Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

113. The Coin in the fish's mouth (Matt. 17:22-27; Mark 9:30-32; Luke 9:43-45)*

After the Feast of Tabernacles there was a return to Galilee, but not with the intention of resuming the work of preaching. Instead, "he would not that any man should know it." This because now Jesus was concentrating on the further education of the disciples. In their minds his Messiahship was no longer in question. The Transfiguration had laid to rest all doubts regarding that.

But now it was imperative that they be prepared for the shock of seeing their Lord suffer at the hands of his enemies. His first attempt (Mt.16 :21) to teach them about this had been altogether unsuccessful. Their minds were impervious to the idea. Now the effort was renewed.

The gist of this teaching was necessarily just the same: "The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he shall rise"(Mk.) Matthew has: "the third day he shall be raised again." The two expressions mean the same. The appeal of the chief priests to Pilate shows this: "Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again. Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day. . . " (Mt.27 :63,64).

Delivered up? Betrayed?

When Jesus spoke of being "delivered up," did he mean: "the Son delivered by God into the hands of men, " or did he mean: "betrayed by one of his followers"? The language can be read with either meaning. The former finds a parallel in Romans 8 :32: "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all... " But the verb is also the same as that used many times of the Lord's betrayal by Judas. Probably Jesus intended both ideas. The imperative of Holy Scripture was strong in his mind, and not to be evaded. Probably, also, Jesus was seeking to warn Judas of the grave danger into which he was drifting. The probability is that Judas was the only one among the twelve who clearly understood the Lord's teaching about this. Since the time of the feeding of the five thousand lie knew that his Master refused all kingship of the kind the populace clamoured for. Now, this talk of inevitable failure took all the heart out of his discipleship.

The rest of the disciples would be full ol speculations as to who amongst those around their Leader was likely to "hand him over" to his enemies. "They understood not this saying, and it was hid from them, that they perceived it not" (Lk.). The suggestion of determinism here harmonizes ill with the sustained and serious efforts Jesus was making to enlighten them. So almost certainly the translation suggested into margin of the NEB is correct: "it was so obscure to them that they could not grasp its meaning,"

Even so, the general tone of their Lord’s warning upset them considerably (Mt.), but they were afraid to press their questions upon him-perhaps out of fear that their forebodings might be correct (in which case they would rather not know), or because they feared further rebuke for their "little faith" or their "hardness of heart."

It is at this point that Matthew has introduced his unique account of the tribute money paidbf a coin found in a fish's mouth. It is unlikely thati belongs here chronologically, for there is son evidence that the collection was made in Ik month before Passover. It will soon be seei, however, that there is an important link betweei these sections of the gospel story (which seem si different).

"Your teacher does pay the tribute money, doesn't he?" Peter was asked by the collectors when they returned to Capernaum. The answer was a confident "Yes", so presumably Peter ha known his master make this payment on some earlier occasion. This "tribute" was not a tax imposed by Roman overlords, but was a Jewish poll-tax payable each year to the temple, It was paid by every Jew in the Roman empire, and an elaborate system was in operation for the collection and transference of it to the temple treasury in Jerusalem.

The basis of this payment was the commandment in Ex.30 :11-16 that there be an individual payment of "half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary" by "every one that passeth among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and upward." This "offering unto the Lord to make an atonement for your souls" was to be paid on every occasion when the people were numbered, "that there be no plague among them." There was no need for this procedure to be followed each year, but the grasping men of the temple had managed to impose it on the nation as an annual affair.

For the purpose of this tax all Jews had the same standing before God. Whereas there were graded sin-offerings (Lev.4) according to the status of the individual, in this instance "the rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel."

On the first occasion when this collection was taken up after Israel came out of Egypt, from the silver coins with which the payment was made the new tabernacle was equipped with the sockets in which its acacia-wood boards stood and also with the hooks from which its curtains hung (Ex.38 :27,28). Thus the tabernacle was founded and finished in Atonement.

Who pays?

It was this half-shekel of atonement about which Peter was asked. There was no compulsion about the payment, but to render it was considered a high religious duty. Peter's utter surprise may be judged when Jesus, as on sc many occasions (Jn.2 :25), read his thoughts and spoke first to him about it - and in a fashion such as he had not expected: 'You know well enough, Simon! Do earthly kings extort taxes from their own family or from outsiders?' Peter, a Jew to the core, answered with feeling: 'From strangers, of course. Look how the Romans treat us Jews!'

'Then', argued Jesus, 'ought we to be paying a tax to God in heaven? Does not the acceptance of such a burden imply that whoever pays it is really a stranger from God, a foreigner, from His point of view? But you and I, Peter, we belong to God's family. What need is there for us to pay atonement money?' So Jesus and Peter could regard themselves as already atoned for! The merits of Golgotha were retrospective as well as prospective!

And then, whilst Peter still groped after his Master's meaning, Jesus swung the other way. There must be no stumbling-block to hinder either rulers or people from believing in Jesus. Therefore, although a proper assessment of the situation required nothing of the kind, the payment had better be made. If word went round that Jesus or his disciples refused to pay this temple poll-tax-and with what malevolent satisfaction the Jewish leaders would help such a report on its way! - there would be such a reaction from national and religious prejudice as to make any further progress in the mission of Jesus altogether impossible. So, as a concession to the spiritual immaturity of the nation, the half-shekel was paid.

A strange fishing?

But by what a strange method! It may be taken as almost certain that the common fund of the apostolic band contained enough money to make the payment there and then, for apparently some time earlier there was enough in it to pay for the whole group eight times over (Jn.6:7).

