Anatomy of a Conversion


There are shows on television that start with the letters “CSI.” CSI stands for Crime Scene Investigator. I have never seen any of these shows, but they are very popular. Clues are gathered from crime scenes and, as the evidence mounts, crimes are solved. Sometimes the shows focus on the work of the forensic pathologist. A pathologist is a doctor who determines the cause of death by examining the corpses of the deceased.  Many times it is not even necessary that the body to have recently died.


Did Napoleon die of natural causes, or was he poisoned by his captors?

While Napoleon's physician ruled that the cause of the former emperor's death on Saint Helena was a stomach ulcer, there has been some suspicion that he was poisoned, perhaps by his British captors. In a 1961 paper in Nature, physician and amateur toxicologist Sten Forshufvud proposed that Napoleon's symptoms were consistent with arsenic poisoning, fueling further speculation that the people charged with his care were to blame for his death.

High levels of arsenic have been found in Napoleon's hair, but that's not unusual for the period. Many cosmetics, including hair tonic, contained arsenic. And there is no evidence of hemorrhaging of his heart or other indicators of arsenic poisoning. Pathologists were called in and examined Napoleon's stomach. After examination they had little doubt of the cause: the body shows clear signs of stomach cancer and a grainy substance found in the stomach indicates gastrointestinal bleeding, which most likely did Napoleon in.


In order to be a pathologist, one must have a comprehensive knowledge of anatomy as well as how various parts of the body are affected by different types of trauma or disease.


This morning, we will use anatomy (examining the parts) to determine the process of conversion. Conversion, of course, is simply the experience of a person passing from a state of unbelief to a state of genuine belief. It is a person progressing from self-living to saving faith.


What is the anatomy of a conversion? This is important to answer for there is such a thing as false conversion. There is real faith and there is false faith, or what the Bible calls dead faith.


Our Scripture reading this morning is Luke 19:1-10. 


Jesus entered Jericho. Jericho was one of the most interesting places in the world. As far as can be demonstrated by archaeology, it is the oldest known city on the world. You may remember that the Israelites, upon reaching the promised land, conquered pagan Jericho in a rather dramatic and supernatural fashion. Not that it is necessary, but the conquest of Jericho has been confirmed by archaeology. A tablet has been discovered in the city of Armana, Egypt, dating back to the time of the Pharoahs, written by a man by the name of Adoni-zedec to the king of Egypt. In it he writes: “The Hebrews have prevailed and have taken the fortress of Jericho. They are plundering all the king’s lands.”


The conquest of Jericho is found in Numbers 31 and Joshua 6. That would have been about 1400 BC. It would later be destroyed, probably by the Babylonian invasion in 586 BC.


The Jericho of the New Testament was rebuilt by Herod the Great one and a half miles southeast of the original Jericho. It is a pretty area with many palm trees and, because it is 740 feet below sea level, it has a pleasantly warm climate: 59 degree average in January and 88 degree average in August bur, of course, not humid.


“Jesus entered Jericho.” He did not merely go to the temple while in Jerusalem. He did not only attend the synagogue when in Galilee. He did not just go to church. He went out to the towns and proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom.


“There was a man named Zacchaeus.” This was no ordinary sinner. He was a tax collector. Tax collectors are not thought too highly of in modern times. But in Israel they were particularly despised because they were seen as helping the enemy, Rome. Not only were they helping the enemy but they would always add to what Rome demanded to line their own pockets.  Not only was he a tax collector but he was a chief tax collector – the head of the despised.


 In verse 3 we see the first part of our anatomy lesson. He was seeking to see Jesus! He knew he was a sinner. He knew that his heart was not right with God. But he also knew that there was something special about Jesus. He knew that Jesus was empowered by God and he wanted to see him. If there was anyone who could fix his life, it would be Jesus.


[I] This is the first step in conversion. One must seek God. One must seek Jesus. Who seeks after God? The apostle Paul answers this question in his letter to the Romans, 3:10-18. 


