How the cross and character of Christ affects our work in regard to finances.
24 When they had come to Capernaum,[a] those who received the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?”
25 He said, “Yes.”
And when he had come into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?”
26 Peter said to Him, “From strangers.”
Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. 27 Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money;[b] take that and give it to them for Me and you.”
Today, I want to look at the relationship of tithes & offerings, government imposed taxes, and the cross to assist those of you who wonder, like Peter, are Christians supposed to pay that? Is this a requirement? I will also open up with some testimony, not because I am the standard, but because it may prove helpful to some of you who are beginning to walk where I’ve been and could use the warnings and fruit of experience to inform your decision in processing Scripture and applying the truth of living in Christ. As the light shines in on me, you can see the good, bad, and ugly. We can learn from all three. For those of you have gone before me and God has used time and Scripture to teach you, the church (including myself) could use your testimony to grow as we all march forward to death and leaving this world. May we pass on what it means to live in the light to future generations and not neglect the next generation of Christians of our testimonies’ of God’s faithfulness to broken, undeserving sheep.
INSTRUCTIONS ON THE TEMPLE TAX: CONTEXT OF MATTHEW 17: 24-27
Jesus is preparing to die. He has already revealed himself as who He truly is, in His glory, to three of the disciples. Peter was there. Not all of the disciples were there, but Peter was. Peter even addressed Jesus while Jesus was talking with Moses and Elijah. He offered to make “tabernacles” for each of them. A tabernacle is a tent home. It’s temporary compared to a house. God lived in a tabernacle at the time of Moses. God told them to build a special tabernacle as they journeyed. Later, He would live in a Temple first built by King David’s Son, Solomon. The Temple was a “house” for God, a permanent dwelling/living place. This is a pretty big theme since it all ties back to the beginning of the Bible where God lived with mankind in the garden of Eden. Sin has separated people from God and there has been a desire for God and man to live together again. The problem is our sin cannot be in the presence of God. God, by nature, consumes with fire all that is not pure.
Why all this talk about a tabernacle and the Garden of Eden? Well, you have to understand what God is doing here. Jesus is about to die and will leave his earthly tabernacle, his physical body. He has prophesied that the Temple will be destroyed. Scripture explains that he was speaking of His earthly body, which was the Temple of God, and that He would raise it in three days. But in A.D. 70, the actual Temple was also destroyed. The peculiar part of its destruction ties to how Jesus’ warnings of the coming Temple destruction also mirrored the way Jerusalem was destroyed. There was a duality at play.
Jesus would return three days later, as promised, and would begin to build His church, which is His true Temple. He would dwell with man by dwelling in man by His Holy Spirit. He moves in. Our body is a picture of what to come, but it is not the greater picture. Our physical bodies on earth are tabernacles. The new bodies we receive in Heaven when we see Jesus face to face are closer to the Temple stones. It is important to know what Jesus is doing though. Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom of God. He didn’t do it in a way to say it is far off and you must leave to go there. He said it was at hand. It is here. At the same time, it is not in its fullness. The Kingdom of God is in its tabernacle stage. We look forward to its complete fulfillment and God’s visible bodily return, but for the time there is still a veil of sorts. God is living in men and women and bringing His Kingdom about.
TWO KINGDOM MODELS: THEOCRACY (RELIGION) AND GOVERNMENT
From the beginning, at the time of Creation, God has reigned over all He creates. That’s part of Him being who He is. He is King, or Lord, and is the sole authority and source of all good. He delegates authority to lesser kings to govern His Kingdom (all that is), but not because He cannot govern it. It is a shared participation in the God’s work. It is a blessing of knowing and rightly seeing Him. He has decided to work this way from the beginning, with a passing down of His work from one man to the next. It’s a joint work as well. No man does the work on their own. Instead there is a passing of the baton between men and a constant presence of the hand of God on all of these matters. Men work, but God is actually bringing forth the foretold work He set His hand to create. Like a careful father with a young child, He directs, rebukes, corrects, teaches, and trains the young one to grow in the craft He is teaching them. He also works in such a way that the damage a child can do is minimal compared to His ability to restore and complete the work to be done. He is the master craftsman. We are far less able to mess up His work than we know. Even in events like World Wars or Holocausts, God is still so magnificently above our level of power and ability to destroy that He can bring healing and restoration to make what we may see as trash or ready for destruction, something beautiful, pure, and perfect. He is doing this now in all things including men and the earth.
