Matthew’s account of Jesus, Peter and their miraculous payment of the Temple tax is a classic literary puzzle. Providentially, the Bible’s own covenant-literary matrix is its key.
Firstly, the big picture. The story of the coin from the mouth of a fish (Matthew 17:24-27) is the “Firstfruits” of a greater cycle.1See The Shape of Matthew – 3. It follows a “Passover” stanza (Matthew 17:22-23) in which Jesus foretells His death and resurrection:
is about to be betrayed (LAND)
into the hands of men, (WORLD) (Ascension/Presentation)
Since each new “festal” section seems to begin with a reference to travel or location, this stanza is a stand alone step in the pattern. It does, however, enjoy a “fractal” expansion of its Levitical step into the triune architecture of the world as represented in the Tabernacle. (This has been observed in other passages as well.) Jesus is the son of Man, that is, Adam, in the Garden sanctuary, representing the entire world before God. He will be betrayed by a brother, just like Abel, in the Land. He will suffer at the hands of the Gentiles, the wild “waters” of the nations.2This is perhaps why the Altar in Ezekiel’s Temple is a three-stepped ziggurat. At this point in Israel’s history, the “Land” upon which God’s attention was focussed was the oikoumene, a Gentile territory in which the Jews served as priests and prophets. See Esther in Ezekiel’s Temple. Jesus speaks at Division and is raised up at Conquest, vindicating His Word. But the disciples, like Adam, like Israel, fail to enter into His rest in line 7.
What follows this Passover stanza at Firstfruits is a wonderful, if puzzling, passage, which incorporates the Ascension themes of the Bronze Altar and Golden Table, the firstfruits and firstborn, the Temple and its tithes, and the division between the Land and the Sea on Day 3. With these in mind, the purpose of Jesus — and indeed Matthew, concerning its literary location — is rich, crafty, and marvellously ironic.
The story itself is at the third level of the fractal structure of Matthew’s Gospel, and its internal structure is a fourth level. It follows the fivefold Covenant structure, a mystery yet unopened into a sevenfold mandate through fulfilment of the triune office. (The seven-sealed scroll appears at Ascension in the Revelation.)
The Teacher is called to pay the tax (Genesis)
Division between sons and strangers (Exodus)
Purification of the sons (Leviticus/Numbers/Deuteronomy)
Inheritance of the sons (Joshua)
Rest, riches and rule (Judges)
In the Genesis stanza, Jesus is the true king who must first humble himself before God as a priest. This is where Adam failed. In the Exodus stanza, the theme of God’s favour of Israel as His “firstborn” comes to the fore. In the center (in the wilderness), the true sons are threshed from among the chaff, that is, those who are Egyptians at heart from those who truly follow Yahweh. The focus has shifted from circumcision of flesh to circumcision of heart, just as it did under the Law of Moses. The Joshua stanza moves to the overflowing waters, the riches of the Gentile “sea.” Finally, Judges brings dominion over the nations, even though both Adam and Israel failed to truly enter into God’s rest. Instead of the promised dominion over the beasts, both were dominated by beasts. With Jesus, this would no longer be the case.
The matrix thread which shines here is that of sacrifice. Notice the wonderful symmetry. The didrachmas (Temple tax) appear at Division/Passover and Conquest/Atonement, that is, man under oath (obligation) and man fulfilling the oath (investiture). The picture is that of the Lord’s angels coming to exact payment for the sin of Adam, that is, cutting of his Succession via a curse upon the land and the womb. The question is this: Is Jesus a Cain or an Abel? Peter is the “rock,” in the place of the Altar at Ascension, and Jesus is the wise elder at the Incense Altar at Maturity.
