“Lest We Should Offend Them”
“And while they abode in Galilee, Jesus said unto them, The Son of man shall be betrayed into the hands of men: And they shall kill him, and the third day he shall be raised again. And they were exceeding sorry. And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute? He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers? Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free. Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee.”
During the last six months of his public ministry, our Lord spent less and less time with the multitudes and more and more time in private with his disciples. During these last six months, he constantly gave them intense, careful instruction, both about his betrayal, death, and resurrection for the redemption of our souls and about the principles of his kingdom, the principles of grace, faith, and love by which we are to live in this world for the glory of his name and the advancement of his kingdom. Some of these momentous final words and the events surrounding them are recorded by all four gospel writers. But some were recorded only by one. Matthew 17:22-27 describes an event and a word of instruction recorded by Matthew alone.
The first thing that demands our attention in this passage is Christ’s determination to suffer and die for his elect.
“And while they abode in Galilee, Jesus said unto them, The Son of man shall be betrayed into the hands of men: And they shall kill him, and the third day he shall be raised again. And they were exceeding sorry” (vv. 22-23).
Our Lord’s heart was focused upon his death from eternity. He came into the world to suffer and die for his people. And every step he took moved him with predetermined pace to the appointed place and appointed hour when he would lay down his life for the people he loved from everlasting and had come to save.
The Lord Jesus seemed to delight in the prospect of his death as our Substitute, because the joy set before him of our everlasting salvation would be accomplished by his great sacrifice (Matt. 16:22-23; Luke 2:48-49; 12:50; John 12:27-28; 13:27). Because his heart was fixed upon us from eternity, he was determined to die upon the cursed tree and spoke often of the event. Here he tells his disciples, now for the third time, how that he must go to Jerusalem, be betrayed into the hands of men, and die (Matt. 16:21; 17:12).
Our Savior was not the helpless victim of circumstances beyond his control. He voluntarily laid down his life for his sheep (John 10:17-18), and did so by the will, purpose, and determinate counsel of God the Father (Acts 2:23). But let it never be forgotten that the Lord of Glory was betrayed and slain by the hands of wicked men. The Son of man came into the world to save men, and was by a man "betrayed into the hands of men." For men he lived, and by man he was betrayed. For men he died, and by men he died. Nothing would satisfy the rage of men against him but his blood. God hating man ever cries, “Give us his blood!” Yet, nothing could satisfy the wrath and justice of God but his blood. When justice found our sins upon him, justice cried, “Give me his blood!” (Heb. 9:22). And by his precious, sin-atoning blood divine justice is fully and forever satisfied.
As our Savior kept his death in the forefront of all his teachings, so too must his servants. “We preach Christ crucified” because nothing is so needful, so vital, so comforting to our souls and so glorious as this: “When we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly…God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6-8). Then, our Lord assured the disciples that he would, according to the type and prophecy of the Old Testament, rise from the dead on the third day (Ps. 16:9-11; Isa. 26:19; 1 Cor. 15:3-4).
The last line of verse 23 reads, “And they were exceeding sorry.” Many excuses are offered by which to make less of this than the Holy Spirit does. Some say they sorrowed because they loved the Savior. No doubt that is true. Others say they sorrowed because they were confused and did not understand his doctrine. That too is certainly true. But the Holy Spirit tells us by Mark, that they sorrowed because of their ignorance (Mark 9:32). And their ignorance was rooted in a lack of faith. John Gill explains how their grief might arise from their ignorance of the Lord’s doctrine.
“They seem to have overlooked, and to have taken no notice of his rising again from the dead; which might have administered comfort to them, and have relieved them under their melancholy apprehensions of things; but this they understood not, nor indeed truly any part of what he had said; so Mark and Luke intimate. But then it may be said, how came they to be so very sorrowful, if they did not know what was said? To which may be replied, that this might be the reason of their sorrow, because they did not understand what he said, and they were afraid to ask. They could not tell how to reconcile the betraying of him into the hands of men, and his sufferings and death, with their notions, that the Messiah should abide forever, and should set up a temporal kingdom, in great splendor and magnificence. And what he meant by rising again from the dead, they could not devise. They could not tell whether all this was to be understood in a literal, or mystical sense.”