Just considering verses 10 and 11, one commentator has observed, “This is one of the most radical and extensive indictments of the corruption of man ever to appear in print.”[1]

I agree with him.


The apostle Paul begins with a universal negative: “None is righteous, no, not one;” He is saying that no human being who has ever lived (apart from Jesus), when judged by the standard of God’s law, can be called righteous.


“No one understands.” Understands what? Understands what true righteousness even is. Everyone does understand what right and wrong is. Everyone has a conscience that tells them what is right and what is wrong. But righteousness includes not only the finer points of the law, but our motives as well. Our very minds are infected by unrighteousness.


“No one seeks after God.” But why does it seem to us that people do search after God?  Thomas Aquinas, wrestled with this particular question. He gave us this insight: when we see people searching for such things as truth, peace of mind, eternal life or happiness, they are searching for relief from their guilt. These are things that Christians know only God can give them. So we leap to the conclusion that since they are searching diligently for those things which only God can give them, they must therefore be searching for God. But it is precisely this in which man’s sinfulness consists, says Aquinas, that man seeks for the benefits of God, while fleeing from the Person of God.[2]


The whole of Scripture, from the Garden of Eden in Genesis to the conclusion of the book of Revelation, describes the great God who is searching for and seeking to save that which is lost. God is pursuing us, while we are the fugitives fleeing from him.[3]


Not only are there none who are righteous, nor any who understand, nor any who seek, but we have no ability to be right. We have no ability to understand. We have no desire to seek God and never will…until the Spirit comes and breathes life into us.


Zacchaeus was seeking Jesus because God softened his heart.


The first step in leaving your old life behind is to seek Jesus.


[II] “…but on account of the crowd he could not” see him. There are many things that crowd into our life that prevent us from seeing Jesus. Our jobs, our family duties, and that time-eater, entertainment, crowd our lives and we cannot see Jesus.


Zacchaeus was also small of stature. Maybe if he were taller he could have seen Jesus. Maybe if we had more resolve in our stature of character we could see Jesus over the crowd. But we are just like Zacchaeus. We are too short sighted to see Jesus.


Zacchaeus could have given up. “Oh well, I’m just a short, little man. There are too many people here. I suppose I’ll never see Jesus.” He could have walked away and gone back to counting his money.


But, he decided to do something about it. He wanted Jesus badly enough that “he ran on ahead and climbed up” into a tree.


He ran and climbed. This is the second part of our anatomy lesson. Zacchaeus did what he could. He didn’t give up. Now, we will see that what he did contributed nothing to his salvation. Likewise, nothing that any person can do will ever, or can ever, contribute anything to his salvation Still, once the Spirit begins to stir up a desire in the human heart, that person will do what they can to see Jesus.


Run and climb! It may only be a few steps. It may only be the first branch up the tree. But do what you can to see Jesus!.


Friday evening Josie and I were blessed to attend a meeting of the Twin Rivers Baptist Association. (That is our association of Baptist churches in a three-county area.) One of the pastors shared how either his wife or his daughter recently began a study using the Experiencing God workbooks with eleven women who were not Christians. When the study was completed nine of them made professions of faith. The husbands noticed a profound change in the behavior of these nine wives. So, he was asked to conduct the same study with their husbands. They are in the midst of that study right now.


Those women ran. Their husbands are climbing to get a view of Jesus. They are doing what they can. What if those women refused to run? What if they declined the invitation to attend the study? Then, obviously, none of them would have found the saving Christ. That is not to say that God could not bring them to Jesus in some other way at some other time. He can. It is just that there must be enough of a motivation to move us to pursue after Christ for him to be seen.


Do what you can to see Jesus!


[III] Verse 5 reads, “When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.’” The Lord called his name! The Spirit woos a person to take interest in Jesus. It creates in the heart a strong enough desire to take action in finding him. But there comes a time when there is a direct call. Zacchaeus heeded the call.  He could have said, “I do not wish for you to come to my house today. I am satisfied now that I have seen you.”


