They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

The Temple Tax

Rendering of the Tribute Money - Masaccio (1401 – 1428)

At Capernaum Jesus and his disciples are required to pay tax. The man with his back to the viewer is the publican, or tax collector. Jesus bids Peter cast his fishing line – in the mouth of the first catch a stater shall be found: a penny valued 4 drachms.In the background left, Peter removes the coin from the fish’s mouth. The right side shows Peter handing the stater to the publican. Note the age of the disciples!

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?”
“Yes, he does,” he replied.
When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”
“From others,” Peter answered.
“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “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 17:24-27

After reading this short story in Matthew about the efforts by the temple tax collectors to get Jesus to commit to paying the tax, my curiosity was aroused to see what the temple tax was and where it came from in the Scriptures. As is usually the case, there are some very interesting hidden details in the story that are only revealed when you look them up in the Old Testament.

The origin of the temple tax is found in Exodus 30:11-16 and 38:26 (see also 2 Chronicles 24:9 for a later mention). When Moses was taking the census of the Israelites in the desert, God told him to collect a tax from each male twenty years and older to pay for the construction and upkeep on the Tabernacle. The amount to be paid by each person, regardless of wealth or standing, was to be half a shekel. At that time the shekel was not a coin, but was a unit of weight for silver and gold. The age of twenty was significant because that was the age at which an Israelite male was subject to military service (see Numbers 13).

What is the significance of the Exodus events on the story about Jesus in Matthew? This tax was still being charged in the same way to the Israelites in Jesus’ day to pay for the activities of the Priests and Levites and for the upkeep on the temple. The amount charged was still the same half shekel weight (now in a 2 drachma coin) per person. This tax amounted to one to two days wages for an average worker. Some translations of Matthew 17:24 say 2 drachmas and others say half shekel, but they are both the same amount.

In verses 25-27, Jesus asked Peter, ”would the Kings of the Earth collect taxes on their own family or would they collect it from the rest of the population?” Jesus was implying that He, Peter and the other disciples belonged to God’s royal household, so they really were exempt from paying the tax. He seemed to say this in a joking, lighthearted manner. Jesus, so as not to offend anyone, had Peter go catch a fish in the Sea of Galilee and told him to look in the fish’s mouth for a coin large enough (4 drachmas) to pay the tax for both he and Peter.

The interesting punch line for this story is that if he only gave Peter enough money to pay for the temple tax for two of them, then they were the only two in their group that were twenty years old! The rest of the disciples weren’t to that age yet! This revelation sure pokes a hole in your mental image of the bearded, middle age disciples! Also, it adds weight to the theory that Jesus’ disciples were very young men that were from 15-20 years in age. This was the typical age of young men that would follow and apprentice under a rabbi. I think we have really missed something in making Jesus’ disciples old men. By the time they finished their mission to carry the good news of the gospel to the ends of the age, they definitely had reached mature ages. But when Jesus told them, ”Follow me and I will make you fishers of men”, he was taking some very young and inexperienced talmidim to train to be like Him. This story is yet another reminder of the importance of the Old Testament Scriptures to our understanding of Jesus’ life and ministry.

The Ethiopian Eunuch

I was reading out loud in Deuteronomy Ch. 23:1-2 where it says that a eunuch “may not enter into the assembly of the Lord” and I remembered the New Testament Story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts Chapter 8:26-40. My interest was piqued and I began to dig through my trip notes and do some research on my own to see what I could find.