How often we grieve when there is no cause! Christ’s death was for the glory of God, by the will of God, and according to the purpose of God. It was the means of their ransom and ours. Our Savior’s death upon the cursed tree was the revelation of God’s glory. It was our Savior’s path to glory, joy, and everlasting dominion, and the accomplishment of their everlasting redemption and ours! Yet, they were exceeding sorry! Why? ¾ Because they had counted on an earthly kingdom, with earthly joys, and earthly honors.
These faithful men were so greatly influenced by the religion of the Pharisees that they never questioned the Pharisees’ traditions regarding the Savior’s kingdom. Blinded by tradition, they remained ignorant of his plain teaching, until he was raised from the dead. Therefore, he set the truth before them again and again, in almost the same words. His purpose was to banish from their thoughts, and ours, all dreams of an earthly, Jewish millennial kingdom. His death would be a painful, heavy trial to them. Therefore, he took great care to prepare them for it.
Next, we read about a dispute some raised with Peter over paying the Jewish temple tax.
“And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute? He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers?” (vv. 24-25)
This is an issue discussed by none of the other inspired writers. Matthew, who was himself a tax-collector, is the only one who mentions it. But the tribute money here, the tax being discussed was not a tax imposed by Caesar or a political government. That is discussed later on (Matt. 22:17). This tribute money was a temple tax, which the Roman government allowed the Jews to collect. It was a Jewish custom.
Originally, it was based upon God’s law. It was the ransom money that every man was to pay for the maintenance of the tabernacle and temple sanctuary (Ex. 30:12-14; 2 Chron. 24:6-9). From the payment of this redemption money there was no exemption. But it was not a tax levied every year. It was a free gift made by every man numbered among the children of Israel. It was not “tribute” money but “ransom” money.
The Jews, by custom, had made the ordinance of God a fashionable, annual ceremony, imposed upon and expected of all professedly religious people. It was a matter of custom which they practiced, as usual, with great show. Religious people in that day, as in ours, who did not know God, made certain that everyone saw their acts of “devotion.” Consequently, when they asked Peter, “Doth not your master pay tribute?” he answered, without hesitancy, though he did not really know for sure, “Yes! Of course he does.”
That brings us to the third thing in our text, which is the marvellous demonstration of our Savior’s divine majesty.
“And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers? Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free. Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee” – (vv. 25-27).
In these verses we see a clear, instructive demonstration of his omniscience and omnipotence as God. These two divine attributes are full of very practical instruction. We cannot be reminded too often that the Lord Jesus Christ, our God and Savior, knows everything that is thought, said, and done in this world (v. 25). When Peter came into the house, apparently to discuss this matter with the Savior, he “prevented him.” He showed Peter that he had heard every word of his conversation with the tax collectors from the temple.
All things are naked before him. Nothing is secret (Heb. 4:13). A more solemn realization cannot be imagined. Hypocrisy is useless! Concealment is impossible! Christ sees everything, hears everything, and knows everything. We live in the immediate presence of God! We will be wise always to realize that fact. J. C. Ryle wrote…
“Let us measure every difficult question as to right and wrong by one simple test. ‘How would I behave if Jesus was standing by my side?’ Such a standard is not extravagant and absurd. It is a standard that interferes with no duty or relation of life. It interferes with nothing but sin!”
As he is omniscient (all-knowing), so too our Savior is omnipotent (all-powerful). This is demonstrated by his power over all creation. He told Peter to go catch a fish, assuring him that the first fish caught would have the money needed to pay the tax (Ps. 8:6-8).
