The Coin & The Covenant
Unpacking the Significance of Matthew 17:24-27
Matthew 17:24-27: 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.”
As I discussed in Part 1, the “two-drachma tax” mentioned exclusively in Matthew’s Gospel really did exist. It was noted by Josephus and other Jewish sources and was rooted in a specific command recorded in the Law of Moses (cf. Ex 30:11-16). According to Matthew, Peter was directed to pay the collectors of the temple tax with a single “shekel,” which is how most translators render the Greek word “statera,” and this would, in fact, cover the tax obligation for two men. However, as we discovered, the payment needed to be made using a Tyrian shekel, otherwise there would have been an additional surcharge for the currency exchange (which Matthew doesn’t mention). In my thinking, the use of any other coin in this situation would have the effect of ruining this particular miracle. You see, Jesus has offered to pay his and Peter’s tax with a coin hidden in the mouth of a fish. And if he had the power to do this, he surely could have ordained the fish to swallow a Tyrian shekel which would have prevented Peter from paying an extra fee.
If Peter had been “forced” to pay a surcharge, I believe this would have negated Jesus’ point about the freedom associated with sonship. Jesus’ decision to pay the temple tax wasn’t out of any sense of obligation but was done simply in order to avoid offense. Therefore it doesn’t make sense to suppose that Peter ended up paying an additional surcharge because he was obligated to do so. Consequently, I don’t think Matthew simply failed to record this particular detail. Rather, I believe the story makes more sense if the coin Peter found in the mouth of the fish was precisely what the situation called for—namely, a Tyrian shekel.
Many commentators have pointed out the irony associated with the fact that the image displayed on the front side of this coin depicts the Phonecian god, Melqart, whom the Greeks equated with Hercules, and the Canaanites identified as Baal.1 Perhaps this could be seen as a great example of the very thing Jesus was critical of when he said that the Judean authorities often “strained out a gnat and swallowed a camel” (Mt 23:24). The concern over the coin’s weight and purity appeared to be more important than the fact that the only coin authorized for payments to the temple treasury prominently displayed an idolatrous image of a pagan deity. According to Matthew 21:12, on one occasion when Jesus entered the temple, “he overturned the tables of the money-changers” and drove them out (cf. Mk 11:15 and Jn 2:14-15). Conceivably, he did this not only because they had “turned the house of prayer into a den of thieves,” but also because these men had introduced thousands of idolatrous images into the sacred courtyard of the Holy of Holies.
Now, when Peter entered his house that afternoon, Jesus decided to use this as a teaching opportunity. “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” (Mt 17:25-26). Jesus’ point was that (in those days at least) it was uncommon for a prince to find tax collectors at his door. And the analogy he provides in this brief narrative relates to his own identity as Israel’s messianic king (Mt 27:11), and Peter’s role, not merely as a royal subject, but as an adopted “son” with royal privileges.2
It’s worth remembering that the collectors of the temple tax were employed to secure the revenue to maintain the service of God’s holy sanctuary. After the construction of the first temple, Solomon prayed, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built” (1Kngs 8:27). In other words, in Solomon’s view, the newly constructed temple paled in significance to the one for whom it was built. And when in the fullness of time Jesus finally arrived on the scene, he said, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (Mt 12:6).
The collectors of the temple tax who spoke to Peter that day had no idea that the king of Israel, the one for whom the temple was built, had actually “tabernacled” among his people (Jn 1:14), and was currently residing just behind the door of that modest house there in the village of Capernaum. But in fact, this was the great king who had initially instructed the people of Israel to pay this annual tax in the first place (Ex 30:11-16), which is precisely why he had the authority to tell Peter that he was free from this obligation. After all, now that the true temple (Jn 2:19-21) had finally arrived, the building made of stone essentially had become obsolete (Jn 4:21-24, Heb 8:13).
That of course is a bold claim—which no doubt takes time to process. So in order not to offend these men, Jesus tells Peter to pay them with a coin that he’ll provide (providentially, of course—by means of curious fish). He pays the fee not out of obligation, but willingly, and even playfully. And the fact that he instructs Peter to give these men a shekel that he’ll soon discover in the mouth of a fish is clear evidence that Jesus really is the Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth.
I used to think the Mosaic covenant was in effect until the moment Jesus breathed his last and said, “It is finished” (Jn 19:30). But this scene from Matthew 17 appears to challenge that perspective. Other verses also come to mind. In Mt 11:13, Jesus says “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.” Luke puts it a little differently, “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached” (Lk 16:16). In both passages, it appears that the Mosaic covenant has already come to an end, well before the time of Christ’s death. I’m now persuaded that it officially ended at the time of Jesus’ baptism.
This helps to explain how Jesus could break the Sabbath. Now, of course, many people today argue that Jesus never did violate the Sabbath, but merely challenged the Pharisees’ interpretation of it. But in his own narration of the events of chapter 5, John makes clear that “the Jews were seeking all the more to kill [Jesus], because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (Jn 5:18).3
Of course, we should affirm that Jesus was “born under the law” (Gal 4:4), but what I’m suggesting is that Jesus lived under that law up until the time of his baptism. Note what Paul says in the previous chapter, “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian” (Gal 3:24-25). Paul didn’t say that the law served in this role until the death of Christ, but rather, “until Christ came.” Again, this is precisely what Jesus taught in Lk 16:16 when he said, “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached.” When the Gospel is proclaimed and people respond to it in faith, they become adopted members of God’s household (Jn 1:12-13, 12:36, Gal 3:26). And this new reality took effect, not after the death of Christ, but during the period of his earthly ministry.
