(Delivered Sunday, September 16, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
It all began when someone—somewhere—lost some money.
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We don't know how it happened, or who it happened to. But somewhere, either upon or by the shores of the Sea of Galilee, someone lost hold of a Greek stater—a coin that was worth the rough equivalent of two average days' wages for a common working man—and watched it fall into the water. Perhaps as they were walking along where the boats were docked, they flipped their coin or handled it casually and lost control of it. Or perhaps they were out on a fishing boat, and were doing some business, or getting paid, or even paying off on a bet; and they fumbled the coin and it slipped out of their hands and into the water. Perhaps someone had set the coin on a rail or on the prow of a boat, turned around to talk to someone, and accidentally brushed it off so that it fell into the sea.
However it happened, we could safely imagine that they heard their coin—two full days' earnings—fall into the water, watched helplessly as it sank out of sight . . . and went home kicking themselves.
Now; imagine that coin as it sank in the sea—twirling and whirling in its descent; glistening and flashing as it captured the reflection of the sunlight above. Imagine the large fish that came swimming by at just that moment. Imagine how it was attracted to the sparkling object that descended before it. Imagine how it instinctively struck and swallowed the object—only to be surprised (as much as a fish can be surprised) by the fact that it was hard and cold. Imagine the fish, doing its best to spit out the coin that was now lodged in its gullet as it swam away to other regions beneath the Sea of Galilee—searching for a more digestible tidbit than the one that was now stuck in its mouth.
And now; know that all of these seeming insignificant events—the wage-earner who accidentally lost his wages; the sinking of the coin down to a particular spot in the sea; the fish that came by to swallow it and swim away—were all under the control of a sovereign God. Know that all of these things were the part of His purposeful plan.
And see how they all come together purposefully in this morning's passage.
In Matthew 17:24-28, we read of the continuing story of our Lord and His disciples; and we find these words:
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Out of all the Gospel writers, Matthew is the only one that tells us this remarkable story. One reason that it might have caught Matthew's attention was because he himself was a tax-man by trade. When Jesus performed a miracle with taxes, He was probably speaking Matthew's 'love-language'—just as He was probably speaking Peter's 'love-language' when He performed a miracle with fish.
But I think that the chief reason Matthew was led by the Holy Spirit to tell this story, when the other Gospel writers did not, is because it spoke particularly to his Jewish kinsmen about Jesus Himself.
You see; the tax that was being collected in this story was a tax that had its roots in the Old Testament Jewish law. At the time when the law was being given by God through Moses, God commanded that a particular tax be collected any time that a census of the people was taken. Exodus 30:11-16 contains this command from God:
Several times in this command from the Lord, reference is made to the significance of the collection of the half-shekel for each man. It was given as a “ransom”. It was an offering to the Lord “to make atonement” for themselves. God counted that half-shekel as a “ransom” for the life of the man who gave it—the life that was being 'numbered' in the census.
And it's not mere coincidence that attention is drawn to Jesus through the performance of a miracle with respect to this particular 'poll-tax'. That tax from long ago pointed ahead to Jesus as the “ransom” for the life of every person who placed their trust in Him. The Bible tells us that “there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time” (1 Timothy 2:5-6). Jesus Himself said that “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
This story isn't just meant to tell us where a really great and valuable fishing spot might be found! It's meant to point our attention to Jesus Christ. It's meant to speak particularly to the Jewish people; but it is also meant to speak to all of us who need redemption. It's about Jesus—who is not only the long-awaited King of the Jews, but is Himself the Atonement for sin and the Ransom for the soul that the Jewish law was meant to point to.
I invite you to look closer at this passage with me. Let's learn together some of the lessons it has to teach us about the attributes of our wonderful Redeemer.
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The first thing that it has to teach us concerning Jesus is . . .
1. HIS OMNISCIENCE: JESUS KNOWS THE THOUGHTS OF HIS DISCIPLES (vv. 24-25a).
We can see this in how He greeted Peter—as soon as Peter walked into the house.
Jesus and His disciples had just returned from their travels up north. They had gone to the mountain where He had revealed Himself to Peter, James and John in glory at His transfiguration. And no sooner do they return to Capernaum—along the shores of the Sea of Galilee—than Peter is confronted by those who collected the half-shekel tax for the temple.
