When asked to pay a Temple tax, Jesus miraculously provides the money. He continues to warn of the difficulties to come in his ministry.
When asked to pay a Temple tax, Jesus miraculously provides the money. He continues to warn of the difficulties to come in his ministry.
Hello, and welcome to Series 7 and Episode 5, Jesus and opposition to come. We are in Matthew's Gospel for this episode, Matthew 17: 22 - 27.
Introduction and Recap
As the life of Jesus has progressed and we have gone through the story, through our different series and episodes, we've seen a remarkable drama building up. In Series 3 Jesus had his first tour of Galilee, the first period of his ministry, which was very successful, very powerful. Many thousands of people came to hear him teach, be healed, be released from evil powers. There was amazement all the way through Galilee at this remarkable phenomenon. Twelve of his newly-formed disciples were appointed as Apostles at the end of that period. Then they were taught the Sermon on the Mount, along with teaching concerning living in God's Kingdom and the ethical principles, and the religious principles, of God's Kingdom – that was Series 4. Then in Series 5, we had Jesus' second tour of Galilee, in which crowds came, miracles continued, confrontations with the religious leaders increased and the twelve Apostles were being trained. In Series 6, we had the third tour of Galilee in which the Twelve were sent out in pairs and this was a new development extending Jesus' ministry. There were, of course, many more miracles here, and right towards the end of that third tour, in Series 6, we had the remarkable event of the feeding of the 5000 on a mountainside near the Galilean town of Bethsaida, just to the north and east of the Sea of Galilee. 5000 men, and we assume thousands of women and children as well who aren't numbered, a huge crowd - probably the largest crowd that Jesus ever engaged with publicly, as far as we can tell, certainly the largest recorded number. It was on this occasion, after this incredible miracle, that many in the crowd, according to John 6, wanted to make Jesus king by force. They want to force his hand to become a political figure.
This event triggered the process that we see in Series 7, where we are now situated in the story. A great crisis was emerging. The expectations of many people were raised, to such an extent that they wanted to force Jesus' hand to challenge the political leadership, both the Roman authorities, who ruled over the whole country, and their puppet ruler King Herod Antipas, who ruled for the Romans in the region of Galilee. We mentioned him on a number of occasions before, and he ruled from the town of Tiberias, which is actually very close to the town of Capernaum, Jesus' base and headquarters for his Galilean ministry. They wanted to force his hand. Jesus now has to negotiate carefully that pressure from the crowd, as well as increasing oppositions from the religious establishment based in Jerusalem, represented largely by the Pharisees, and also, the political leadership of Herod Antipas, who had taken decisive action against John the Baptist, and might turn against Jesus, imprison him or execute him or send him over to the Romans. All sorts of possibilities were in the air.
It's in this context we start, in the beginning of Series 7, to see Jesus taking his disciples aside and preparing them for a new period of his life and his ministry, and their life and their ministry. He took them out of Galilee to the neighbouring province ruled by Herod Antipas' brother, Herod Philip, and to one of the major towns, Caesarea Philippi. Well away from the crowds, in a quiet place, Jesus had a remarkable conversation with his disciples, which is recorded in Matthew 16. These are the events that happened just before what we're going to look at in this episode. It was on that occasion that Jesus asked the very pointed question, “What about you? Who do you say that I am?” He was trying to get the disciples to finally, definitively and absolutely state their understanding of who he was. Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16: 16) “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus goes on to teach them that on the foundation of this confession and this truth - that he really is the Messiah - that Jesus is going to actually form, build and develop his own Church. Shortly after that remarkable event in which Peter confesses the identity of Jesus unambiguously, Jesus then does something else very significant. He takes his inner circle, Peter, James and John, as recorded in Matthew 17, and parallel passages in Mark and Luke, up what's described as a very high mountain and I consider it probably to be a mountain near Caesarea Philippi called Mount Hermon - a very high mountain in the north of the modern nation of Israel in the Golan Heights, a disputed territory there today. He goes up this very high mountain, or one nearby, to a remote place on the mountainside and there he is transfigured. This has just happened in the narrative, and that means that the glory of God comes on him fully; he shines with the brightness of the glory of God, which had been his original being and representation of his being in heaven and something of that is revealed to Peter, James and John. Moses and Elijah reappear on earth and join Jesus in a remarkable conversation as recorded in Luke's account, which we've already noted. In Luke 9: 30 it says,
‘Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendour talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure which he was about to bring to fulfilment in Jerusalem.’Luke 9:30-31, NIV
The whole direction of what Jesus was going to do is now changing. No longer in Galilee. He spent months, years working in Galilee. He's travelled hundreds, if not thousands of miles on foot around all the towns and villages of this northern province. This is his base. This is where he's known. This is where people come to see him but he's going to Jerusalem. He's going to fulfil all that has been predicted about him and it's going to bring about what Luke here describes as his departure - in other words his death and his resurrection. As they come down the mountainside, Peter, James and John with Jesus, we saw, in the last episode, Jesus performed a miracle for a young boy who was oppressed by an evil spirit when he met the rest of the disciples who'd failed to be able to set this boy free.
