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In Matthew 17 there is a story of Jesus telling Peter to go and get money for the temple tax. For some reason, Jesus didn't just make money appear or ask Peter to get some from Judas Iscariot (who took care of the money bag), he asked Peter to get a coin from a fish.

And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute? He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers? Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free. Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee. Matthew 17:24-27 (KJV)

What is the meaning behind Jesus giving Peter these special instructions?

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The question here in Matt 17:24-27 is NOT about why or who levied this temple tax (see Ex 30:12-16). The question asks why Jesus, having decided to pay the tax to avoid offence, decided to pay it with money from such an unusual source - the mouth of a fish! The reasons are not stated but here are some suggestions.

  • Jesus was, as He pointed out, exempt from this temple tax precisely because He was the ruler to which all its symbolism pointed. (He was the light of the world, the water of life, the bread of life, the Passover lamb, etc, etc). He was also the King of the heavenly kingdom that the temple also pointed towards. So, Jesus was definitely exempt! Jesus performed a miracle to emphasis to Peter what he had evidently just forgotten, that Jesus was the King, Messiah, and Lord of the temple and all else.
  • While Jesus had unlimited power available to Him, he often performed miracles in conjunction with people. For example, He could have rolled the stone away at Lazarus' resurrection, but asked people to do it; He could have healed the blind man's eyes instantly without using saliva mud, but asked the man to go and wash; He could have instantly created wine for the wedding but asked servants to fill large jars and draw it out; He could have created a large catch of fish in the boat but rather, instructed the disciples to cast their net and draw the catch in; He could just convert people but rather, asks Christians to preach and teach others (Matt 28:19); etc. In these cases, the involvement of people as an integral part of the miracle serves to re-emphasise that Jesus, not people, are the source of divine power.
  • Had Jesus simply created money for the temple tax, it might have easily been misunderstood that Jesus creates money on demand! However, Jesus worked a miracle in a way that ingeniously prevented this conclusion and served to rebuke Peter without offending officials.
  • This story about the money in the mouth of a fish would have readily made its way to the officials collecting the temple tax and served as a rebuke to them as well - they should have known, but refused to acknowledge, that Jesus was King and thus exempt.
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    Whilst it is only speculation, it might have humbled Peter-the-fisherman once again, to be shown how to catch fish - this time with a line.
    – Michael
    Jun 2 '19 at 12:45
  • And let's not forget that creating money (out of thin air, or by any other not government-sanctioned way) is basically counterfeiting. Jesus certainly wouldn't have wanted to commit such a crime.
    – vsz
    May 19 '20 at 6:52
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The power of Jesus' answer lies in his opening question - who pays taxes, the children of rulers or their servants/subjects? He doesn't mention what sort of taxes, therefore we can deduce that they are any and all taxes, whether by temples or governments. By doing so Jesus is revealing a greater sub-text, namely that His Father is the One True Ruler, of whom he (Jesus) is the Son, and therefore not subject to taxes.

However, Jesus advocates meekness and humility rather than offense and dishonouring the Kingdom of God by insisting on his moral and spiritual position. In this, he instructs Peter to do the same, and to act in all ways to uphold the high principles of God's Kingdom. Jesus tells him to produce the coin from:

  • a fish - an area in which Peter is skilled and labours for his pay
  • a single line instead of a whole net - faith that such a single fish will be guided by the Divine to his single line
  • a fish's mouth - a gentle jibe at the rulers of the world - Jonah was spat up from a fish's mouth on the coast of Ninevah, to proclaim a prophecy against a people he didn't want to save - so perhaps God is coughing up a coin in miracle provision to spare all the rest of Jesus' and Peter's money from being used by the pest of this world.
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  • An excellent point that Peter was exhorted to apply his skilled labor set to solve the monetary problem. Feb 24 '20 at 23:50
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The first thing is to ensure we have an accurate translation. The subject is the "Temple Tax" rather than "Tribute" - which is how the KJV translates this. The Temple tax was instituted in Exodus (Ex. 30:11-16). Tribute, on the other hand, is what a vassal pays each year to the king. The Roman Caesars minted "tribute" coins. If you pay tribute to Caesar, you acknowledge his "kingship" in your life. That is the debate in Mark 12

The "tribute" was paid in a denarius and had an image of Caesar on it. The inscription said:

"Tiberius Caesars, son of the Divine Augustus, Emperor"

and the obverse declared Tiberius

"High Priest"

so this was considered worshiping a false god in the eyes of the Jews.

Point 1: The Temple tax was paid using a Tyrian Shekel. A problem with the Tyrian Shekel was that it had a pagan god on it - Melqarth-Herakles (Hercules in the Roman pantheon). Tyrian Shekels had high purity silver content and were, therefore, the only coins authorized by the religious leaders to pay your temple tax. It also appears that when the Tyrian mint closed - they moved the minting operation to Jerusalem - and continued to mint the Tyrian Shekel with the Tyrian god on it.

As Gordon Franz notes:

"The rabbis decided that the commandment to give the half-shekel Temple tax, with its proper weight and purity, was more important than the prohibition of who or what image was on the coin."

Point 2: The "sea" in the ancient Near East (Old Testament as well as New) was an image of judgment.

Dane Ortlund writes in his journal article What Does It Mean to Cast A Mountain into the Sea? Another Look at Mark 11:23 in Bulletin for Biblical Research:

The “sea” likewise has a consistent meaning in the Bible beyond the mere referent to a large body of saltwater. Throughout the Bible, the sea often symbolizes darkness, separation from God, divine judgment

So a possible interpretation is that Jesus is making a statement about the fact that the temple authorities were using a coin that violated the command of no graven image to pay for the functioning of the temple. That the coin is "in the sea" - the place of divine judgment - would be a symbolic way of showing what you think about the coin approved for use in the temple.

A significant portion of the message of the Gospels - particularly Mark - is that God's judgment is coming to the Temple and the religious leaders. Following the words of Malachi 3:

Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple (Mal. 3:1)

and

So I will come to put you on trial (Mal. 3:5)

Jesus is continually obedient to God's commands. He pays the tax. But does it in a symbolic manner to show what he thinks about the coin and the hypocrisy of the temple authorities.

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