Now; two things need to be noted. First, this was not the same as the sort of tax that Matthew collected. He collected a tax from his own people on behalf of the occupying Roman government. The tax in our passage this morning is not the tax that Matthew collected. Rather, this was a tax collected by the Jewish people, from the Jewish people, for the benefit of the Jewish people's temple. The Jews objected fiercely to the tax that Matthew collected. But they would not have objected to the tax that was being collected in our passage this morning. They would have felt an obligation to contribute to the maintenance of the temple.
But a second thing to note is that this tax—though based on the Old Testament law—was not fully in keeping with the requirements of the Old Testament law. That Old Testament passage from Exodus required that this tax be collected whenever a census was being taken. But here, we see no census being taken at all. Some New Testament scholars have speculated from this that the paying of the tax we read about in this passage had become, over the years, a voluntary custom rather than a legal requirement. There wasn't any actual legal requirement to pay it; even though there was strong social pressure to do so.
This pressure stands behind the question that those who collected the tax asked of Peter: “Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?” (v. 24). Their question was constructed so as to anticipate a positive answer. It could be translated, “Your Teacher does pay the temple tax (or "the two-drachma tax" as it is called in some translations) . . . doesn't He?”. Such a question wouldn't have needed to be asked if the tax were obligatory. But perhaps the tax gatherers were entertaining doubts as to whether or not Jesus would do what other Jewish men felt obligated to do. After all, Jesus was gaining a reputation as a breaker of the Sabbath. He was often found to be at odds with the religious leaders of the day. Perhaps He also thought Himself to be above paying the customary temple tax as well.
And when they asked Peter, Peter told them, “Yes”. Perhaps he said this in part to protect his Master from the scrutiny of the tax collectors—eager to defend the reputation of Jesus as the Messiah. And it may even be that Peter said “yes”, in part, to get the tax collectors off his own back as well. In any case, after leaving them, he walked into the house where Jesus and the others were staying.
Clearly, Peter intended to mention the tax collectors to Jesus. But it's then that we see this clear indication of Jesus' 'omniscience'. We're told that Jesus “anticipated” him; or as the King James Version has it, He "prevented" him. Literally, Jesus "anticipated" him "beforehand"; and He spoke before Peter spoke. He knew the thoughts of His disciple Peter before he even had a chance to utter a word; and asked about the very subject that Peter had in mind.
And He does this to Peter in order to teach him something. He asks a question about what was on Peter's mind in order to set Peter thinking about it even more.
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In John 2:24-25, we're told that Jesus "knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man." The Bible even tells us that Jesus knew the thoughts of those who were His enemies (Matthew 12:25). And if we are out of fellowship with Jesus Christ, or if we are in a state of enmity against Him, this should disturb us greatly.
But if we are open and up-front with Him, and if we seek sincerely to follow as He leads, it shouldn't disturb us at all. In fact, it is reason for us to take comfort. Jesus knows what's in our hearts even better than we do. He is able to answer our deepest questions before we even know to ask them. We can be an utterly open book to Jesus; and say to Him—as King David wrote in Psalm 139;
All our questions, all our doubts, all our fears, all our temptations, even the most intimate thoughts of our minds—even the things we're so ashamed of that we dare not express—all are known to Jesus.
And He loves us anyway.
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Now; Jesus didn't anticipate Peter's question in order to make a fool out of him. He showed that He knew Peter's thoughts in order to teach Peter what he needed to know about His Lord and Master. He asked Peter, "What do you think, Simon?"; not because He wanted Peter's opinion, but because He wanted to steer Peter's thinking in the right direction about Himself.
And this leads us to the second thing that this story reveals to us about Jesus—the thing that Jesus wanted Peter to understand about Himself . . .
2. HIS DEITY: JESUS HOLDS SUPREMACY AS THE SON OF GOD (vv. 25b-26).
I think it's interesting that Jesus used Peter's old name. He called him "Simon". Back in chapter 16, Jesus gave him the name Peter in order to emphasize that he was a a "rock" of a man who stood strong upon the solid confession of faith in Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God”. But I think that He called Peter "Simon" here, because he was behaving like his old self—and not like a "rock" of a man. He was, once again, being mindful of the things of men and not the things of God (Matthew 16:23). He was not evaluating Jesus rightly.