However, instead of a simple down payment by Judas, Peter was bidden go to the lake and resume his fishing. In the mouth of the first fish caught he would find a coin adequate to pay the half-shekel for Jesus and himself. How remarkable the Lord's knowledge was here! (Ps.8:8). He knew that something would be caught, and that very quickly: the fish would have a coin in its mouth, and the coin's value would be exactly right to pay the tribute money for two.

This strange, almost bizarre, miracle stands in a class to itself - in more ways than one. The commentators, puzzled by what they deem to be freakish and grotesque, have got to work to coin explanations even more freakish and grotesque.

One of them recounts instances of valuable items of property turning up inside fish which have been caught. Another tells a legend about Solomon's signet ring in the mouth of a fish. Yet another tracks down information about a certain species of fish living in the waters of Galilee, which carries its young in its mouth and sometimes in lieu of this has been known to hold a small pebble. Says another: It looks as though some detail essential for our understanding of the incident has been left out of the narrative. One sceptic asserts: "It didn't really happen. It was just a joke on the part of Jesus," and he is supported in this by another who jibes: "A miracle for ten shillings!" (nearer £50, actually, by 1983 explosion standards). Another asserts that Peter was intended to get the needful money by selling the fish which he caught — "and a wonderful price it would be for a fish caught with a hook!" counters someone else; and in that he is surely correct, for there are no monster salmon in the waters of Galilee.

It may be safely assumed that all explanations such as these go in the wrong direction.

The sign of the fish

From the very earliest times the fish was an accepted Christian symbol. Long before the church in its apostasy appropriated the cross as its sign, the fish was prominent as an expression of faith, in the catacombs and in the earliest forms of Christian art. The reason usually assigned for this is that the Greek word for fish supplies the initial letters of the phrase: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour. This may be true, but there is probably more to it, especially where the incident under consideration is concerned.

The gospel section immediately preceding this tells how Jesus was forewarning his disciples of his impending crucifixion and death — "and the third day he shall be raised again" (Mt.17 :23). There is a clear link here with his words in the previous chapter: "There shall be no sign given unto it (to an evil and adulterous generation) but the sign of the prophet Jonah" Mt.16 :4) — salvation out of the mouth of the fish! (hence also v.22,23).

Here was the readily-understood symbol of the death and resurrection of Jesus-a divinely-provided atonement coming, so to speak, out of the mouth of the fish, and the fish dying in the process of yielding up the atonement price. Even if in process of catching the fish Peter did not discern the connection with the sign of the prophet Jonah he would surely recognize it in retrospect on a third day which brought joy unspeakable.

For whose benefit?

There are yet other overtones to this remarkable miracle. The very first of all the temptations Jesus had to face after his baptism was the suggestion (whether from within or without) that he use the divine power that was in him to seek his own comfort and well-being. To this temptation he responded with an unequivocal 'No'. Yet now, about a year before his death, he suddenly went back on this principle and worked a miracle for his own benefit. This payment of the tribute money is the only miracle of Jesus from which he himself benefitted — "the fish that first cometh up"!

The reason for this is now readily discernible The miracle was a parable of Jesus paying the vital atonement price for his disciple. But it was an atonement in which he himself needed to share! "Jesus Christ is come in the flesh", that is, with the very human nature which he came to save. This, the apostle John insists, is a most fundamental first principle (1 Jn.4 :l-3). In the very act of teaching his own redeeming power, Jesus added this other vital instruction that he too needed deliverance from this poor Adam-wrecked nature which he came to save: "Thai take, and give unto them for me and thee."

Yet even whilst Jesus so clearly bound himself and his disciple together in the same need for on atonement price, he did so with a difference. His words were not: "Give it unto them for us", but "for me and thee." The distinction here is as valuable to faith as the identification. For the one who cannot see that Jesus is different from his disciple, a Son by right (and not — as Peter was — a son by adoption), even though in nature he be like him, dishonours the one "whom God made strong for himself", the peerless Son of God, "separate from sinners."

From ancient days it stood written: "They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches; none of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him" (Ps.49 :6,7). But nowhere was one who paid in silver, but put no trust in silver; who went forward with clear vision to pay the only possible price in coin precious beyond all estimation. With this he redeemed his brother and himself. Well pleased with the payment made, "God redeemed his soul from the power of the grave" on the third day.

All this was laid up in a never-to-be-forgotten acted parable for the blessing and rejoicing of a Spirit-enlightened Peter in later days.

There was one other aspect of that experience which Peter would not forget. The atonement price was provided by Jesus, but he did not put the coin in Peter's hand. Instead the disciple had to follow his Master's bidding, in faith that it would work out as he said, and in that faith he had to exert himself personally in order to appropriate what was available by such marvellous means. The disciple of today who misses this lesson of the miracle might just as well be without the miracle altogether.

Notes: Mt. 7:22-27        

This is usually called the second warning to the disciples, but it is really the third: 16:21; 17:12, 22.

Shall be betrayed. Mk. has "is being betrayed." Judas making plans already?
They were exceeding sorry - after Jesus had foretold his resurrection! This suggests that they had begun to grasp the message about his sufferings but did not understand his talk about resurrection. "It was hid from them"(Lk.9:45).
Came to Peter. So even outsiders had come to regard Peter as the chief of the apostles.
Strangers. The argument also implies that now Israel, paying the tax, were really no better than Gentiles in God's sight.
Lest we cause them to stumble (RV). The important lesson here is: In all non-essentials make every possible concession; Mk.9:39; Rom. 14:1; 1 Cor.9:20.

That take and give to them. Fisherman Peter would, of course, be sorely tempted to go on fishing. But no! in this experience of the grace of God there can be only one fishing and only one atonement price paid.

For me and thee What about the other eleven? Was the quarrel behind Mt.18 :1 an outburst of indignation against the priority so often accorded to Peter?

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