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The temple tax was first mentioned in the book of Exodus when the Lord said, “When you take the census of the children of Israel for their number, then every man shall give a ransom for himself to the LORD… half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary … Everyone … from twenty years old and above … and shall appoint it for the service of the tabernacle …” (Exodus 30:12-16). The people of Israel were obligated to God’s goodness and mercy and this tax or ransom showed their appreciation of His love. It was not compulsory in the sense that the tithe was, but its payment was considered a religious duty.
The tax was a half shekel which amounts to one fifth of an ounce (5.7 grams). According to the tractate Shekalim in the Talmud, the temple tax was collected annually and not just during a census. It was gathered during Passover, Pentecost, or Tabernacles. Every man from 20 years old and above who was eligible for military service (2 Chronicles 25:5) and ready to assume the duties of citizenship, was to pay it.
In the New Testament the temple tax is again mentioned in Matthew 17:24–27 where the religious leaders of the temple asked Peter to pay it saying, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” The leaders were trying to find a point of controversy with Jesus in order to discredit Him in front of the people. So, Peter hastily responded that Jesus would pay it. But Jesus later explained to Peter, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?” Peter said to Him, “From strangers.” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. 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; take that and give it to them for Me and you” (Matthew 17:24-26). Jesus was the Son of God and therefore was not required to pay this tax, yet He performed a miracle and provided for it.
Although the collectors of temple tax had no legal right to ask for the half shekel of Jesus, He paid it for practical reasons to avoid an unnecessary controversy. This is an example to Christians today that they may do every thing possible without compromising their faith to avoid unnecessary friction with those who oppose the truth (Romans 12:18; Hebrews 12:14; 1 Peter 2:12–15, 19, 20).
In His service,