From that situation, Jesus then returns to Galilee briefly with his disciples. They now know that things are going to change. They have this feeling that change is coming, but they don't fully understand it. They're returning to Galilee but they have been warned that they may be leaving Galilee and they may be heading up to Jerusalem, which is a risky thing to do, because Jerusalem is the place where the religious establishment - the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin - has its authority, where the Temple is, where the priests are, where the Pharisees are based. All of these institutions and groups have turned against Jesus decisively by this point. If you go to Jerusalem you're heading into the teeth of fierce opposition. There is real risk: risk of confrontation, risk of violence, risk to the life of Jesus and indeed risk to the life of his disciples. This is going to be a difficult period of Jesus' ministry as he moves towards Jerusalem. There's a sense of anticipation, of foreboding, of the necessary fulfilment of difficult events in Jesus' life. That's the context, and I extended the context quite deliberately in this episode, to help us to understand this small passage of Scripture that we're going to look at now, as we look at Matthew 17: 22 - 23 first of all, and then the subsequent passage, but just two verses to start with.
‘When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief.’Matthew 17:22-23, NIV
Luke records this same incident in Luke 9, but he adds one aspect which is important for us to take note of. It's in Luke 9: 45.
‘But they did not understand what this meant. It was hidden from them, so they did not grasp it, and they were afraid to ask him about it.’Luke 9:45, NIV
This isn't Jesus' first prediction of future suffering, because Matthew 16: 21, between the events in Caesarea Philippi and the Transfiguration, the two events I've just described again to you, it says,
‘From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the Teachers of the Law, that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.’Matthew 16:21, NIV
Jesus Prepares His Disciples
The key phrase varies from that time on. We've now reached a point in Jesus' life where he is going to regularly talk to his disciples about the difficult times to come ahead and this is the second recorded incident of that, that we are reading today. You'll notice the struggling of the disciples. They're filled with grief; they're really sad; they're really troubled; they're confused; and they find it a difficult topic to talk to Jesus about. They internalise their feelings. They have seen Jesus at the height of his powers and at the height of his popularity. Within days and weeks of this moment beforehand, they've seen some incredible events. Peter, James and John have seen the Transfiguration; they've seen the feeding of the 5000; they've seen numerous miracles; they've seen huge crowds.
Jesus says that three things are going to happen. He's going to suffer, die and be raised again from the dead. Three vital ingredients of what's going to happen, suffering, death and resurrection. It's hidden from them; it would have to be repeated many times. I wonder if you've had an experience in your life, if you're a Christian, where God speaks to you about something regularly and you're closed to it. You aren't able to hear what he is saying to you, until much later on, and the messages come many times. The disciples are going through something of this process. They had to rethink their expectations of the Kingdom of God coming and of the place of the Messiah. They really wanted Jesus to conclude his ministry by a powerful demonstration of his authority, overturn the religious and political rulers and install himself as the King in Israel. They knew that there were prophecies about the Messiah and God himself ruling in Jerusalem that filled the Old Testament - they're all over the prophets of the Old Testament and in the Psalms. Numerous prophecies like this. They hoped and desired that it should happen right there and then, within a year or two of that event perhaps, and they also desired that they would have some part in this new Kingdom that would be established. It was not to be and Jesus was trying here to prepare them for a difficult future where they were going to have to go through much suffering themselves.
After this very brief statement here, in Matthew, this second prediction of Jesus' death and resurrection, Matthew then tells us of an event, a really unusual event, that happens in Capernaum concerning taxation. He's the only Gospel writer who tells the story. Let's read from Matthew 17: 24 - 27.