He has governed His creation through two models. The first is with God as King and men under Him. Israel operated like this for quite some time. Then men wanted a king like the other nations. Saul and then David came to take this new government position. In its seed form, there were still lots of areas of overlap with the priests and prophets. Kings made sacrifices, prophesied, and ruled the nation. The place for separate entities of “church and state” as we understand it had not come. There would be quite a time of growth and development before these branches would extend out to separate functions and operations within mankind. The work was mixed and overlap still continues.
In our context, we have two nations in place in the same geographical location. There are two kingdoms at work. Rome has conquered the world, and Israel, at the time. They reign in a king role over the land. They set in place lesser kings as well and with varying degrees offer local groups to run their cities or areas in a way that it operated before. For Israel, the Temple is still the place where the people should receive the care of God. The Temple and its overseers made sure to collect from the community in order to provide for the needs of the community. Sacrifices and offerings were brought in and help was made available for the community. Individuals enter and bring and the greater body of people are cared for and taken care of. But now you have a pagan kingdom ruling over Israel building roads, water systems, and developing trade and economies. There are “tax collectors” from each side. There is also some overlap as Jews become Roman tax collectors and go demand taxes for the Roman kingdom on behalf of their rulers.
But this “tax” is a Temple tax. It is not a standard Roman tax, but a tax from the temple itself. It’s purpose was “to serve in the upkeep of the Temple.” This is where the confusion comes into play in Peter’s mind. Peter said yes to the Temple tax collector who asked whether Jesus and His disciples paid the tax, but Peter was unsure in his heart. So, Jesus teaches Peter the truth of who He is, the relationship and freedom of this position, and the power and poverty in Jesus’ hands. Why would God’s Son be required to pay taxes for God’s Temple? He does this by tying taxes to kings, not temple systems. “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from “strangers”? Peter’s reply? From “strangers”.
This line of thinking should make us take a step back. Is Jesus saying the Temple is run by the kings of the earth? Is He drawing out Roman rule of the Temple? Is it a statement about the Temple rulership, not necessarily being Roman, but ruling as a separate group in the “kings of the earth” category? Is it a mixture of both? Why does this matter? Why teach Simon this way? I think it is a revelation of the truth of Israel in light of the kingdoms of the earth. Israel is no different than the other kings. They will work with the Roman authorities to destroy the Temple of God, Jesus’ Christ’s body, so that they can protect and preserve their kingdoms. Israel is about to, and has been, fulfilling Psalm 2. They are a nation that plots in vain and conspires against God and his King. The entire earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. That means Rome and Israel is under Christ. They are created to serve Him. He is Lord over all.
So, why pay? Though Jesus can recuse Himself from payment, payment doesn’t make or break Him. He teaches Simon this truth. He owns all that is and can provide whatever is needed at any time, but that is a freedom found in God that is available to Jesus, not required. Peter is a son as well. He is of the true Israel, those linked by faith to Christ through Abraham and the patriarchs, not just by flesh and blood. All of Israel is not Israel here. This Israel is a separate kingdom with rulers who are seeking to destroy God’s King, Jesus. This kingdom is full of the “children of God” as follows in the text. They are the sheep of the fold of God. They are the lost coin god knows how to find, like the coin in the fish’s mouth. They are the those who will be misled and at the same time protected. They will offend and forgive. They are the nation of peoples being brought together as a single people for God’s name.
This text is about the Now and Not Yet. It’s about being in the world, yet not of it. It’s about offence and humility. It’s about freedom. All of that is grounded in knowing who Jesus is and what He has done for His people, the adopted children of God. Much like the last words of a loving father before He dies, there is a lifetime of wisdom to be gleaned in these final instructions. For this portion, I set apart for you some general instructions as it relates to the same area of overlap (taxes and tithes or offerings).
