by Stephen Felker
Gospel: St. Matthew 17: 24-27
Matthew 17:24-27 “What a Fish Story!” (But this one’s true)
Only Matthew records this incident of this temple contribution. The fact that he was a former tax collector may be one reason for his interest in this story. Jesus and The Twelve had been absent from Capernaum for a long time, traveling from place to place away from the large Jewish crowds. But now they were back in the place where Jesus had His headquarters and where Peter also lived. So, the tax-collectors arrive! A verbal exchanged occurred over the payment of a tax, which ultimately led to yet another miracle involving a fish. Do you remember a previous miracle involving fish? Peter and the others fished all night and caught nothing. The next morning Jesus told them to go back out and cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and this time they caught so many fish they could hardly land the catch.
Now I’m sure you’ve heard some fish stories in your day. What’s the strangest or biggest fish tale you’ve ever heard or experienced? I’ve heard about fish jumping right into a fishing boat. Have you ever caught a fish, and found something strange inside the fish?
Well, Peter went fishing one day, and came away with another great fish story. But this fish story really happened. And I have no doubt but that it was another miracle of our Lord. But Jesus did not perform miracles just for the fun of it. All of our Lord’s miracles are “signs” as well as “wonders.” They have a meaning. So this miracle is a parable of spiritual truth, as well as a miracle. My task today is to help you see the meaning of this miracle. So this morning we are going to see what this fish story teaches us about Jesus, and what He can do for us. And we will learn a few other lessons as well.
Now the first lesson I see in our text is this:
I. WE HAVE OBLIGATIONS TO FULFILL
I hope you realize that you have obligations to God, to your family, to your church, and to society. These are duties to fulfill. Are you meeting all of your obligations? Are you obeying God? Are you paying your bills, including your tax bill? Are you meeting the needs of your family? Are you supporting your church with your time, talents, and treasure?
Now in our text today we have an example of a religious obligation. In v.24 we read, “When they had come to Capernaum, those who received the temple tax came to Peter and said, ‘Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?’” Many assume that the tax collectors were somewhat hostile toward Jesus, but that was not necessarily the case. They knew that Christ had not paid the tax, and perhaps He just needed a reminder. After all, He had been away from Capernaum for quite some time. Surely He was not deliberately avoiding payment of the tax.
And notice that did not dare speak to Him directly about the tax. They probably spoke to Peter because Jesus was such a great man, and because Jesus was most likely staying at Peter’s house. Now this was a Jewish tax, not a Roman one. It was levied against all male Jews over 20 years of age, rich and poor alike. The tax was first commanded in Exodus 30:12-16. It had two purposes. First, each man paid it as “a ransom for his soul” (v.12). They had been redeemed from Egyptian slavery, and it was a symbolic gesture in recognition of what they owed God for their redemption. And the fact that they were all sinners meant they it was also to be used “to make an atonement for your souls” (v.15). Secondly, the tax was used “for the service of the tabernacle” (v.16). Later, it was used for the maintenance of the temple and its services. The Jerusalem temple was very costly to maintain, so the temple officials used as their authority to levy this tax. The tax that was due amounted to half a shekel, equal in value to the double-drachma, which is actually the word used for “temple tax” in the original Greek. The drachma, a Greek silver coin, was about equal in value to a Roman denarius. It amounted to a workman’s average daily wage. Consequently the double-drachma was the amount a man would generally earn for two day’s work. That would be equivalent to at least $100 today by American standards. This tax was only collected in the cities and country sides in March of each year. After that, payment had to be made directly to the temple in Jerusalem. The tax was due by Passover.
Now with that background, let’s get back to the original question. They asked, “Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?” Peter quickly answered “yes” to the tax collector’s question and walked away. Peter’s quick answer seems to be prompted by zeal for his Master’s honor. He knew that the Lord kept the Mosaic law, and he may have been present on other occasions when the Lord paid the tax. He was quite sure that the Lord always met His obligations.