The key point that needs to be highlighted here is the fact that the Law of Moses was temporary. It was in effect until Christ came. After all, this is what Jeremiah declared in advance when he spoke of a new covenant, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt” (Jer 31:31-32). “In speaking of a new covenant,” the author of Hebrews says, “he makes the first one obsolete” (Heb 8:13). This is why it’s important to emphasize the part of Jeremiah’s prophecy which says the new covenant will not be like the Mosaic covenant.
Paul gives a helpful analogy about the end of the Mosaic law at the beginning of Romans 7 when he says that “a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies…she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress” (Rom 7:2-3). This is why Jesus was able to tell Peter that he was “free” from the law of the “two-drachma tax.” Now that Christ had come, the reign of the law had officially come to an end. So what happened next? Did Peter become a law unto himself? No, he was united to Christ by faith, and became a son and heir through adoption (Jn 8:31-36, Rom 8:15, Gal 4:4-7, Eph 1:5, Heb 11:7). As Paul says, the fact that we are no longer under the law of Moses (Rom 6:14, Gal 4:21, 5:18) doesn’t mean we’re “outside the law of God,” since all believers are now “under the law of Christ” (1Cor 9:21).4 Though Jesus’ yoke is easy,5 it is after all, still a yoke.6
More than any other book, T. David Gordon’s Promise, Law, Faith has helped me to understand the temporary nature of the Mosaic covenant. If you’d like to listen to an interview I recorded with Dr. Gordon about this book, I’ve provided a link in the footnotes.7 Now though it’s one thing to recognize the end of the Mosaic law as a Gentile, we should stop for a moment to imagine how revolutionary this concept would have been for a first-century Jew. Perhaps, it could be argued, this is why even a decade or so after Jesus’ crucifixion, Peter appears to be shocked when God specifically authorizes him in Acts 10 to eat non-Kosher food.
I also think it’s important for us to notice the fact that Jesus didn’t end up causing a scene there in Matthew 17 by refusing to pay the temple tax. Instead, he simply went ahead and paid it anyway, even though he was under no obligation to do so. If you think about it, this is similar to the point Paul makes in Romans 14 and 1Corinthians 8 when he cautions all believers to be careful not to offend the consciences of those who are weak in faith, particularly when it comes to the things we eat, which holy day we honor, etc. (Rom 14:1-6, Col 2:16-17). In short, we should never use our freedom in a way that causes others to stumble.
Having said this, we must also be on our guard against those who end up taking offense to various aspects of our freedom, not because they are weaker brothers, but because they are proud legalists. In Matthew 15, the disciples approached Jesus saying, “Did you know that the Pharisees were offended by your teaching?” Jesus simply responded by saying, “Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit” (Mt 15:12-14). It is in this context that we should remember Paul’s stern warning to the Galatians that it is “for freedom that Christ has set us free—stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery!” (Gal 5:1).
Shane Rosenthal is the founder and host of The Humble Skeptic podcast. He was one of the creators of the White Horse Inn which he also served as host from 2019-2021, and he received an M.A. in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary in California.
For more information about the images on this coin, click here. In an article published in Bible & Spade titled “Coins of the Bible,” Stan Hudson writes, “The didrachma and tetradrachma (actually stater) are references to silver coins from the city of Tyre, used in the business of the Temple…Ironically, the coins bore the image of Israel’s old nemesis, Baal” (BSP, 9:3-4 Summer-Autumn, 1980), p. 92.
This wasn’t a special honor given exclusively to Peter but is the privilege of all those who are united to Christ by faith (cf. Jn 1:11-13, 8:34-36, and Gal 4:1-7).
Jesus was able to do this because a large part of the Sabbath command was actually ceremonial. In his essay, “Against the Sabbatarians,” Martin Luther says that “the form in which Moses frames [the Sabbath command] and adapts it to his people was imposed only on the Jews” (Luthers Works Vol 47, p. 89-95). Similarly, Calvin writes that “there can be no doubt, that, on the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, the ceremonial part of the [Sabbath] commandment was abolished” (Institutes 2.8.31). And Theodore Beza noted that “The fourth precept concerning the sanctification of each seventh day, as to the day of the Sabbath and the legal rites, was ceremonial” (cited in Turretin, Institutes, Vol. 1, p. 91). See also Francis Turretin’s Institutes, Vol. 1, pp. 85- 88).
See also James’ references to the “law of liberty/freedom” in 1:25, 2:12
It’s easy because we’re not saved by our obedience. We’re saved by Christ who calls us to obedience, and yet who also instructs us to regularly pray “Forgive us our debts.” It’s also interesting to contrast Jesus’ words from Mt 11:29-30 with Peter’s comments about the “yoke” of Moses that “none of our fathers were able to bear” in Acts 15:6-11.
See for example Is 42:4, Mt 28:20, and Jn 15:1-17. In my opinion, one of the best examples of new covenant ethics is found in Eph 4:28 when Paul says, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” In Joshua 7, Achan was put to death for stealing, but according to Paul, things have dramatically changed. Now in the new covenant, thieves are forgiven and are simply encouraged to become hard workers and gift-givers.
Click here to listen to my interview with T. David Gordon about his book, Promise, Law, Faith. I also spoke with him about “The New Perspective on Paul” a week earlier, and you can find that conversation here.
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