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Pastor Scott L. Harris
Faith Bible Church, NY
April 10, 1994
Responding to Governmental Demands
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but April 15 is this coming Friday. And even worse is that tax free day, the calculated day of the year after which you will be able to work for yourself instead of working to pay for government taxes, is now in May or June, depending on your tax bracket. We find ourselves in agreement with the man that wanted to say to Patrick Henry, “Taxation without representation is nothing, you should see what it is like with it!” We start thinking like the man that said, “I’m putting all my money in taxes – it is the only thing sure to go up!”
None of us like taxes, (but if there is someone here that does, maybe we can swing you an appointment with the current administration), and that is the way it has always been. There have been taxes as long as there has been human government because it takes money to run a government, and someone has to pay for it. Maybe that is why the saying developed that “there is nothing certain in life except death and taxes.” Of course the saying is incorrect, for death is not certain because true Christians will be raptured when Jesus returns and escape death. In the time of Jesus, taxes were also certain. This morning, we will be looking at a text in which Jesus responds to a question concerning taxes, and His answer gives us a principle we can apply in our own lives as we face paying our taxes.
Turn to Matthew 17:24-27 as we examine our text for this morning.
First, let me quickly remind you what has taken place in the recent passages. From Matthew 16 on, Jesus is on His southward journey to fulfill the purpose of His coming in Jerusalem where He would suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priest, and scribes. He would be murdered; and then raised up again on the third day (See: Setting Your Interest on the Things of God – 1/13/94). As they journeyed southward from the northern part of Galilee, Peter, James, and John went with Jesus up a mountain where Jesus was transfigured before them. Jesus is God and man, and in His humanity His glory has been veiled. Here, for a brief time the veil was lifted and Jesus’ royal majesty was displayed before men. Jesus talks with Moses and Elijah, and then the Father commends the Son saying, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” Then, as quickly as the veil was lifted, it is put back and the bright light is no longer emanating from Him. Jesus warned the three disciples not to say anything about the transfiguration until after He was risen from the dead. That would be the proper time for revealing this wonderful experience. (See: A Glimpse of His Glory).
Then, as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus explained to them how John the Baptist fulfilled the prophecy concerning Elijah. When they reached the foot of the mountain where the other disciples had waited, they found that a crowd had gathered and the disciples were in a dispute with the Pharisees. The cause of the dispute was the demonized son of a man that had come to the disciples for help. The disciples were unable to cast the demon out and they did not know why. Jesus cast out the demon and then taught the disciples a very important lesson on faith. Faith must have the right object, which is God, not religion, ourselves, the “power of positive thinking,” or faith itself. The purpose of faith must be doing God’s will and not our own, and it must be persistent. Those are lessons for us as well. (See: Little or Great Faith)
Jesus and the disciples now leave that area and continue on their journey southward through Galilee. As they go along, Jesus continues to emphasize to them that “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men; and they will kill Him, and He will be raised on the third day” (Matthew 17:22-23). Jesus came into the world for a specific purpose and he will not be detoured from it. Verse 24 begins our text for this morning that deals with taxes, but keep in mind as we deal with this section that Jesus is on a mission. His response to taxation and the principle He gives to us is much more easily understood if you keep in mind that Jesus was here to do the Father’s will. His greatest concern was the salvation of mankind and not in His own comfort or building for Himself material wealth. Let’s now examine our text.
In Matthew 17:24 we find Jesus is asked to pay a tax. “And when they had come 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.’
Let’s note a couple of things. First, note in your Bibles that the word “tax” in this verse is italicized, or it should be, every time it is used. The reason for that is the translators of the Scriptures will often add in a word here or there so that we understand what the text is talking about. It is an aid to us. The word is not actually in the original text, but added to help us understand what the Greek expression is referring to. So why did the translators add “tax” here? So that we would understand very quickly that the “two-drachma” was a particular tax that was being collected.
There was no “two-drachma” coin, so the expression “two-drachma” became a slang expression used for a very particular tax. This was a government approved tax, but it was neither collected nor used by the Roman government at this time. It was a tax the Romans allowed the Jewish religious leaders to collect for the operation of the Jerusalem Temple. It was a Temple Tax to be paid equally by everyone.
The tax actually had a Biblical basis. Exodus 30 records that after the Tabernacle had been built in the wilderness, God provided for its continued maintenance and operation through an annual assessment of a half shekel on every male twenty years old and over. A half shekel is equal to two drachmas, and a drachm a was the amount an average worker would earn in a day. When the Temple replaced the Tabernacle, the collection of this tax continued. This was the tax that Peter was being questioned about.
Historically, this tax was collected and used for the Temple in Jerusalem until it was destroyed in 70 A.D. Then Emperor Vespasian decreed that the tax continued to be collected from every Jew in order to maintain the pagan temple to Jupiter. It was a calculated and vindictive reminder to the Jews and to the rest of the world about the high cost of opposing Rome.
