A Payment the Son Did Not Owe
Passage: Matthew 17:22–27
A game our kids enjoy playing is Monopoly. They sometimes go for hours before determining a winner. But a common groan I hear is this one: “Ughhh!” Inevitably that means one of them landed between Reading Railroad and Baltic Avenue on that fun square called Income Taxes: “Pay 10% or $200.” “Ughhhh, Taxes!” To which every adult is thinking, “You have no idea.”
This morning, we come to an interesting passage that involves a question about taxes. But don’t let that word frighten you away. Don’t groan and move along. Things aren’t as they appear. Yes, Jesus will pay a tax. But the point isn’t about taxes. Jesus seizes the moment to clarify the nature of his mission. He wants Peter to understand why he must die. Let’s read it together, beginning in verse 22.
22 As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about 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 greatly distressed. 24 When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the 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 kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” 26 And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. 27 However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast 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 me and for yourself.
Two different scenes make up this passage. The first scene comes in verses 22-23. Jesus retells his pending death and resurrection. The second scene comes in verses 24-27 with this question about paying the two-drachma tax. Often, people see no connection between this second scene and what Jesus has just said about his death. Jesus’ teaching then gets reduced to moral lessons about civil responsibilities. But what if this second scene where Jesus makes a payment on Peter’s behalf—what if that scene is meant to illustrate something far more about the nature of Jesus’ death?
Jesus retells his pending death and resurrection.
I think that’s exactly what’s happening. But let’s begin by reviewing the first scene in verses 22-23: Jesus retells his pending death and resurrection.
Not too long ago, in chapter 16, we reached a turning point in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus had alluded to his death before—like when he mentioned the bridegroom being taken away in 9:15, or when he explained the Son of Man in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. But in 16:21, he got explicit: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
From that moment, Jesus repeatedly teaches about his coming death. We encountered it again in 17:12, “So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” Now, we find it here: “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” He adds another element. The word behind “delivered” is the same word applied to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. One of his closest friends will betray him into the hands of men. “They will kill [the Son of Man], and he will be raised on the third day.”
Remember, the Son of Man is that royal figure from Daniel 7:13-14. “Behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” You can imagine why the disciples are so distressed in verse 23. That Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men? They will kill him?
They can’t see beyond the cross to the glory of resurrection. Jesus also promises that “he will be raised on the third day.” But it doesn’t make sense to them. Their view of things doesn’t allow for a Messiah who first suffers and dies; and if he was going to suffer and die, why? That’s the question Matthew wants in your mind before reading verse 24: why does Jesus keep saying that he, as Messiah, must suffer and die? Why must the Son of Man be killed? What will such a death accomplish?
Jesus illustrates the nature of his saving death.
I believe the second scene answers these questions by way of illustration: Jesus illustrates the nature of his saving death in verses 24-27. Three parts make up this second scene. Part one is a question about paying the temple tax. Verse 24, “When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax…” Which was a tax taken up for the temple. A drachma was equivalent to a denarius, which was about a day’s wages. Anyway, these collectors ask Peter, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?”
In the broader context, the question makes sense. Tensions have been rising with Jesus. His teaching on things like Sabbath and defilement differed from their traditions. Earlier Jesus declared how something greater than the temple was here in him (Matt 12:6). So, it makes sense why questions about the temple tax would arise. Their assumption is that Jesus pays the tax. Peter confirms by saying, “Yes.” Peter doesn’t yet know why Jesus pays the tax—Jesus clarifies that later.
For now, though, it’s better to stop and ask what this tax was for. We’ll find our answer in Exodus 30:11-16. God says this to Moses: “When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to the LORD when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them. Each one who is numbered in the census shall give this: half a shekel [= two drachma] according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the LORD. Everyone who is numbered in the census, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the LORD’S offering. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you give the LORD’S offering to make atonement for your lives. You shall take the atonement money from the people of Israel and shall give it for the service of the tent of meeting, that it may bring the people of Israel to remembrance before the LORD, so as to make atonement for your lives.”
Notice a few things about this tax. It’s called a “ransom” in verse 12, “atonement money” in verse 16. The idea was a payment made for the purpose of escaping God’s punishment, in particular escaping death. In verse 12, it’s a ransom “for his life to the Lord…that there be no plague among them.” In verse 15, the payment made atonement for their lives. That’s one purpose for the tax—escaping God’s punishment.
Another purpose was related to enjoying God’s presence. Verse 16 says that the tax served “the tent of meeting, that it may bring the people of Israel to remembrance before the Lord.” The money supported the “tent of meeting,” the place where God chose to dwell with his people through sacrifice.
Now, it’s less clear whether every Israelite in Jesus’ day still had these things in mind when they paid this tax. There were occasions in Israel’s history when the people neglected this tax, and leaders had to bring it to their attention. It happened with the first temple in 2 Chronicles 29:6-10 and then again with the second temple in Nehemiah 10:32-33. But Exodus 30 explains the original significance. It was a payment for atonement, that the people might escape God’s punishment and enjoy God’s presence.
