In Luke 19:1-9, we find the well-known story of a short, but rich, man named Zacchaeus. We are all familiar with the story, and with how the Lord went to Zacchaeus’s home. Zacchaeus is clearly a believer. In fact, he strongly desires to follow the Lord in discipleship and begins that process by giving away the majority of his vast wealth because of what the Lord teaches him.
The story’s conclusion includes a famous statement by the Lord. After Zacchaeus vows to give away all this money, the Lord says that salvation has come to him. The Lord then reminds Zacchaeus of why He came. He says He came to this world “to seek and to save that which was lost.”
Since the words salvation and saved are found in this short statement, as well as the word lost, most commentaries say that Jesus is talking about saving people from hell. The unbeliever is “lost” in that he is going to the lake of fire. He needs to be “saved” from such a fate. I remember a pastor friend describing himself when he was an unbeliever. He said, “I was as lost as a goat.” According to most commentaries, the Lord is referring to “lost” Zacchaeus’s being saved from hell.
Bob Wilkin has written a great book titled The Ten Most Misunderstood Words in the Bible. One of the words he addresses is lost. He points out that the word is not a description of unbelievers. Instead, the word refers to a child of God who is not living righteously. He is lost in the sense that he is out of fellowship with the Lord. He is wandering around in darkness, but is still saved.
This certainly fits the context of this passage. Zacchaeus was a man involved in a sinister occupation. As a tax collector, he had become fabulously rich by taking advantage of others. As a result, he was probably the richest man in Jericho, as well as the surrounding area.
After believing in Jesus, he could have continued doing the same thing. Eternal salvation is free and cannot be lost. Zacchaeus could have stayed in his profession, operated as he had in the past, and enjoyed the riches thus provided. But after spending the day with the Lord in his home and hearing the Lord teach about the coming kingdom of God, he made an important and costly decision. He stopped doing what he had been doing and vowed to serve others, whereas before he had only served himself.
Zacchaeus repented of his sins. He turned from what he had been doing. In doing so, he was saved from a life of destructive behavior. He was saved from a life that would make him rich in this world, but poor in the world to come. He was saved from walking in darkness so that he could experience the blessings of a life that pleased the Lord. This salvation was given to him after he became a believer.
In other words, if he had continued in his former way of life, he would have been lost to all these things. But the Lord says that He came to save His children from such a fate. It has nothing to do with eternal salvation, but everything to do with a believer’s living righteously after receiving eternal life.
Luke has already prepared the reader for this understanding of the Lord’s words to Zacchaeus. In chapter 15 we find another of the Lord’s famous parables–the Parable of the Lost Sheep. He speaks of a man with 100 sheep. They are all sheep and all, therefore, represent believers. Ninety-nine of the sheep remain with the shepherd and experience the blessings of that communion. One, however, wanders away and experiences the danger and loss of such communion. But the shepherd, who clearly represents Christ, goes to find and save that lost sheep.
The Lord not only gave Zacchaeus eternal life; He spent the day in his home because He did not want him to be lost in the life he was living. He wanted to save him from that. In going to his home and teaching him, our King was seeking and saving a child of His who was lost. He found him.
That is the kind of Savior we have.