|Was Jesus Christ Tax Exempt?|
This passage may not teach what you have been led to believe.
First, there is an interpretive problem with this text as some believe this passage refers to (a) a Jewish Temple tax, (b) while others believe it applies to paying the Roman poll tax.
Second, there is an application problem as some have used this passage to whip believers into shape by burdening them down with the duty to pay all kinds of man-made taxes. The argument reasons that though Jesus was exempt from this taxation, he paid His taxes. The implication is that all good little Christian boys and girls should pay what ever the government demands from them.
Facts Relating to Interpretation
1. The place: This event happened at Capernaum, a busy commercial lakeside city on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus entered Capernaum shortly after his journey north into the region of Tyre and Caesarea Phillippi near Kefar Dan and the southern foothills of Mt. Hermon. While in this region, Peter, James, and John witnessed the transfiguration of our Lord on one of the mountains in this area. They hear the Father’s voice saying, “This is my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him.”
2. The time: The transfiguration story and the confrontation with Peter by the tax officials happened before Jesus’ Perean Ministry. The transfiguration story is recorded in Luke 9:28 shortly before the last six months of his ministry which Luke begins recording in Luke 9:51. The tax confrontation, therefore, took place some time in September or October in 31 A.D. at least six or seven months before Palm Sunday.
3. The temple coins: Mahoni Faber argues that this was not the temple tax because (a) it was the wrong time of year for the tax, and (b) the coin collected from Jesus was a “tetradrachma” and not a Hebrew shekel, which would have been the only coin acceptable in the temple. Faber augurs that this tax was a Roman poll tax, which was obligatory for all citizens.
It is true that the text involves Roman money and not Jewish shekels. The NIV wrongly translate the Greek word didrachma (di,dracmaČ) (plural noun) as “temple tax.” The word didrachma is a Greek silver coin worth 2 drachmas, about as much as 2 Roman denarii, or about 2 days wages. It was commonly used to pay the half-shekel temple tax, because 2 drachmas were worth one half shekel of silver. The word “tribute” is an English translation of the Greek word didrachmon in verse twenty-four.
The second word translated “tribute” (17:25) is the Greek word kensos (kh/nson) which means “an evaluation of property according to a census” or “taxes.” The word “custom” (KJV) or “duty” (NIV) is a translation of the Greek word “telos” (te,lh) which means “head” or “sum” or “end of a thing.” Simply put, Jesus was asking Peter about whom the kings of the earth collect their “summary tax?”
The word “money” in verse twenty-seven is a third important word in this text. The word “money” is a translation of the Greek word stater (stath/ra) which refers to the four drachmae coin known as the “tetradrachma.” The tetradrachma was equal to one shekel. Peter was sent to fetch a coin out of a fish’s mouth to pay the tax and it was a tetradrachma. Since each male was charged ˝ shekel for maintenance of the temple, one shekel or one tetradrachma would have covered the tax for both Peter and Jesus. A stater, therefore, is a silver coin equivalent to four Attic or two Alexandrian drachmas, or a Jewish shekel: just exactly enough to cover the half-shekel Temple tax for two people.
It is argued by Faber that the didrachma could not be used as a temple tax because it was a Roman coin unacceptable to the Jews. Having the impression of the Phoenician god Melkart wearing a laurel wreath on his head and a lion skin on his shoulders on one side and an eagle on the other side would indeed be idolatrous to the Jew. However, the quality of this silver coin was held in high esteem by Jews and Romans because of its high silver content and mint quality. According to Edersheim (The Life and Times of Jesus) the didrachma was an acceptable coin collected by the tax collectors. John McArthur agrees that the “double drachma” was a common coin in circulation that “was commonly used in reference to the Jewish Temple tax because two drachmas were equivalent to the required half shekel . . . “ (New Testament Commentary, Matthew, 1988).
Interestingly, even after the Temple was destroyed by Titus in 70 A.D., the order by Vespasian that the Jews continue to pay the didrachma tax to support the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus as a statement of the power of Rome must have cut deeply in to the surviving Jewish soul in the empire.
4. The Temple tax: Some gifts given to the Lord God were voluntary (Exodus 25:1ff) and others were mandatory. In order to impress upon the Israel the value of redemption, Moses issued the following law:
The ˝ shekel tax was a mandatory tax laid only upon adult males in Israel. In Nehemiah’s day, the tax was reduced to 1/3 a shekel due to the poverty of those who expatriated back to Israel from Babylon (10:32). The tax was not for civil purposes but for religious purpose to help maintenance the Temple and to provide offerings for the Jewish community as a whole nation.
According to Edersheim (The Life and Times of Jesus), the yearly tax was collected during the Passover season. About a month before Passover, Jewish tax collectors would set up their tax booths to collect taxes from residents in Israel and near Jerusalem. Jews living in foreign lands also had to pay the ˝ shekel or the two Attic drachmas tax. But, they could do so at one of the other pilgrim feasts such as the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost) in the month of Sivan (June) or the Feast of Booths (Tabernacles) in the month of Tishri (September/October). Late payments were collected by distraint as late as the month of Adar (February/March). The tax confrontation of Peter by the tax collectors could have happened as late as the month of Tishri, or it could have been much earlier in the summer when the confrontation took place.
