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The Disciples' Continuing Unbelief, Part 3: The King's Son Pays the Tax

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Oct 18, 1998

Matthew 17:24-27

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If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew, chapter 17.  We’ve been in Matthew 17 for a number of weeks now.  We’ve seen the account of our Lord’s transfiguration, His glory on the mountain.  We’ve seen Him come down from the mountain and return to the villages and do a great work of healing, the young boy who was both demon possessed, and also afflicted by other ailments.  We’ve seen Jesus for the second time give His disciples a very explicit warning about the suffering and death and eventual resurrection which He was going to undergo in Jerusalem.  And today we see Him teach the disciples yet another lesson about His deity, even while He teaches them some practical lessons for Christian living.  So let’s hear God’s holy and inspired word in Matthew 17, beginning in verse 24:

Matthew 17:24-27 

Our Father, we thank You for Your truth.  We ask now that by the Spirit You would make that truth apparent to our hearts, not only that we might understand it, but that we might become hearers who are doers of Your word.  We ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.  

Jesus and His disciples had been away from Capernaum for some time.  You remember that that had been Jesus’ headquarters, His home base for a good while of His ministry.  But He and His disciples had been out in Galilee ministering.  They had even been outside of Galilee ministering amongst the crowds and now as He had returned to the land of Galilee, He was not returning for public ministry.  We have seen for the last several weeks that in this chapter, Matthew, chapter 17, the focus of His ministry is on the disciples themselves.  He wants them to be prepared not only for what they are going to have to face in the days of His suffering and crucifixion, but He wants them to be prepared for their ministry after that time.  And so he has been pouring Himself into them, rather than pouring Himself into the crowds for the last number of verses that we have been studying. 

But He returns to Capernaum after a long time away and the tax collectors are waiting.  And out of respect for the Lord Jesus Christ, they come to Peter, and they ask Peter a question.  Now Matthew is the only gospel writer to record this particular story.  This is a singular story recorded here in Matthew.  May we speculate that Matthew’s own background - you remember he was a tax collector - would have made this a particularly interesting exchange to him.  He records it for us, and in the story Jesus reinforces several great principles for Christian living that apply to all of us, and He once again testifies to His deity, to His divinity.  So let’s look at God’s holy word here in verses 24 to the end of the chapter.   

I.     Jesus willingly submitted Himself to the OT laws on giving.
And I want you to see, first of all, if you direct your attention to verses 24 and then that very first phrase in verse 25, you will see the question that these tax collectors put to Peter.  And you’ll see the discussion which ensued about the temple tax.  “When they came to Capernaum, those who collected the two-drachma tax came to Peter and said to Peter, ‘Does your teacher not pay the two-drachma tax?’”  They expected him to say  ‘No, He doesn’t.’   And Peter surprises them by saying , ‘Yes,’ unambiguously, emphatically, ‘Yes, He does pay the tax.’  In that little exchange we learn something about Jesus.  We learn that Jesus willingly submitted Himself to the Old Testament on giving, including the ceremonial laws that would pass away when the temple passed away. 

It’s important to note that the tax that is being spoken of here is not like your property tax, it’s not like your income tax, it’s not even like a sales tax.  This tax was, in fact, a religious tax.  It’s actually based on the law of ransom which was set forth in Exodus, chapter 30.  I’d invite you to turn with me there, to Exodus, chapter 30, verse 12, and see exactly what we are talking about.  In Exodus, chapter 30, the Lord commanded through Moses that every male Israelite over the age of nineteen would be responsible once a year to pay an assessment in the amount of two drachmas for the upkeep of the temple.  Temple worship was expensive.  In order to sustain the sacrifices being offered, in order to keep up the facilities of the temple mount, in order to facilitate the national worship of Israel, every male in the land over the age of nineteen had the responsibility, once a year, of providing this two drachma tax.  Now two drachmas were about the equivalent of two day’s wages for a normal worker.  So this was a fairly significant amount of money that was devoted simply to the upkeep of the temple.  It was apart from the tithe, it was devoted specifically to the temple and its sacrificial system itself.  Look at Exodus 30, beginning in verse 12: “When you take a census of the sons of Israel to number them, then each one of them shall give a ransom for himself to the Lord, when you number them, that there may be no plague among them when you number them.  This is what everyone who is numbered shall give, half a shekel according to a shekel of the sanctuary, (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as a contribution to the Lord.  Everyone who is numbered, from twenty years old or over, shall give the contribution to the Lord.  The rich shall not pay more, and the poor shall not pay less than half shekel, when you give the contribution to the Lord to make atonement for yourselves.”  And so in this passage we see that this was a flat assessment.  It was a flat tax.  Everybody, regardless of their own personal income, was to pay this debt amount to the Lord’s work of the temple.  And it was this that the tax collectors were asking Peter about. 

