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69 | When Jesus paid the Temple Tax, and why

Tradition states that the Tilapia Fish, also called St. Peter’s fish, is fish that Peter caught with a Tyrian shekel in its mouth to pay the Temple tax on behalf of Jesus and Peter.
Credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen/Wikipedia/Creative Commons 3.0

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Hi my name is Dean Smith and in this podcast, I want to hopefully answer the burning question that has puzzled many for years, why did Jesus volunteer to pay the temple tax.

Nobody in their right mind volunteers to pay a tax, but Jesus did.

What makes this payment even odder is that Jesus was in a constant conflict with the Jewish Leadership. We also have the Apostle John’s statement that Jesus’ body was the Temple of God, because it contained the very presence of God, which the temple did not have because the Ark of the Covenant disappeared about 600 years earlier.

Jesus also prophesied the total destruction of the Temple that took place in 70 AD, yet in this story found in Matthew chapter 17, Jesus agreed to pay the temple tax that helped fund the operations of the temple.

The Jewish priests connected with Herod’s temple had instituted a voluntary tax for the temple of a half shekel for each male over the age of 20. It was collected annually during one of the three pilgrimage festivals when people journeyed to Jerusalem — Passover, Pentecost and the feast of Tabernacles.

The Priests patterned it after similar taxes paid in the Old Testament. Moses instituted a half shekel sanctuary tax to help fund the tabernacle (Exodus 30:12-13). However, this tax was only collected when Israel performed a national census.

There was also a one-third shekel tax instituted annually for the temple in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 10:32; Ezra 6:8). But this was a voluntary contribution. They didn’t have to pay it.

So, the Jewish priests merged these two ideas together — taking the half-shekel tax amount from Exodus and combining it with the annual payment in Ezra.

The Temple tax was not enforceable under Roman law, so they couldn’t make it compulsory. However, the priests considered it a sin if you didn’t pay it.

Call it a temple guilt tax, if you want. But there was pressure to pay.

Archaeologists recently announced that they have found a rare Tyrian shekel coin from this period that was minted in Tyre, now modern Lebanon that was used to pay the Temple tax. It was found in Old Jerusalem, near the Tower of David.

Even though this rare coin had an image of the Phoenician god Baal also called Beelzebub, it was the coin, that the priests demanded as payment because it was made of 94% silver, compared to the Roman equivalent that had only 80% silver. The Tyrian shekel weighed four drachmas.

As strange as it sounds, there is even a voluntary temple tax being collected today, even though there is no temple in Jerusalem.

It was started in 1997 and initially people purchased a commemorative half-shekel with no real monetary value that has since been changed to a medallion.

To this point, they have collected over $200,000 and since there is no temple, the money is used to train priests and manufacture the utensils that they hope to use in a future third Jewish temple.

But as we read the story in Matthew 17, the first thing we notice is that the incident took place in Capernaum.

Since Matthew also mentions in chapter 8, that Peter had a home in Capernaum, many suspect that temple tax collectors were probably going door to door to collect the tax.

When they approached Peter, the tax collectors asked if Jesus paid the Temple tax, we read:

24 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”

25 “Yes, he does,” he replied. (Matthew 17:24-25)

Under pressure and in typical Peter fashion, the Apostle blurted out “yes” without thinking and consulting with Christ.

Jesus was probably smiling as He watched Peter sweat under the interrogation. After the tax collectors left, Jesus asked Peter if the children of the Kings paid taxes.

Peter responded with a resounding no.

And of course, because of their position in the temple, the priests had also exempted themselves from having to pay the temple tax.

Jesus responded that neither He nor his disciples needed pay the temple tax because they are the children of God and the temple was their Father’s house, so as sons they were exempt.

Yet despite this, Jesus agreed to pay this voluntary temple tax so not to cause offense.

We read:

“But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” (Matthew 17:27 NIV)

The reference to four drachmas suggests this coin was the Tyrian shekel mentioned earlier.

But there was something odd about Jesus’ statement of not wanting to cause offense because Jesus would show up later at the Temple, turn over the money changer tables, open the cages freeing the doves and drive away the sacrificial animals that were on sale at the temple (Matthew 21:12-17).

Would these money changers and sellers have been offended by Christ’s action?

Obviously yes.

So, Jesus was not concerned about offending people, but apparently something was different about this situation with the Temple tax collectors that demanded a different response.

I believe Jesus paid the tax, because Peter had already given his word that Jesus would pay it and the Lord did not want to cause offense by breaking this commitment given by Peter.

However, Jesus told Peter to go fishing and to open the mouth of the first fish he caught because he would find a silver four drachma coin that would pay the Temple tax for both Christ and Peter.

By collecting the tax payment in such an extraordinary way, Jesus reinforced that this was not a tax they were obligated to pay. If so, there would have been enough money to pay the Temple tax for all the disciples.

And this would not be the last time that a fish was attracted to something bright and shiny.

In 2019, Britain’s Sun Newspaper had a cute story of how Christopher Eggington and his now fiancé Sandra Bidgood from Wragby, England were out fishing.

As they were cleaning the two fish they kept, Christopher found an engagement ring inside the one he was working on, that the fish had previously swallowed.

He had been planning to ask his girlfriend to marry him but kept chickening out, but finding the ring gave him the courage to go for it.

He passed the fish on to his girlfriend to finish off and when she squealed after seeing the ring, Christopher turned and proposed and after a thorough cleaning, they even used it or the official engagement.

But this story about the fish and the coin tells us something else about our relationship with Christ. Even though Peter had gotten himself into a pickle because of his own impetuous, Jesus was prepared to bail the apostle out of his trouble.

We are all going to make mistakes, and it is important for us to understand that God will not abandon us when we do. God is for us and with us in the good times and the bad even when we blow it.

READ: Rare coin from Second Temple era discovered in Jerusalem’s Old City AND Tyrian shekel AND Half-Shekel Tithe for Building Temple Reinstated by Sanhedrin After 2,000 Years AND Christopher Eggington’s catch was off the scale when he discovered a hidden gem | Intro/Outro by Ian Smith

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