All Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible 1995 Ed.
Vss. 22-23: Jesus and His disciples have been traveling south through the northern Jewish region of Caesarea Philippi, where Peter acknowledges His messiahship, He shows some of them His divine glory, and they fail to cast a demon out of a boy (cf. Mt. 16:13, 21ff) . Now, they’re in the Roman province of Galilee, where Jesus and most of the disciples grew up, and where they began their ministry.
This is the last time they’ll be in this region before Jesus’s death and resurrection. Therefore, Jesus reminds them that the time is near for Him to be given up to the physical control of people. However, He again calls Himself “the Son of Man”, alluding to the prophecy in Daniel 7 about a male descendant of Adam who is described as receiving authority from God to rule and judge humanity, which is authority that God alone deserves. Hence, He’s again turning the disciples’ expectations about this Person they recognize as the Messiah on their head, and claiming that He will be murdered, and then raised from the dead on the third day from His death. Jesus adds this time duration to assure the disciples that there will be undeniable proof that He has died. He does this by accommodating the Jewish superstition that a person’s soul remains in his body for at least one full day after his death.
Despite the fact that Jesus promises His resurrection, His disciples are tremendously saddened by His reiteration of His death. However, the last time He told them this, Peter reacted by passionately chastising Him for His grim prediction, and assuring Him that it would never happen. Finally, the disciples are beginning to believe that He knows what He’s talking about, and that it will come to pass.
Vss. 24-25a: Eventually, they reach the fishing village of Capernaum, right next to the Sea of Galilee. This is where Peter used to live, and where he still owns a home, most likely cared for by his wife (cf. Mt. 8:5,14; 1 Cor. 9:5). Once in the village, tax collectors come to Peter, knowing that he’s a disciple of Jesus, and ask him if his Teacher pays “the two-drachma tax”. This tax was one imposed in accordance with the Mosaic legislation found in Exodus 30:12-16, where all Jews aged twenty years and upward are required to offer half a shekel of money to atone for their sins, and for the maintenance of the sacrificial rituals performed in what was then the tabernacle. Now, in Jesus’s day, this was observed by offering the Roman equivalent of the half-shekel — two drachmas — for the maintenance of the services in the temple that Jewish King Herod had built.
The way that the tax collectors ask Peter about Jesus’s tax observance is significant. First, they ask Peter, rather than another disciple. This is probably due to two facts. The first is that Peter’s home was in Capernaum, and the second is that Peter was Jesus’s subordinate leader of the disciples. Second, they call Jesus his “Teacher”. This seems to imply that they knew that Peter payed the tax, but they hadn’t noticed that Jesus payed it. It’s as if they’re asking, “are you better than your Teacher, since you pay it, but we’ve never heard that He does”? Peter characteristically boldly and quickly assumes that his Teacher must pay it, so he asserts that He does.
Vss. 25b-26: Jesus either hears by word of mouth that Peter has rashly spoken for Him, or is given the knowledge by divine revelation. Either way, when Peter enters “the house”, which is the same house described as his own in 8:5-14, Jesus doesn’t wait for Peter to tell him what he said, but immediately begins to correct Peter’s thinking about Jesus’s relationship with God’s temple.
He does this by first addressing him as “Simon”, his birth name that Jesus often uses to talk to him when he’s just sinned. He then asks him whether earthly kings collect “customs or poll-taxes” from their sons or from strangers. “Customs” are taxes imposed on the selling of goods from foreign countries, and “poll-taxes” are fixed taxes exacted from all subjects of a kingdom, simply for being under the king’s rule. By asking about both of these taxes, Jesus is comparing the divinely instituted temple tax to those enforced by earthly kings, and comparing the God of Israel to the kings of Gentile nations. In doing so, He’s getting Peter to think about his assumption that Jesus was obligated to pay the tax for God’s temple.
When Peter correctly answers that earthly kings only collect taxes from strangers to them, rather than their own sons, Jesus adds the logical conclusion that their sons are free from all taxes. He’s implying that, just as earthly sons of earthly kings are exempt from their taxes, so also is God’s Son exempt from God’s tax for the temple. Thus, Peter was wrong to assume that Jesus was obligated to pay the temple tax, since He’s God’s own Son.
V. 27: Nevertheless, Jesus condescends to the unbelieving ignorance of the tax collectors by commanding Peter to acquire enough money to pay the tax for both of them. However, He does so in a way that shows that not only is He exempt from paying the tax, but He also already owns the money required for the temple’s maintenance.
First, Jesus explains that the reason He’s commanding Peter to pay the tax is so that they don’t “offend” the tax collectors. Doing so would blemish Jesus’s reputation by making others think that He was disobedient to God. But not only is He perfectly obedient to God (regardless of whether or not He pays the tax), but He also demonstrates that He possesses the power of God. This is fascinatingly put on display through His promise that, if Peter throws in a fishing hook, and opens the mouth of the first fish he catches, he’ll find a Jewish shekel coin, which is exactly the equivalent of four drachmas for two payments. When Peter does this, he’ll experience firsthand the fact that Jesus is indeed God’s Son. He therefore not only has power over the natural world, but He also owns God’s temple.
Applications for Modern-Day Disciples of Jesus
- Twice in this passage, Jesus defied His disciples’ expectations. First, He promised that He wouldn’t achieve their dreams of an earthly kingdom in Israel that would overthrow the yoke of the Roman Empire. Rather, He would advance His spiritual kingdom by first being murdered by the Jewish leaders, and then rising from the dead. Secondly, He defied Peter’s underestimated expectation of Jesus’s obligation to pay the Jewish temple tax. He had to remind Peter that, as God’s Son, He owned the temple, and the money required to maintain it. These examples serve as lessons for us. We must never put the Lord on a level that’s below His true identity and character. He’s not just the King of one nation, but of all of them, and therefore He’s not obligated to submit to any law, but is the One whom all ought to obey.
2. Jesus had every right to refuse to pay the temple tax, but chose to give up His right in order to avoid offending ignorant people. In the same way, we ought to be willing to give up our rights in order to maintain peace with people, and to avoid giving them any reason to think that we live in rebellion against God.