Read Matthew 17.
God’s Law required Jewish men to pay a flat tax at every census “for the service of the tent of meeting” (v. 16 of Ex 30:11-16). By the time of Jesus, this tax had become an annual fee required of every man in Israel between twenty and fifty years old.
So, the tax we read about here in Matthew 17:24-27 was not a Roman tax but fee paid for the ongoing ministry of the temple. Every good Jewish man paid it as part of his faithfulness to God in obedience to God’s law.
This is why Peter answered so quickly and confidently when he was asked if Jesus paid the temple tax (vv. 24-25). Other men might be tax-cheats and religious deadbeats but Peter was certain Jesus wasn’t among them.
It turned out, however, that Peter spoke out of turn. If you were an Über driver, you would not charge your kids for rides to school even though you charge everyone else for a ride. That would just be weird and stupid.
Likewise, Jesus did not pay that tax because he’s the Son of God (v. 5). There was no need for him to pay his Father for admission into their “house” (vv. 25b-26).
Peter had just witnessed Christ’s transfiguration (vv. 1-8) so he could have–should have–reasoned his way to the right conclusion. Jesus HAD to pay the tax now; otherwise, he’d appear to be deceptive and this situation would have caused stumbling (“offense,” v. 27) to those who had asked the question.
Because Peter is the one who put Jesus on the hook for the taxes, he could have taken responsibility to pay Jesus’s tax himself. Christ could have insisted that Peter do so for the same reason. “Learn your lesson, Peter.”
Instead, Jesus told Peter how to perform a miracle that would pay both Jesus’s and Peter’s tax (v. 27).
This story demonstrates the implications of two truths in this passage:
One is that Jesus is the Son of God as the transfiguration demonstrated (vv. 1-8, esp. v. 5). The implication of that truth is that the temple belongs to him so he doesn’t need to pay for it.
A second implication grows out of verses 22-23. There Jesus predicted his death. That passage did not explain that his death would cover the disciples’s sin obligation before God but we know that was the purpose of it. Here, Jesus takes on the obligation of Peter, providing for his temple tax as well as the one his quick mouth obligated Jesus to pay (v. 27). Instead of making Peter pay these obligations himself, Jesus provided payment for Peter’s obligations to God if Peter believed and did what Jesus told him to do (v. 27).
This is a simple illustration of what Christ has done for all of us. We not only are obligated to serve and worship God but we incur greater obligation to him every time we speak untruthful words or do evil things. Yet Christ provides the means to cover all our obligations to a holy and perfect God.
One other truth to think about from this passage: How confident are we about the things we say are true or false based on our faith-relationship with God? When people ask us if:
- …a loving God would send people to hell?
- …would God ever disapprove of two people loving each other, even if they are the same sex or one is already married or a guy and girl want to live together without getting married?
- …if Christianity is the only way to God or could a sincere adherent to another religion who never heard the gospel be saved?
- …or any other of a long list of questions
…do we give scriptural answers or answer off the cuff on God’s behalf like Peter did?
What about if someone asks whether all infants who die go to heaven or not or whether Jesus would vote for a certain presidential candidate or not. Do you speak your answer confidently like Peter did in verse 24 or do you talk through the scriptural principles with the person who asked you?
We are often too quick with our words, too confident about our answers. There are biblical principles that apply to any question in the previous paragraph and many others. I’m not at all saying that we can’t give a good answer to those questions.
Instead, I’m asking you to consider your words. Do you speak for God recklessly like Peter did in verse 24? Is there a better way to handle the question of unbelievers?