Two boys asked a baseball coach the same question, “When can I play ball?” Yet each received a different answer. The first boy was told, “You’ll need to sign up and try out.” The second heard, “Just wait. You’ll be called.” Context enables us to understand why the answers differed. One boy was not yet on the team.
Since scripture provides different answers regarding salvation, Zacchaeus’ story reminds us to interpret messages within their context if we seek an author-centered understanding. Such a reminder promotes an accurate handling of two distinct New Testament messages. Simplistically latching on to either message tempts us to disregard the other.
Zacchaeus’ story is well known. A small man climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus. Jesus told him to come down because he wanted to eat with him. Once home, Zacchaeus proclaimed he would return four times whatever he had defrauded someone. Furthermore, he would give half of his possessions to the poor. Jesus announced salvation had come to his house.
This retelling of Zacchaeus ignored a critical detail. Without that detail, our understanding regarding salvation might become overly simplistic, muddled and contradictory.
Jesus’ actual statement was, “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” (Luke 19:9-10). Luke guides us toward two important details. First, Zacchaeus was an Israelite, a son of Abraham. As such, we should understand that he already belonged to God’s covenant people. In other words, he was already “in.”
To review the big picture, God had claimed Israel as his holy people through covenant (Deuteronomy 29:12-15; Exodus 19:5-6; 24:7-8). They had not made themselves God’s people by righteous living. Rather, as God’s people they were to maintain God’s work in their lives by how they lived.
Unfortunately, the prophets had needed to repeatedly pronounce woe upon God’s people because they had insisted in abandoning God’s ways. Although Zacchaeus was “a son of Abraham,” he likewise had lost his way. Thus when Zacchaeus repented, Jesus pronounced salvation had arrived.
Jesus informed non-Jews that salvation belonged to the Jews (John 4:22). Jesus, as someone who lived under the old covenant, focused his ministry upon the Jews, whom he called the lost sheep of Israel (Matthew 15:24; Galatians 4:4-5). At the same time, he prepared everybody to receive the good news he would make possible for all peoples (Luke 2:30-32; 24:46-47). Thus, we should remember how the context of covenant shapes what someone is told regarding salvation. Does that person need to become part of God’s people? Does God’s person need to be reminded to walk in God’s ways?
A coach might tell one boy to “sign up” in order to play, while he tells another “just wait your time.” In the same way, context shapes the instructions given to people regarding eternal life.
Notice how Paul’s, Peter’s and James’ messages to God’s people within the new covenant mirror Jesus’ statements to God’s people under the old covenant. For God’s people to be saved entails practicing God’s ways!
‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘… love the Lord your God with all your heart … and your neighbor as yourself.’ He said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live’” Luke 10:25-28.
“‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ … ‘Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’ … ‘Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.’ Jesus … said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’” Mark 10:17-21.
“Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” 2 Peter 1:5,10,11.
“They are to do good, to be rich in good works … thus storing up treasure for themselves … so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” 1 Timothy 6:18,19.
“What good is it … if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother is … lacking food, and you say to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” James 2:14-17.
Compare how this previous message about salvation contrasts with the instructions to those outside of the New Covenant.
… unless you believe that I am he, you will die in your sins” John 8:24.
“‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. … And they spoke the word of the Lord to him … and he was baptized at once, he and all his family’” Acts 16:30-33
“‘What shall we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself’” Acts 2:37-39.
Loving God and doing good do not constitute another path toward eternal life distinct from relying upon the risen Christ who died for us. Rather, one message is for God’s people to fulfill their purpose while the other is for those outside of Christ to enter Christ.
Previous series’ article: The Car Illustration: Works versus Doing