‘After Jesus and his disciples arrive in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn't your teacher pay the temple tax?” “Yes, he does,” he replied. When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think Simon,” he asked, “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duties and taxes - from their own children or from others?” “From others,” Peter answered. “Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him, “But so that we may not cause offence, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; and open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”Matthew 17:24-27, NIV
What an unusual story. What a remarkable miracle. We don't actually hear the miracle recounted as it's taking place. We hear a prediction of what the miracle was going to be. It obviously did take place, otherwise Matthew wouldn't have recorded it so confidently in his text. Jesus had just returned to his headquarters, his base in Capernaum, after this long period of time where he'd been away with his disciples in the Caesarea Philippi area, which I described to you a few moments ago. He's back home and then comes, what appears to be, a hostile question. Remember, our topic today is ‘Opposition to Come’ and Jesus made a general prediction but now there's a specific challenge. The collector of this particular tax says to Peter, rather abruptly, “Doesn't your teacher pay the Temple tax?” - an accusation against Jesus.
First of all, we need to understand what is this Temple tax that is being spoken of? When taxation is discussed in the Gospels, almost always, we're talking about the official government taxation that the Romans administered. They have their own tax collectors and they collected tax in a number of different ways and not least customs, as people travelled along the roads, taking goods from one place to another and along the main highways through Israel, between the nation and other nearby nations. It was a main thoroughfare for goods travelling and for commerce. We hear about this: we hear stories of tax collectors; we hear of Matthew himself, the writer of this Gospel, who was a tax collector; we hear later on of Zacchaeus, as a tax collector; we hear of tax collectors as a group, ‘tax collectors and sinners’ as irreligious and selfish people; and we hear Jesus, later on, talking about a parable of a Pharisee and a tax collector, going up to the Temple in Jerusalem. The issue of tax collection is in the narrative of the Gospels and we cover it on a number of different occasions, as it occurs in the story.
This taxation issue is different. This is not the Romans. This is not the Roman's puppet king, Herod Antipas, in Galilee. No, this is a religious tax, organised by the Jewish religious authorities and it's called the Temple tax. The origin of this taxation is in the Law of Moses, in the Old Testament. In Exodus 30: 13, it states that, every person should give a half-shekel, according to the sanctuary shekel, and in verse 16,
‘It should be used for the service of the tent of meeting.’Exodus 30:16, NIV
This is the origin of the concept that later became known as the Temple tax. The tent of meeting was the Tabernacle, which was a very large and elaborate tent, which represented the place of worship for ancient Israel initially: the presence of God in the middle; the sacrificial system taking place; the priests operating there as they moved around from place to place in the wilderness. After that it was replaced by a temple in the time of King Solomon. The Temple tax evolved from this Law of Moses, and was used at the time of Jesus to pay for the upkeep of the Temple. The Temple was the centre of Judaism. A huge amount of activity took place there. Many priests and their assistants, Levites, worked there part-time or full-time. They had to be accommodated. There were businesses to run: the exchange of money: the selling of animals: hospitality; and they had to manage the vast crowds that came for the major feasts, Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles, which are referred to in the Gospels, and which we've already commented on in earlier episodes.
Also, money was taken by the priests and the Sanhedrin, the ruling council, for their own benefit as well. It was known to be quite a corrupt system. The priests and the Sanhedrin had a number of methods of collecting money. They collected money from pilgrims, by having collecting boxes open and you threw your coins into the Treasury. They collected money through their marketing operations and trading operations in the Temple, which we've noted when Jesus cleansed the Temple in John 2 and he'll do it again later in the final week of his life. They collected money in many ways. This tax was a good way of collecting money all over the country. At this time men, adult men, were the ones who were taxed and so tax collectors would come and they would go to men in each town and village and ask them the sort of question that's being asked here. “Did Jesus pay the Temple tax?” Well, Peter's answer was clear that he did, “Yes, he does” he replied.
