For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost. (Luke 19:10)
Few words come with as much comfort as Jesus’ clarity here as to why He came to us. Some scholars even believe this is the central statement of the Gospel account of Luke and Jesus’ mission.
As comforting as that statement is, a crucial question hangs in the air: what does it mean to be saved by Jesus?
The answer to such a question informs what kind of King Jesus is, the kind of Gospel (Luke 8:1) He came bringing and proclaiming, and the kind of implications His Kingdom reign mediates. The answer to this question impacts how we see every bit of our new life now because of Jesus and our promised everlasting life into eternity with Jesus. Ultimately the answer does not inform what it means to be a mature Christian, an elder or a leader in the faith. Rather, the answer informs what it does mean to be a Christian.
Because of the weight of such a question, this is where we may be tempted to do a bit of textual hopscotch jumping around the New Testament everywhere the word “saved” appears in a concordance. In so doing we seek to string together a series of one verse statements to come up with a broader answer to our question.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for this central statement of Jesus in Luke 19 to be taken out of its context, and as theologian, Dr. D.A. Carson would often remind me and my fellow seminarians in class: “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” Dr. Carson’s wordplay highlights how we can take a text out of its context and then easily import our own meaning. This is how one can support various ideologies whether completely heretical or theologically incomplete.
Therefore, the best way to navigate what any text means is to look first at its context. So first, one must ask “what does salvation mean here?”
What does salvation mean here?
Luke’s Gospel Account. In the context of holy Scripture, we find ourselves firmly situated in the Gospel of Luke, wherein Luke has sought to bring an orderly and reliable account of who Jesus is and what He came to do (Luke 1:3) .
In chapter 1, Luke sets out that this Jesus is not merely an astounding leader popping up disconnected from history. Rather, this Jesus is the promised Son of David, the Messiah (Hebrew), the Christ (Greek). He is the King who God promised years before would sit on a throne in a Kingdom that would know no end (Luke 1:32-33).
Therefore it’s no surprise that when we find Jesus declaring the Gospel (translated “good news” in many translations) He both proclaims and brings the gospel of the Kingdom. Throughout the whole of Luke we are asking what kind of King is Jesus and what kind of Kingdom is He bringing to save us from the oppression and brokenness of our world.
The title, “Son of Man,” that Jesus uses to signify His identity both here in Luke 19:10, and throughout Luke’s account, is another one of those many messianic titles (Daniel 7:13-14) that sparks interest in Jesus’ royal identity while simultaneously not allowing the listener to place their messianic ideology on Him. A lot of expectations were swirling in the first century as to what kind of messiah would finally deliver Israel.
When Jesus engages people in the narratives, these are not isolated incidents. He is ushering in His salvation and defining His reign one story at a time. One such space where this happens is with the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus’ Encounter. In Luke 19, we find an interesting dynamic in which Zacchaeus is clearly on the lookout for Jesus, but surprisingly Jesus is also looking for Zacchaeus. It is surprising because Zacchaeus’ status is that of an internal oppressor and betrayer of his own people. Then in a strange turn of events, when a “house” was more than just a home, Jesus invites himself over for dinner.
One’s house in the ancient Near East was an economic center, a place that situated one’s honor (or shame), and might actually be made of various homes of various families and servants. Jesus was the highly honored Messiah and Zacchaeus the scorn of Israel, and yet Jesus bestows honor on Zacchaeus that he did not deserve.
In many ways, the story of the rich ruler earlier in Luke 18 looms over this story. When the rich ruler engages Jesus he’s unwilling to give Jesus the final word over every aspect of his life including family and wealth. Will Zacchaeus be like the rich ruler? Will he be more tethered to his wealth or to Jesus? The tension is thick.
Then — without clear directive from Jesus — Zacchaeus offers to give half of his wealth to the poor and provide above and beyond reparations to those he’s swindled. What we may miss is how Jesus not dictating the response of Zacchaeus is important for his standing in the community.
King Jesus extends honor graciously. It therefore allows space for Zacchaeus to respond on his own initiative to the gracious honor bestowed upon him by Jesus, which in turn sets the stage for Zacchaeus’ reconciliation to the community.
It is only then that Jesus says (and the order of the narrative is important), “Today, salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).
There’s that word “house” again. Salvation has not just come to Zacchaeus otherwise that is what Luke would have recorded. But that is not what Jesus sought to communicate. As we follow the text we read that salvation came to Zacchaeus’ house. It has impacted his person, his economics, the community’s economics (those who experienced theft were restored), and even his communal belonging. Within a contextual reading of Luke 19:10, we quickly come to understand that Jesus’ salvation involves more than just our ethereal souls.
For King Jesus, when His salvation breaks in He not only saves us from our broken past, He also saves us for new life which encompasses our personal, spiritual, communal and financial outworkings of everyday life both now and into eternity.
This is a deeply biblical framework for salvation by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. But is that how we often think of salvation?
If when we say “I’m saved” we only mean our souls and not the radically reoriented whole life of repentance and reconciliation, then we’ve left Jesus’ thought of salvation incomplete.
Someone then may say, “But in Romans 10:9, I read, ‘…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’” Of course we must detail out what “heart” means in Scripture, what belief means in Scripture, which is more than just mental assent, and how the declaration that “Jesus is Lord” has lordship implications. For what is Jesus not Lord over? What was the overall argument Paul was making in Romans? Once again: context, context, context.