First of all, what is a eunuch from Ethiopia doing in Israel and is there more to that story? The country of biblical Ethiopia was called Cush in the Hebrew Old Testament, and was also called Sabea or Sheba. It was south of Egypt and was a mercantile kingdom that brought goods from the sea trade by caravan north through Israel, Damascus, and Syria. The word,”Ethiopia” translates in Hebrew as “burnt face”, referring to the black race of people who inhabited the country. The Queen of Sheba visited Solomon in the Bible in l Kings 10 and was very impressed with Israel and Solomon as a leader. Verse 11 says that King Solomon gave the Queen of Sheba all she desired and asked for. Although there are no facts to support it, early Christian lore always had it that the Queen of Sheba went back to her country pregnant with King Solomon’s child. If this was true it sure makes for some interesting thoughts. From that time froward the Ethiopians adopted the God of Israel, YHWH, as their God and the two nations became very strong allies. Jesus even refers to this event with the Queen of Sheba in Luke 11:29-2 (Matt;12:39-42).

Why was the eunuch in Israel? There was a trade route that came from Ethiopia up through the Gaza Strip into Jerusalem. The eunuch, a Gentile believer in YHWH, would have gone up to Jerusalem for one of the three major Jewish feasts of Passover, Pentecost or Sukkot. This would have been an extremely long and arduous journey for the traveler. The Acts passage says that the eunuch was an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. Candace was not a personal name, but was a title held by several queens of that kingdom, similar to the title of Caesar, and meant “queen or queen mother”. The eunuch must have been very wealthy because in Acts it said he was reading from his own scroll of Isaiah and there were very few handwritten copies of the text available. He also must have been a humble man because he allowed a common man like Phillip to come up into his chariot to explain the Scriptures to him. It is interesting to think that the eunuch would travel all that way to Israel if he knew the Deuteronomy passage which told him he couldn’t go into the temple when he got there.

The fascinating part of the story however is that when Phillip ran up to the chariot, the eunuch was reading from the prophet Isaiah in chapter 53:6-8. In these passages Isaiah is prophesying about the coming and the suffering of the promised Jewish Messiah. The eunuch asked Phillip, “Who is this Scripture talking about”? The text says that Phillip began with that very passage of Scripture and began to tell him of the good news about Jesus.

Usually, we stop right there with Scripture and that’s the end of the story. But if chapter 53 was where they began, would Phillip and the eunuch have continued reading in Isaiah as far as chapter 56:1-8? “Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people’. And, let not any eunuch complain, ‘I am only a dry tree’. For this is what the Lord says, ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant, to them I will give within my temple and its walls, a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off’.” Then it goes on to say, “If you will keep my commands, I will give them joy in my house of prayer, for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (This is the same passage of Scripture that Jesus quoted when he cleared the Temple.)

Phillip used these passages of Scripture to show the eunuch that Gentiles were in and that Jesus was the way in. There were no more exclusions because his offer extended across all boundaries. The eunuch, seeing all these promises specifically for him, asked to be baptized by Phillip.

The Scripture then says that when they came out of the water, the Spirit took Phillip away and the eunuch did not see him again, but he went on his way rejoicing. It’s not clear from the text which one of them “went on his way rejoicing”, but I can definitely see it for both of them. Can you imagine the joy of the eunuch as he realized that salvation was also for him and not just the Jew; that he was not excluded any more from the assembly of God’s people, because of what Jesus had done. Phillip, also went on his way rejoicing because he had seen another person understand and accept Jesus’ sacrifice. He had heard and seen Jesus in the Temple when he declared that “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations”. Phillip would later take that wonderful promise to Asia Minor and spend his life telling the Gentiles, “You’re In! My God is a God for all the nations!”

This story of Phillip and the Eunuch is another wonderful example of how much deeper the meaning of the text is if you know your Bible and the culture and history of the time period. Phillip definitely knew the text and how to point someone to Messiah Jesus from the Hebrew scriptures. If we were asked the same question on the Isaiah scriptures would we be able to use them and tie them all together and point the way to our Messiah?

P.S. If you look at the Acts passage in your Bible, you will notice that verse 37 is missing from most translations. The Scriptures just go from verse 36 to verse 38. However, if you look at the footnote on verse 37 , you see the verse that was included in later manuscripts. It reads, “Phillip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” The eunuch answered, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God”! What a great verse and a textbook salvation experience! What an interesting footnote!