The Sons Are Free
And while they were gathering together in Galilee, Jesus said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men; 23 and they will kill Him, and He will be raised on the third day." And they were deeply grieved. 24 When they came to Capernaum, those who collected the two-drachma tax came to Peter and said, "Does your teacher not pay the two-drachma tax?" 25 He said, "Yes." 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?" 26 When Peter said, "From strangers," Jesus said to him, "Then the sons are exempt. 27 However, so that we do not offend them, 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 shekel. Take that and give it to them for you and Me."
There are three reasons why I chose this text for our consideration this morning.
First is because today is Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week when we look forward to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. Jesus says in verses 22-23, "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." So the text begins with a prophecy of the Lord about what will happen in that last week which we call Holy Week.
Second, there is a conversation between Jesus and Peter that teaches something wonderful about the freedom that we have as Christians. Verse 26 ends, "Then the sons are exempt (literally "free")." I want us to see what this freedom is and what a great thing it is to have it.
Third, the passage includes a miracle in verse 27, namely, the coin in the fish's mouth. This shows that Jesus is worthy of our worship and relates the freedom we have as Christians to the way God provides for his free children when they willingly act for love's sake, not under the constraint of law. This applies to the financial challenge we face in the Gideon Venture and the Isaac Factor (see the previous three sermons). Or, more personally, it applies to God's care for you in your situation as a free child of God. Not that God will always work a miracle to get you out of some scrape you're in, but that he will work with omnipotent power to meet all your needs on the path of freedom and love.
So let's start with the second of these reasons and then go to the third and then end with the first, the prophecy of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The Two-Drachma Tax
Verse 24: Jesus and his disciples are in Capernaum, Peter's hometown (Mark 1:29). Some Jewish people, whose job was to collect the "two-drachma" temple tax, came to Peter and asked, "Does your teacher not pay the two-drachma tax?" This was not a Roman tax, but a Jewish tax for the upkeep of the temple. It was based loosely on Exodus 30:11-16. So these folks were not your unpatriotic tax collectors that we usually read about who collected for the Romans; they were the very patriotic supporters of the temple who expected Israelites throughout the homeland and beyond to take part in supporting the temple service. So this question ("Does your teacher not pay the two-drachma tax?") was probably a test to see how supportive Jesus would be of the temple service in Jerusalem. Rumors were already circulating that he said disloyal things about the temple.
Peter answered in verse 25, "Yes." When he and Jesus were in the house away from the crowd, Jesus asked Peter (in verse 25b), "What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect customs or poll-tax, from their sons or from strangers?" So Jesus is not going to let this go by without a lesson being taught.
He brings up a comparison - an analogy. There are kings on the earth who run their kingdoms with money raised from taxes. How are those taxes collected, Jesus asked, from the king's own children or from the rest of the citizens and inhabitants? The analogy pictures God as the king and the temple service as the running of his kingdom and makes a comparison between some people who are the sons of the king and some who are not the sons of the king.
Who Are the Sons and How Are They Free?
Peter answers Jesus' question in verse 26, "From strangers." That is, kings collect taxes from the citizens and inhabitants that are not part of their family. That's the right answer. So "Jesus said to him, 'Then the sons are exempt (=free).'"
So what is the point Jesus is making? Who are the sons that are free and how are they free? Verse 27 gives us the decisive clue. Jesus says to Peter: "However [that is, even though the sons are free] . . . take that and give it to them for you and Me." In other words, you are free, Peter, and I am free, but we will pay the two-drachma temple tax anyway.
So the comparisons are between the kings of the earth and God and between the king's sons and Jesus with his disciples. Which raises a question: Who are the "strangers"? Who are the "citizens and inhabitants" that are not exempt - not free from the temple tax?
Keep in mind here: This temple tax has nothing to do with the Romans. This is a Jewish tax. So if Jesus makes a distinction between the sons who are free and another group who are not free, he is making a distinction within Israel - among two groups of Jews. This is what John the Baptist did before him. It is what Paul would do after him. John the Baptist called for Israel to repent and be a part of a new, true Israel, and not to boast, "We have Abraham as our father" (Matthew 3:9), as if mere Jewish descent made one a child of God. Then Paul said in Romans 9:6-8, "Not all Israel is Israel . .. It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God."
So the answer is that the "strangers" - the "citizens and inhabitants" who are not free are the Jewish people who are rejecting Jesus as the Son of God. Jesus is the Son of God, and those who trust him and follow him are sons of God because of their attachment to Jesus. Matthew 16:15-16: "[Jesus] said to [the disciples], 'But who do you say that I am?' Simon Peter answered, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.' And speaking to his disciples he said, 'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God'" (Matthew 5:9).
It's true that Israel was called the son of God in the Old Testament (Exodus 4:22). So how can Jesus now say that some Jews are sons of God and free, and some are not sons of God and not free? The answer is that "sonship" has a new, personal, individual meaning with Jesus. There was a corporate sonship before, but now there is a new, personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This new, personal, individual relationship of sonship through Jesus is what Jesus has in mind when he says, "the sons are free."
With the coming of Jesus Christ - the one and only divine, eternal, uncreated Son of God - into the world, a new way of relating to God is made possible. Now there is the real, experienced, conscious union with Jesus Christ that no one had known before the coming of Christ.
It is described in Romans 8:16-17, "The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ." This term, "fellow heirs with Christ," shows how our sonship is connected to Christ's. We are sons along with Jesus Christ when we are in Christ. Not that we are divine, like him, but that we share his inheritance, just as we share his righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21).
