Another failure in Matthew 17 is briefly mentioned. It is the disciple’s failure to understand Jesus’ prediction of His death and resurrection. This is the second explicit prediction in Matthew, (the first was in ch.16).
Here Jesus adds to what He had predicted earlier. He had said that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” That stressed the necessity of His passion. Here Jesus emphasizes the certainty of His death, “must” being replaced by “will” (“they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.”)
This is the first time Jesus mentions His betrayal. Later He adds that the chief priests and teachers of the law will “turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified” and still later that Judas would be the one to betray Him.
Did the disciples understand any of this? Somewhat perhaps, since the verse ends by saying that the disciples “were greatly distressed.” They seemed to be getting the point that Jesus would be killed, that they would lose Him. But they did not understand what His death meant or why it was necessary, and they certainly did not understand or believe in the resurrection. Mark says, “They did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.” Luke adds that what he meant “was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it.”
The last of these three failures was Peter’s own, but it too came from a lack of understanding. When the apostles arrived back in Capernaum on what was now the final trip to Jerusalem, the collectors of the temple tax approached Peter to ask if Jesus had paid it. Peter seems to have risen to the Lord’s defense – “Of course, he pays it”- but his words were too quick and too inappropriate, as Peter’s outbursts often were.
The “two-drachma” tax was for the upkeep of the temple in Jerusalem. As far as the law itself was concerned, it was imposed only one time – when a man became twenty years of age – and beyond that it was voluntary.
What is this story about? Jesus explains it when He takes advantage of Peter’s inappropriate response to teach him about his relationship to the temple. Peter may have seen Jesus pay the temple tax before, of course. It may be why he answered so quickly. But as soon as they were in the house together Jesus, who knew what had happened between Peter and the collectors of the tax, asked, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take toll or tax – from their sons or from others?”
Peter answered correctly. “From others,” he said. “Then the sons are free [exempt].” Jesus taught him. He meant that since kings do not collect taxes from their sons, no more would God the Father require a tax to support the temple from His Son, Jesus. At the most basic level the words are a statement about Jesus’ unique deity. As the only begotten Son of God Jesus is exempt from temple taxes.
There is more to the incident than this. First, the importance of inoffensive conduct. Jesus explained that although He was exempt from the two-drachma tax, He would still pay it in order not to cause offense. It was not that He was unwilling to offend the temple authorities or anyone else when that was necessary, as it was when the truths of the Bible were at stake. The disciples had approached Him earlier to explain that the Pharisees had been offended by His teaching about what is clean and what is not clean. A right understanding of the Bible always matters. But in cases in which the issue is unimportant, as it was here, the right procedure is to act so as not to cause offense to other people.
In this verse the word translated “offense” is never used in the New Testament for something that merely offends someone but always for something that causes the person to stumble spiritually or trip up. Jesus was saying that none of us should do anything that might cause another person to stumble over what is spiritually important. It is what Paul meant when he wrote to the Corinthians, “We put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.”
John Ryle asks his readers to think carefully about the words “lest we should offend them” and apply them to our duties as citizens, members of a Church, and members of society. We do not have to approve of all the laws of the country in which we live to obey them. We do not have to approve of everything our local Church or denomination does to support it. There may be things our neighbors do of which we strongly disapprove, but we should often overlook such things in order not to set up an unnecessary barrier to their hearing and responding to the Gospel.
Ryle writes: “There are matters in which Christ’s people ought to sink their own opinions and submit to requirements which they may not thoroughly approve, rather than give offence and “hinder the gospel of Christ.” God’s rights undoubtedly, we ought never to give up; but we may sometimes safely give up our own. It may sound very fine and seem very heroic to be always standing out tenaciously for our rights! But it may well be doubted, with such a passage as this, whether such tenacity is always wise, and shows the mind of Christ. There are occasions when it shows more grace in a Christian to submit than to resist.”
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org