So the tax in question was the annual assessment of every adult male for the maintenance of the Temple. It was usually collected a month or so prior to Passover, which indicates that this incident took place in March, about a month before Jesus’ crucifixion. There was Scriptural support for this particular tax to be assessed. It was collected by representatives of the Temple, and not by the Roman appointed “publicans” who collected all of the Roman imposed taxes. Why then was Peter being questioned about whether Jesus would pay it?
There was one exception that had been made in paying the two-drachma. The priests were exempt. There was a question in the minds of the two-drachma collectors what Jesus would do. Would Jesus exempt Himself also? Jesus had already very clearly demonstrated that He would not be held to the Rabbinic traditions. That had created quite a division between Jesus and the religious leaders. Recall back in chapter 12 how Jesus’ refusal to keep the Rabbinic traditions regarding the Sabbath led to Him healing a man on the Sabbath, and that as a result of that, the Pharisees began to counsel as to how they might kill Jesus. (See: Exposing The Heart). Men do not like God going against their traditions. The two-drachma collectors were uncertain if Jesus would pay the tax or not, so they approached Peter to find out. If Jesus refused to pay it, there would be another charge the religious leaders could make against Him.
Notice in Matthew 17:25 that there is no hesitation on Peter’s part in answering the question. Peter had been with Jesus long enough to know both what His master taught and what His master did. Jesus opposed man-made traditions, but He perfectly fulfilled the law of God. In addition, Peter would have known if Jesus had paid this tax in the past or not. Peter responds to the tax collectors in the affirmative. “Yes,” Jesus does pay the two drachma.
In Matthew 17:25-26 we find that Peter goes to tell Jesus that the assessors want to collect the two-drachma, but what Peter finds is not only another example of Jesus’ omniscience, but also a lesson on the obligation that Jesus and His followers have in paying taxes (not just the two drachma, but all taxes).
“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? And upon his saying, ‘From strangers,’ Jesus said to him, ‘Consequently the sons are exempt.’“
Peter never gets a chance to speak before Jesus, already knowing what has occurred, questions Peter. The text plainly states that Jesus spoke to Peter first. Those who call into question Jesus’ omniscience must ignore the text in their effort to reduce Jesus to mere man. But Jesus in not just mere man. Jesus is God in human flesh, and Matthew brings out what may seem like a minor point at first glance in order to emphasize that fact. Jesus is omniscient which is a characteristic of God.
Jesus uses a common method of teaching by asking questions to let the student think through the issue. Jesus’ question points out to Peter a universal truth about the king’s tax. The term king is used to refer to all those who were the supreme rulers in their nations regardless of the particular title they may use – Pharaoh, emperor, Caesar, etc. With few exceptions, the nations were ruled at that time by autocratic rulers who had power to do what they wanted and they passed down their royal legacy to their heirs. One of the powers of kings was to collect taxes, both customs which are taxes on goods and services, and poll-taxes which are taxes on individuals. Kings collected these from those he ruled over to support himself and his government.
Kings did not collect taxes from those they had to support such as their families, here represented by the term, “sons.” It would be a foolish thing for a king to tax his own family whom he supported because He would in effect be taxing himself. The king would tax the subjects that he ruled over. In some kingdoms, the citizens of that nation were not taxed, and instead the king and his government were supported through the tribute paid by the other nations he had conquered.
In a nutshell, Jesus tells Peter that neither He nor Peter were obligated to pay the two drachma or any other tax. If there was any tax that Jesus would not be obligated to pay, it would be the two-drachma. Jesus was not just Lord of the Sabbath, but Lord of the Temple as well, which He specifically claimed to be greater than (Matthew 12:6). (See: The Lord of the Sabbath). In addition, the Temple was “His Father’s house” (Luke 2:49; John 2:16). The purpose of the temple was the worship of God, and Jesus is God in human flesh. Why would Jesus be required to pay a tax to support the place that was built to honor and worship Him? Jesus had every right to refuse to pay the two-drachma tax, not for any reasons the tax collectors could have thought of, but because of who He was.
Jesus’ followers would also be exempt because by their faith in Jesus as the Messiah for they had been adopted into God’s family as sons (John 1:12; 1 John 3:1,2). As fellow heirs with Jesus (Romans 8:16,17) they, and we who are also Jesus’ followers, are also exempt from such a tax. Neither Jesus nor His followers were obligated under God’s law to pay the two-drachma.
The wider application to the exemption from taxes is brought in by Jesus’ analogy and by the fact of who Jesus is. Jesus’ analogy expands not only to “the kings of the earth,” but also to the different types of taxes collected. But more importantly, the kings of the earth exempted their sons while collecting their taxes from the “strangers.” In addition, a king who was subject to another king could not collect taxes from the family of the greater king. Who is the king over all the earth? Is not Jesus the King of Kings and Lord of Lords? Are we not still joint heirs with Him as the adopted children of God?
