America during the 18th century, and because he traveled through all of the American colonies and drew great crowds and media coverage, he was one of the most widely recognized public figures in colonial America.

Because business at the inn had become poor, Whitefield did not have the means to pay for his tuition. He therefore entered Oxford as a servitor, the lowest rank of students at Oxford. In return for free tuition, he was assigned as a servant to a number of higher ranked students. His duties included waking them in the morning, helping them bathe, taking out their garbage, carrying their books and even assisting with required written assignments. He was a part of the ‘Holy Club‘ at Oxford University with the Wesley brothers, John and Charles. An illness, as well as Henry Scougal‘s The Life of God in the Soul of Man influenced him to cry out to the Lord for salvation. Following a religious conversion, he became very passionate for preaching his new-found faith. The Bishop of Gloucester ordained him a deacon.

In 1738 he went to Savannah, Georgia, in the American colonies, as parish priest. While there he decided that one of the great needs of the area was an orphan house. He decided this would be his life’s work. He returned to England to raise funds, as well as to receive priest’s orders. While preparing for his return he preached to large congregations. At the suggestion of friends he preached to the miners of Kingswood, outside Bristol, in the open air. Because he was returning to Georgia he invited John Wesley to take over his Bristol congregations, and to preach in the open-air for the first time at Kingswood and then Blackheath, London.

Whitefield accepted the Church of England’s doctrine of predestination but disagreed with the Wesley brothers’ views on the doctrine of the Atonement, Arminianism. As a result Whitefield did what his friends hoped he would not do—hand over the entire ministry to John Wesley. Whitefield formed and was the president of the first Methodist conference. But he soon relinquished the position to concentrate on evangelical work. 

In terms of theology, Whitefield, unlike John Wesley, was a supporter of Calvinism. The two differed on eternal election, final perseverance, and sanctification, but were reconciled as friends and co-workers, each going his own way. It is a prevailing misconception that Whitefield was not primarily an organizer like Wesley. However, as Wesleyan historian Rev. Luke Tyerman states, “It is notable that the first Calvinistic Methodist Association was held eighteen months before Wesley held his first Methodist Conference.” He was a man of profound experience, which he communicated to audiences with clarity and passion. His patronization by the Countess of Huntingdon reflected this emphasis on practice.

Whitefield died in the parsonage of Old South Presbyterian ChurchNewburyport, Massachusetts, on September 30, 1770, and was buried, according to his wishes, in a crypt under the pulpit of this church. A bust of Whitefield is in the collection of Gloucester City Museum & Art Gallery.

It was John Wesley who preached his funeral sermon in London, at Whitefield’s request. (Wesley’s Journal entry for Nov. 10, 1770)