And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute? He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? Of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? Of their own children, or of strangers? Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free. Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee (Matt. 17:24-27).
This incident in the life of Jesus tells how Jesus paid his Temple tax. On this occasion, those who were appointed to collect tribute money came to Peter to ask if his teacher (didaskalos) paid tribute. The tax under consideration is not the poll-tax for the Roman government (kenson, from which our word “census” is derived) or the tax on goods (phoros). He is asking about the “tribute,” the didrachma, the half-shekel tax collected in obedience to God’s commandment.
This they shall give, every one that passeth among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary: (a shekel is twenty gerahs:) an half shekel shall be the offering of the Lord. Every one that passeth among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and above, shall give an offering unto the Lord. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when they give an offering unto the Lord, to make an atonement for your souls (Exod. 30:13-15; cf. 2 Kings 12:4ff; 2 Chron. 24:6; Neh. 10:32).
The money that was collected was used to sustain the Temple and was generally known as the “Temple tax.” It was not enforced by civil government as those collected by government usually are; it was a voluntary “tax.” The question that is asked presupposes that the teacher will pay the tax, as commanded by the Law.
Jesus used the occasion of this tax to emphasize various lessons for his disciples which we now consider:
1. Jesus pays his taxes. Although Jesus argues that he is exempt from paying the Temple tax (see below, nevertheless, to avoid giving an offense to those who might take note of Jesus not paying such taxes, the son of God pays his tax. (In this respect, he voluntarily chose not to practice that which he had the right to do to avoid occasions of stumbling. Compare Paul’s conduct in 1 Corinthians 9:1-16 and the general discussions in 1 Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14.) However, he does not have the funds to pay his taxes. Rather, he sends Peter to the Sea of Galilee with instructions for how to secure the funds to pay their taxes. He who was the Son of God indeed became poor that we might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). Later he said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). We see details of the degree to which Jesus denied himself, emptied himself, in order to become the Savior of mankind.
2. Jesus, the Son of God, is exempt from such taxes. When Peter approached Jesus about the tax, Jesus asked him about taxes in general. He asked whom kings usually taxed. Things were a bit different in Rome than in America. The Roman government usually exempted its own citizens and collected its taxes from those foreigners who had been defeated in war (designated here as “strangers”). Knowing the situation, Peter replied that taxes are usually paid by strangers, not their own children.
Jesus affirmed his exemption from such taxes based on who he was. The tax was a Temple tax collected for God. As the Son of God, as Peter confessed Jesus to be at Caesarea Philippi just a few days earlier as recorded in Matthew 16:16 (“Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God”), Jesus was exempt from such taxation. His claiming exemption from taxation is an affirmation of his deity, his sonship. He was “son of God” not by adoption, as we are, but by the essence of his nature. Privately to Peter he affirms his deity. The verse affirms Jesus’ self-consciousness of his supernatural sonship. Indeed, a greater than the Temple is present (Matt. 12:6) and justly owes no Temple tax. He did not learn of his deity through Mary’s coaching him; the Lord was fully aware of his relationship to the Father and the events that transpired while he was in heaven (John 16:30; 17:5).
3. Jesus confirms his divine sonship by several miracles. Notice the several miracles recorded in this account:
a. Miracles demonstrating his omniscience. Matthew specifically indicates Jesus’ knowledge of the conversation that transpired between Peter and those who came to collect the Temple tax. Jesus “spake of it first” (Matt. 17:25, NIV and NRSV). H.A.W. Meyer comments, “. . . the evangelist must have ascribed what Jesus says to Peter to His immediate knowledge of the thoughts of others” (Matt. 3:17). This is one of several instances in which Jesus demonstrates his omniscience while on earth; he knows things that he could not have known by human knowledge alone (cf. John 1:50). John said, “But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man (John 2:24-25). Jesus’ knowledge of Peter’s conversation was one proof of Jesus’ omniscience.
Another proof of his omniscience is seen in his telling Peter how to collect the money to pay the tax. He said, “Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee” (Matt. 17:27). How did Jesus know about a fish in the Sea of Galilee with a coin in its mouth? He knew that by his divine omniscience. This miracle was not designed to show that the Father or the Holy Spirit possess omniscience, which no one doubts, but to prove that Jesus is the Son of God, with all the powers of deity, who is exempt from Temple taxes because he is the Son of God.
b. Miracles demonstrating his omnipotence. When Jesus instructed Peter to go catch the fish in whose mouth a coin would be found, he did more than display omniscience. He demonstrated his divine control over nature. Peter was responsible to get his fishing pole and go fishing. Jesus was the one who commanded the fish to swallow a coin, to go to the place where Peter would be fishing, and to bite his bait. This is the same control over nature that is demonstrated when Jesus walked on water (John 6:19), commanded the winds and the waves to obey him (Matt. 8:26-27), and controlled the fish on the occasion of the two miraculous draughts of fish (Luke 5:4-7; John 21:8-11). These miracles were not designed to demonstrate that the Father or the Holy Spirit are omnipotent, but to demonstrate that the Son of God is omnipotent.
Alexander Maclaren wrote, “The miracle was for a trivial end in appearance, but it was a demonstration, though to one man only at first, yet through him to all the world, that this Christ, in His lowliness, is the Everlasting Son of the Father” (The Biblical Illustrator: Matthew 387).
From this miracle, let us be reminded of who Jesus is. He was, is, and ever will be God the Son. “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever” (Heb. 13:8).
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