Now we know that Capernaum was a center for tax collection.  Matthew was from there.  That was his job.  He was a tax collector. And so it is not surprising that after being away from Capernaum for a long time and coming back, that the tax collectors would show up and ask Jesus if he planned on paying His yearly allotment to the temple tax.  And the tax collectors themselves expected Peter to say, “No, Jesus doesn’t pay the temple tax.”  Why did they expect that?  Well, first of all you see that they expected it in the way they asked the question.  They asked, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?”  They don’t ask, “Does He pay the tax?”  They expect him to say, “Of course not, of course He doesn’t pay the tax.” 

Why did they expect that?  Because they had so often seen Jesus contradict the Scribes and the Pharisees.  And as far as the tax collectors were concerned, contradicting the Old Testament or contradicting the Scribes was the Pharisees was the same thing, because for them there was no difference between the written law and the oral law.  There was no difference between the divinely given statutes in the word of God, and the human, the man-made additions or traditions which had been given by the rabbis.  And so they figured, “Well, if He rejects what the rabbi’s say, maybe He rejects what Moses and the book of Exodus say.”  And so they expected Peter to say, “No, He doesn’t pay that tax.” 

But they had missed a fundamental distinction in Jesus’ quarrel with the Pharisees.  Jesus wasn’t just being contrarian, Jesus wasn’t just being reactionary.  In other words, if the crowds were for something, Jesus didn’t say, “Well, okay, I’ll be against it.”  And if the crowds were against something, He didn’t say “Well, I’ll be for it.”  No, Jesus was operating on a much more fundamental principle than that.  He wasn’t just trying to be adverse.  He wasn’t just trying to be obtuse.  He wasn’t trying to be reactionary.  He was acting on the principle that if the word of God says it, I do it.  But if the word of man adds to the word of God a command, I refuse it for the sake of the people and for the authority of the word of God.  Because if I obey this man-made commandment, it gives the law of man equal priority with the law of God, and that dishonors My heavenly Father.  And furthermore, if I obey the law of man, I give the people the idea that that is something that God wants them to do, and thus I send them into bondage just like the Pharisees and Scribes.  And so Jesus had a very, very clear principle.  If God’s word says it, I obey it.  But if man’s word says it, I will not allow God’s word to be compromised because of the additions of man.  And so the tax collectors weren’t drawing that distinction between tradition and God’s word.  But Jesus clearly was.  And Peter does well here. 

By the way, this question was not adversarial.  The tax collectors seemed to be showing a great deal of respect for Jesus here.  They approach Peter instead of Jesus so as not to embarrass Him, and they genuinely seem to want to know the answer to the question.  They want to know is this something that your master does or doesn’t?  This doesn’t seem to be a trap, they just want to know what His answer is on this particular issue.  And Peter unhesitatingly answers, “Yes, He pays this two-drachma tax.”  Now Peter may have seen the Lord Jesus pay this tax before.  Or he may have remembered what the Lord Jesus said in Matthew, chapter 5, verses l7 and 18 that not one jot or one tittle of the law would pass away if the law had been fulfilled.  Or he may have been thinking of what Jesus said in the following verses where He indicated that the one who teaches and keeps the law, is the greatest in the kingdom.  But for whatever reason Peter is unhesitating in his response to the tax collectors.  “Jesus, “he says, “Yes, He does pay these taxes.” 

What do we learn from that brief exchange?  Well, we learn at least two things.  First of all, we are reminded by this exchange that our Lord Jesus, though He was the very Son of God, was born under the law.  Do you remember those words from the Apostle Paul?  Please turn with me to Galatians, chapter 4.  In Galatians, chapter 4, verses 4 and 5, we read this:  “But when the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the law that we might receive the adoption as sons.”  It’s interesting to me that in the very passage where Paul talks about Jesus being born under the law, he also talks about our adoption as sons.  And that is a connection which Jesus Himself makes in the passage we are studying today.  One minute He’s talking about His obligations to the law.  The next minute He’s talking about His privileges, His prerogatives as a Son, and by implication our prerogatives as sons and daughters of God in Him. 