If this robust nature of salvation is in view here and has implications across Scripture, how is it that this view of salvation is foreign to so many of us?
Salvation as a Bridge
As I grew up in the church, I often saw an illustration that was meant to communicate how Jesus came to save me. It is both helpful, but also incomplete.
I grew up hearing that I am on one side of a great canyon too large to cross on my own. The reason I stood on one side of the canyon was due to my sin. On the other side of this impassable canyon was God. He stood there because of his holiness and perfection. No matter how many good things I did, I could not cross the canyon.
So — as the illustration displays — when Jesus died to save me from my sins on the cross, if I trust in Him and His sufficient work on the cross, I am able to be saved. My sins were forgiven because of Jesus’ death in my place, and Jesus’ work on the cross on my behalf was the bridge to reconciliation with God.
The result of my salvation is that I get to spend eternity with God in heaven. Period.
Growing up if someone asked me, “Are you saved?” They meant this kind of salvation.
Now, that is good news, and it is a crucial part of the good news. But, as we saw with Zacchaeus, that is not all the salvation that Jesus came to bring.
Saved from Other… Saved Folk.
For starters, Jesus came not only to save “me” but to save “us.” The image above shows a picture of an individual and God, which can easily (even if not intentionally) communicate that the salvation Jesus has come to bring is now a “me and Jesus” life and community is “optional.”
As the old saying goes, “What you win people with, you win them to.” In the midst of our individualizing salvation, is it any wonder that Christians on a massive scale erroneously believe they can plumb the depths of their salvation in isolation from a church community and actually be closer to Christ?
This is a serious concern because we have made a crucial component of salvation the exclusive summary of salvation, and the outcome is a salvation without a church. Maybe a more snarky way to put it is a misunderstanding of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone through an individualized lens has led some to be all alone.
We need a more biblical picture of salvation.
A Better Picture of Salvation
In Amy Sherman’s Kingdom Calling she offers a more biblical illustration to mine the depths of the salvation Jesus came to bring in His Kingdom. She shares this graph from Intervarsity leader James Choung to guide us in a better way.
First, we see we are damaged by evil and sin (upper right circles). Sin we have committed and sin that has been committed against us. We see it, feel it, and long for it to be made right. (Which if you are talking with someone who is not a follower of Jesus, this as a starting point builds common ground to share the gospel). But the difference is in how this image communicates the broader breakdown of God’s world. Our sin and evil not only separates us from God, but also from each other, creates fragmentation within ourselves, and cultivates a distortion of creation and our call to care for God’s world.
When Jesus came (bottom right circles), He came to restore the good we were designed for in the beginning (upper left circles) which encompasses all aspects of life. Is there reconciliation with God on a personal level? Yes! But there is also reconciliation with others, with broader creation, and yes, even within ourselves.
And that isn’t the end. We are not just saved from evil but for good (bottom left circles)! We have been saved as a community of believers to be agents of reconciliation this world over. The church is a redemptive community on mission together.
In the words of James Choung, “Jesus enticed people into a kingdom mission from the outset.”
This is what salvation in Jesus means. This is the salvation Jesus came to bring. This is King Jesus’ Kingdom agenda to reconcile all things to Himself (Colossians 1:20). This is what Jesus means when He says salvation came to Zacchaeus’ house.
And rather than robbing us of our personal relationship with Christ, it adds another level of comfort to the astounding claim of Jesus that He came to seek and save the lost in a robust way.
Are we willing to be saved like this?
Now the question becomes frankly a question that is posed to people who approach Jesus in the gospels again and again: are we willing to be saved like this? Will we let Jesus’ grace reorient everything, or nothing? Will we embrace this kind of Kingdom and this kind of King?
Because Jesus wants all of us to be saved, not just parts of us. He wants all the broken, mangled, and messed up areas of our lives both personally and corporately as a church, and He longs to save.
And He will take any of us as long as He can have every part of us. That’s the beauty of Zacchaeus’ story too. Jesus sought the worst and His grace led to whole-life repentance and salvation.
Will we let Him save us like that?
If we do, we won’t just be waiting for heaven to come one day, but will experience the reign of Christ in the everyday. We won’t just know a deeper joy within ourselves in our personal private disciplines, but also experience a greater depth of joy with one another. We will see the reconciliation that Paul was zealous about within the church, the poor and vulnerable who James was concerned for would be cared for within the church, and those with great power, wealth and status, like Zacchaeus, would go to great lengths to leverage their power to make their communities more whole.
On top of all that, we will see a whole host of people who don’t know Jesus and are uninterested in a salvation of disembodied souls, finally hear and see all that Jesus has come to bring and proclaim in His Kingdom. We will finally see more Zacchaeuses’ come to know and trust Jesus and more Jerichos (Luke 19:1, 8) experience restoration through repentance.
And in the end, that is good news for one’s soul.
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For Further Study:
Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good by Amy Shermon. The chapter of note above is How the Gospel of the Kingdom Nurtures the Tsaddiqim. Also within this chapter, James Choung talks of how sharing the gospel with unbelievers using the circles paradigm has been catalytic in their gospel conversations.