That is what Jesus is pointing to here in Matthew 17:26, "The sons are exempt (free)." Those who are Jesus' disciples are the true sons of God and are free from the temple tax, and those who reject him are not the true sons of God and are not free.
But that raises another question: Does this mean that God means for his temple to be supported by unbelievers? No. That is not the point. What, then, is the point?
Jesus the True Meeting Place with God
I think the point is twofold. One is that the temple is passing away and is going to be replaced by Jesus himself as the true meeting place with God; and the other is that Jesus does not say that the true children of God don't pay the tax, but only that they are free not to. In fact, he sends Peter to pay it in verse 27.
The true children of God - the followers of Jesus - are free because Jesus himself is taking the place of the temple. "I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days" (Matthew 26:61). He was referring to his body. Jesus himself was the new meeting place with God. "Something greater than the temple is here" (Matthew 12:6). Place was giving way to Person. The sons are free because the sons are discovering that the age of the temple in Jerusalem is over. The age of coming to God through Jesus is here.
The other reason Jesus doesn't mean that the temple is to be supported by unbelievers is that he sends the true children of God to support the temple, not because they have to support the temple, but because it might at times be good to for the sake of the gospel. Verse 27: "However, so that we do not offend them. . . . Take that and give it to them for you and Me." In other words, you are free not to pay the tax, but pay it anyway for the sake of not putting an obstacle in the way of my message.
So here's the main point of the passage: Those who trust and follow Jesus as the Son of God are the true children of God and are, therefore, free from the old system of temple worship with its "taxes." This does not mean that we no longer care about the ministry of worship. It means we come to God through Jesus. And if there is, incidentally and culturally, a building involved, we are not forced or coerced to support that building. The sons are free.
The point of verse 27 (the payment of the "tax") seems to be this: If you are a child of God, you decide how you will support a non-essential building (and all of them are now!) not by thinking of yourself as taxed by God, but by thinking of whether there are reasons the building will advance the cause of Jesus Christ - which is not building-oriented, but God-oriented, and kingdom-oriented, and ministry-oriented, and people-oriented.
A Miracle of Freedom and Provision
Now I turn very briefly to the miracle of the coin in the fish's mouth and the introductory words of prophecy that Jesus' death is just ahead.
Verse 27, again: "However, so that we do not offend them, 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 shekel. Take that and give it to them for you and Me." What's the point of the miracle of the coin in the fish's mouth?
Two things at least.
One is this: If Jesus is bringing the temple to an end for the true children of God, because "something greater than the temple is here" (Matthew 12:6), then it is fitting that he show that he is worthy of our worship. This miracle involves divine power and wisdom and knowledge. Someone had to be sure that a shekel (precisely worth four drachmas - two for Jesus and two for Peter) was dropped in the sea. Someone had to be sure that the fish scooped it up, but did not swallow it all the way. Someone had to be sure that the fish that scooped up the coin would be near where Peter drops his hook in the water. And Someone would have to be sure that the fish bites Peter's hook, without swallowing the coin, and stays hooked till he gets the coin. When Jesus says that this is, in fact, all going to happen just as he says, he shows himself to be just what Peter confessed him to be: the Son of God worthy of worship and trust. You don't have to go anywhere or pay anything to worship God. He has come to you. There he is. Here he is!
The other point of the miracle is that when you act in freedom and love -not under coercion or constraint - God himself works for you in ways you would never dream. It's like the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus says to the disciples who have five loaves and two fish borrowed from a little boy, "You feed the five thousand." When they set out to do that (just as when Peter sets out to pay the temple tax), God causes the five loaves and two fish to become enough to feed them all. And God causes a coin to be there in a fish's mouth.
The point is not that God will always work a miracle to get you out of some scrape, but that he will do whatever he has to do to help you pursue the path of freedom and sacrificial love that may seem impossible to you.
So with regard to Education for Exultation, we could add "The Fish Factor" or "The Coin Component" to "The Gideon Venture" and "The Isaac Factor." You are not bound to give, but love may compel you to give. And if it does, there will be a way -if God is in it, God will make a way. That's the second point of the miracle. As Hudson Taylor said, "Depend upon it. God's work, done in God's way, will never lack for supplies" (www.gospelcom.net/chi/GLIMPSEF/Glimpses/glmps047.shtml, accessed 4/15/00).
The Beginning of Holy Week
The only thing left to say is this: This whole story was introduced by the omniscient prophecy about the Son of God and Son of Man in verses 22-23: "The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men; (23) and they will kill Him, and He will be raised on the third day." This sovereign Christ, who governs the drop of a coin and the path of a fish, has set his face like flint toward Jerusalem and death. Why? To purchase for us sinners the glorious things that we have been talking about (Matthew 20:28).
We can't become the children of God; we are sinners. We don't deserve to find a coin in a fish's mouth; we deserve to be thrown into the mouth of hell. We are not free from the condemnation of the law; we are under the curse of the law -unless the Son of Man gives himself freely as a substitute for us on the cross and purchases for us forgiveness from all sin and escape from hell and freedom from condemnation. And that is what Jesus did. That is what Holy Week is all about. That is what we need to believe and embrace, and ponder this week. The foundation of our everlasting freedom as the children of God is the death of Jesus. All God's promised help in our lives was bought by the blood of Christ. Believe this. Cherish it this week. Come and worship and bring a friend to hear about it next Sunday morning -Easter.