Simon Peter’s Assumptions
Peter had a habit of speaking out of impulse. He would often say things or answer questions without giving much thought to what he was saying, whether it was correct, or if it was pleasing to God. He was often directed by the moment.
At one point, some Jewish authorities approached Peter1 with a question: “Doesn’t your master pay tribute [the temple tax]?”2 Peter, apparently without giving much thought to the question, or their possible motives,3 just answered “Yes.”4 Peter walks into his house, and before he can say a thing to Jesus, the Lord asks him, “What are you thinking, Simon?5 From whom do the kings of the earth take taxes or tribute? From their own sons, or from strangers?”6 Peter rightly answered, “From strangers.”
Jesus takes this opportunity to kindly criticize Peter, but also to teach him a lesson in expediency. The Lord tells him, “Then the sons are free.”7 In saying this, Jesus reminds Peter of the confession that he made not too long before. Since the tax was to pay for the upkeep of the house of God (the temple), then logically, the Son of God was free from paying the tax. Then the Lord adds:
“Nevertheless, lest we might cause them to stumble,8 you go to the sea and cast a hook, take up the first fish that comes up; and when you’ve opened his mouth, you will find a stater. Take that and give to them for you and me [both].”9
Even though it was something that was not commanded of Jesus to do, He went ahead and paid it anyway—because Peter opened his mouth without thinking.10
At some point later, after the Lord has given instruction on how to treat a brother who sins against you,11 Peter approaches Jesus and asks Him a question that may have been an attempt to elicit praise from the Lord: “Lord, how often shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Until seven times?”12 The rabbis of the time generally taught that you only had to forgive someone up to three times, but Peter more than doubled this number in his question.13 The answer from Jesus was unexpected: “I don’t say to you ‘Until seven times,’ but ‘Until seventy times seven.’”14 It’s a good thing that Jesus didn’t agree with the rabbis, because if He did, Peter would have used up all three of his chances the day that Jesus died—by denying the Lord thrice.
Jesus then gave a parable about forgiveness as a fuller answer to Peter’s question.15 In the parable, Jesus taught Peter about (1) the great debt (sin) we cannot repay to God, (2) God’s great and willing forgiveness of that debt, (3) the comparatively minuscule debt (sin) that others owe us, (4) the importance of our willingness to forgive, and (5) the consequences if we do not forgive. All of this adds up to the ultimate answer to Peter’s question: Forgive from the heart those who ask, regardless of how many times they sin against you, otherwise you will not receive forgiveness from God. So, if Peter wanted to stick with his suggestion of “seven times,” then he couldn’t expect any more forgiveness than that from God.16 Praise God for His grace!
Prior to Jesus’ final week, the last thing that the Bible specifically records mentioning Peter takes place after the rich young ruler has departed in sadness. Jesus had told the man that what he lacked was to sell his possessions, give them to the poor, and follow Him. But the man was very rich, and couldn’t bear to give up all that he had.17 Afterwards, Jesus spoke of the difficulty of rich men entering heaven—because, like the rich young ruler, they are unwilling to give up what they have on earth to follow Jesus and receive “treasure in heaven.”18
In order to show that they were not like that, Peter speaks up for himself and the rest of the apostles, “Behold, we’ve forsaken everything and followed you; therefore what shall we receive?”19 Jesus’ response gives a great promise to the apostles, as well as a promise to all Christians.20
“Truly I say to you, that you [the apostles] who have followed me, in the regeneration, when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of His glory, you also shall sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has forsaken houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, and the gospel’s, shall receive a hundredfold now in this time houses [family], and brothers, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come, shall inherit eternal life.”21
The “regeneration” is the time after Jesus’ resurrection, the time when people could be “regenerated” or “reborn” through Him. After the resurrection, the apostles declared the judgment of God against Israel—“Let all the house of Israel known for certain that God has made this same Jesus, whom you have crucified, both Lord and Christ.”22 By inspiration, they pronounced the terms of judgment and forgiveness; and by inspiration, they taught how man could be “regenerated”—through baptism.23
-Bradley S. Cobb
1 Why they approached Peter and not Jesus is, like almost every other detail in this account, subject to different opinions in the minds of the commentators. Some have said that since Jesus lived with Peter while in Capernaum, Peter was responsible for his Lord’s tax. Others have said that Jesus always paid Peter’s tax, and so the collectors are asking if Jesus has changed his mind and made Peter a violator of the law by not paying it for him. Some say they were in such awe of Jesus that they didn’t want to trouble him with such a mundane matter—so they troubled Peter instead. And some have implied that since they couldn’t trip up Jesus, they’d try to trip up one of his disciples instead.
2 Matthew 17:24. The tax here is literally called the didrachma, for the amount of money that each Jew over the age of 20 was expected to pay for the upkeep of the temple (see McGarvey’s Fourfold Gospel). Commentators can’t seem to agree on most of the details surrounding this tax. Some say it was voluntary (see Boles’ Commentary on Matthew, page 364), others that it was compulsory, and others that it was both (Coffman can’t seem to make up his mind and asserts all three in his short note on this verse). Some claim that rabbis were exempt (see Coffman), others say they weren’t (most others make it a universal tax among adult Jewish males).