God has made us to live under the authority of the government. This is not a punishment, but a blessing. Taxes are collected to manage the kingdom God has given these rulers for their time. The teaching in Jesus’ words is made a bit clearer in Romans 13:1-7. Paul is not teaching something different than Jesus. Jesus is showing us that He is the God over the earthly kings and they serve His purposes. He is also showing us how He gives to earthly rulers. This is applicable to each and every person. He provides what He requires. God has made each human to be His image bearers and to walk in His likeness (to live and respond like Him in the world in much the same way a child grows to resemble their parents in their mannerisms, thoughts, and so on). Governments and worship systems aren’t the issue. God reigns over them all. He puts them in place. And the evil of man shines through them. So does the goodness of God. We can get into more unnecessary conflict with structures and systems than God does. God looks at the person and judges the heart. No system or worship structure will ever come close to the experience and government of God in Heaven. We long for that day and wait expectantly.
TITHES AND OFFERINGS
There is great debate here on whether Christians are required to tithe or give offerings. A tithe is the old covenants law of provision by giving the first fruits of the harvest to the temple. It was a tenth of the harvest and really got to the heart of trusting God to continue to provide. You gave it up front, that first crop, and would then be in reliance on God to provide what you need. Offerings, on the other hand, were gifts presented to the Temple. One famous example is the “free will offering”. There is some association with offerings differing from tithes as they came from the heart and varied. Today, offerings are at an all time low, but offerings in the Old Testament came in above the tithe. I think Jesus makes it clear in His consistent teaching that the goal is not an amount as much as it is a dependence and desire. Jesus desires His people to see who He is and to hold fast to Him for He is a loving God who knows their needs, takes care of them, and is with them working for good every minute of every day. To give up front from one’s heart in trust and thankfulness is good. To give without the heart is no good. To desire to see God praised as people are cared for and money is given to promote the truth of God’s good rulership is growth out of that. It’s an overflow.
One of the key principles I go to in thinking through giving is Jesus’ teaching on the widow’s mite. A widow’s mite is very small in value. Likely, the widow had to receive quite a bit more than what would result in a widow’s mite being a tenth of her income. She had to eat. That costs money. She needed clothes. Clothes cost money. She needed fire or a place to rest. Those thinks cost money. If she was sick, there might be need of a form of medicine or doctor. Those things cost money. Point is: Her life likely cost more than ten times a widow’s mite’s value. But Jesus praises her for giving all she had. At the same time, Jesus rebuked those who gave far more, but did it to be seen. One was out of faith in God. The other was a purchase for praise and admiration, or self-justification. One was done in humility, the other out of pride.
AT THE END OF THE DAY IT’S ABOUT THE HEART
Jesus doesn’t want your pocketbook, He wants your heart. He also wants to reveal our idols. See, either your pocketbook follows your heart, or your heart follows your pocketbook. Which one is leading the other? It’s also about Kings and Kingdoms. We all build kingdoms. We can build our own or someone else’s or we can build Jesus’ kingdom. It all depends on who you see as the greater king. Does God serve you and your kingdom? Does He serve someone else’s kingdom and you want in on it? Or do all kings and kingdoms on earth exist to showcase God’s rulership? Is He reigning above them in your heart and mind or is He not? How you interact with kings and kingdoms show how you really view God. They would kill Jesus, but you can’t ever really kill Jesus. He is God. He can kill men though and send them to an eternal death. This isn’t about fear, but reality. He is the only true King over Creation. He commands blessing or curse.
BLESSING AND CURSE, THE HEART, FLESH, AND ACTIONS: MY TESTIMONY
All things from kings, kingdoms, communities, people, and their actions are about God’s heart. God has done a work in creation to reveal Himself, His heart and character. He is revealing His holiness through His creation. He does it in a relationship best summarized as righteousness. His righteous actions come from His holy character and heart which shows us His wholly perfect and distinct person. I am very thankful for the veiled, and not so veiled, teaching of my pastor in Arkansas (now deceased and with God) Brother David Harris. Though he did not spend a ton of personal discipleship time with me, he taught us who God was by revealing His heart through Christ in the Scriptures. He taught us to look at the world as close to the way Jesus taught the disciples to look at the world and all acting in it and see God. Who God really is.
