The Miraculous Tax Provision
After healing the boy tormented by a demon and helping the believing father who needed help with his unbelief, Jesus returned to the region of Galilee with His disciples. There He reminded them again of what was coming shortly in the future. (Matthew 17:22-23) Matthew was one of the 12 disciples, and he makes a big effort to let us know just how many times Jesus said that He was going to be killed and then resurrected, but he also is humble enough to let us know that no one, including himself, understood exactly what Jesus meant- to them Jesus’s prediction just brought about sadness and disappointment.
More than likely, when Jesus and the disciples returned to Galilee, each returned to his own home and thus Jesus returned with Peter to Peter’s house. And there Peter experienced an unwelcomed, surprise knock on the door. Have you ever had an unwelcomed surprise come knocking on the door of your life? I’m hoping that we’ll each be encouraged as we look and see just how Jesus addressed this unwelcome surprise in Peter’s life. Let’s look and see what happened, Matthew 17:24-27.
Ok, let me tell you a little about this two-drachma tax. It was not a Roman enforced tax like most of the other taxes. It was actually imposed by the religious leaders in order to provide upkeep for the temple. The law is outlined in Exodus chapter 30 (verses 11-16), it says that half a shekel was to be collected from everyone 20 years and older, after a census was taken. The law seems to imply that it was a one-time only collection, specifically for Israel to collect upon entering the land and counting its people; but, it appears in this passage that now the money was perhaps being collected on a yearly basis. This would not be surprising, given that the religious leaders often were adding to God’s law, and making it more difficult than it was intended to be.
The law required half a Jewish shekel, which was the equivalent of 2 Greek drachma, equal to 2 days’ worth of wages. Now Jesus had probably paid this amount in the previous years, or perhaps he hadn’t, but either way Peter goes ahead and answers on behalf of Jesus “Yes.” Either Peter knows Jesus had been paying it, or Peter knows Jesus hadn’t paid it and because he doesn’t want any problems with the religious leaders, especially in light of Jesus just having confessed that they were going to end up killing Him, Peter thus answers Yes and commits Jesus to paying this tax. Peter at this point is probably aiming to avoid any confrontation that might anger the religious leaders and give them reason to want to kill Jesus. Either way, this wasn’t a friendly knock on the door, and in light of Jesus continually speaking of his death at the hands of the religious leaders, I’m sure this was a very unsettling event for Peter.
The religious leaders were probably trying to find another fault in Jesus, but they took Peter at his word and left his door, now armed with something to accuse Jesus with if He didn’t end up bringing them the tax. And upon re-entering the house, before Peter even has a chance to ask Jesus about the tax, Jesus beats Him to it and asks him a question: “What do you think, Simon…” (verses 25-26) This analogy of Jesus is interesting because He is making a distinction between people within Israel. Remember this isn’t a Roman tax, or a tax imposed on various people groups living within the region, it is a tax collected from Israelite citizens, by their own Israelite religious leaders. And by making a distinction between sons who are free, and others who are not free, Jesus is distinguishing between two different groups of Jews. This is not a typical viewpoint that the Jewish people shared. On the contrary, the Jewish people for a long time had considered themselves all as children of God. God Himself, as recorded in Deuteronomy 14:1 said: “You are the sons of the Lord your God.” But Jesus here was dividing, just as John the Baptist had done before Him. John said to the Jews in Matthew 3:9 “and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham.” Paul later confirmed what John and Jesus were saying in his letter to the Romans (9:6-8), he says “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; 7 nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants… it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.”
Both John and Paul were saying that sonship to God is not achieved by DNA inherited from parents, God is not connected as father to the Jewish people just because they are of Jewish descent. No, there is a determining factor that allows the Jewish people and people from other nations (like us) to experience life as a child of God, and that determining factor is not based on race, nor on the corporate body of people that one associates with- no, sonship is offered through a personal, individual relationship with THE son of God, Jesus. Paul describes it like this in Romans 8:16-17, He says “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ…” You see, when we are connected to Jesus, we are somehow considered alongside Him as sons (and daughters) of God. We don’t share in His divinity, but we share in the inheritance of His Kingdom, and we share in His perfect righteousness. Those that are connected to Jesus in this way, His followers, are the true children of God. And under these terms, why were such children exempt from a temple tax? Because Jesus Himself was replacing the temple. Instead of the temple, He is now the place where one can encounter God and receive forgiveness of sins. Remember Jesus’s words concerning Himself, “But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here.” (Matthew 12:6) Yes, Jesus is greater than any temple, superior to any manmade house for God, because He is somehow God Himself- He was the one in this passage to whom tax offerings should have been given to, not taken from.