I conclude from observing the above facts that this was the Temple tax required by Moses and that because Jesus was not at the Passover the previous spring, the Jews were aware that Jesus had not yet paid the didrachma. They were probably not as much interested in the tax as trying to find an accusation against him.
Therefore, the fact that the tax collectors confronted Peter about Jesus’ tax policy does not appear to be out of custom with the times. Apparently, the tax collectors kept tabs on Jesus and were aware that they had not yet received a didrachma from Jesus.
5. The dialogue: Confronted by the tax collectors, Peter hastily answered for his Master to affirm to them that Jesus was indeed a taxpayer. Jesus, the Omniscient One, knew about the encounter and raised the issue when Peter arrived home: “What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers?” Peter knew the answer, “of strangers;” i.e., the kings of the earth do not collect taxes from their sons to pay for government services. Apparently, Jesus was seeking to impress an important lesson upon His impetuous disciple’ which Peter had forgotten on the Mount of Transfiguration that happened a few weeks before regarding the proclamation of the Father that Jesus was the beloved Son of God. As the Son, Jesus had no duty to pay the Temple tax.
6. Jurisdiction: Jesus was not giving a lesson on taxes to His disciple. Jesus was not giving a lesson on His tax-exempt status regarding the payment taxes. He was drilling home a lesson regarding His Sonship!
The word “exempt” should be translated “free.” The word “exempt” implies an obligation to do something that one is required to do in the first place. As the Son of God, Jesus had no duty to pay the Temple tax in the first place and therefore could not be exempt. He was simply free from any tax obligation. As the Son He was not the object or subject of the tax. As the Son He was simply non assessable. As the Son He was Master and Lord of the Temple. The temple servants had no authority to tax the Master. Jesus was sovereign and a sovereign is not subject to law because this Sovereign is the source of law (Mt. 5:22, “but I say unto you . . .”). Since the Temple servants had no jurisdiction over Jesus, they had no power to tax Him.
But, because this truth was difficult to grasp even for Jesus’ disciples, Jesus provided a supernatural way to impress this lesson on Peter and a way for Peter to “save face” before the tax collectors. Jesus knew a fish had the tetradrachma lodged in his mouth and He knew He was sovereign over creation—even the fish. When Peter pulled the coin out of the fish’s mouth, he was not only able to voluntarily pay the mandatory tax for the Savior, the lesson that Jesus was indeed the omniscient Son of God, LORD of the Temple, the Only Sovereign must have bolted a happy truth to Peter’s soul.
Points to Consider before Applying this Passage
There are some implications that we can draw from this passage regarding taxation, but before we do, we need to consider the following facts:
First, we have a lesson on the subjects of taxation: Jesus asked: “of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers?”
In providing his answer, Peter acknowledged a truth—that governments raise money from foreigners (aliens) rather than from sons (residents). In creating the Constitution, the American People knew the government needed revenue to fund its responsibilities and provided a way to raise revenue through duties, imports, and impost taxes on aliens and non-resident aliens. Direct and indirect taxes could be laid on the People, but each class was restricted by the rule of apportionment and the rule of uniformity. The People gave the government no power to tax them directly. Almost all revenue was designed to be collected from foreign corporations and commercial activity (See IRC §861). Congress simply cannot tax anything it wants. It is restrained from taxing Citizens directly [See the taxing clauses of the U.S. Constitution].
Second, we have a lesson on the mandatory nature of taxation. The temple tax was not voluntary. Taxes are not voluntary. Offerings, on the other hand are voluntary (Ex. 25:1-3). The church has no mandatory Temple tax. All church income is raised through voluntary endowments to the church (2 Cor. 9:1ff). All government income is raised by mandatory taxes. Just as it is wrong for the people to treat offerings for the church as a mandatory tax, it is just as wrong to treat civil taxes as a voluntary gift. All taxes are mandatory for whom they apply! They key is “to whom does a tax apply?” And, for that answer one must consult the actual laws passed by Congress in the Statutes at Large. Just as something is wrong with a Christian who does not voluntarily give to the church, something is wrong with the Christian who voluntarily gives to the government in the absence of law.
Third, we have a lesson on Sonship and rights. Jesus was under no obligation to pay the temple tax. As the Son of God, He was sovereign and not subject to the tax. Jesus did not claim His right of Sonship lest he “offend” the authorities. The word “offend” comes from the Greek word skandalon (skandali,swmen) which means “to stumble.” Jesus paid the tax, not because he was under any compulsion to do so, but because His purpose on earth was greater than wealth creation. Let’s remember, Jesus came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). Any altercation on the tax issue would have sidetracked Jesus’ ministry and His main message regarding the kingdom of God.
Howbeit, we must not conclude that it is wrong for Christians to claim their rights and to confront an overreaching government. As members of WE THE PEOPLE it is our right, even our duty to confront evil in government. But, the cost can be high to do so. A person cannot live without wealth, but neither can one live apart from a higher purpose than wealth which is the furtherance of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:12). The power to tax is the power to destroy, and the Citizen must know the written law lest the government overstep its authority and destroy the wealth of its Citizens. Furthermore, it behooves every Christian to know the gospel and to purpose in his life to advance the good news to a lost and dying world.