Tax Exempt!

Wouldn’t you like to find a way for your income to be legitimately tax exempt? Matthew alone includes this short account (Matthew 17:24–27) of a question about a tax, Jesus’ response, and his strange instruction to Peter.

The royal family is tax exempt! The two-drachma tax supported the operation of the temple. The origins of this temple tax lie in the provision for maintaining the tabernacle. Literally this tax is the “two-drachma tax,” but since it was used for maintaining the temple it took that name. Its institution is described in Exodus 30:11–16, in the midst of other instructions about the tabernacle, its furnishings, and the consecration of the priests. It is described as “atonement money.” Each male adult Israelite was to pay the half shekel as an offering to the Lord. Unlike some other offerings, this was not income based. It is to be distinguished from the free, generous giving for the construction of the Tabernacle, Exodus 35:4-29. The initial offering was used to make cast silver bases for the Tabernacle and its surrounding curtain, Exodus 38:25–28. Regularly the offering was to be used for the Tabernacle, Exodus 30:16a. After the building of the Temple, it was used for its maintenance and repair, 2 Chronicles 24:8–12; Nehemiah 10:32. The currency in which it was given over the years may have changed, but the purpose remained similar. Peter, when questioned whether Jesus was going to pay that tax, answered affirmatively. Perhaps he intended to discuss the matter with Jesus later, but Jesus spoke to him about it first. It may be that most had paid the tax earlier, while Jesus and his disciples were in the area of Sidon or Decapolis. Unlike the later question of the Herodians about taxes to Caesar, the question appears to be sincere, not an effort to trap Jesus. There may have been legitimate questions about whether Jesus and his followers were subject to the tax. The priests in the temple did not have to pay it. It appears that some others involved in religious work were exempt. Should the rabbi, Jesus, and his disciples be required to pay?

The Son is exempt. Jesus asks Peter a question about earthly taxes. The question makes a distinction between the “sons” and “others.” (Although the word could be translated “strangers,” “others” seems to fit better. Kings were not in the habit of collecting taxes only from non-citizens.) Peter makes the obvious response that the tax burden did not fall on the royal house. This tax was for the Lord’s house, but Jesus is the Son of the Father who had just spoken on the Mount of Transfiguration. As the Messianic King Jesus certainly should not have been required to pay the tax. If those collecting it had understood fully who he was, would they even have asked? This tax was for the maintenance of the Temple and its work, but Jesus had come to fulfill all of those ceremonies. He had just spoken of his coming suffering, death, and resurrection. He was to be the great Passover lamb. The half-shekel tax was originally described as atonement money. But Jesus came to make atonement, paying, not silver, but his own blood. No, by rights the idea of expecting Jesus to pay this tax is preposterous. Not only is Jesus eternally the Son of God, but as the messianic Son, he does his Father’s will. The Father’s approbation at Jesus’ baptism and on the mountain, speaks not primarily about the eternal relationship of the persons of the Trinity, but focuses on what his Son is doing in the work of redemption. The Scriptures speak of an additional title of sonship that belongs to Christ as he completes his work of atonement and is raised from the dead. See Acts 13:32–34 and Romans 1:2–4. As Christ is declared Son of God with power, he also adopts his people. As Garner puts is, we are “sons in the Son”: “[B]y divine orchestration, redemptive history pivots on Christ’s success as Son, who in his mature obedience secures his filial inheritance and by divine grace shares this inheritance with the redeemed (Gal. 3:29–4:8).” (David B. Garner, Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ, p. 83) Thus, not only is the Lord exempt from the tax, but neither is Peter liable for it either.

The Lord provides for his household. Jesus avoids offense. Instead of sending Peter to explain why Jesus should not have to pay this tax, Jesus avoids giving offense. To dispute over liability to taxes was certainly not the purpose of Jesus’ Messianic work. It would have shifted the focus from Christ to a relatively mundane financial matter. In Matthew 15, when Jesus is criticized for not following the tradition of the elders regarding extra-biblical cleansings, Jesus stands firm. But here he dose not stand on his rights. To avoid giving offense, he is willing to pay the temple tax. And although Jesus’ question to Peter and exchange with him has powerful implications about the authority of Jesus as the Messianic King, this was not the time for a public argument over his person and work. To do that might have hastened his conflict with the leaders which led to his death. His time had not yet come. For Jesus to make an issue of this tax at this point might have interfered with some Israelites trusting in him. He is not willing to give offense. At the same time, it may be that the limited treasury of Jesus and his disciples did not have in it the funds for this tax. Or Jesus may have considered it inappropriate to take gifts which had been given for support of him and his disciples, and divert it to the temple tax. Vos makes an interesting point in a footnote: “[T]he episode contains a lesson concerning the attitude the disciples are to assume toward the Old Testament institution. By paying the tax for Peter and Himself, not on the principle of legal obligation, but from the desire to avoid giving offense, our Lord virtually justified continued observance by Jewish Christians of the Old Testament mode of life, with the proviso that this should be done in a spirit of freedom, from the desire not to harm others, not from a sense of legal obligation carrying with it the idea of meritoriousness.” (Geerhardus Vos, The Self-Disclosure of Jesus, page 161) Although not the central point of this incident, perhaps there is a lesson for God’s people to learn on how to treat one another when there are contentious issues, such as masking, in view. Ask yourself if you are reacting in a way that honors the Lord.

Trust your King to provide what is needed. If Jesus is the royal Son, and he is, and if he has brought you into his family, which he has if you trust in him, you can depend on him to supply what is needed. Jesus sends Peter (remember he was a fisherman by trade) to the lake with instructions to throw in his line, pull in the first fish he catches, and look in its mouth for a four-drachma coin–exactly the amount needed for the payment of the tax for both Jesus and Peter. Matthew describes Jesus’ detailed instructions, but does not bother to describe Peter carrying them out, though the implication seems to be that Peter did exactly what was told. While we might focus on the wonder of the miracle of finding the coin in the fish’s mouth, Matthew’s emphasis is not on the dramatic and spectacular, but on the Lord. Matthew is presenting you with a picture of Jesus who is the majestic Messianic King. He is so great that he (and by implication his followers, like Peter — and you) are exempt from the Temple tax. But this majestic King is also concerned to provide for even the details of the needs of those who belong to him. “As sons who are exempt from paying taxes the Lord Jesus and His disciples had everything at their disposal. For them there was this lost coin and a fish that held it in its mouth. If by faith in the Lord Jesus we have become sons who are exempted in God’s Kingdom, all things are for us even though sometimes it seems as though things are against us.” (S. G. De Graaf, Promise and Deliverance, Vol. 3, p. 102) While I doubt the Lord is going to send your way fish with four-drachma pieces in their mouths, you can rest assured that he knows all your needs and makes abundant provision for them. If he has made atonement for your life, not through the payment of silver, but through his death, he will also give you exactly what you need for the rest of your life.

I can’t offer you a way to make yourself exempt from the IRS. But you are, by adoption, a member of the royal household. You are a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. In Christ you are free, and you have the assurance that he meets all your needs.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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