But notice in verse 27 Jesus’s sensitivity to the surrounding culture, His servant-like laying down of His own rights… “However, so that we do not offend them”- and then He gives Peter instructions for obtaining the money for this temple tax. Jesus still had more to teach His disciples, and it wasn’t time yet for Him to publicly proclaim His position as God’s son, the Messiah- a proclamation that would have at that time sped up His soon coming death on the cross. So, Jesus was going to pay the money, as not to offend, for He and Peter. There wasn’t reason to pay for the other disciples as well, since the other disciples weren’t present, they were at their own homes, and perhaps it was only the home of Peter, where Jesus was lodged, that was singled out for a personal knock on the door from the collection service.
There was a time when perhaps the disciples had some money stored up for provisions as they traveled, but by this time that money could have very likely been used up. They had been traveling for some time now, with many days even being outside of Israel proper, and they had just returned, disbanding temporarily to their own homes. Even if they did have a little money that could be used for this tax, Jesus had just claimed to be the son of God, the true King, and this was a perfect opportunity to show off His Father’s prestige. I want you to think for a moment about how much had to line up exactly right for Peter to obtain this money in the way Jesus asked Him to obtain it in verse 27. The right sized fish, at just the right timing, would have to swallow just the right amount of money, yet keep it in its mouth without swallowing it fully, and someone would have had to drop that coin in the water at the right time, or the right piece of money that had been dropped a while ago would have to of been uncovered on the lake floor and spotted by the fish at just the right time, and that fish would have then had to be in just the right location where Peter would cast his line, and would have to be the first fish to bite the hook, and bite the hook without losing the coin from its mouth. This to me is an incredible miracle of foreknowledge from Jesus, an example of his supreme sovereignty and omniscience.
This has got to be my new favorite miracle. Don’t get me wrong, his other miracles are amazing- calming the storm with a single sentence, healing the Centurion’s servant when that servant wasn’t even present, raising from dead to life Jarius’s daughter, casting out demons- these miracles are all amazing! They demonstrate to us God’s power over nature, over the physical and spiritual world, over sickness and health, death and life, but this miracle with the fish and the coin blows my mind with God’s perfect knowledge of past, present, AND future events.
Now if God can orchestrate a fish swallowing a coin to bite a fishing hook so that the temple tax would be paid in order that the religious leaders wouldn’t take offense, so that Peter’s heart would be stilled- then I would like to suggest that God sees everything that you are experiencing, and has full power to orchestrate all the events that have to come together in order for you to be provided for and for you to witness Him most glorified.
It would have been just as easy for Jesus to do a magic trick and “Poof!” a coin appears in his hand for Peter to give to the tax collectors. He could have commanded a shekel, “Appear!” just as easy as He commanded the storm “Be still!” But the way Jesus wove together existing components from this physical world, in a seemingly not so over-miraculous-way, demonstrates to us His rule over all the ordinary things of this life- more so than a poof-magic-God-miracle. This miracle makes me want to look back at my life, and attempt to see all the different factors at play that had to happen in order to get me to this place where I am right now. And then I think about all my current experiences- the ones I would consider good AND the ones I would consider bad. If Jesus could orchestrate, or foresee and pinpoint His provision for sons of God through random events such as a coin being tossed in the water and a fish swallowing it, then surely, He is working in the lives of the other children of God- including me, and you- in the same way. All of your life’s past, present, and future experiences and circumstances- good and bad- have been seen and understood by God. And somehow, He can and is orchestrating these experiences and circumstances for your good and His glory.