What we do and how we do it reflects our person by showing us our hearts. What we do tells us and the world what we believe about God. It’s not as much about the amount in dollars and cents as it is about the purpose, or desire, that drives our actions.
Actions can differ and come from the same heart. The widow gave all, yet likely not as much as the “law” required. At the same time, the law was not about amounts, but the heart and faith in God. Those who gave more, did so not out of a desire to be participants in God’s rule of His people, but to get a special place in the eyes of men. The widow gave humbly and out of faith in line with trust in God’s provision and greater purposes. She trusted God to provide and care, or govern, on her behalf. Another passage that really sticks out to me is Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees in keeping the law in a way they don’t actually keep the law at all. He told them they were faithful to tithe even their spices, yet you don’t care for your family and do it by justifying your actions on grounds of obeying God. This, Jesus said, was not in accord with God and His ways, His true law. Was it that they withheld when they should have given to their families instead? Was it that they should have given to both? Or was it something else?
I believe that love of one’s family and neighbors with our limited assets and income puts a necessary tension on one’s life. What do you do when you can’t keep the law as it is written? Where do you go and what do you do when that happens? Well, that depends on if you are living by the law (doing what the written law states because it says so) or living by faith (trusting in the character of God and the promises that flow out of Him). You can try to preserve or build your image by what you do. Likely, this will come out in a public display. Or you can walk in dependence upon God in all your ways. You will not be praised as faithful by men, but your God who sees what is done in secret, who looks at the heart, will know your good works and bless you. I’m not talking about a public, earthly blessing like money and praise, but the blessing of all His promises being yes in Christ and a greater joy in the experience of God by His word and the Holy Spirit. He will take you deeper into a knowledge of Himself, His heart. He will manifest this in your person as He gently reveals and cleanses the sin from your heart and mind and it will show, though veiled to most in the world, in your actions. If they do not see God in Christ, they will not see Him in you. If they do see God in Christ, they might see Him in you.
What about the testimony I promised? Here it is. Over the last year (2017), I did what I had not done in my life for reasons I had not done it in my life. I decided not to give a tithe or official offering. All of the texts I mentioned above played a role in that as did some counsel from multiple brothers. I was struggling with faith and resources were the main problem. I have been pretty bad about giving in a way that hurts my family in one sense. I give beyond my means, then I work more to make up for it, and then I give that as well. I have done it in tithes and offerings as well as in personal gifts my wife may or may not have known about. I have given her the freedom, though less of it by structure of my management of the money, to do the same. I did this from deep convictions of tithing as well as from faith that God would take care of our needs. Everything I have is from God and I have a lot more than most people in many nations around the world. At the same time, I worked three jobs and still got food stamps. I’m not balling.
Guilt and shame weighed heavy on me. “How could I hold back when so many people are starving and dying? These are brothers and sisters in the faith!” At the same time, texts and testimony regarding caring for your household first and overflowing onto others as the LORD allows weighed in on me. The key verse that put pressure on me here was in regard to being worse than an unbeliever is you do not take care of your own household. The point of that verse is to reveal God’s heart and character. God takes care of His family. We should reflect that. But what does that mean and how should it apply? I haven’t given my family a vacation. I haven’t moved them into a house fit by cultural standards to meet a norm and provide them room and access to nutritional foods (gluten free, healthy fed animals, limitations of toxins and pesticides, without sugar, and whole in the sense of the norm). I had no retirement, health insurance (in Arkansas, not here), savings, or lawyer money to fight for custody of my daughter. There was no overflow monetarily. Yet I paid for Bible college out of pocket while tithing. How could I be keeping God’s law in faith when I am not doing one side, but keeping the other? I couldn’t.
My decision was to take a season and pour into my family who had not really gotten much of my time or resources. When I gave to church, they did without. There wasn’t a complaint, but there were growing needs and expenses. Not having a car or savings for a lawyer when I needed one pushed me over the edge and the pendulum swung the other way. I decided to give, but not as much, and to do so against my pride. Though the church didn’t have access to look at to my giving, God did. I hated even the thought of cutting my tithe. At the same time, that showed me my faith was in giving, not in Christ. So, I restructured my giving to be to people who could not repay and to work with my wife to give when needs arised in houses. We prioritized what God does: food and clothing. He says He gives these two things in the Sermon on the Mount. I saw no other promise beyond those two so we limited our expenses to the most needy, those who could not repay and to limit purchases to paying for food and clothes for those who were the worst off. I would save for a lawyer and pay down our growing debt, which I increased significantly by going to college and limiting my work. My hopes were that I would cut down my debt in a significant way over 2017, free up more of my income to give, and to maintain my love of God in loving His people.