You see; Peter had assumed that Jesus felt Himself to be obligated to the poll-tax that everyone else felt obligated to. He had assumed that, in that respect, Jesus was just like everyone else. But that's when Jesus surprised him with a tax-question that revealed Jesus' supremacy over such obligations. "What do you think, Simon?", Jesus asked. "From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?"
Do you think there were times when Peter was a little afraid to answer questions from Jesus? He certainly knew the correct answer; but may not have been sure where this was all going. And it may just be me; but I wonder if Peter didn't answer the question with a little uncertainty in his voice: "From strangers—?"
Apparently, he gave the right answer. And Jesus said to him, "Then the sons are free." The implication of Jesus' answer was that He was the Son of God—which, of course, Peter already knew; and that as the Son of God, was under no obligation at all to pay a tax collected among men for the upkeep of the temple of His Father.
This was nothing less than a bold assertion of Jesus' supremacy as the Son of God over the temple tax—and even over the temple itself.
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Do you remember when Jesus said something similar to this to the Pharisees? They had accused Him of breaking the Sabbath because He and His disciples were rubbing raw grain in their hands and eating the kernels. Jesus reminded the Pharisees of how the law of God had permitted the priests who worked in the temple on the Sabbath to "profain" the Sabbath by performing their duties and remain "blameless". And then, Jesus shocked them all by saying, "Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple" (Matthew 12:6).
Similarly in our passage this morning, Jesus is saying that—as Son of Him who is Lord of the temple—He is under no obligation to pay the temple tax. Such a tax is only rightly collected from those who are "strangers", and not from those who are sons. The astute Jewish listener might have recalled the prophetic words of Malachi 3:1, where it says that "the LORD whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple"; and would then understand that Jesus is claiming to be that very Lord of the temple! He is claiming to be exempt from the tax that should only be levied on "strangers", and not on sons of the King.
And what's more, Jesus seems to be including Peter and the other of His disciples in that status. He speaks of "sons" in the plural; and He goes on to say, "Nevertheless, lest we offend . . ." This reminds us that, as it says in John 1:12, to as many as received Jesus God has given the right to become "children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God". In Jesus Christ, we are not outsiders to God's household; but are members of the family. The veil in the temple doesn't block our way any longer, but has been torn down from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51) so that we may freely approach the Father's throne for grace in our time of need (Hebrews 10:19-22).
The temple was the place in which the sinner met a holy God to receive forgiveness and favor. And everything that the temple was intended to achieve for the sinner before Jesus came has now been accomplished by Jesus on the cross. It is all now ours by faith.
As the Son of God, He is supreme in the Father's favor; and in Him, we now are as free before the Father as He is!
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Now; keeping the supremacy of Jesus as the Son of God in mind—keeping His absolute exemption from the obligations of men before us—let's marvel at the next thing that this passage teaches us . . .
3. HIS MEEKNESS: JESUS CONDESCENDS TO THE SENSITIVITIES OF MEN (v. 27a).
Even though He is supreme, even though He is exempt from the temple tax as "the Son of the King"—and even though He declares that Peter is exempt with Him—Jesus says "Nevertheless, lest we offend them . . .", and sets Peter off to pay the tax.
The word that is here translated "offend" means "to cause someone to stumble". This suggests that, though Jesus is the Lord of the temple, and is under no obligation to pay the temple tax, He nevertheless sees to it that it is done so that an unnecessary stumbling block would not be placed before the Jewish people.
In doing this, Jesus established the pattern of gracious sensitivity to the weaknesses of others that the apostle Paul followed in his ministry. Paul wrote to the Corinthians and said,
It was a great act of condescending love on the part of Paul to do this. But it was an even greater act of condescending love on the part of the Son of God to to it. He possessed all rights as the Son of God; but He didn't insist on His rights. Instead, He complied with the sensitivities of men so as not to “offend” them or put up any unnecessary road-blocks to their faith in Him.
And just think of how far He went in reaching out to serve us! As it says in Hebrews 2:17-18, “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.”
