A Miraculous Atonement
One of the most bizarre of Jesus’ miracles is recorded in Matthew 17:24-27. To pay the temple tax, Jesus tells Peter to “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.”
Why didn’t Jesus simply instruct Judas to take this amount out of the purse that he kept for the expenses of Jesus and the disciples? Why does He send Peter to the lake for a coin in the mouth of a fish?
To understand this miracle, it helps to understand something about this tax and about this fish.
The Tax: To a significant extent, the tax was like the toll we pay to cross a bridge. Growing up in Oakland, California, if I wanted to go to San Francisco, I would drive across the Bay Bridge, but before driving across I would have to pay the toll. The toll went to the maintenance of the bridge so that it would be safe for me and others to drive across. For the privilege of visiting San Francisco, I would simply pay the pertinent toll.
Like a bridge giving access to San Francisco, the temple gave people access to God. For the privilege of having access to God, people were required to pay a tax for the maintenance of the temple.
But who has to pay the toll? Would a person already living in San Francisco have to pay the toll for others who want to come visit “the city”? Or is the expense only for those who want to come into the city? Would One who already has access to God (as the second person of the Trinity) have to pay the temple tax? No, the tax is for those who want to gain access to God.
The Fish: There are two species of fish in the world which have the unusual habit of protecting their young by opening their mouths wide and allowing their young to swim into their open mouths. One species if found in the Sea of Galilee and is commonly known as St. Peter’s Fish. Jesus sent Peter to find a coin in the mouth of a fish who uses its mouth to protect its young. Jesus was giving Peter a picture of the self-sacrifice He would soon make for Peter…and for us.
In the two verses just before this miracle is recorded, Jesus spoke to His disciples about the self-sacrifice He was about to make for them. In Matthew 17:22-23, Jesus said to His disciples, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill Him, and on the third day He will be raised to life.”
By sending Peter to the lake to get a coin that would cover the cost for both of them from the mouth of a fish who protects its young in its mouth, Jesus was letting Peter (and us) know that He has got us covered, that He will take us into Himself to protect us and care for our needs.
Jesus did this symbolically with a coin from the mouth of a fish that would pay the temple tax (also known as the “atonement tax”) for Himself and Peter. He did this for real when He died upon the cross for our forgiveness and to give us access to God. That’s why 1 John 4:10 declares, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”