Exodus 30:11-16 The LORD said to Moses, 12 "When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to the LORD when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them. 13 Each one who is numbered in the census shall give this: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the LORD. 14 Everyone who is numbered in the census, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the LORD's offering. 15 The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you give the LORD's offering to make atonement for your lives. 16 You shall take the atonement money from the people of Israel and shall give it for the service of the tent of meeting, that it may bring the people of Israel to remembrance before the LORD, so as to make atonement for your lives."
As the people of Israel are wandering through the desert on their way to the Promised Land, Moses is commanded by God to take a census. As part of that census of the people, a tax is instituted. It is a payment made by all males of military age (between 20 and 50) and it showed that all Israel were reliant upon God’s presence with them through the atoning work of the tabernacle and temple. Each half shekel was to be a statement of faith and affirmation of the covenant between God and his people as represented in the tabernacle. The money from the census went toward the construction and maintenance of the tabernacle (Exodus 38:25-28).
It is important to see in this that it is not the giving of funds itself that provides atonement. Nowhere in the entire Scripture do we see that someone can purchase favor with God through money. It is only through the work of the temple in the sacrificial shedding of blood that atonement for sin can be made. Only through faith people can be reconciled to God. This money given at the time of the census was called atonement money because it represented the sacrificial mediation of the tabernacle/temple and was used for that work.
As we read through the details of this tax/redemption money, we should not look past that this tax is not a percentage of wealth. It is not a tithe. No matter rich or poor, the price is the same – one half shekel. The poor pay as much as the rich and vice versa. We cannot read this without considering what this must surely represent. The cost of atonement is the same for every believer. No matter who they were, the atoning work of salvation through the temple is the same for all.
More than 1500 years later, the temple tax was still being collected, but this time it was being collected on an annual basis rather than simply at a time of census. When those collecting the tax asked Peter whether his teacher would pay this tax, Peter said yes. Jesus did indeed pay it. Jesus didn’t pay it because he was reliant on the temple for atonement for sin. Jesus was sinless. Jesus also didn’t need to get baptized, but he allowed John the Baptist to baptize him. Jesus graciously came and lived with us as one of us. One of the amazing factors of Jesus paying the temple tax is in the way he pays it for himself and Peter. Matthew 17:27 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."
Jesus doesn’t tell Peter to go out and earn some money to pay the temple tax, but Jesus provides it in a miraculous way. Peter, a fisherman, is to put a hook in the water and pull up a fish with a shekel in its mouth and pay two portions of the half shekel tax, one for him and one for Jesus. Jesus provides the payment for atonement for Peter and it seems that it is only by faith that Peter would even consider putting a hook in the water to get a coin from a fish. The same tax with the same amount represented that the same price of atonement was made for both Peter and the wilderness people of Israel. The provision of atonement is the temple, and the temple is Jesus.
Israel knew that the coin did not pay for their sin. They relied on the bloody sacrifice as they brought an animal to be slain at the tabernacle/temple. This happened over and over as a foreshadowing of the only sacrifice that could truly, once and for all, atone for sin. The sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God. He is the One in whom the cost was priceless and paid for all who would believe. The same cost for every believer of all time is not a half shekel, it's a full Jesus.
Galatians 3:26-29 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.