Old Testament prophecy: Was Jesus subject to the government?

Was Jesus subject to the government? Yes, He was. Kind of. Sort of. Does Old Testament prophecy say this was going to be the case? Well, we can say yes, in a way. Yet again the Nelson’s Topical Reference we’re using for this Advent study has a New Testament verse for Jesus being subject to the government. Therefore, once again we’ll take the context of that NT verse and see what the Old Testament says about it.

Old Testament prophecy: Was Jesus subject to the government? is article #7 in the series: Advent. Click button to view titles for entire series
Old Testament prophecy: Was Jesus subject to the government?

This particular reference also points back to something we looked at earlier. That is, Jesus came as a man. That’s because the passage Nelson’s refers to was a requirement for all Israelite men (fast forward to Jewish men). Therefore, since Jesus did come as a man, He would be subject to the government in this, and other ways.

There is a catch here. It has to do with how we view government today as opposed to back then. But let’s hold on to that thought until we know more about what the reference verse is. The image might give you a hint.

What is the government?

Before we get into the passage, we need to understand something about the difference between government back then and government for much of the world today.

Today we have things like Democracies, Republics, Oligarchies, Dictatorships, and some Theocracies. I expect the Theocracy is the least understood to most people who don’t live under one.

All the others have a “political” government of some sort, whether it’s elected, by birth, by military takeover, or whatever. The thing they have in common is that they generally don’t say much about religion. Although, I have to say that the U.S. is in the midst of a move by some to make it more about religion. To me, this is not a good move.

Which brings us to the Theocracy. They are generally a system of ruling where the traditional government functions and religious laws are merged into one. Here’s a description of the Theocracy concept in Biblical times.

Theocracy. Form of government which acknowledges God alone as the highest political authority, whether or not he is represented by a human ruler such as a king. Thus Deuteronomy 17:14–20 argues that a human king rules only as one designated for kingship by the Lord.

In ancient Israel, the concept of theocratic government developed through several historical stages. A fundamental theological conception of the sons of Israel in Egypt involved the belief that Yahweh, their special God, cared enough about their plight to become personally involved in redeeming them from slavery and establishing them in freedom from all earthly rulers (specifically the pharaoh). They would then be able to serve him alone (see Ex 3:7–10; 8:1; 9:1, etc.). It is necessary to remember that the conditions of oppression described in Exodus were everyday features in the life of Egyptian peasants. Living under the rulership of the pharaoh as a peasant implied oppression, unreasonable work assignments, loss of freedom and self-respect, and many other things. By contrast, life under the rulership of Yahweh came to signify freedom, justice, and equality.  [1]Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Theocracy. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 2049). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

Here is the referenced passage from Deuteronomy which argues that a human king rules only as one designated for kingship by the Lord in the Theocracy of the Biblical time of the Exodus.

The King

Dt 17:14 When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” 15 be sure to appoint over you the king the LORD your God chooses. He must be from among your own brothers. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not a brother Israelite. 16 The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” 17 He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.

Dt 17:18 When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the priests, who are Levites. 19 It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees 20 and not consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.

Earlier, I said there was a catch to all of this. Well, here it is. There are countries today that have a combo-plate of sorts when it comes to the type of government. But the government over Israel in Jesus’ time was exceptionally complex. The Romans were the ones in charge from a military point of view/ However, they let the Jewish people kind of do their thing, as long as they didn’t cause too much trouble. If things got too problematic, whatever was going on got crushed by the Roman soldiers. And remember, Romans thought their emperor was a god.

But then there was King Herod. The supposed king over the Jewish people. But Herod cared much more about himself than about anything Jewish.

There were also the Temple priests, who held a great deal of power in their little piece of the pie. And let’s not forget about the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the teachers of the law. These were the Jewish leaders who should have known about the coming Messiah, the One the Jews were waiting for in that First Advent period. But they actively tried to undermine Jesus.

Notice, through all those layers of government, in what should have been at least a partial Theocracy, there was no human, king or otherwise, who was in the chain of command and looked out for God’s interest.

Of course, all of this was part of God’s plan. But, it does bring up a very strange government infrastructure indeed.

Now that we have the background, let’s get to our title question.

Was Jesus subject to the government?

