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Last week, we talked about making peace with our past. We looked at the example of the Apostle Peter after his greatest failure, and – more specifically – the faithfulness of Jesus in the face of it. We made four points:

• Jesus frees us to own it.

• We’re free because he atoned for it.

• We can, therefore, grow from it.

• We can then, in faith, let go of it.

Now, you may be saying what I’d be tempted to say if I was in your seat this morning, “I want to let go of it – but what if it won’t let go of me?”

Some of us know this all too well, don’t we?

• Broken relationships take time to heal.

• A decision to forgive doesn’t necessarily mean an immediate restoration of trust and intimacy.

• The sins of our youth might have consequences lasting into old age.

• We could multiply examples.

Well, that’s what I want to talk to you about this morning. Let’s talk about moving on from our past, in the present. I want to give you a simple principle this morning, illustrated not from the life of Peter but rather a wee little man named, Zacchaeus. It’s this:

You can’t change the past,
but you can change direction.

To help us make that point, let’s pray for the Spirit’s work.

Prayer for Illumination

Almighty God: in you are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Open our eyes that we may see the wonders of your Word; and give us grace that we may clearly understand and freely choose the way of your wisdom; through Christ our Lord.


Who Was Zacchaeus? Why does it matter?

“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see. And as the Savior passed that way, he looked up in the tree. And he said, ‘Zacchaeus, you come down, for I’m going to your house today.’”

These are the lyrics of a song that I sang and pantomimed to each of my children every night as they lay in their cribs before they went to bed. It’s a familiar song in church circles, and Zacchaeus is consequently a familiar person from the gospels.

Zacchaeus: A Traitor and a Thief

You might, therefore, remember that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. The position made him both very rich and very despised - rich because he helped the Romans collect their taxes and despised because he defrauded his own people (the Jews) while doing it. In short, he was a traitor and a thief.

When Jesus entered the home of Zacchaeus, he showed the chief tax collector remarkable grace. Few wanted anything to do with him. Zacchaeus didn't deserve kindness from Jesus; he deserved condemnation. In fact, he already stood condemned. He was a sinner - a big, fat rather obvious one. Everyone knew it, and many expected and wanted Jesus to treat the opportunistic little weasel as his sins deserved.

But Jesus didn’t treat him as his sin’s deserved. Hardly! In fact, Jesus favored Zacchaeus. Scandalously, he fellowshipped with him, in his house! The response of Zacchaeus to this unmerited favor, this stunning mercy, was deep and profound repentance. He openly confessed his sins and received Jesus’ pardon. Jesus declared the verdict of grace before all who wanted judgment. “Today,” Jesus said, “salvation has come to this house" (Luke 19:9).

The Passage Explained

We said it before: you can’t change the past, but you can change direction. There are at least three dimensions to this, things I’d like to pass along to encourage and equip you moving forward.

#1. Jesus lets us belong before we behave.

The first thing we should notice is that Jesus lets us belong before we behave. In other words, we don’t change our life’s direction to find Jesus; we change direction because he finds us.

Upon noticing him in a tree, do you remember how Jesus responded to Zacchaeus? He said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today” (19:5). There is intentionality; there is a mission; this is part of Jesus’ divine plan. He, as the passage says, “came to seek and save the lost” (v. 10). When Jesus entered Zacchaeus’ home, Zacchaeus entered Jesus’ circle. The traitorous thief can belong before he behaves.

Steve Brown is one of my favorite teachers and authors, and not just because he goes to church here. He was one of my favorites before I ever got here. In fact, one reason that I didn’t apply to Willow Creek sooner was the knowledge that Steve was here; the thought of teaching one of my heroes on Sunday was far too daunting! It seemed to me like making a BBQ sandwich for John Rivers. Why would you even try?