The results: Almost as soon as we made the decision, our church added pressure, unknown to them, by calling for a sacrificial year of giving to build South Campus. My heart sank. I love giving to church, but I acted in faith after a season of prayer and study, and now there was a crucifix in front of me. I was sure He had freed me to pay debt and get to a place of financial health to love my family, the church, and our neighborhood better than we were able before. Why would He have this happen…now. Why not next year? They asked for all the areas I had neglected in the past to be assessed and sacrificially addressed in order to build a campus the church had decided to build prior to my coming. They wanted us to look at savings, vacation spending, extra income, our general finances, all of it. I stood on my conviction, yet was further plagued with guilt. “God, am I obeying or disobeying you in this? Are you telling me I never should have shifted or started this? Am I completely wrong about trying to start a 401K? Was it wrong for me to try to build an emergency fund? Is it wrong to want better food for my kids? Should I have not started a fund for a lawyer for my daughter? What are you telling me?”
I let a lot of people down over the last year. I couldn’t afford to go to get my daughter in Arkansas because our car wouldn’t make it. I couldn’t fix things people that care for our family believe we need and should have fixed. I couldn’t give to people who needed. I didn’t contribute much to our year long goal at church to build a home for part of our church family. I still couldn’t afford the better groceries, a reliable and sufficient size vehicle for our growing family, build much of a savings account or retirement fund, nor could I take a vacation or restful weekend away with our family anywhere we were interested in going. And the debt didn’t stop, though it slowed. It’s still bigger than I can rest with. Were there any wins, you might ask? I learned. That’s the win. I may be far worse off on every front I wanted to improve on, but I am more secure in my Savior’s faithfulness, and better equipped for next year. Not financially, but with peace of mind and conviction.
What I got out of it: I am far more needy than I would like to admit. We need rest and vacations, but can’t afford it. I am far less grounded than I like to admit. I swing one way or the other instead of remaining on the cross with its pressure. If we need rest, I either go work more for a vacation, or work less and never get away. I overcompensate in action when I could just sit and never have either yet trust in God. I am far more limited than I believe. I can’t save my daughter like God saves me when circumstances get bad. I can’t take care of my wife and kids the way I would like. We just keep breathing and living day-to-day. God gives us manna, just enough. And I can’t give as much as I would like to give or as what would allow my conscience and spirit rest. There is no rest in the law, only in Christ and His perfect provision by dying to free me from the law.
So what is my advice? How does this apply to you?
Assess which is leading which: your heart or your pocketbook.
Trust in God and let Him lead you. Care for what He cares for and realize you are revealed as the one He cares for in the works He calls you to.
Do what you do not because you have to, but because God’s love frees you to.
Don’t hate the systems or people, regardless of how far they lean against your understanding of God’s will. Instead view them as God instructs you. He is over them and using them for your good. Live in peace with them as much as you can. The tipping point is when it causes you to claim them or some other person or thing as God, not God. The king, kingdom, or system doesn’t save anyone, God does. But God uses each of these to care for us. There is no ultimate conflict in the means with the provider.
Don’t listen to counsel to find the right way to appease God. Instead listen to wise counsel to grow in love for God. You aren’t looking for actions to bless you financially, but to know God personally. I’m not saying wisdom doesn’t affect finances, but that if that’s all it affects, you lost more than you gained and are worse off for it.
Rest in Christ.
I hope this helps someone today and that you are able to draw near to Christ who has drawn near to you.
 MATTHEW 17:1-13
 I got this information from the footnote on MATTHEW 17:24 from The MacArthur Study Bible Twentieth Anniversary Edition on page 1425.
 I used the “power and poverty” terminology from The Bible Speaks Today commentary’s section on this passage. I accessed it via Accordance.