And so what we learn here is that Jesus was under the law.  By nature, Jesus was not under the law as the sinless, second person of the Trinity.  What was the ceremonial law for?  The ceremonial law was designed to set forth the reality that sinners needed grace.  Jesus wasn’t a sinner.  He didn’t need grace.  He was the very second person of the Trinity.  The ceremonial law was not designed for the second person of the Trinity.  It was designed for sinners in the need of grace.  And yet He submitted Himself to the law for our sake.  He was born under the law that He might bear the penalty of the law as well as fulfill the righteousness of the law on our behalf.  And we’re reminded of that even here in this passage. 

But we’re also reminded of the distinction that Jesus made between the divinely given words of God in the Old Testament and the human additions and traditions that had been added by the rabbis.  Jesus made a vital distinction between those two things.  And if you don’t understand that, you don’t understand much of His ministry.  Much of His ministry was spent on exalting the sole authority of the word of God, and attacking the additions that man had made to that word.  And here again we see that distinction.  The tax collectors don’t have that distinction in mind, so they expect Jesus to reject the temple tax.  But Jesus comes back and He says the temple tax is in Exodus 30, I’m going to do it.  Bear that in mind as we continue to look at this passage. 

II.    Jesus, as a Son, had every ground for exemption.      
I want you to see a second thing in verses 25 and 26.  If you look at the second phrase there in verse 25 and verse 26, you will see Jesus engage Peter in some spiritual reflection on the privileges of the Son of God.  And in these two verses we learn that Jesus, as a Son, had every ground to be exempt from the temple tax.  Jesus as a Son, had every ground for exemption from this temple tax.  Peter goes immediately to the house after talking with the tax collectors.  Jesus meets him at the door, and before Peter can get a word out of his mouth, Jesus is already asking him about the principles involved in paying the temple tax.  And, in fact, He is going to give Peter instructions about how to provide for the paying of the temple tax before Peter can even bring up the fact that the tax collectors have mentioned to Him that they are kind of wanting to collect that from Jesus.  Jesus’ foreknowledge is at work here.  Though Jesus is at the house and Matthew doesn’t say it, but this may well be Matthew’s house; and though Jesus is in the house, and Peter is out in the streets somewhere talking with the tax collectors, Jesus knows what transpired in that conversation. 

Once again we see Jesus’ omniscience and His foreknowledge displayed.  This is, by the way, not the first time we’ve ever seen this in the gospels.  You remember in John, chapter 1, verses 47 and 48, when Jesus called Nathaniel to follow him, and He said to Nathaniel who was a little bit skeptical about a Messiah who came from Nazareth.  He said to him, “Nathaniel, I saw you under the tree,” and Nathaniel fell down and worshipped, because Nathaniel wondered, “How in the world did He see me under that tree?”   I’ve always wondered what in the world Nathaniel was doing.  It very much impressed him that Jesus knew that he was under that tree.  And yet Jesus showed Nathaniel at that point that He knew things that Nathaniel didn’t think He would have the capacity to know.  Peter learned this lesson well. 

You remember in John, chapter 21, verse 17, after Peter had denied the Lord three times and the Lord was involved in restoring Peter to the ministry, and He asked him three times, “Peter, do you love Me?  Feed My sheep.”  And Peter kept confessing, “Yes, Lord, I love You.”  And finally do you remember what Peter says?  And the Lord says, “Peter, do you love me?”  And Peter says, “Lord, You know all things.  You know I love you.”  Peter knew by experience that the Lord knew all things.  He’d been out in that street talking with those tax collectors and come into a house one day and learn that the Lord knew all things.  And the Lord knew his heart.  Peter had learned that, and we see it here in this instance.  This is a testimony again to the divinity of our Lord that He has the capacity to know things that we could not know in and of ourselves. 

By the way, J.C. Ryle says in passing about this event, “There is something unspeakably solemn in the thought that the Lord Jesus Christ knows all things.”  You know it’s popular today to have the WWJD, What Would Jesus Do? bracelet or T-shirt or other paraphernalia. The question is whenever you’re faced with a decision to make, you ask yourself, “What would Jesus do in this situation?”  Let me pose something even more solemn than that.  Your realize that every time you make a decision, every time you have a thought, every time you mutter something under your breath, and the person you are muttering at can’t hear that the Lord Jesus knows all things, He sees all things, He’s there.  How does that correct the way we operate in our actions, our thoughts, our decisions, our words?  Lord Jesus knows all things, and that is unspeakably solemn.  And so Jesus in this text Peter has come to Him at the door.

