The account of Jesus paying the temple tax is a brief story tucked away in the last part of a chapter (Matthew 17). Furthermore, it is greatly overshadowed by the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus and the healing story in the first part of that chapter. When we finally do zoom in on the story, our initial impression is that this is not the kind of miracle we’re used to finding in the gospels where people are healed or fed, demons are cast out, or storms are calmed. Instead, Jesus sends Peter fishing in order to pay their tax bill. If you took this in isolation, Jesus looks like a Galilean good ol’ boy who not only sets His buddy up to catch a fish, but they get one over on the tax man in the process.
But context changes everything. We’re in a section where Matthew has shown us Peter confessing Jesus to be the Messiah (16:16). Jesus then orders the disciples not to tell anyone this (v. 20) because they do not understand what being the Messiah means (i.e., that He must go to Jerusalem, suffer, and be killed – v. 21). When Peter protests this, the fireworks begin, and Jesus then begins to explain their discipleship as well in terms of the cross (v. 24ff).
From there we move to the Transfiguration where Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah. Through this glorious manifestation and God’s words that follow (17:5), it is clear that Jesus and His Jerusalem mission stand affirmed by the Father. (Luke’s account tells us that this is the very subject He was speaking with Moses and Elijah about – Luke 9:30-31). All of this is for the benefit of the disciples who were still struggling with the idea of a Messiah who dies rather than conquers.
With this in mind, we come to the account of Peter and Jesus. It needs to be noted that in the two verses before the story (v. 22-23), Jesus once again tells the disciples of His pending death and resurrection. “And the disciples were filled with grief” (v. 23). As it would with us, it’s going to take more time and teaching before these weighty words would sink in.
What follows in the story are many things, but at a basic level it is Jesus confirming to Peter in a very private, personal way (that Peter probably found delightful), who He is. It is not without significance that this incident doesn’t involve James, John, or any disciple other than Peter. It is Peter who confessed Christ. It is Peter who will deny Him. It is Peter who after he has stumbled and turned back, will strengthen his brothers (Luke 22:32).
And it is Peter who defends Jesus by affirming that his Master pays the temple tax. Jesus uses the occasion to not only reinforce His identity as the Son of God, but also to give Peter a lesson on kingdom authority and power. It is not to be used to exalt self but to serve others. Indeed, the entire miracle is predicated on the willingness of Jesus to submit to something He didn’t need to submit to! So, in a quiet, unassuming way that Peter would appreciate, He sends him fishing to come up with the tax for the two of them. You can see the smile on Peter’s face as he pulls the coin from the fish’s mouth.