April 8, 2024

What is ‘Atonement Money’?

Exodus 30:11-16 (AMP)
Then the LORD said to Moses, “When you take the census of the Israelites, each one shall give a ransom for himself to the LORD when you count them, so that no plague will come on them when you number them. This is what everyone who is counted shall give [as he joins those already counted]: a half shekel, according to the sanctuary shekel (the shekel is twenty gerahs); a half shekel as a contribution to the LORD. Everyone who is counted, from twenty years old and over, [as he joins those already counted], shall give this contribution to the LORD. The rich shall not give more and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when you give this contribution to the LORD to make atonement for yourselves. You shall take the atonement money from the Israelites and use it [exclusively] for the service of the Tent of Meeting, so that it may be a memorial for the Israelites before the LORD, to make atonement for yourselves.”


Ashley Bassoppo-Moyo

Missions & Outreach Pastor

What does taking a census, paying ransom, and establishing a memorial have to do with one another? That question can be posed as we arrive in Exodus chapter 30, a text full of instruction that may seem foreign to our time, with terminology such as the sanctuary shekel and atonement money. What is this Scripture saying, and what can we receive from it as it relates to our time and standing before God in this dispensation?
This portion of Scripture can easily get passed over without much thought, but if we commit to sitting in it and digging just a bit deeper, we can quickly come to see there is actually great significance in these words for the believer today. One major element of many of the texts we are currently reading through is a structure of how reunification with God works. In this passage, we can see the introduction of the need for the ransom of mankind.

The ransom is the same for all - despite the economic background one came from or the giftings one could surmise they carry, the price for atonement was the same. Atonement appeases the wrath of God by paying the price for the debt owed, the price of sin. And as we know, the wages of sin is death - or, quite literally, the payment due for sin is death.
So here, we once again see the imagery of a payment, or wage, needing to be paid in God’s economy. Sin has separated man from God, and if given its due course, sin will lead to death and eternal separation. Through the giving of atonement money, payment was made to appease the wrath of God. Yet, this was but a shadow of the full atonement to be made in Christ, because this was not eternal and lasting atonement. In fact, this atonement payment we find outlined in Exodus 30 became the very same annual “temple tax” we read about in Matthew 17:24-27.

“After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, ‘Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?’ ‘Yes, he does,’ he replied. When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. ‘What do you think, Simon?’ he asked. ‘From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?’ ‘From others,’ Peter answered. ‘Then the children are exempt,’ Jesus said to him. ‘But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.’” (NIV)

Several very significant things are happening in this Scripture - Jesus, the permanent ransom payment for us, the final and lasting atonement payment, has arrived on the scene, and as the Son of God, He is exempt from needing to pay for atonement.

The temple tax has doubled in cost from that quoted to the Israelites in Exodus 30, and the equivalent of one full shekel is due, instead of a half-shekel. Jesus steps in and covers Peter’s atonement cost, in addition to the price asked of him, through supernatural means (coin in the mouth of the fish, for the exact, full price needed). Due to the doubling from the original price of one half-shekel, Jesus is paying the atonement price four times over.

Remarkable meaning can be read into this, as four in the Bible signifies creation, completeness, and God’s divine plan for the structure of all created things. From what takes place on day four of creation to the four cardinal points and four corners of the earth, many scholars have agreed on the meaning found in the way God ordered the earth, and here we see Jesus stepping in and paying the ransom payment four-fold, for the atonement of the world and it’s four corners. He came to make total atonement for all.

Back to Exodus.

But what is it about a census, and a plague?
Throughout the Old Testament, we see it was very important for man to be careful of how they counted what they had going for them, so to speak. King David brings wrath and judgment upon Israel in 1 Chronicles 21 when he is moved by Satan to take a census, for which the consequence is in the form of a plague. King David is not counting on the strength of God to sustain Israel but the strength in numbers, a warning through which we can understand Exodus 30. While this census was ordered by the Lord, the heart stance of the Israelites needed to remain humbled and in view of their brokenness apart from God; something that atonement before God covers.

And finally - why would the paying of atonement serve as a memorial? Because when we realize atonement has been made, we can’t not recognize how that impacts us every day. Through the atonement offering and the specified usage of that funding for service to the Lord, the Israelites could be reminded of the way God had made for their brokenness to be covered, their guilt and shame atoned for, and their life to be found in Him. Likewise, through the lasting atonement Jesus has paid for us, the one-price-for-all ransom paid, we should erect in our own hearts a memorial upon our own acceptance of the gift of salvation of the life-changing covering of our own lives. Today, let us recognize and celebrate in the paid price for our sins and a life found in Him and Him alone.

For Further Study:
Theopolis Institute: Jesus, the Temple Tax, and Four-Fold Atonement
Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary

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