Do you meet your obligations? There are many claims and demands made upon each of us, and we are to fulfill our duty. In fact, Jesus said in Mt. 22:21, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Rom. 13:7 says, “Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.” Husbands and wives have obligations to each other. 1 Cor. 7:3 says, “Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband.” Are you meeting your obligations? Students, when your teacher gives you an assignment, are you doing what is expected of you?
II. BE CONSIDERATE OF OTHERS IN MEETING OUR OBLIGATIONS
Often people try to deny the obligations that are placed upon us. We say, “I don’t have to do that.” Or, “I don’t have to pay that.” Or, “That’s not my problem.”
But Jesus is our great example. He was always thinking of others. Yet He took advantage of this incident to make a point which would emphasize the fact that Jesus would actually do more than was required for the sake of others. You see, He used an illustration to demonstrate that He was actually not technically obligated to pay the temple tax. So in v.25 He asked Peter a question, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?” Well in v.26 Peter gave the right answer, “From strangers.” “Strangers” here does not necessarily refer to foreigners. The Greek word (allotrios) can simply mean “belonging to another; not of one’s own family.” So in v.26 Jesus stated the obvious conclusion, “Then the sons are free.” The members of the king’s family are not taxed but are maintained by the taxes paid by others. Frequently kings will not even tax their own citizens, but will gather tribute from conquered nations.
Do you see the great claim that Jesus is making? In this illustration the kings of the earth are compared to the King of Heaven. And just as earthly kings do not tax their own sons, even so the King of Heaven does not tax His own Son, Jesus Christ. So Christ is claiming to be the Son of God. He is claiming divine prerogatives. So technically, Jesus was not obligated to pay the temple tax.1 The King’s Son is exempt.
Furthermore, the purposes of the tax did not apply to Him. Was not the temple “his Father’s house” (Luke 2:49; John 2:16)? He claimed to be greater than the temple, and He fulfilled the very purpose of the temple. He was both Priest and sacrifice. And His body was more fully the temple of God than any building. In Him men see God, and meet with God. There was another reason why he was exempt from this tax. His soul did not need to be ransomed; it did not need atonement. Never one word dropped from His lips which indicated the smallest consciousness of flaw or failure, still less of actual transgression. He takes His position outside the circle of sinful men. He even challenged His enemies by saying, “Which of you convicts me of sin?”
So Jesus could have insisted on His rights, and refused to pay. That’s what many of us would have done. But He said in v.27, “Nevertheless, lest we offend them….” He did not just think of Himself. He thought of others. He was considerate of others. Most people did not understand and believe that He was the sinless Son of God, and thus exempt from the tax. And so had He and Peter not paid this tax, it would have increased the people’s prejudice against Him and His doctrine, and alienated their affections from Him. It would have been interpreted as lack of esteem for the temple; perhaps even as irreverence. He does not wish to create the impression that He and the disciples despise the temple and its worship. Christ did not want someone to reject Him or His teaching over such a trivial matter as paying a fairly modest tax. So Christ resolved to pay the tax. He did not insist on His rights, and demand exemption for the tax. He was willing to humbly accept the obligations and hardships of His brethren. He was mindful of the importance of setting a good an example for others.
There are other times when Christ did things that were not really required of Him. He submitted Himself for baptism, not because He had sins to repent of, but to partake of baptism with us, and to set an example. And though He is the King’s Son, He goes among His Father’s subjects, experiences their poverty, and hardens His hands by laboring like them to put food on the table. Furthermore, He was free from the necessity of death, even after He had taken our flesh upon Him. But though free from the necessity, He submitted to it, and laid down His life to save and help each of us. His own loving will brought Him to the Cross; His own loving will, and not the Roman soldiers’ nails, fastened Him to it. Again, He did not demand His selfish rights. He could have said, “I’m not going to pay. I’m not going to stay. That’s not my debt.” But instead, He thought of others, and died for you and for me!
