The Coin in the Fish’s Mouth

November 29, 2016

by Vern Poythress

When reading through the Gospels, we find many miracles that have obvious correlations with the rest of Jesus’s ministry. Instances of healing express Jesus’s compassion for the sick and the demon-possessed. Yet for some miracles that connection is less clear. Consider, for example, the miracle of finding the coin in the fish’s mouth:

When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and 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 me and for yourself.” (Matt. 17:24–27)

This miracle seems to them to be more arbitrary and less related to the broader purposes of the kingdom of God. It seems to be much less helpful, or perhaps even selfish—it just conveniently supplied Jesus and Peter with money, which could less conveniently have been supplied from the common purse (John 12:6).

Resources from the King

But a closer look at the episode reveals hints of its significance. This particular episode does not focus on the miracle of the coin but on the discussion that led up to the miracle. “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” (Matt. 17:24). Jesus indicated that Peter and other “sons” of the king are “free.” Their status as sons made them free.

Jesus was using an analogy between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. In the kingdom of God, God is the king and the disciples are his sons. They have the privilege of intimacy with God, and this intimacy supersedes the physical temple and its need for physical maintenance. Jesus himself is the way to God (John 14:6) and the true temple (John 2:21). His name, Immanuel, means “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). The disciples have intimacy with God through him. God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13–14).

So, concluded Jesus, his disciples, as sons of the kingdom, are “free.” But if, to avoid offense, the sons wish to pay anyway, God the king has plenty of resources that he gives to his sons. The miracle has a double symbolic significance. First, it confirms Jesus’s claim that he has a unique status as Son of God. It implies also that his followers through their relationship to him inherit an analogous status. They too are sons, because of their relationship to him. Second, the miracle shows that God can supply directly whatever resources are appropriate. “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19).

The coin in the fish’s mouth anticipates the climactic supply of blessing through the death and resurrection of Christ.

All resources in the world belong to God, theologically speaking. But a miraculous provision from God underscores the privilege of sonship. It displays more vividly the bounty of God’s resources and his willingness to supply them to his sons. The lesson is similar to what Jesus gives when telling his disciples to seek first the kingdom of God:

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matt. 6:31–33)

A dramatic reiteration of this principle was appropriate in the context of the temple tax. The temple was the temple of God. As such, it foreshadowed Christ, whose body is the temple (John 2:21). And subordinately it foreshadows the intimacy with God and access to God that the “sons” of the king receive by virtue of receiving sonship through Jesus, the unique Son of God.

The miracle is thus a miracle speaking of divine resources given to the sons of the king of the universe. It anticipates the climactic supply of blessing through the death and resurrection of Christ. The ultimate “resources” are the riches of salvation in Christ.

The passage applies to us who have been adopted as sons of God through faith in Jesus. We are sons of the king. We have intimacy with God and an amazing status, not by our own merit but through fellowship with Jesus, who is the unique Son of God:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Gal. 4:4–7)

The passage also implies that those who are still outside of Christ should come to him to become his adopted sons.

This piece is adapted from Vern Poythress, The Miracles of Jesus:How the Savior’s Mighty Acts Serve as Signs of Redemption (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2016), 213–216. Used with permission of the publisher.

Read More On gospels, Jesus Christ, miracles

Vern Poythress

Dr. Poythress (PhD, Harvard; DTh, Stellenbosch) is professor of New Testament interpretation at WTS.

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