Our reference verse for looking into whether Jesus was subject to government again comes from Nelson’s Topical Index.

The Temple Tax

Mt 17:24 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax ?”

Mt 17:25 “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 sons or from others?”

Mt 17:26 “From others,” Peter answered.
“Then the sons are exempt,” Jesus said to him. 27 “But so that we may not offend them, 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.”

So what do you think? Was Jesus subject to the government, with this assumption that it’s the government doing the Temple Tax?

As we saw, the Temple Tax was, at that time, collected by a segment of the “government”. But the question remains – was Jesus subject to it? The answer isn’t exactly obvious, is it? Let’s look at the history of the Temple Tax to see if its origin and background might help.

Atonement Money

Ex 30:11 Then the LORD said to Moses, 12 “When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the LORD a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them. 13 Each one who crosses over to those already counted is to give a half shekel, according to the sanctuary shekel, which weighs twenty gerahs. This half shekel is an offering to the LORD. 14 All who cross over, those twenty years old or more, are to give an offering to the LORD. 15 The rich are not to give more than a half shekel and the poor are not to give less when you make the offering to the LORD to atone for your lives. 16 Receive the atonement money from the Israelites and use it for the service of the Tent of Meeting. It will be a memorial for the Israelites before the LORD, making atonement for your lives.”

Atonement money from the Exodus. And note the situation. When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the LORD a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. It certainly doesn’t seem like an annual tax. Nor does it appear to have a direct reference to the Temple. Especially since, at this time, the Temple wasn’t built yet.

It could also be a tax to be paid by all males over twenty whenever a census was taken. During my reference, I did find a reference to the Essenes, who felt this was in fact a one-time tax, who refused to pay the Temple Tax.

However, while that may have been the case back in Moses’ time, things did change. Just as with our taxes today, things morph over time. I found one reference that said:

A half-shekel tax first commanded by Moses for the upkeep of the tabernacle and later adopted to support the Jewish Temple  [2]Witthoff, D. (Ed.). (2014). The Lexham Cultural Ontology Glossary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

However, you might notice a problem with that. Just as we do today, a one-time tax to build or set up something does not provide for maintenance. Most references I read look at “service” the same way we do today. But it doesn’t really make sense that an atonement for a specific event was meant to provide ongoing maintenance.

This progression from a one-time tax to an ongoing Temple Tax is likely either lost or in reference materials that I don’t currently have. In any case, We need to be cognizant of the original purpose of the Temple Tax versus its purpose in Jesus’ time. It seems like, given what was recorded of the event with Jesus, Peter, and the people collecting the Temple Tax – we must view it more from that point of view than from the original atonement offering in Moses’ time.

What else is going on here with the Temple Tax?

The next piece of this puzzle about deciding if Jesus was subject to the government, using the Temple Tax as a litmus test, doesn’t have a single answer. Various scholars disagree. But, since I started this series, and don’t want to stop because of disagreements, we’ll proceed. Just please, keep in mind that this is the one that I believe answers the question I’m trying to answer. Namely, does the Temple Tax passage indicate that Jesus was subject to the government?

So, with that in mind, here’s what I’m going with.

The key, to me, comes in verse 26.

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 sons or from others?”

Mt 17:26 “From others,” Peter answered.
“Then the sons are exempt,” Jesus said to him. 27 “But so that we may not offend them, 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.”

At first glance, it appears Jesus is saying that neither He nor Peter has to pay the Temple Tax. At least, it seems like that to some people.

To me, that doesn’t make sense. Not yet, anyway. Jesus is clearly the Son of God, and the Temple is God’s. But Peter? Now? That doesn’t seem right. So I chose the following excerpt from Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible.

Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free—By “the children” our Lord cannot here mean Himself and the Twelve together, in some loose sense of their near relationship to God as their common Father. For besides that our Lord never once mixes Himself up with His disciples in speaking of their relation to God, but ever studiously keeps His relation and theirs apart (see, for example, on the last words of this chapter)—this would be to teach the right of believers to exemption from the dues required for sacred services, in the teeth of all that Paul teaches and that He Himself indicates throughout. He can refer here, then, only to Himself; using the word “children” evidently in order to express the general principle observed by sovereigns, who do not draw taxes from their own children, and thus convey the truth respecting His own exemption the more strikingly:—namely, “If the sovereign’s own family be exempt, you know the inference in My case”; or to express it more nakedly than Jesus thought needful and fitting: “This is a tax for upholding My Father’s House. As His Son, then, that tax is not due by Me—I AM FREE.”  [3]Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 49). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Notice the paraphrase at the end:
This is a tax for upholding My Father’s House. As His Son, then, that tax is not due by Me—I AM FREE

This makes a lot of sense. Jesus, as the Son of God, shouldn’t have to pay the Temple Tax. But His disciples are another matter. For one thing, at this point in time, they haven’t yet been saved. Therefore, they aren’t yet children of God. “sons” of God. And when we pay attention to the distinction we use today for Son versus son – capitalized or not – none of us will ever be The Son of God.

1 John has a passage aptly titled Children of God in the NIV.

Children of God

1Jn 2:28 And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.

1Jn 2:29 If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him.

1Jn 3:1 How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 3 Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.

1Jn 3:4 Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. 5 But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. 6 No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.

1Jn 3:7 Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. 8 He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. 9 No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. 10 This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.

All true Christians will be children of God. “sons and daughters” – lower case. Peter and the other disciples, except of course for Judas, would also become children of God. But at the time of the “Temple Tax” event, they were not. Not yet.

But so that we may not offend them

Now, let’s move to verse 26 to learn a bit more about the difference between Peter and Jesus.

“But so that we may not offend them, 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.”

But so that we might not offend them – everything that follows in that verse is a chain that corresponds to actions taken to avoid offense. While some commentaries got stuck in discussions of whether the coin in the fish’s mouth was a natural event, a miracle, or never happened, that feels like getting lost in the weeds.

The more important point has to do with Jesus providing the coin to pay for His tax and Peter’s. Both of their taxes were paid with one coin, and so that there would be no offense. The offense only makes sense for Jesus. Jesus is the only one of the two – at that point in time – that didn’t have to pay the tax. Peter’s time to be a child of God hasn’t yet come.

However – by taking into account that part about Peter’s time to be a child of God hasn’t yet come, are we not putting God in a box? God operates outside of time. And we are talking about a Temple Tax that was supposed to be all about God. A God who already knew, and who Jesus already knew because of His relationship with the Father, that Peter was indeed going to be a child of God. Therefore, the Temple Tax didn’t need to be paid.

You might ask, what about the other people at that time who were also going to be children of God? Ah yes – but they didn’t have that special relationship with Jesus that eleven of the twelve did. The question, and assumption, to me is that Jesus was using this as a teaching moment.

Was Jesus letting Peter know that He, Jesus, didn’t have to pay right now because He was the son of God? And oh, by the way, I’m taking care of yours too because you’ll also be a son of God. Sooner than you think even. I mean, how many of us pay the Temple Tax today? And how many discussions were there after Jesus’ death about the freedom that comes with following Jesus?

How does tithing fit in with this?

There’s one final item to bring in. Tithing. Is the Temple Tax much different than tithing today?

Well, we’ve already seen quite a bit about the Temple Tax. Let’s take a look at tithing. Here’s a brief note on tithing for Christians, from what little is in the Bible on the topic.

In the New Testament the words “tithe” and “tithing” appear only eight times (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42; 18:12; Heb. 7:5–6, 8–9). All of these passages refer to Old Testament usage and to current Jewish practice. Nowhere does the New Testament expressly command Christians to tithe. However, as believers we are to be generous in sharing our material possessions with the poor and for the support of Christian ministry. Christ Himself is our model in giving. Giving is to be voluntary, willing, cheerful, and given in the light of our accountability to God. Giving should be systematic and by no means limited to a tithe of our incomes. We recognize that all we have is from God. We are called to be faithful stewards of all our possessions (Rom. 14:12; 1 Cor. 9:3–14; 16:1–3; 2 Cor. 8–9).  [4]Youngblood, R. F., Bruce, F. F., & Harrison, R. K., Thomas Nelson Publishers (Eds.). (1995). In Nelson’s new illustrated Bible dictionary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

For a deeper look into the issue of tithing, please see Does the New Testament say to tithe ten percent?