Christian prudence and humility teach us, in many cases, to not insist on our rights, lest we give offence to others by insisting upon them (cf. 1 Cor. 8:13; Rom. 14:13). Paul said in 2 Cor. 6:3, “We give no offense in anything, that our ministry may not be blamed.” Have you ever made a big fuss over someone who claimed that you still owed them a few dollars? Isn’t it better to go ahead a pay a few dollars than to loose your Christian testimony? Or what if a teacher says you didn’t turn in your homework, but you’re sure that you did. Are you going to make a big fuss over it, and insist that you are free from that obligation? Or are you going to just go ahead and redo it? [Apply to those who insist that they have a right to drink alcohol in moderation]. I believe that we should follow the example of Jesus, and be careful about selfishly insisting upon 1 Matthew Henry: “These immunities of the children are to be extended no further than our Lord Jesus himself. God’s children are freed by grace and adoption from the slavery of sin and Satan, but not from their subjection to civil magistrates in civil things; here the law of Christ is express; Let every soul (sanctified souls not excepted) be subject to the higher powers. Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”
our rights, and go the extra mile to keep from hurting our Christian witness, or causing someone to stumble.
Now so far I have talked about meeting our obligations, even the ones that we are not technically required to fulfill. At times the demands of life can overwhelm us. We can become very tired going that extra mile. We may worry how we can pay all of our bills. Well I have some good news, and that is my third point today:
III. JESUS CAN ENABLE US TO MEET OUR OBLIGATIONS
We have seen that Jesus humbly accepted the obligation of paying a tax He really didn’t owe. And yet in contrast with such humility, He is going to demonstrate His glory. He will submit, Son though He be, to this complete identification of Himself with us. But He will submit in such a way as to assert His divine dignity.
Now Jesus has just claimed that He is the Son of God. And if He is the Son of God, then He has the ability to enable us to meet our obligations, as well as His own. And in this story we see two evidences of the fact that He is the Son of God. We know He is God’s Son:
A. Because of His Omniscience
Notice in v.25 that Jesus anticipated what Peter was going to say, and spoke up before Peter had a chance to ask Him about paying the temple tax. He made it clear that He knew about the conversation between Peter and the tax collectors. Peter may have been surprised by the knowledge of Jesus, though by now he shouldn’t have been, based on past experience. The Gospel accounts give several examples of the fact that Jesus even knew what people were thinking. Surely such omniscience is an attribute of God, and a clear indication that Jesus is the Son of God.
The omniscience of God is a concern for the sinner, and a comfort for the saint. God knows the problems you face. He knows the mounting obligations you face. Nothing takes Him by surprise.
Now we also know that Jesus is the Son of God:
B. Because of His Miraculous Provision
Jesus did not reach into a pouch and pull out the silver coin needed to pay the tax; nor did Peter. Perhaps they did not have any money at the time. 2 Cor. 8:9 says that Christ became poor on our behalf. Nor did He order Judas to pay this out of the bag which he carried. That money was for their daily provisions. Nevertheless, God will provide. In v.27 Jesus told Peter to “cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you.” Now remember, this was ransom money. So the original Greek says that the money was to be give “instead (anti)2 of Me and you.” Out of the Father’s vast resources Jesus is going to take what is needed to pay the temple-tax for Himself and for Peter. But He chose to take it out of a fish’s mouth, when he could have taken it out of an angel’s hand. So Simon must go to the sea. Capernaum was located on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, so Peter would not have to go far. He does not have to cast any net; a mere hook will suffice. (This is the only place in the New Testament where this kind of fishing is mentioned.) The first fish that comes up will have a 2 Robertson says “Common use of anti in commercial transactions, “in exchange for.”
“piece of money” in its mouth. Actually, the Greek word used refers to a stater, that is, a fourdrachma coin. That coin, amounting to a shekel, will be exactly sufficient for Jesus and Peter.3 Notice that v.28 is not there. Matthew does not record the outcome of what happened.
