One sinner

As Jesus passed through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem, he came across a man that was eager to meet him (Luke 19:3-4). Luke identified Zaccheus as a chief tax collector and noted that he was rich (Luke 19:2). Zaccheus’ occupation is “referred to only here in the Bible, probably designating one in charge of a district, with other tax collectors under him. The region was prosperous at this time, so it is no wonder that Zaccheus had grown rich” (note on Luke 19:2). The problem with Zaccheus’ profession was that he worked for the Roman government and was probably perceived to be a traitor. It is likely that everyone hated Zaccheus except for those who worked in the same profession. When Jesus decided to stay at Zaccheus’ house, the crowd complained about it, saying, “That he has gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner” (Luke 19:7).

Tax collectors and sinners were often associated with one another (Matthew 9:10, 11:19, Mark 2:15, Luke 5:30); most likely because they were both perceived to be the outcasts of society. The assumption that Zaccheus was a sinner may have been based on him having a reputation for stealing money from his constituents. When Jesus told Zaccheus he was going to stay at his house, it says in Luke 19:8 that “Zaccheus stood, and said unto the Lord; Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.” Jesus responded to Zaccheus’ gesture by stating, “This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he is also a son of Abraham. For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:9-10).

The Greek word translated lost in Luke 19:10 is apollumi. The idea apollumi conveys “is not extinction but ruin, loss, not of being, but of well-being” (G622). In Zaccheus’ case, it could have meant being separated from loved ones or isolated from the community because of his job as a chief tax collector. According to the Apostle Paul, the destruction of unbelievers is “not annihilation, but exclusion from the Lord’s presence (2 Thessalonians 1:9); thus the ruin of life and all its proud accomplishments” (note on 1 Thessalonians 5:3). In that sense, you could say that a sinner’s life is wasted because all that is accomplished is lost at the time of his death. The Greek term that is usually translated sin, harmartano is properly translated “to miss the mark (and so not share in the prize)” (G264).

Jesus likened his mission of seeking and saving the lost to a shepherd searching for his one lost sheep. He asked his listeners, “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?” (Luke 15:4). Jesus went on to say that repentance from sin was a cause for celebration and was witnessed by those who are in heaven. He told his audience, “Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth” (Luke 15:10). Zaccheus’ conversion is an important example of God’s unbiased desire to reverse the effects of sin in any and every person’s life that is willing to admit he had missed the mark and alienated himself from God. As a result of his repentance, not only was Zaccheus saved, but his entire family was also (Luke 19:9).

Lost and Found

Jesus used an analogy of being lost to describe people that have sinned against God. In a series of three parables, Jesus taught that the secret to being found was repentance, “to think differently or afterwards that is reconsider” (G3340). In his first parable, Jesus said that the lost sheep was so important to its owner that he was willing to leave his other 99 sheep behind in order to find it (Luke 15:4). Afterward, Jesus said of the owner, “And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbors, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost” (Luke 15:6). Jesus compared the sheep owner’s rejoicing to what happens in heaven when a sinner repents. He said, “I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons which need no repentance.

Jesus’ example showed that the goal of having a relationship with God was not to be perfect, but to recognize when we have sinned against him or “missed the mark” (G266). Jesus’ second parable pointed out that every person has value to God and that the value of a sinner is no different than the value of someone who has not sinned. Jesus asked the question, “What woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?” (Luke 15:8). The woman’s effort to find her lost coin illustrated her responsibility to keep track of it and her diligence in recovering it. This example shows us that God is responsible for saving sinners and does not want anyone to remain lost or without his forgiveness.

Jesus’ final parable about the lost son illustrated how our free will can lead to our own detriment. In this story, the son took his inheritance and moved away so he could do what he wanted to with it. After his money ran out, he had no means of supporting himself, so the son “went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed the swine” (Luke 15:15). The Greek word translated joined himself, kollao (kol-lah’-o) means to glue or to stick. Kallao is also translated as cleave, suggesting a type of permanent relationship similar to a marriage. One way of interpreting the lost son’s relationship with this stranger could be to say they were codependent or the stranger was in some way supporting the lost son’s addiction.

Eventually, the son reached a point of desperation, what we might refer to today as hitting rock bottom. At that point, Jesus said the lost son “came to himself” (Luke 15:17). The words Jesus used to describe the son’s condition suggests that repentance is a realization that we are God’s children. In other words, we belong to God and he has the right and responsibility to take care of us. When the lost son returned home, his father gladly welcomed him back into his home and gave a party in his honor. It says in Luke 15:21-21, “And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.”

The lost sheep

Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep was set in the context of an argument that was going on between his disciples about who was the greatest among them. It is likely their argument was the result of an incident in which some of Jesus’ disciples were unable to cast out a demon because of their unbelief (Matthew 17:20). Perhaps, James and John who had just returned from a mountaintop experience in which Jesus was transfigured were taunting the other disciples because of their lack of spiritual experience or were boasting about having just seen Moses and Elijah with Jesus as his face shined like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light (Matthew 17:2). Jesus rebuked his disciples by setting a little child in the middle of them and saying, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

Jesus established that the first step in serving God was to be converted or renewed in one’s relationship with the LORD. Jesus’ disciples didn’t seem to understand that God wasn’t looking for miracle workers, but children that wanted to spend time with him. Jesus began his teaching about restored fellowship with the warning, “Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10). The point Jesus was making was that a small child that was unable to do anything to impress God was so important to his Father that he kept himself constantly updated on their physical well-being and spiritual growth. Jesus then reminded his disciples, “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost” (Matthew 18:11).

The Greek word Jesus used to describe someone that was lost, apollumi (ap-ol’-loo-mee) is derived from two other words that depict separation and ruin, that is punishment by death (575/3639). Jesus was talking about someone that was going to hell for eternity, an eternal separation from God. After establishing his purpose and specific assignment from God, Jesus said, “How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? (Matthew 18:12). Jesus’ reference to going into the mountains may have been an indication that the lost sheep(s) he was referring to were the three disciples that were taken with him on the mountain to witness his transfiguration. The point being that James, John, and Peter were not more righteous than the other disciples, but more at risk of eternal damnation.

Jesus concluded his teaching about fellowship with an illustration of the benefit of working together with other believers rather than competing against them for God’s attention. He declared, “Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:19-20). The lesson that may have been hidden or tucked away within Jesus’ teaching about fellowship was the way that we are able to do more for God’s kingdom. Although two people agreeing about something may not seem like that difficult of a task, the argument between Jesus’ disciples about who was the greatest showed that they were at odds with each other and didn’t want to admit that they were all lost, separated from God and in need of a savior.