Israel’s festal structure now comes to the fore. The mention of the house alludes to Passover. At Ascension, Peter is referred to now as Simon (“He has heard”), being a Jew who has heard the shema (“Hear, O Israel,” external law) and is now required to respond with wisdom (internal law). The kings appear at Pentecost (Kingdom) and the tribute appears at Trumpets (Prophecy), since the maturity step relates to the plunder and plagues, and the tribute paid by Israel’s fighting men at this particular feast. It also gives us the first clue concerning the purpose of the fish, since fish were created along with birds on Day 5 (Maturity). The stanza ends brilliantly, with the fruit of the Land and the womb protected from judgment by the High Priest at Atonement and the strangers gathered with Israel at Booths.
Identifying the literary structure reveals the mind-boggling depth of this simple statement. Jesus puts the strangers at the point where circumcision of flesh usually appears, and the freedom of the sons at the point where baptism usually appears. Jesus is not talking about a division of the sons of Hagar (Egypt) and Sarah (Canaan) according to the flesh. He is talking about a division of the sons of Abraham according to the Spirit. The “strangers” here are not Gentiles, but Jews with uncircumcised hearts. Thus, the “sons” are now those from among the Jews and the Gentiles who hear and believe the shema of the Gospel.3For more discussion, see my comments on Galatians 4 in The Shape of Galatians. Succession under the New Covenant is a matter of Spirit, not flesh.
This stanza corresponds to the payment of the obligation to God, and the Day of Atonement. The Jewish collectors who might take offence at Jesus’ freedom appear at Division. Peter is commanded to go from Land to Sea at Ascension (Day 3) for a different kind of firstfruits, the first “fish” of many. The hook at Testing is clearly the Gospel, the New Covenant Ethics. The initial plunder of the Gentiles (Maturity) is a fish, not a lamb. Note also that in the Tabernacle pattern, the Laver/Sea appears at this step, joining the other purifying mediators, the priesthood and the sacrifices. The disciples’ baptisms in the Jordan removed their obligation to the Law of Moses. They were now free from its curses (1 Peter 3:21).
The final step concerns deconsecration from priestly obligation (via symbolic or actual death) and subsequent enthronement with Christ as a legal representative (priest-king). This is, after all, the order of Melchizedek. What is interesting here (and invisible in some translations) is that the coin in the mouth of the fish is not the same as that required by the collectors. They requested a didrachma, a Greek silver coin worth two drachmas, the charge for each man in this particular priestly poll. But here Jesus refers to a statera, which was worth four drachmas. Not only is this plunder from the sea possibly a reference to “Charon’s obol,” a coin placed in or on the mouth of a corpse before burial as a provision for the journey into death, payment for the ferryman who carried the dead across the river of woe,4The Wikipedia entry for Charon’s Obol is a fascinating read. the single coin paid for both Peter and Jesus, and via Jesus’ death they are united, enthroned together, in line 7 (Matthew 19:28). The first “payoff” for this sign is the miraculous haul of fish and reference to Peter’s martyrdom in John 21.
Silver coins and a double witness are frequent symbols of resurrection in the Bible, including Israel’s two silver trumpets (Numbers 10:2). This sign was given by Jesus to renew the trust of the disciples in His Word, especially concerning His coming resurrection. The coin in the mouth of the fish restored their hope. Not only would Jesus rise miraculously, like Jonah from the “abyss” of the raging sea, and testify to the nations who would repent like the Ninevites, He would also be their “boat fare” for that final journey through the waters of death, as pictured in their baptisms. The Gospel of Christ is the testimony of living sacrifices, a legal testimony and united confession from the lips of the dead.
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|1.||↑||See The Shape of Matthew – 3.|
|2.||↑||This is perhaps why the Altar in Ezekiel’s Temple is a three-stepped ziggurat. At this point in Israel’s history, the “Land” upon which God’s attention was focussed was the oikoumene, a Gentile territory in which the Jews served as priests and prophets. See Esther in Ezekiel’s Temple.|
|3.||↑||For more discussion, see my comments on Galatians 4 in The Shape of Galatians.|
|4.||↑||The Wikipedia entry for Charon’s Obol is a fascinating read.|