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So; the Son of God—who knew the thoughts of His disciple Peter—established that He is supreme over the temple tax. And yet, He meekly sent His disciple to pay it, so as not to offend those He was seeking to reach.
And look at how Peter was to pay this! He said, “. . . [G]o to the sea, 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” (v. 27).
That man who lost the money, that coin that fell into the water, that fish that swallowed the coin and swam away—all of it was a part of the perfect and purposeful plan of our Savior. This highlights yet another of His wonderful qualities . . .
4. HIS AUTHORITY: JESUS IS SOVEREIGN OVER THE DETAILS OF LIFE (v. 27b).
Just think. Jesus didn't tell Peter to throw a net into the water, and pull up a bunch of fish. Instead, He sent Peter off to cast a single hook into the water. He didn't even tell him where to cast the hook—just to go and cast a hook in. And He didn't tell Peter to keep on casting the hook and keep on pulling out fish until he found one with money in its mouth. He said to pull up the very first fish, and that he would find the money in the mouth of the very first one he caught!
And just think of the other demonstrations of Jesus' sovereign rule during his earthly ministry. Just think of the ways that He demonstrated that He had all things in perfect order, and arranged all the details of circumstances in such a way as to accomplish His good purpose. Think of how, as He and His disciples drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage at the Mount of Olives, He sent two of His disciples out; saying, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Loose them and bring them to Me. And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, 'The Lord has need of them,' and immediately he will send them” (Matthew 21:1-3). They found everything just as He said.
Or think of how on the day of His last meal with them, as the disciples asked Him where He wanted them to prepare the Passover meal, He said, “Go into the city, and a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him. Wherever he goes in, say to the master of the house, 'The Teacher says, “Where is the guest room in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?”' Then he will show you a large upper room, furnished and prepared; there make ready for us” (Mark 14:13-15).
The circumstances of life should never frustrate us when we walk with Jesus! There is nothing that is not under the rule of our sovereign Lord and Master! When He sends us out somewhere to serve His cause in some way, we arrive to find that He had already been there—having arranged everything in advance! Every day, you and I can affirm—as Paul did—that we are the workmanship of God the Father, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
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Before we depart from this passage, I can't resist pointing out just one more wonderful attribute of our Savior that it reveals to us. We see, last of all . . .
5. HIS COMPASSION: JESUS CARES FOR THE NEEDS OF HIS FRIENDS (v. 27c).
I don't think it's a small thing at all that Jesus—the sovereign Son of God—mercifully tells Peter to catch the fish, pull the coin from its mouth, and give it to the tax collectors, as Jesus says, “for Me and you.”
He didn't have to do that. He could have told Peter, “The tax collectors were asking if I pay the tax. Well; go catch that fish, and pay My tax for Me. That'll teach them! As for you, though; you'll have to catch your own fish.” But Jesus didn't do that. He is a merciful Savior, who graciously provides not only for His own needs, but also for those who follow Him and obey Him.
It doesn't tell us what happened next; but we're left with the impression that Peter obeyed the Lord, and that everything happened as Jesus said. Did Jesus also pay the taxes for the other disciples? It doesn't appear that He sent Peter out to catch more fish with more coins. It appears that there was only a provision for Himself and Peter. But He at least provided for Peter. This teaches us that it pays to stay close to Jesus!
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So then; here's Jesus as He's revealed to us in this remarkable story. He is omniscient—and knows our thoughts before we even utter them to Him. He is the Son of God—and stands supreme above all things that might concern us. Yet, He is meek—and condescends to stoop down to us in our weaknesses and sensitivities. And He is authoritative—and reigns sovereignly over the details of our lives. And then, to top it all off, He is compassionate toward us—and gladly and graciously meets our daily needs as if they were His own!
I'm glad that, in the plan of God, someone lost that coin; aren't you? If it hadn't been lost, we wouldn't have had this story about the marvelous attributes of our Savior.
It was money well spent!
1King David disobeyed this clear command—taking a census of the people apart from the Lord's will, and without the collection of the half-shekel for all those numbered. And as a result, a plague was brought upon the people (2 Samuel 24; 1 Chronicals 21).
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