Jesus Takes the Initiative
Then something really strange and prophetic happens, because Peter then goes to Jesus to talk about this and ask him about this particular payment. Before Peter had told Jesus anything about the incident, Jesus, who wasn't present in that questioning by the tax official representing the Temple, knew what had happened and he spoke prophetically to Peter. Matthew says very specifically, Jesus was the first to speak,
“What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes - from their own children or from others?”Matthew 17:25, NIV
As Jesus goes on to talk about this taxation, his basic argument is that if God the Father is King over the Temple, then Jesus as his Son is exempt as a member of his family, so to speak, from paying the Temple tax. However, Jesus said, although he's exempt - there is no reason why he should have to pay, in terms of his divine status as the Son of God - as a human being, and as a Jew, obedient to the Law of Moses, he will pay the tax and avoid unnecessary conflict with the religious authorities. He was willing to do that, even though the authorities are corrupt. He then demonstrated his power by asking Peter to do something really strange: go to the Sea of Galilee, the lake, which Peter knew well as a fisherman; and take a line, not a boat, not going with nets into the centre of the lake, as Peter frequently did previously, as a fisherman. No, just take a single line, catch a fish, and look in its mouth and you'll find a 4-drachma coin. This was an astonishing miracle of provision that Jesus carried out at this point through Peter.
An unusual story, an important theme, ‘Jesus and the opposition to come’. It's a major theme. It will be with us for many episodes to come because it's a major theme of the second part of the Gospel narrative, which we're entering into. I have a few reflections to conclude this episode. Here we see again an important point: we have to distinguish the nature of Jesus' mission and the process of establishing his Kingdom. Jesus' mission focuses around his first coming and his second coming and what happens in between. This first coming launched the Kingdom of God, launched the Church, released the Gospel message to be preached for salvation amongst the Jews and very quickly amongst the nations of the world. The Kingdom would grow, but under pressure. We saw this very clearly when we looked at the parables that Jesus taught in Matthew 13 - the parables about the growth of the Kingdom, the exponential growth, the powerful growth, the resistance to growth, the growth of evil at the same time as the growth of the good of the Kingdom of God. All these realities are in Jesus' teaching about the Kingdom of God. His Second Coming, which is not the focus here in this passage, will bring that process to an end because all opposition will be overturned and defeated; all demonic powers or human opposition to the Kingdom will be defeated, as Jesus comes and launches his age of the Messiah.
We have to understand this process and we have to see here that, at this particular point in history, everyone involved with Jesus, needed to realise that he is now heading to the really tough moments: to suffering; to sacrificial death; and to death which was going to be atoning death in the place of others. It was going to be an atoning substitutionary sacrifice that Jesus was going to make which opened up the way of salvation. Then he was going to be raised from the dead. We need to understand the nature of Jesus' mission and the process of establishing his Kingdom. We're still in that process of course, in the Church today. We're in between the first coming and the second coming. We have to keep both realities firmly in our minds.
Second reflection that I would have here, it is interesting to note, that Jesus affirms that he is under the Jewish law. It's important to remember that Jesus, during his lifetime, was a full observer of the Law of Moses, the Biblical laws that God gave to the Jewish people. It says in Matthew 5: 17
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.”Matthew 5:17, NIV
He fulfilled them in a number of different ways. One of the ways he fulfilled them was through perfect obedience: Galatians 4 : 4 says,
‘But when the set time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive the adoption to sonship.’Galatians 4:4-5, NIV
Notice that expression ‘born under the law.’ Jesus was born under the Law of Moses. It was an obligation for him to obey those Laws of Moses which were applicable to him. This extension of the Law of Moses in Exodus 30, he is willing to obey until such a time as he dies on the cross and introduces a new government and then the Law of Moses ceases to have a function, it becomes obsolete, according to the writer of the book of Hebrews. We enter into a new age where the Law of Moses has no direct relevance, in itself, to the Christian community. We are led by the Spirit and any laws in the Laws of Moses that have application to us, are those which the New Testament picks out specifically and applies to us.
My third point of application here is, Jesus demonstrated a respectful attitude to human authority, even when it was corrupt, ineffective or harsh. My final comment would be, here is a very interesting, but largely neglected, parable of God's provision. We have the wonderful miracles of the feeding of the 5000 and feeding the 4000, which we've recently studied but here we have a very small event, as it appears, just the provision of one coin. It's equally miraculous. It is the provision of God to meet a need at the time. God is the provider. He's also our provider and he doesn't just provide the vast things for the big needs that other people may have. We noted here, he provides for the specific needs that individuals have. Peter needed to pay this tax. He didn't immediately have that money available, it appears, or if he did, Jesus provided the resource miraculously, showing Peter, and showing us through the text, that he is able to provide miraculously. Let's believe that more fully and more thoroughly, through having studied this remarkable story. Thanks for reading.