For many years, theologians have wrestled with and debated over how God exercises this sovereignty in this world. They have questioned how to balance God allowing human free will with Him also being completely in control. These theologians have come up with theories that attempt to explain this balance between free will and God’s will, and each theory balances the 2 in a different way. On one extreme there is the “Openness of God” theory. And this theory puts more weight on man having free will. Proponents of this theory would say that mankind has radical free will, mankind has the absolute ability to choose whatever He wishes- even if God desires otherwise. They would say that God self-limits His foreknowledge and thus allows mankind to make all the decisions that shape the future. This theory obviously paints God as more of a spectator type God, rather than an active, working, and moving type of God. This theory definitely seems lacking when we look at scripture and notice just how often God intervenes and takes an active role in the lives of His creation.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is what is known as “Determinism.” “Hard determinism” would be the theory that man does not really have free will, everything that has happened and will happen is determined and caused directly by God. Now this theory presents another problem, it would seem that if it is correct, then God is the author of sin. He would have had to of caused Adam and Eve to sin in the garden. Now that doesn’t quite make sense, a good God wouldn’t have originated evil. Between the extremes of “The Openness of God” and “Hard Determinism” are other theories that attempt to balance a little more evenly man’s free will and God’s sovereignty. One of these theories is known as “Soft determinism,” and it would say that man has free will, and can do what He desires, but when someone places their faith in Jesus and becomes anew in Him, God then gives that person His own right desires. So, mankind does what he desires, but for believers it is really what God desires, because God places His desire inside His believers. I believe this is true, but I don’t think it fully addresses the balance of free will and God’s Sovereignty. Concerning this balance this theory would seem to suggest that God doesn’t accomplish His will and desires through those who don’t belong to Him. Which according to the Bible isn’t true, there are several passages that show God used even those who didn’t know Him in accomplishing His will and purposes.
The theory of God’s Timelessness is a middle road theory that views God as one who functions outside of our space time continuum. Therefore, since He is timeless, He sees the past, present, and future all at once. For example, we see life as a parade, as it comes to us- one float at a time. Each float that passes becomes a thing of the past, the float we are looking at right now is the present, and the floats that we haven’t seen yet that are yet to make it up the road, are in the future. But the theory of God’s Timelessness would contend that God sees the parade from above, from a bird’s eye perspective- He sees the past, present, and future all at once- the whole parade. Because of this, He can predict the future without necessarily causing it to happen- so mankind still has freewill- it’s just that God sees all the outcomes of mankind’s choices; and perhaps from time to time He intervenes and does a tweak here or there in order to keep the parade heading in the right direction.
Recently I have learned of another theory that attempts to balance fairly man’s free will and God’s sovereignty. It’s called “Middle Knowledge.” It suggests that God foresees and knows every single outcome of every possible and potential action; so not only does God foresee all of the future, like the view of Timelessness states, but He also foresees every possible, potential, and theoretical future that could exist. This view would contend that God knew the exact future outcome of what would happen if Peter didn’t pay the temple tax for he and Jesus. He would have seen the exact future outcome of what would have happened if Jesus did a magic trick and a shekel appeared, or the exact future of any other response. And in this view, not only would God see immediate outcomes, but He would also see the far-off consequences of each decision, and how that one decision would compound other decisions over the course of years, decades, centuries, and millennia. And having this infinite “Middle Knowledge,” God then determines which potential scenario brings Him the most glory, and His people the most good, and that track of history, that particular parade path, is the path He brings about. In this theory, man has full ability to exercise free will, AND God has full ability to know and determine the future.
I realize we are attempting to explain something that is beyond our comprehension, but when we read a passage like the one we have read today, I believe we have to wrestle with and strive for understanding to the best we can in order to know God better, and to trust Him more. And while we might not have the perfect theory of how God balances free will with His sovereignty, I hope that you will see from this passage God’s ability to perfectly see and orchestrate future events. The Jesus that told Peter about the coin in the fish’s mouth- the Jesus that Peter trusted- is the same Jesus that is worthy of your complete trust. He is the Jesus who sees not only the concern of the temple tax, but He sees your concerns and needs, and has infinite ways of bringing about solutions of provision. He sees the details of your life, and you can trust Him that He is orchestrating something bigger than you can imagine, something that will ultimately bring you good, and Him glory. He isn’t a God who sleeps, there isn’t a detail He has missed, He sees every lost coin and every fish that is swimming and it is in His good character to bring things like that together for your good and for His glory, even as we experience life’s unwelcome surprises. Will you choose to believe that with me this morning?