Keep that backdrop in mind and let’s look at the next part of this scene: Jesus shows Peter how God’s Son is not obligated to pay the tax. Verse 25, “When [Peter] came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?’ And when [Peter] said, ‘From others,’ Jesus said to him, ‘Then the sons are free.’”
Now, this is another place where people get confused. The question was about the temple tax, but Jesus shifts to civil taxes. Does that mean he’s now teaching whether we should pay civil taxes? Also, when he says, “the sons are free,” is he making a point about Israel, his disciples, or primarily himself? Here’s how I’m reading it. Jesus shifts to the civil realm only to draw an analogy for Peter. Earthly kings do not require their sons to pay taxes. The sons are free. They’re not obligated to pay.
Jesus then takes that analogy and applies it to himself as Son of God. Peter had recently confessed Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Chapters 16-17 emphasize Jesus as “Son of Man.” Now he’s drawing an analogy between sons of earthly kings and the Son of the heavenly king. To use the words of D. A. Carson, “The point is that, just as royal sons are exempt from the taxes imposed by their fathers, so too Jesus is exempt from the ‘tax’ imposed by his Father…Jesus acknowledges the temple tax to be an obligation to God; but since he is uniquely God’s Son, therefore he is exempt.”
Returning to some of the points we observed in Exodus 30, Jesus is exempt from the temple tax because he has no need to escape God’s punishment. He is without sin. He has no need for paying “atonement money” to spare his life. As Son, he already shares perfect fellowship with the Father. He has enjoyed God’s presence from eternity past. He’s free from any obligation to pay the temple tax. He is greater than the temple. Peter got it right, Jesus pays. But Jesus wants him to know, I don’t owe it like others.
Nevertheless, look at what he chooses to do in the last part of this scene: God’s Son willingly provides payment for others. Verse 27, “However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast 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 me and for yourself.” What’s interesting is that Matthew stops short of reporting how the miracle happened. He gives no account of Peter catching the fish and finding the shekel.
This has led some to say that perhaps Jesus was turning the whole situation into a joke—as if to say, “Get on with your fishing, Peter; the tax will look after itself.”[i] However, nothing in the text indicates such sarcasm. It’s better to assume the miracle did happen, but that Matthew’s amazement lies elsewhere. Not in a shekel from a fish’s mouth but in the royal Son of God stooping to make a payment he didn’t have to.
Even in the way he pays the tax, Jesus proves for Peter that he is Son of God. He controls nature: “the first fish that comes up, you’ll find it.” As Son, Jesus is free. But he doesn’t insist on his own rights. Rather, he forgoes his rights as Son and willingly submits to the Law’s demands here. Instead of causing a big raucous to prove his privilege as Son, he humbles himself beneath the Law—both to fulfill the Law’s demands and to make a payment on Peter’s behalf. Part of the beauty of this passage is how personal Jesus makes this: “give it to them for me and for yourself.”
In other words, “That’s why I came, Peter, to make a payment in your place, to pay your atonement, to count you among God’s children as well.”
So, I think the point of this second scene illustrates why the Son of Man must first suffer and die. In the same way the blood of bulls and goats couldn’t take away sins under the Law, this tax never really settled the deal for a true atonement-payment either. It was always pointing forward to a better payment, a full atonement payment. We, like Peter, need someone to make a payment in our place. Our sins deserve God’s punishment of death. Our sins have separated us from God’s presence. But in Jesus Christ, God has provided a payment for our atonement. That payment is the life of his only Son. By dying on the cross, Jesus became our ransom, so that we can escape God’s punishment and enjoy God’s presence.
Other Places that Describe Jesus’ Death as Payment
Elsewhere the New Testament speaks of Jesus’ death the same way. Take Mark 10:45, for instance: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Ransom has to do with making a payment to free someone. 1 Peter 1:18 says to “conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” 1 Corinthians 6:20 is another: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. [Therefore] glorify God in your body.” God bought you at the cost of his Son’s life.
Then there’s also Isaiah 55:2. “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Notice, “without money and without price.” When God speaks of those without money, we can go back in Isaiah 44:6 and learn why they have no money. They work hard, get paid in silver, and then they weigh out the silver for the blacksmith to fashion them an idol. They’ve bankrupted themselves on chasing idols.
God invites these kinds of people. Of course, the question is how the most holy God could invite such idolaters so freely? Isn’t there a price to pay for sin? Yes. But when we read Isaiah 55 in its broader context, we find that someone else paid the price. Isaiah 53:5, “he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” The guilt we incurred for sin must be punished. The Lord’s solution was to place the punishment we deserved on the Servant. Our entry comes at his cost. Jesus is that Servant of Isaiah 53. He paid the atonement for our sins, and he paid it all.
Jesus Paid It All
Brothers and sisters, the Son of God made a payment he did not owe. He willingly laid down his life to become your atonement. When you belong to Jesus, you are now free from God’s punishment and free to enjoy God’s presence. This wonderful news, isn’t it? Isn’t this a picture we all need today?
