The temple tax was required of Jewish males over age 20, and the money was used for the upkeep and maintenance of the temple. In Exodus 30:13–16, God told Moses to collect this tax at the time of the census taken in the wilderness. In 2 Kings 12:5–17 and Nehemiah 10:32–33, it seems the temple tax was paid annually, not just during a census. This half-shekel tax wasn’t a large sum of money, but roughly equivalent to two days’ wages. According to the tractate Shekalim in the Talmud, the temple tax was collected during one of the these Jewish festivals: Passover, Pentecost, or Tabernacles.
The temple tax is also mentioned in the New Testament in Matthew 17:24–27 when Peter was confronted by the religious leaders collecting the tax. The leaders asked Peter, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” The leaders may have been attempting to prove Jesus’ disloyalty to the temple or His violation of the Law. Peter affirmed that Jesus did pay the temple tax. When Peter came into the house where Jesus was, the Lord asked him, “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?” Peter replied that kings collect from others because their children are exempt. Jesus’ point was that, since the temple was His Father’s house, Jesus was exempt. Why should the Son of God pay a tax to His own Father?
Even though Jesus, as the Son of God, and His disciples were exempt from paying the temple tax, they would pay the tax in order to not offend the Jewish leaders (Matthew 17:27). Jesus then instructs Peter to throw out a fishing line, which would result in a catch. When Peter opened the fish’s mouth, he found a coin that happened to be the correct amount for the temple tax for him and Jesus.
Jesus used the question about the temple tax to teach a lesson. Christians are free, but they must sometimes relinquish their rights in order to uphold their witness and not cause others to stumble. True freedom is not serving ourselves but others (see Galatians 5:13).