Jesus sets up a scenario for Him in verse 25.  He says, “Peter, Let me ask you a question.  Do the kings of the earth extract customs tax and poll tax from their family, or do they extract it from strangers, their citizens and foreigners?”   And Peter answers Him, “They extract it from strangers.”  That is, from nonfamily members.  Jesus asks Peter a question about civil taxes.  He uses two words.  One that refers to import and export duty, customs.  It’s an indirect tax.  Another that refers to census-related tax, poll tax, it’s a head count tax.  You signed a census, you get taxed.  And He asked the question, ‘Do kings of the earth tax their family members with this kind of duty and with this kind of poll tax, or do they tax their citizenry who is not part of their family and foreigners?’   And Peter says, “Well of course, they don’t tax their family.”  And that was true in Great Britain until very recently.  Did you know that the Queen did not pay income tax until this decade.  And under the major government in Britain, the Queen’s popularity was taking a nose dive and the Queen and her counselors met with the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister suggested that the Queen for the sake of the continuancy of the monarchy might ought to voluntarily pay income tax.  And up until that point, the Queen and her family had had no obligation to pay tax.  Why?  The theory was England and Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland belonged to the King and to the Queen.  Why should she pay tax on something that already belongs to her?  It was her possession.  Why should she pay tax on that?  But, the idea was that if she was going to retain her rule, it might be good if she chipped into the public treasury as well, as wealthy as she was.  And so this principle that Jesus is talking about to Peter has obtained up until very recently in modern monarchies.  The idea that the King’s household is exempt from the normal taxation that everyone else goes through. 

Now, what is Jesus’ point?  Jesus is pointing out to Peter here that because of His unique relationship to God, because God is His father in a unique way, He is exempt from this temple tax.  The temple is the house of who?  It’s the house of God.  It’s the house of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The Lord Jesus Christ is the Son.  He doesn’t need to pay the temple tax.  Furthermore, you saw back in Exodus, chapter 30, that this temple tax was done in order to support what?  The offerings, the sacrifices of atonement.  The Lord Jesus Christ didn’t need sacrifices of atonement to be offered on His behalf.  He was going to offer the sacrifice of atonement.  And so He sets up an argument with Peter, and He says, “Peter, by right, by My essence, do you think that I need to pay this tax?”  And Peter’s response is, “Well Lord, the King’s family doesn’t pay the tax..”  And Jesus says, “That’s right Peter.”  Jesus is trying, in the question, in this exchange with Peter, to explain to him that He is ultimately not under any obligation to pay this temple tax because of who He is.  And yet, He is going to say in a few moments He’s going to pay it anyway. 

That beautifully sets forth, my friends, both the unique status of Jesus as the Son of God, He is making a very clear claim to have a unique relationship with God, but it also sets forth the fact that Jesus, in His mercy, voluntarily set aside His glory to minister to you and me.  Both of those truths are set forth in that little exchange.  By virtue of His status as the Son of God, He could have stood on His right and said I am the Son of God.  I don’t have to pay the temple tax.  The temple belongs to Me.  But He lays aside that right for your sake. 

We also see, hinted at in this exchange, the unique privileges we have as the new Israel.  Because Jesus uses the term sons in the plural, the sons don’t pay the tax.  What’s the implication?  “Peter, there is coming a day when you will not worship by the temple, you’ll be the temple, and the sons will no longer have to pay that ceremonial tax.  I’ll have done away with it.”  Jesus is pointing to the exemption from the ceremonial law, and its burdensomeness, that all His disciples will one day enjoy through union with Him. 

III.   Jesus taught three great lessons in his response.
One last thing you see here in verse 27.  In verse 27 you see an account of this miracle of God’s provision.  Jesus didn’t have that stater.  He didn’t have that didrachma that He needed in order to pay that tax.  But the Lord miraculously provides it, and it’s a testimony to Jesus’ deity.  We see three lessons in Jesus’ response in verse 27 to Peter.  Look at those words again.  “However, so that that we do not offend them, go to the sea, throw in a hook and take the first fish that comes up.  And when you open its mouth, you’ll find a shekel.  Take that and give it to them for you and Me.” 

Jesus has an essential right not to pay this tax, but because He is our covenant Mediator and because He is going to fulfill all righteousness, He will pay this tax.  And furthermore, so that He can avoid offending even tax collectors, He’s willing to pay this tax.  You realize what Jesus is saying here.  If I were to say to them, “I am the Son the God.  I don’t have to pay the tax for My own house.”  They might think either that He was being irreverent toward God.  They might think He was being irreverent toward God’s law.  They wouldn’t understand that that was actually a claim about who He was.  And so He says so that I don’t cause these tax collectors to stumble, to be ensnared in sin, I’m going to pay the tax anyway. 