Anyway, one of my favorite books by Steve is A Scandalous Freedom. An associate pastor at my former church recommended it; I’m forever grateful. Honestly, it changed the way I viewed my role as a pastor, and my improved my understanding of God’s grace in salvation. In that book, Steve shares what is probably an apocryphal story about Abraham Lincoln. Here it is:

Abraham Lincoln went to a slave market. There he noted a young, beautiful African-American woman being auctioned off to the highest offer. He bid on her and won. He could see the anger in the young woman’s eyes and could imagine what she was thinking, ’another white man will buy me, use me, and then discard me’. As Lincoln walked off with his ‘property’, he turned to the woman and said, ‘You’re free’. ‘Yeah. What does that mean?’ she replied. ‘It means that you’re free.’ ‘Does it mean I can say whatever I want to say?’ ‘Yes,’ replied Lincoln, smiling, ‘it means you can say whatever you want to say.’ ‘Does it mean,’ she asked incredulously, ‘that I can be whatever I want to be?’ ‘Yes, you can be whatever you want to be.’ ‘Does it mean,’ the young woman said hesitantly, ‘that I can go wherever I want to go?’ ‘Yes, it means you are free and you can go wherever you want to go.’ ‘Then,’ said the woman with tears welling up in her eyes, ‘I think I’ll go with you.’

Some note that we don’t know if this episode was true of Lincoln, but we do know that it’s true of every one of us and Jesus. As he did for Zacchaeus, he’s done for us. He made the first move. He found us. He freed us. In loving gratitude, we now follow – freely, not under compulsion.

The Apostle John makes precisely this point in I John 4:10. Hear these words:

“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” – 1 John 4:10

A few verses later, he’s even more concise. He says:

“We love because he first loved us.” – 1 John 4:19

This brings us to a second point. Here it is.

#2. Jesus changes our hearts before he changes our direction.

Becoming a Christian is not ultimately, nor even primarily, about you “straightening up” and “flying right.” It’s also not ultimately about getting your “act” together. If you say it is, you actually invert the Christian faith; you put yourself first and Jesus Christ second. You trust in yourself, not Jesus; you have self-righteousness, not Christ’s righteousness. That’s not Christianity.

The irony of framing Christianity as ultimately, or even primarily about morality, is that it doesn’t make us more moral; confronted by our repeated failures, it eventually makes us give up. Being told what to do doesn’t give anyone the power to do it.

Take, for instance, the one battling a besetting sin – maybe something like pornography. They have a compulsion toward it. How might they battle that temptation? They might do so externally – maybe they face their computer screens at home and at work outwardly, so that people can see their activity. Maybe they use an Internet filter or otherwise restrict their devices. Maybe they enter an accountability group with people they trust, people who receive a record of their online activities. Maybe they don’t travel for business alone. Maybe they restrict the apps on their phone. Maybe they listen to voices calling them to more self-control.

Are these bad things? No – not at all. They might all be good things, as far as they go. They might help break a cycle of destructive behavior and create space in which to pursue true and deeper healing. However, and hear me, will any of these things – on their own - truly change a person? No. They might change a person’s behavior for a time, but it will not change them. None of these things have the power, in themselves, to change anyone. They might modify outward actions, but they cannot change inward affections or appetites.

So, where do we find the power for holiness? It’s found in Spirit-born affection for Jesus. When we love God from the heart, we grow to love what God loves. We will hate what God hates in whatever measure we grow to love what God loves. Jesus said it this way:

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” – 1 John 14:15

Renewed affections and renewed attitudes result in renewed actions. Listen to these words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:2. They echo something of this point.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Romans 12:2

Do you see this in Zacchaeus? Jesus blew his mind. He destroyed every category Zacchaeus had for understanding God and himself. No doubt, he thought God too far and himself too fallen, but here was Jesus in his living room. Here was Zacchaeus unworthy, but – in Jesus’ eyes – far from worthless.

Divine love, unexpected and undeserved, quickened the heart of Zacchaeus. This brings us to the third point.

#3. Jesus leads us not only to himself but back to one another.

