Luke 2:21-24 “On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived. When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord’), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons’.”
When she was a little girl her mother brought her to church, but there was always a barrier she put up between herself and the congregation. At the earliest opportunity, when she was in her mid-teens, she stopped attending church. She got a job and lived like a modern girl, not keen on the institution of marriage or having a family. That was as old-fashioned as worshipping the living God, but then she fell in love with a kind man and she moved in with him. However, after a time that relationship of ‘living together’ didn’t satisfy them. They got married, and then when her sister had children and she saw babies close up her early opinions about not wanting to be a mother also changed, in fact her views about many things began to change as she matured. She watched her mother who had gone through a number of great crises and yet kept trusting in God. She couldn’t have got by, her mother told her, without knowing that Lord was in control and was helping her day by day. The daughter saw that, how her mother was given strength outside herself by the Lord, and she found herself praying, praying for motherhood in particular. Then she started to go to church each Sunday with her husband, and then they did become parents. A month or so ago she made a profession of faith that she had become a Christian and she got confirmed. I had sowed and watered for many years and in his time God gave the increase.
There is a longing in every heart to know God, and when this is joined with a longing for other great realities, like a life-long marriage to someone who loves you, and for children then your yearning after God grows. God has said that it is not good for man to be alone. When God gives you children you have enormous new responsibilities. How are you going to raise them? Are you going to put a barrier between them and their knowing the living God by your apathy and ignorance? Are you going to say to them, “God is unimportant and unknowable”? Or will you help them to know and serve God in a way you yourself have not been knowing him?
In our text we are told of the response of Joseph and Mary to the arrival of their new born baby boy, and that is what we are going to study today. What attitudes should be displayed by a young husband and wife to honour the Lord in dealing with their children? I am going to look at their attitude through the prism of four or five words and events mentioned in verses 21 through 24.
1. CIRCUMCISION: JOSEPH AND MARY HAD JESUS CIRCUMCISED.
We are told, “On the eighth day . . . it was time to circumcise him” (v.21). In other words the eighth day in Jesus’ life – as it was for every Jewish boy – was the prescribed day for circumcision. God required it; he had said in Leviticus chapter twelve and verse three, “On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised.” So if Joseph and Mary were going to be God-fearing parents then they had to start right by doing everything that God said, trusting and obeying Jehovah. That was the beginning of wisdom and the beginning of blessed parenthood. So they had their darling baby boy circumcised, and Joseph himself would have had to do it; it was not for some centuries that rabbis took on the responsibility of circumcising baby boys. Eight days earlier young Joseph had had to assist Mary in giving birth to Jesus in the stable cave. There was no one else there but Joseph to help his wife in childbirth. Now he had to circumcise the baby; he had to do it. Think of it! You are holding in your arms your tiny adorable newborn son. Maybe you are twenty-one years of age, and now you are going to get the razor out and circumcise your son! Joseph had been told just how important this baby was – Christ the Lord, the Son of the Highest! Would you sleep the night before you were to do this? You’d pray together, your wife and yourself, and you’d ask God to help you, to stop your hand from trembling. You wouldn’t be aware of one interesting fact, that God has so designed the human body that around the eighth day of life the blood clotting factor is the highest, but you did know that circumcision was done to every single Jewish baby boy, with no fatalities, as it had been done to you, and God required it.
Why had it to be done? Jesus had to be circumcised for a number of reasons. It was a welcoming ceremony for every Jew; it said that this baby boy was welcome in the covenant community of Israel. A person circumcised was uniquely aware that he was of the seed of Abraham, and that Jesus was also the lawful, circumcised son of circumcised David. There were privileges that came from this; for example, Jesus couldn’t have been accepted as a teacher in Israel unless he’d been circumcised. There’d have been no possibility of him standing in the Temple courts and crying to the crowds of people hanging onto his words, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” (Jn.7:37&38). An uncircumcised Jesus could have had no admission to any lawful Jewish assembly. He couldn’t have preached in a synagogue. He’d have been regarded by the Jews as an uncircumcised Gentile, an apostate from the faith of the patriarchs. By circumcision he had a right to the national privileges of Israel.
