Jesus of Nazareth—Jesus’ Backsliding Disciples (Matthew 17:24-27 and Mark 9:33-37)

In Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul, Octavius Winslow wrote: 

An uncharitable spirit towards other Christians, marks a low state of grace in the soul. The more entirely the heart is occupied with the love of Christ, there will be less room for uncharitableness for his saints. It is because there is so little love of Jesus, that there is so little love towards his followers.[1]  

Outwardly, the disciples had been advancing in many ways. They had been recipients of the daily tutoring of Jesus for two years and had recently been given great powers by Him—to preach the gospel, to heal, to cast out demons, and to cleanse lepers. They had completed a very successful preaching tour throughout Galilee a few months earlier with numerous miracles performed by them. Yet, a spirit of incipient declension in grace had started to work in them. The beginning of that secret declension in their hearts is hard to trace. It is known only to God who alone searches the hearts of every person. Yet, there are some markers in their declension which stand out prominently. When they traveled to Tyre with Jesus, their hearts were closed to the Syro-Phoenician woman whose daughter was cruelly demon-possessed. Instead of casting that demon out with their newly bestowed powers, they exclaimed to Jesus concerning the woman, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us” (Matthew 15:23). When Peter rebuked Jesus at Caesarea Philippi for foretelling His crucifixion, all of the disciples were seemingly in agreement with him (Mark 8:33). When the disciples traveled back to Capernaum with their Master, they began to debate among themselves who was the greatest. Thus, party spirit had overcome them. The Transfiguration of Jesus had not yet made a powerful enough impression even on Jesus’ inner circle of Peter, James, and John. There were further declensions still ahead for the disciples because they had not yet understood the centrality of the cross and of the resurrection of Jesus. 

When Jesus and His disciples arrived back to Capernaum, Peter was immediately confronted by the tax collectors concerning “the two-drachma tax” (Matthew 17:24). That was an amount equal to two days’ wages paid as the temple tax. According to Exodus 30:13 ff., “every male in Israel from twenty years upwards, was expected to contribute to the Temple-Treasury the sum of one half-shekel of the sanctuary.”[2] The tax collectors asked Peter if his teacher paid that tax and he answered, “Yes” (Matthew 17:25a). When Peter came into the house,[3] Jesus already knew what conversation Peter had had with the tax collectors. Thus, He asked Peter, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect customs or poll-tax, from their sons or from strangers?” (Matthew 17:25c). Peter’s response was correct when he stated: “From strangers” (Matthew 17:26a). Thus, “Jesus said to him, ‘Then the sons are exempt’” (Matthew 17:26b). What followed was a miracle that was both strange and amazing. Peter was told by Jesus to go down “to the  sea, throw in a hook, take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for you and Me” (Matthew 17:27). While Jesus, as the Son of God the Father, was exempt from the temple tax since the temple represented the Father’s presence with His people, yet He paid the tax so as not to give offense to the tax collectors. The shekel in the fish’s mouth was sufficient for both Jesus and Peter. 

While the miracle is not directly recorded, it no doubt happened. Jesus was thereby teaching a couple of important lessons to Peter and His followers. First, the humility of Jesus was evident by paying a tax from which He and His followers were exempt. As Ernest Burton and Shailer Matthews wrote:

Jesus here illustrates a fixed principle of all reforms, viz., the avoidance of actions which are not absolutely essential for the success of the reform, and which, because easily misunderstood, and so arousing prejudice, would make it more difficult for others to join in the movement.[4]

Another reason Jesus performed this miracle was to assure His disciples that even backsliding believers are still under the watchful care of their Savior. He can provide for their needs from the mouth of a fish, if necessary. The disciples still had further steps of spiritual declension to pass through before they would come through this testing period. 

The next step in their declension was when John reported to Jesus: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38-40). A few days earlier the disciples had failed to be able to cast out a demon from a little boy. Now, John is trying to stop someone else from doing so because that person was unknown to the disciples. John was clearly guilty of an uncharitable spirit towards him. Such uncharitableness was due to a lack of true Christian love. Love is the fountainhead of all the graces and the lack of it is the first evidence of declension in spirituality. This same John would later write so eloquently on the grace of Christian love, but was deficient in it during this period of his growth. His problem went beyond hard feelings in his heart, though. He actively tried to prevent the man from casting out demons and reported back to Jesus on what he had done, probably expecting to be commended. While the time when this incident happened is not given to us, it was probably sometime during their journey through northern Galilee on the way back to Capernaum. Jesus, instead of commending John, corrects his error. As Swete comments:

To work a miracle in Christ’s name was not a test of moral character or proof of spiritual affinity to Him. . . , as childlike trust and humility must always be; but it was a safeguard against open. . .  and immediate hostility. . . , and might be the beginning of better things.[5]       

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had made it clear that working miracles was not in itself a proof of discipleship. Matthew 7:22 says: “Many will say to Me in that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” In response Jesus say He will say to them: “I never knew you; Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23). Perhaps John was thinking of those words when he reported the efforts of the disciples to prevent that unknown person from casting out demons in Jesus’ name—since he was not among the known disciples of Jesus. Jesus simply replied to John: “Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:39, 40). Yet, in Matthew 12:30, Jesus said, “He who is not for Me is against Me.” “[T]he two rules are in fact complementary. . . ; in the latter words the Lord refers to the relations of a man’s inner life to Himself, whilst in this context He deals with outward conduct.”[6] It was not yet known to John and the other disciples whether the man they tried to prevent from casting out demons was a true follower of Jesus. Time would tell. Once again, Winslow dissects the declension in grace that is manifested by a lack of love for the saints:

A decline of love to the saints of God, is a strong evidence of a decay of love to God Himself. If we love God with a sincere and deepening affection, we must love his image wherever we find it.[7]     

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL

Please mail contributions to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540 

[1] Octavius Winslow, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul (London: John F. Shaw, 1841), 17. 

[2] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), 550. 

[3] Undoubtedly, the house was the residence of Peter’s mother-in-law. 

[4] Edward Dewitt Burton and Shailer Matthews, Constructive Studies in the Life of Christ (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1901), 163. 

[5] Henry Barclay Swete, Commentary on Mark (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1977), 207. 

[6] Ibid., 208. 

[7] Winslow, Ibid., 73. 

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