Now, some of you know that Jesus died for your sin and lived for your righteousness. You know the old has gone, and that the new has come. However, even so, there are the haunting echoes; the scars that won’t heal; the skeletons that live to follow you wherever you go. How do you move forward in the present when you can’t quite shake the past?

People tend to make two mistakes here. One is to let the horizontal negate the vertical; the other is to let the vertical negate the horizontal. What do I mean by that? Follow me here.

Some people look around at the past they can’t shake (the consequences of bad decisions, be they relational, financial, medical, or something else) and conclude that they must not be loved and forgiven by God. They’re still condemned. This is to let the horizontal (our relationships with the world around us) negate the vertical (our relationship with God above us).

Others look up at God and conclude that a lack of his condemnation should mean a lack of earthly consequences. “If God’s wiped my slate clean, why can’t everyone else?” they ask in so many words. This is to let the vertical negate the horizontal. We use our repaired relationship with God to bypass repairing our relationships with others.

Now notice how Zacchaeus shows us a third way, a way Jesus says is a sign that salvation came to his house (Luke 19:9). Shown the remarkable grace of divine love (the vertical), Zacchaeus responds in love-born repentance. However, this repentance is not only vertical (before God), it is horizontal (before others). Zacchaeus says, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (19:8). In caring for the poor, this was far more than the normal 20% of one’s income. Four-fold restitution was probably close to his entire remaining fortune. Zacchaeus did what the rich young ruler could not do just a chapter before (cf. Luke 18:22).

Forgiveness and acceptance before God didn’t preclude Zacchaeus’ pursuit of justice for others; it propelled it.

In sending Jesus, God didn’t intend to reconcile us only to himself; he intended to reconcile us to one another. As we draw nearer to Christ, we draw nearer to one another. The Apostle Paul speaks to this in Colossians 1:19-20:

“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” – Colossians 1:19-20

How did people respond to Zacchaeus? We don’t know, but we do know humanity, don’t we? If you’ve ever read a social media comment section, you know that if we could run rockets on cynicism and sarcasm, there would already be a colony on Mars.

No doubt, some received the news of Zacchaeus’ transformation with great joys; others with great suspicion; and still others with hardened cynicism. These were all beyond his control. Perhaps for that reason, God calls us to pursue reconciliation, regardless of results. Listen to these words of the Apostle Paul:

“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” – Romans 12:17-18

You can’t change the past. You can’t change other people. But you can change direction.

If you’ve let someone down, maybe today you can seek their forgiveness; maybe you can start making amends. Maybe they’ll accept you; maybe they won’t – at least right away. That’s OK. You have all you need in Jesus. You’re not manipulating them out of need; you’re ministering to them from want.

If you’ve taken what’s not yours, maybe today is the day to give it back – maybe many times over. You’re not doing it to earn heavenly riches; you’re doing it because you already have them. In giving it away, you lose nothing because your heavenly riches are inexhaustible in Jesus Christ.

If someone needs your forgiveness, maybe today is the day to offer it – possibly many times over. Maybe you see a wee little Zaccheaus in yourself. Maybe you remember that God didn’t wait for you to earn his love and forgiveness; he gave it freely so that you can too.

#4. You can’t change the past, but you can change direction.

Tim Keller says a great thing about this passage. As we close, listen to this:

Religion says if I follow the rules, God owes me. The gospel says God has sent his Son to follow the rules for me, and now I owe him everything. How are you going to know the difference between whether you’re religious or you really have the gospel? If you know Jesus as Savior, you will get up and you will say, “Look, Lord! I will do anything for you. I will obey you unconditionally. Command me. I’m under new management!”

That really gets to the heart of this event. A heart set free is a heart that follows.

The past can’t be changed, but neither can it condemn. You don’t need to run from your past. Instead, run to Jesus. He'll take you where you need to be.

Let’s pray.


Brown, Steve. A Scandalous Freedom: West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing, 2004.

R. Kent Hughes, Luke: That You May Know the Truth, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 225.

Timothy J. Keller, The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive (New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2013).

Kevin LabbyZacchaeus