Nevertheless, I’m sure it happened exactly the way Jesus said. Otherwise, Matthew would not have included this story. So after the many miracles he had witnessed in the presence of Jesus, it did not seem strange to him that he should follow such instructions. He did exactly what Jesus commanded, and personally experienced a great miracle. We must commend him for his faith. Humanly speaking, the chances of catching a fish with a coin in it’s mouth would be greatly increased by casting a net. But when God is involved, a hook will do!
Now think of what would have to happen for the tax money to be collected this way. First, probably some fisherman had to lose a coin in the water. Then, a fish had to take that coin in its mouth and retain it. Perhaps the fish was attracted to the shiny coin as it tumbled through the water to the depths below, and the fish ate it before it reached bottom. Then, that same fish then had to bite on Peter’s hook—with an impediment in its mouth—and be caught, and not get away! It is too complex to be just a coincidence, especially when you factor in that Jesus predicted what would happen. What a display of the lordship of Christ over creation & circumstances!
Do you believe with Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God? If so, then He can help you fulfill your obligations, though they seem great.
Let me give you three examples of obligations that Jesus can help you pay.
First, He will help you fulfill your financial obligations to the Lord’s Work. Remember, Peter was liable for paying this temple tax. Jesus knew Peter’s need and was able to meet that need. (How the other disciples paid their taxes, we are not told). Even so I believe we should give to help pay for the upkeep of our building, and support the ministry of our church. The Bible says that if we reap spiritual things, it is fitting that we should return carnal things. By the way, Jesus paid the temple tax even though the temple service was far from perfect. Don’t withhold your tithes and offerings from God’s house just because you can find fault with His Church. And the good news is that God will help us meet this obligation. In a context of thanking the Philippians for their generous missionary support, Paul said in Phil. 4:19, “And my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus.”
Secondly, He can help you meet the obligation of providing for your family. But notice that Peter had to work for God’s provision of his tax money. Jesus didn’t just create the money out of thin air and hand it to Peter. So let us be ready to work for what He provides. By the way, what do you think Peter did with the fish? If it was big enough to swallow a good sized coin, it was big enough to eat. So I think he had it for supper! So the Lord may have provided a meal for Peter as well.
Third, and this is most important of all: He has paid your sin debt. Law and duty demand fulfillment without fail. In the model prayer Jesus compared sin to a debt. And like the parable that Jesus told, this obligation takes us by the throat, and says, “Pay what you owe.” Friend! How are you going to meet your obligations? You owe God all your love, all your heart, will, strength, service. You owe Him your total obedience, and yet we have all sinned. On our own we are morally bankrupt. And there is a Judgment Day before all of us. What have you to pay? That’s a debt you can’t pay with good works, religious rituals, or charitable gifts (Isa 64:6; Tit. 3:5). The 3 Satan had tempted Christ to use His divine powers for Himself (Matt. 4:3-4), but He had refused. However, in this case, He did not use His power selfishly, for paying the tax did not ultimately bring benefit to Himself, but God’s temple. Furthermore, He worked this miracle to benefit Peter.
Only way you can satisfy the debt on your own is by eternal death in hell, and you don’t want to pay the debt that way! Is there any other way the debt can be paid?
Think of some bankrupt man sitting in his house with a balance sheet before him that shows that he is hopelessly insolvent. He sits and broods, and broods, and does not know what in the world he is going to do. The door opens—a messenger enters and gives him an envelope. He tears it open, and there flutters out a check that more than pays it all. All he has to do is believe that someone of great wealth cared enough to pay his debt for him, and just cash the check. Even so, you are spiritually bankrupt on your own, but there is hope. Though death was not a debt He owed, Jesus paid the debt for you and for me! He can satisfy your sin debt, and give you His righteousness in its place. Oh sinner, trust in Him and all the debt will be paid, and you will be set free. Therefore, trust in Jesus!
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982).
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