3 Harold Fowler, in the College Press Commentary series, says, “Their question does not necessarily betray any hostility … This may or may not be another move to entangle Jesus.” Meanwhile, Coffman says the question was brought up because no matter how he answered, they could try to make a claim against Jesus for either being (1) not a real rabbi (who were supposedly exempt from this tax) or (2) a lawbreaker, refusing to pay the tax.
4 Every possible excuse has been offered for Peter’s answer: (1) That Peter knew Jesus paid all the common taxes (Barnes); (2) that Peter assumed Judas would take care of paying it out of the general fund, and/or that Jesus had probably paid it several times in the past (Coffman); but the most likely is, as Ted Clarke phrases it, “They asked Peter if his rabbi paid the temple tax, and Peter instantaneously said of course he does. Probably defensively.” (Preaching School Notes, on Matthew 17:24). To this agrees John Criswell, who says, “Cornered and caught off guard, … Peter might also suspect that the collectors’ question is an insinuation that Jesus will not pay, so Peter quickly answers in the affirmative” (Contending for the Faith Commentary on Matthew, page 501).
5 It’s noteworthy that Jesus calls him “Simon” here, and not “Peter.” The word “Peter,” as was shown earlier, means a rock, and shows stability, strength, and trustworthiness—something that Peter has not exhibited in this incident. So Jesus refers to him as “Simon,” perhaps showing that he is still struggling with his old character.
6 Matthew 17:25. The word translated “children” in most versions is actually the Greek word for male children—sons. The word “strangers” might be better understood here as “non-family.” That isn’t a literal translation, but that seems to be the meaning. See H. Leo Boles’ A Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, page 365.
7 Matthew 17:26.
8 The Greek word here is skandalizo, from which we get our English word “scandal.”
9 Matthew 17:27. The “piece of money” (KJV) that Jesus mentions in this verse is literally a stater, that is, a specific coin which was worth two didrachmas, and thus was sufficient to pay the tax for two people.
10 Jesus paid the tax (1) to keep the collectors from “stumbling,” or perhaps better rendered would be “to keep them from causing a scandal”; but also, (2) because Peter had basically obligated Jesus to it. Especially after Peter’s answer, for Jesus to refuse to pay would have been seen as a rift between Him and His disciples, lessening His influence as a teacher. Therefore, it was expedient for Him to pay the tax on at least two different levels.
11 Matthew 18:15-17.
12 Matthew 18:21. Robertson says, “Peter thought that he was generous as the Jewish rule was three times.” To this agrees most other commentators who touch on the topic.
13 Robertson says, “Peter thought that he was generous as the Jewish rule was three times.” To this agrees most other commentators who touch on the topic. Criswell (Contending for the Faith Commentary on Matthew, page 527) says, “The Babylonian Talmud instructs, ‘When a man sins against another, they forgive him once, they forgive him a second time, they forgive him a third time, but the fourth times they do not forgive him.’” Johnson, in his People’s New Testament with Notes, suggests that Peter expected the forgiveness demanded by the Savior to be greater, which is why he increased the suggestion to seven.
14 Matthew 18:22. Some translations (NIV, NRSV, NAB) say “seventy-seven times.” The meaning is still the same regardless of how it is translated: there is to be no limit on forgiveness. In Greek, the numbers are identical with the LXX rendering of Genesis 4:24: “Because vengeance has been exacted seven times on Cain’s behalf, on Lamech’s it shall be seventy times seven” (Brenton’s English Septuagint). There, it was used to describe the measure of vengeance—but Jesus used those numbers to describe the measure of forgiveness.
15 See Matthew 18:23-35. From a practical, daily Christian living standpoint, this is perhaps the most important parable Jesus gave.
16 This wasn’t a rebuke of Peter’s question, as though he was “legalistic” or “seek[ing] to define the limits of required forgiveness” (as Criswell suggests, Contending for the Faith Commentary on Matthew, page 526-527)—far from it! Peter was seeking to be more liberal in forgiveness than was expected; and Jesus couldn’t be upset with Peter’s attitude, but is letting him know that he needs to take that attitude even further.
17 This is recorded in Matthew 18:16-26; Mark 10:17-27; and Luke 18:18-27.
18 See Matthew 19:21.
19 Matthew 19:27. Mark and Luke both give Peter’s statement, but Matthew is the only one who adds the question, “therefore what shall we receive?”
20 Jesus doesn’t contradict Peter’s claim, but instead gives a promise based on the truthfulness of the claim. Some might read into Peter’s words some kind of bragging, but given what we know about Peter, it seems more likely that he was trying to assert his faithfulness to the Lord (which, as we have seen, wasn’t always there).
21 This is a combination of Jesus’ statement as recorded in Matthew 19:28-29 and Mark 10:29-30.
22 Acts 2:36.
23 For the “regeneration” aspect of baptism, see Titus 3:5; Romans 6:3-5; and John 3:3-5.