Whether it was something you were supposed to do this week but didn’t, or something you shouldn’t have done but did. Whether it’s something sinful from your past, or some besetting sin in the present. Whether it’s a wrong committed overtly, or a wrong others would never know in your thoughts. We all need atonement before God. We all need to be reminded of why Jesus died. That’s why we gather at the Lord’s Supper every week, to remind us of the price he paid for our sins.
We never grow beyond our need for this good news. Why else are there so many songs about the payment Jesus made for us? “To this dear Surety’s hand / Will I commit my cause; / He answers and fulfills / His Father’s broken laws. / Behold my soul at freedom set; My Surety paid the dreadful debt.” “Why should I gain from His reward? / I cannot give an answer. / But this I know with all my heart / His wounds have paid my ransom.” “Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe; / Sin had left a crimson stain, / He washed it white as snow.” “You are the Way to God, / Your blood our ransom paid; / In You we face our Judge / and Maker unafraid. / Before the throne absolved we stand, / Your love has met Your law’s demand.” On and on the songs go in our Christian faith.
Why? Because we never get over it! Rejoice in this awesome work. Celebrate this awesome salvation for you. Again, you have to love how Jesus does this for Peter. Peter! The one who keeps sticking his foot in his mouth. The one who still has little faith. Last Sunday, we learned he was among the disciples whose response to Jesus looked more like the faithless and twisted generation around him. Yet here is this picture of Jesus still teaching him: “I’ve got you covered, Peter. I don’t owe anything here. But I love you and will lay my life down to pay for you, Peter.”
That’s what he does for every person who trusts Jesus and chooses to follow him. If you’re here today and haven’t chosen to follow Jesus, what’s holding you back? Is it your sins? Are you trying to pay things off yourself with good deeds? You won’t be able. But Jesus can, and he did on the cross. Don’t hold back from following him and making that trust public through baptism.
For those of you who are Christians, keep preaching this good news to yourself and to each other. Preach it to yourself when you need renewed confidence that your punishment is taken away. Preach it to yourself when you approach the Lord in prayer, knowing that in Christ you can enjoy God’s presence. Preach it to yourself at work, at the dinner table, in times of great need, at moments when you can’t get out of the car because your so downcast—because Jesus paid for you, God is with you everywhere you are. He paid for you to enjoy God’s presence always.
Also, preach it to others. Before the prayer meeting this past Tuesday, Wes shared some lyrics with me from a music artist who goes by the name Jelly Roll. The song describes his own battle with addiction. He says, “Somebody save me, me from myself / I’ve spent so long living in Hell / They say my lifestyle is bad for my health / It’s the only thing that seems to help / All of this drinkin’ and smokin’ is hopeless / But feel like it’s all that I need / Somethin’ inside of me’s broken / I hold on to anything that sets me free / I’m a lost cause / Baby, don’t waste your time on me / I’m so damaged beyond repair / Life has shattered my hopes and my dreams.”
How many people have a story like that? Some of you had a story like that; and then you heard about the Son paying the price to bring you back to God. What great hope we have to offer to people in places like that. We have the only message to set people free truly. Jesus paid the price to set them free and make them sons/daughters.
Then—as you’re preaching this gospel to yourself and to others—let it shape the way you live before others. Let Jesus’ humility so shape you, that your life becomes a fitting illustration of the gospel you bring to others. Think of how Paul imitates the humility of Jesus in his own gospel ministry.
1 Corinthians 8-10. Paul addresses some Christians asserting their rights to eat meat sacrificed to idols. But they have zero concern for how they’re causing some of the weaker Christians to stumble. Paul says, “Take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak…If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” Shortly after that he says, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” That’s the attitude we find in Jesus. As Paul preaches Jesus, he imitates Jesus.
We find the same kind of thing in Philippians 2. Paul writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” As Son, he had every right to be seen as glorious. But he set aside that right and took the form of a servant. That’s the attitude we observe in Matthew 17; and Paul says that same mind ought to be present in Jesus’ people.
Or think of the way Paul handled the situation with Onesimus. Onesimus was a slave to Philemon. He runs away. As providence would have it, he runs into Paul. He hears the gospel. The Lord saves him. Now Paul is encouraging Onesimus to return to Philemon. He wants Philemon to receive Onesimus no longer as a slave but as a brother. Then he says this in Philemon 17, “If [Onesiumus] has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account…I will repay it.” Paul has been so captivated by the humility of Jesus, that it effects the way he lives: “charge that to my account…I’ll pay it.”
Isn’t that a picture of what Jesus did for us in a far greater way? All our sinful debt was charged to his account. He paid it all with his life. When that message truly grips you, it will shape the way you live with others. Your own life will fit the message you preach to others. Pray the Lord would work such a humility in us as we celebrate the humility of Jesus for us. As Son, he was free. But willingly he humbled himself to become our atonement. He didn’t have to, but he chose to make the payment for our sins that we might escape God’s punishment and enjoy God’s presence.
[i] Melinsky, as cited in Leon Morris, Matthew, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 455.