Then, remember that Jesus died for us. And also that the New Testament talks about us, as Christians, “dying to self”. Not literally dying physically. Rather, giving up the things that we want of they conflict with God’s plans for our lives. For a much deeper look at that, please see the series on The Beatitudes. Dying to self is very much about doing the things Jesus spoke of in that portion of the Sermon on the Mount.

Conclusion – Old Testament prophecy: Was Jesus subject to the government?

As I said above, some of what’s presented isn’t 100% agreed on by scholars. Some disagree with parts of it. I dare say, putting it all together, with various disagreements on different portions, there’s a good chance that not too many would agree with what I ended up with.

But – it wasn’t my goal to agree with the scholars. They have a different goal. Sometimes it’s historical accuracy. Sometimes literary. Denominations have biases based on other portions of the Bible that necessarily affect what they write here.

My goal was more simple. It was to get you to think. To think about the God you believe in. To read the Bible for yourself and pray about it. And as I’ve written before, to help you “own your faith”. Sorry – not my phrase. But I like it. And I believe it’s important.

To that end – I don’t believe Jesus was bound by the government. Even though the government put Him to death, it’s not because the government actually had the power to do it.

Jesus Before Pilate

18:29-40 pp — Mt 27:11-18, 20-23; Mk 15:2-15; Lk 23:2, 3, 18-25

Jn 18:28 Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate came out to them and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?”

Jn 18:30 “If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.”

Jn 18:31 Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.”
“But we have no right to execute anyone,” the Jews objected. 32 This happened so that the words Jesus had spoken indicating the kind of death he was going to die would be fulfilled.

Jn 18:33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jn 18:34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

Jn 18:35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jn 18:36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

Jn 18:37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

Jn 18:38 “What is truth?” Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him. 39 But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?”

Jn 18:40 They shouted back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!” Now Barabbas had taken part in a rebellion.

Notice these verses:

Jn 18:36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

Jn 18:37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

Jesus was subject to the government only so far as it fit The Father’s plan.

Now, on the other hand, we are subject to the government. Something we seem to be forgetting or ignoring all too often.

As you can tell from the NIV provided title for the passage below, it’s a mixture of remarks at the end of Hebrews. As such, much of it isn’t related to our topic. Therefore, I’m going to eliminate everything that doesn’t apply.

Concluding Exhortations

Heb 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Heb 13:24 Greet all your leaders and all God’s people. Those from Italy send you their greetings.

Heb 13:25 Grace be with you all.

There’s something about that line we must know about God and leaders. We must, repeat must, realize that sometimes God gives us the leaders we need – not necessarily the ones we want. We see this in the Old Testament so often. God tries to sort of wake His people up by raising up leaders to defeat them. Put them in a position where they realize they’ve strayed and need to return to Him.

Unfortunately, as in the Bible, we don’t always recognize what’s going on. So we end up with leaders we want, but leaders who are taking us further and further from God. We must always go back to Biblical basics, the things Jesus taught and the examples from His own life, to determine whether the leaders we want truly are the leaders we need. And as we should know, discernment (key churchy word there) comes from prayer and the Holy Spirit. For more on that thought, please see Do we have the leader we deserve, need or both? Revisited

Why did I include that last portion? As a reminder that it takes discernment from the Holy Spirit to navigate this complex issue of are we subject to the government. It’s one thing for Jesus. But as we’ve seen, it’s a whole other thing for us. Because at this time, we are still subject to government authorities. And unfortunately, in this fallen world, the battle between the prince of the earth and the King of kings is still ongoing.


That concludes this portion of the Advent series. On the First Advent, celebrating the first coming of Jesus.

There will be a follow-on series for the Second Advent. The period we’re in right now, waiting for the Second Coming of Jesus. However, since Christmas is tomorrow, and I’ve got a few other things waiting to be completed, like the series on Judas at Circumstances around Judas’ death. Hope to “see you in one of those series.


Image by Hebi B. from Pixabay


Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Theocracy. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 2049). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
2 Witthoff, D. (Ed.). (2014). The Lexham Cultural Ontology Glossary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
3 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 49). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
4 Youngblood, R. F., Bruce, F. F., & Harrison, R. K., Thomas Nelson Publishers (Eds.). (1995). In Nelson’s new illustrated Bible dictionary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

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