Do you see the compassion in the Lord Jesus Christ there?  He could have stood on His rights.  But He says, “No, I care more about their souls than I do about my rights, so I’m going to pay that temple tax.  And by the way, Peter, I don’t have it.  So here’s what I want you to do.  I want you to go out to the lake, I want you to throw in a line, not a net, but a line with a hook.  And the first fish that you’re going to pull up is going to have a coin in its mouth, a stater.”  Now the stater is equal to two didrachmas and it was very customary for people in Israel to go in together and get one stater and take that down to the temple to pay their tax.  Otherwise, they had to have their money exchanged at the temple by the moneychangers who charged them a fee.  And so, the Lord Jesus says Peter, you go get the stater, and I’ll pay for you and Me.  And Peter does as he was told and he brings out the fish and the coin, and once again Jesus has taken a mundane exchange about tax collection, and He has revealed Himself, and He has taught His disciples about self-denial in ministry. 

Three things we learn from this. First, Jesus here makes it clear that though believers are given tremendous freedom under the gospel, freedom from the doctrines and commandments of men, freedom from the burdensome yoke of the ceremonial law; yet, those freedoms are to be used for the sake of others.  You remember Paul’s words.  “Have this attitude in yourself that was in Christ Jesus.  Who though He existed in equality with God, made Himself of no reputation.  Being obedient, even to the point of death, the death of the cross.”  Now this is precisely the lesson that Jesus is teaching Peter here.  Peter, I could have stood on my rights as to who I am, and said no, I’m not going to pay that tax.  But I did it anyway, and I did it so as not to defend them.  I did it for the sake of their souls.  Now Peter, that’s the way I want you to live.  Isn’t it amazing how our Lord not only teaches through His words, but through His actions.  And His actions perfectly correspond to His words.  He is the perfect teacher.  And so He teaches us as believers, these freedoms that we are given are not freedoms for the sake of self-indulgence.  They are freedoms that we are to be ready to deny ourselves of if its necessary for the benefit of others.  Is that how we look at the freedoms that are given to us?  You know the Lord has showered blessings and resources on us.  And we have the freedom to use that for ourselves, or we can give it up for the sake of others, for the sake of the kingdom, for the sake of God’s work.  Do we recognize that call to freedom and responsibility? 

There’s a second thing that we learn from this great story and that is that believers need to learn to trust in God’s providence to supply them for all their needs when they are in the way of duty.  The Lord Jesus Christ did not have this money.  But to fulfill His duty and to  spare offense, He needed this stater in order to pay his didrachma tax, and the Lord provides through the mouth of this fish exactly what He needs.  Many of you have heard Doug Kelly tell the story of while he was studying in Scotland, he was going to travel to another country to study languages.  But he didn’t have very much money, and his alarm clock had broken.  Now he not only needed that alarm clock to wake him up so that he could get up in  time to catch the train, but he needed that alarm clock to get him up in the mornings for his classes and such.  And so he began to ask around the church to see if someone could loan him an alarm clock, and a lady in the chuch said, “Douglas, have you prayed for that alarm clock?”  And he thought to himself, “I’ve never prayed for a clock in my life.”  And he thought it was kind of foolish.  And so he said to her, “No, I haven’t prayed for that clock.”  And she said, “Well, you ought to try.”  And so he did.  He went home that night, and he prayed for the Lord to make that alarm clock work, and it did.  And he kept that alarm clock throughout that trip, and it continued to work the whole time for him.  And it struck him that the Lord had provided just what he needed so that he could do what the Lord called him to do in duty.  When we are in the way of duty, you may be assured that the Lord will provide for us what we need.  And we need to learn to trust Him in His providence. 

Finally, we learn here that believers are to embrace the deity of Christ.  Do you see the three testimonies to the deity of Christ here.  First of all Jesus claims to be the unique Son.  “I’m the Son of God.  I don’t have to pay the temple tax.”  Secondly, He knows Peter’s thoughts when Peter is out in the streets.  Thirdly, He knows because He has decreed that there is a coin in the mouth of one fish in the lake of Galilee, and that one fish is going to be the one that Peter pulls out first.  You see the testimony to the deity of Christ here?  Jerome, the ancient Christian commentator said of this passage, “I know not which to admire most here, our Lord’s foreknowledge or His greatness.”  May the Lord bless His work.  Let us pray.  

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the foreknowledge and greatness of Jesus.  Give us the grace to trust Him for everything we need, and most of all for our salvation.  We ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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