Here is a blessed fact we must never overlook. Our God will provide for his own. We may safely serve him and confidently trust him. God our Savior is also God our Provider. His name is Jehovah-jireh. — “The Lord will provide” (Gen. 22:14; 1 Sam. 2:30). He often provides our needs supernaturally. And he often does so through the instrumentality he has appointed, by our faith in and obedience to him. (Because he trusted Christ, Peter got his fishing pole and went fishing.) But the provision is God’s and God’s alone!
In these last three verses of Matthew 17 (vv. 25-27), our Savior and Master demonstrated a great willingness to make concession in matters of indifference, rather than give offence. First, He showed Peter that neither he, nor Peter, was under obligation to pay the customary tribute – (vv. 24-26).
Do kings require their own children to pay taxes? Of course not. The king’s family is always exempt. But his subjects, and especially the immigrants in his kingdom, are required to pay tribute. Should the Lord Jesus pay redemption-money for himself to God? Should he, who is himself the King’s Son, come under poll-tax to his Father? Even if the tribute money had become a tax to be levied by law, still "are the children free." Neither the Lord Jesus, nor Peter, was obliged to pay. Our Lord was free; he was not obliged to pay, because he is the Son of God. His disciples were free, because in him they were (and are) the sons of God!
Then, the Master gave a lesson that needs to be often repeated about matters of indifference. It was his right not to pay the tribute. But rather than cause needless offence, as he put it, “Lest we should offend them,” he said to Peter, Go get the money and pay the tribute.
We must never give up God’s rights as God. But we must always be willing and quick to give up our own. If we must have a quarrel with any, we ought to make certain that it is worthwhile; and the only thing worthwhile is Christ, his cause, his glory, and his gospel. God’s people should never engage in anything that disturbs the peace of society or the lives of other people that is of mere temporary importance. And in the house of God and our own homes we ought to be even more lenient. In all matters of indifference we should be ready and willing to yield to others, especially to our brethren.
Sometime ago, a local church with which I have intimate connection, suffered a terrible split. Both groups were faithful men and women I have known for years. There were no gospel issues at stake, nothing involving moral or spiritual compromise. The whole division began with small, personal quibbles. Being asked by both groups to help, I personally called each man in both factions and reasoned with him. I said, “I do not know and do not want to know what the strife is all about; but let me give you my assessment. Please correct me if I am wrong. There is no division over doctrine, or over moral or spiritual evil, is there?” Each one answered, “No, not really.” So I said, “This whole thing is about personal quibbles?” The reply, without exception, was “Yes. Really, that’s all.” Then I asked, “Would you be willing to break up your family over these things?” “No, of course not,” was the reply. So I urged my friends to each call the other and eat crow. They did. The church has since not only survived, but thrived.
Our Master, by example and by precept, teaches us to bend over backwards to avoid offending even self-righteous, legalistic, lost religionists. How much more we should do so among those who are of the household of faith (Eph. 4:1-7; 5:18-21; Phil. 2:1-5). “Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God” (1 Cor. 10:32).
Beyond those things plainly revealed in this passage there are beautiful blessed spiritual truths beneath the surface. Our Lord Jesus Christ willingly came under tribute for our sakes (Gal. 4:4-6; 2 Cor. 8:9). By his one payment, a payment which he provided, typified in the ransom money required under the law (Ex. 30:12-14), by the sacrifice of himself, he cleared our debt completely.
There were not two coins in the fish’s mouth, one for Peter and one for the Lord Jesus, our Substitute. There was one piece of money, which made payment for both Peter and his Savior. What a picture this is of our complete union with Christ in redemption. Our debt became his. His payment was and is ours. By his one sacrifice both the Surety and those for whom he died must go free!
In all things seek the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). Let us live in the awareness of his presence. Let us live to honor his name. Let us seek to help others by our behavior, molding our lives to Christ’s example.
If our Savior performed a miracle then to pay tribute for Peter, we ought to be confident that he will not now fail to supply all our needs. Robert Hawker wrote, “Oh! how blessedly doth every incident in the life of Christ, minister instruction, grace, and comfort?”