Oh! Do you know there are people like that today? Some people’s lives are on the wrong track. They know that it is. They have an attraction to Jesus. They have a desire to see him. They even will come to a study or they will listen to what you have to say. But, when the call comes to them personally, they will go no further.


But, in verse 6 we read that Zacchaeus  “hurried and came down and received him joyfully!” He answered the call! When the call of the Spirit – for that is who works on earth today since Jesus is gone – comes and it is answered, this is termed an “effectual call.” It is effective because it is the Spirit himself that makes it so.


Not only did Zacchaeus  obey Jesus (he came down), but he received him joyfully! Why did he have joy? Because he knew certain things. He knew that he was a despised man. He knew that he was a sinner. He knew that others would not receive him. He knew that Jesus was from God. And, he knew that Jesus cared enough about him to personally come to his house.


When a person knows these things – their own unworthiness, their own sinfulness, that Jesus is who he claimed to be – and then they also know that Jesus desires them, joy rises up within them. A person who experiences an effectual call experiences joy!


This was my experience as a twenty-year-old young man. I was sitting in my car at night on a lonely country road in Northern California. My life wasn’t going well, to say the least. I poured out my heart to God in prayer, confessing my great need and the Lord answered with forgiveness. I drove to that country road in desperation. I drove back to the AF base where I was stationed filled with joy. Joy results at the intersection of faith and Spirit. When one knows their own condition and the Spirit communicates to them that Jesus is coming into their house, joy always results.


There were grumblers (verse 7). There will always be grumblers, complainers, fault-finders, and naysayers. Zacchaeus ignored them. You, too, must ignore them and follow your heart.


[IV] “And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of all my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything I restore it fourfold.’” Do you know what this is? It is repentance. It was a turning from living life for himself and a turning to what God’s law required: paying four times what was stolen in Exodus 22:1.


The laws of God seem burdensome to those who have not been regenerated by His Spirit. But those whom the Spirit effectually calls find that they have a love for God’s law. David could write:


            Oh how I love your law!

                        It is my meditation all the day.

(Psalm 119:97 ESV)


This is what repentance is. One’s mind is radically changed from living out of self-interest to living for God. But we do not know how to live for God on our own. So, he has graciously given us His word, the Scriptures, to show us the way. Zacchaeus, being a jew, had known the OT from a child. Now that his heart had been transformed, the law that he once knew and avoided became his joy.


Finally, when he shows his repentance, Jesus says that salvation came to his house.


[V. Conclusion and Application] When we study the anatomy of Zacchaeus’ conversion we see these four steps:


  1. One must seek God.
  2. One does something about it. It’s more than just a feeling.
  3. One receives Jesus joyfully.
  4. One repents.


We can, like the pathologists who examined Napoleon’s corpse, determine the cause of death in a person’s so-called faith. Either our own or another’s.


Are you seeking Jesus? If you are in church this morning (or reading this online), you probably are.


What are you doing about it? Are you running and climbing? Or, are you just listening? Always listening, but never doing anything? If so, it is time to do what you can. Show forth how strong your seeking is.


Have you received Jesus joyfully? If joy was missing, maybe you never saw how forlorn your condition truly is.


What is your attitude towards God’s law? Do you love it as David did?


At whatever step you find a missing element, that is the place to speak to the Lord, to ask him to open your eyes and help you to see Jesus in the way Zacchaeus saw him and experienced him.


These four parts are not only for analyzing a conversion, but they may be used to direct us to a greater and better walk with our Lord in the face of our failure and sin.


“Thank you, Lord, for putting this account of Zacchaeus in the Bible for us!”


[1] Sproul, R. C. (1994). The Gospel of God: An Exposition of Romans (p. 64). Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications.

[2] Ibid (p. 65).

[3] Ibid