The king’s son pays the tax
Please turn in your Bibles to Matthew 17:24-27. Jesus returns to Capernaum after a long time away and the tax collectors are waiting. Out of respect for the Lord Jesus Christ, they come to Peter, and ask him a question. 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 and divinity. We see that first, Jesus willingly submitted Himself to the Old Testament laws on giving. Second, Jesus, as a Son, had every ground for exemption. And third, Jesus taught three great lessons in his response.
I. Jesus Willingly Submitted Himself to the Old Testament Laws on Giving
In verse 24 and then that very first phrase in verse 25, you will see the question that these tax collectors put to Peter. We read in this section, “When they came to Capernaum, those who collected the two-drachma tax came to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the two-drachma tax?’ He said, ‘Yes.’” In that little exchange 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. This tax was a religious tax. 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.
The tax collectors expected Peter to say that Jesus did not pay the temple tax. Why did they expect that? It was because they had so often seen Jesus contradict the Scribes and the Pharisees. They had missed a fundamental distinction in Jesus’ quarrel with the Pharisees. Jesus was not just being contrarian; Jesus was not just being 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 a command to the Word of God, I refuse it for the sake of the people and for the authority of the Word of God.
What do we learn from that brief exchange? 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. By nature, Jesus was not under the law as the sinless, second person of the Trinity. The ceremonial law was not designed for the second person of the Trinity. It was designed for sinners in 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. We are 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. Much of Jesus’ ministry was spent on exalting the sole authority of the word of God and attacking the additions that man had made to that word.
II. Jesus, as a Son, Had Every Ground for Exemption
In the second phrase in verse 25 and verse 26, you will see Jesus engage Peter in some spiritual reflection on the privileges of the Son of God. In these two verses we learn that Jesus, as a Son, had every ground to be exempt from the temple tax. We read in these verses, “And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect customs or poll-tax, from their sons or from strangers?’ When Peter said, ‘From strangers,’ Jesus said to him, ‘Then the sons are exempt.’” Jesus as a Son, had every ground for exemption from this temple tax.
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 God. He does not need to pay the temple tax. The temple tax was to support 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. Jesus is trying 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. That beautifully sets forth both the unique status of Jesus as the Son of God as He is making a very clear claim to have a unique relationship with God. It also sets forth the fact that Jesus, in His mercy, voluntarily set aside His glory to minister to you and me.
III. Jesus Taught Three Great Lessons in His Response
In verse 27 you see an account of this miracle of God’s provision. Jesus says in verse 27, “However, so that we do not offend them, go to the sea and throw in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for you and Me.” Jesus has an essential right to not pay this tax, but because He is our covenant Mediator and because He is going to fulfill all righteousness, He will pay this tax.
We learn three things from this. First, Jesus 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. Second, we learn from this great story that believers need to learn to trust in God’s providence to supply them with 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 shekel in order to pay his didrachma tax, and the Lord provides through the mouth of this fish exactly what He needs. 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. 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. May we embrace this Christ by faith.