Some have used this passage as justification for not paying taxes to the government. As you can see from the arguments Jesus brings forth, they are correct in assessing the situation and declaring that as followers of Jesus, adopted children of God, they are not obligated to pay taxes. They are exempt as “sons.” If the passage ended there, then they might have a good case for what they are doing, but the passage does not end there. It goes on. While it is true that as adopted children of God we are exempt, yet we faithfully pay our taxes because of the principle and example Jesus sets forth in verse 27.
“But lest we give them offense, 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 stater. Take that and give it to them for you and Me.”
I will deal with the part about Peter going to get the money from a fish in a minute, but please note the first and last part of that verse. “But lest we give them offense . . . give it to them for you and Me.” Jesus had Peter pay the two-drachma tax for both of them because He did not want to cause them offense.
Remember I told you earlier that you must keep in mind that Jesus came for the purpose of fulfilling the will of the Father and redeem man from their sin. Jesus was not going to let something as simple and insignificant as a tax become an offense to the tax collectors that Jesus would soon die to save. The word “offense” here is the word for the trigger on an animal trap. If Jesus had refused to pay the tax, they would have easily been “trapped” in the false conclusion that Jesus and the disciples despised the Temple and its worship and would then reject the gospel message. If Jesus would pay this tax to a group He called a “den of thieves” run by wicked, false teachers and leaders in order not to offend these unbelieving collectors, how should we act and what should our concern be for the lost? Note as well that this destroys the argument about not paying a tax because the government will do something evil with it. These religious leaders practiced evil, and the Roman government even more evil, yet Jesus paid taxes to both without reluctance. Our governments are now doing evil things with the money they tax from us, but that does not excuse us from paying those taxes.
Jesus had the right to refuse to pay the two-drachma tax or any tax just as He had a right to refuse to be humiliated and persecuted. But when Jesus became a man, He willingly laid aside for a time His divine glory and relinquished the rights and prerogatives belonging to that glory. He had little concern for material things, but much concern for eternal things, and this principle He left us is why we as Christians pay our taxes without resentment.
As the adopted children of God, our citizenship being in heaven, we could claim an exemption from taxes. But as followers of Christ we follow His example and His teaching. Later in Matthew 22:15-22, Jesus is again questioned about paying taxes. There He states this principle more forcefully saying, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” Material wealth should be one of the last things on our minds. Our concern must center on the Lord. The point is driven home by how God supplied for this tax.
Jesus tells Peter exactly where the money for this tax would come from. God would supply the need. Peter was to go to the Sea of Galilee, throw in a hook (rather than a net, this does not imply that the hook was not baited), take the very first fish that he caught, open its mouth and there would be a stater which was the exact amount needed to pay the two-drachma tax for two people. Jesus’ deity is again displayed in this miracle in both how the stater was provided and in the fact that Jesus told Peter exactly how it would be provided beforehand.
The point is simple. God will provide for our needs. We are to keep our concentration on the Lord in seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, then all these things will be added unto you (Matthew 6:33). The story does not imply that God will always supply through some miraculous means, but at times He does. Diane and I have certainly been the recipients of God’s grace in that manner. But more often, God simply supplies you with the means by which you can earn the material things you require. Jesus and Peter had their two-drachma tax paid through the miracle of the stater in the fish’s mouth. But the other eleven disciples had to pay it by whatever normal means they had available to them. In either case, God provides for our material needs.
Taxes are certainly an irritant and especially so when so much of those funds end up being squandered away. We are reminded of them not just on April 15, but every time we buy anything, and in the reduced amount of our paychecks. But the irritation of being taxed is related to our view of life. The more we are concerned about material things, the more taxes will irritate us. This does not mean we shouldn’t speak up about government waste and its support of evil things. We stand against those because evil is evil and waste is poor stewardship of what belongs to God. Christians should speak out about those things, but Christians should not be tax cheats or tax resisters. That is not honoring to God, and His honor and glory, along with carrying the gospel message to a lost and dying world, are our chief concerns, for they were the concerns of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Peter learned the lesson Jesus taught Him in this incident. In 1 Peter 3:13 Peter writes, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.”
What should be our response to governmental demands? We willingly comply with the demands of government, not because we are obligated to the state, but for the Lord’s sake that we may silence the ignorance of foolish men and prove that believers in the Lord Jesus Christ are also the best citizens. We resist the government only when its demands are in contradiction to God’s Word. As you pay your taxes this year, do it with a smile knowing that you are doing it not because you have to, but because by doing so you honor the Lord following His example and the principles He taught in seeking first His kingdom and His righteousness.
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