Again, submission to circumcision was saying that this child was born under the law of God, and as Jesus had begun so he would go on. Jesus’ whole life was going to be one of fulfilling all righteousness in keeping God’s commandments. Please grasp this, because it will be life for you; it’s going to be that righteousness of Christ, worked out in his daily obedience, which is going to save everyone who believes. The great champion of historic Christianity in the last century was Dr. J. Gresham Machen of Philadelphia and in the 1930s he was asked a couple of times to preach on the radio a series of broadcasts. In fact there were two series of messages, one called The Christian Faith in the Modern World and the other The Christian View of Man. Dr. Machen’s academic specialty was as Professor of New Testament, and he needed help in a better understanding of the theology of the Bible to broadcast it all over Philadelphia. He got this wisdom through a young Scotsman called John Murray. Dr. Machen was especially enlightened by Mr. Murray to understand how we are saved not only by Christ dying for us on the cross but by living for us, actively obeying God on our behalf. Of course our sin is imputed to Christ on Calvary, but also the daily righteousness of the God-man is imputed to us who believe in him; we are made the righteousness of God in Christ. Gresham Machen saw that truth as he had never seen it before and experienced the wonderful comfort it brings.
In late December 1936 Dr. Machen said good-bye to John Murray as he went out by train for a week to the freezing heartland of America, the state was north Dakota and it was mid-winter. Dr Machen went there at the request of a preacher who was trying to bring his muddled little congregation to understand and accept the teaching of the Bible and resist modernism. Dr. Machen was not a fit man going there but he couldn’t turn down this request for help and disappoint an old student. So he went, and as soon as he arrived there he fell ill with pneumonia and pleurisy. The day before he died, still only in his fifties, he sent a telegram to John Murray which told Mr. Murray what his hope was founded on as death was coming near. The telegram read, “I am so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” Our hope is that Jesus Christ fulfilled all the righteousness God demands from us. We are saved by his righteousness not our own.
Why am I telling you this moving story? Because we are seeing the very first evidence of Christ’s obedience to the law, and his fulfilling the righteousness which we fail to fulfil. We see it here in Jesus’ submission to the rite of circumcision. God said in his word, “On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised,” and we must notice that God’s law was kept by Joseph, Mary but especially Jesus who fulfilled the ceremonial law in our place. So in accepting this pain Jesus declared that henceforth his life was going to be one of fulfilling all our righteousness by keeping the law on behalf of every one of his people.
But there was even more significance to circumcising a baby boy besides it being a sign of his Jewishness, and that he was living under the law of Jehovah. Circumcision was a sign of regeneration; God was saying by this sign to the people of God during their state of childhood under the old covenant dispensation, “As a people your greatest need is a circumcised heart. Sin has put its roots down and down into your innermost beings and it’s stopping you loving the Lord with every bit of your hearts. Circumcision is a sign that that sinful attitude has to be cut out of your lives in a great definitive act of renewal.” We’d say that this sign of circumcision in the Old Testament period pointed to the fulfillment and reality of a new heart during the New Covenant. So the question we have to ask is obvious, why should Jesus – of all people – have to be submitted to this? He had no need of his heart being circumcised because he never had any sin – even as a baby. He wasn’t born in sin or shapen in iniquity. Mary did not conceive him in sin. He was from his begetting God’s holy child Jesus. So what spiritual need was there of his being circumcised? Doesn’t it deny his perfection?
No, it shows us Jesus’ mission in life from a week old. It shows us why he came from heaven to the womb of Mary. Circumcision declared Jesus’ solidarity with us. Christ has taken a sinner’s religion along with all the other baby boys who were submitted to circumcision that month all over Israel. Thirty years later our Lord will stand in a line of sinners waiting to be baptized by John in the river Jordan. Two people in front of him there stands a man who used to hit his wife. The man directly in front of him was a thief. The man behind him is a drunkard, and the man behind him is a liar, and the man behind him a blasphemer, and these sinners have all come to repentance for their sin, and now they are confessing their sins and they’ve known God’s forgiveness. They are waiting to be baptized by John in the river Jordan. And there in the midst of this long line of confessing sinners is the holy and sinless Son of God, Jesus the Messiah, the one who again is showing us that he has taken a sinners’ religion and is standing in solidarity with them.
There was a missionary working in the Hawaiian Islands named Joseph Damian. He preached to a colony of lepers, lovingly and faithfully serving and pastoring them for years. Then one day he spilt some hot water on his foot but he couldn’t feel anything. He touched his foot but his foot couldn’t feel his probing finger. Joe realized that he also had contracted leprosy. He went to church that morning and began his sermon not with the words “My fellow believers . . .” but, “My fellow lepers . . .” Now he could identify completely, utterly and totally with his congregation. I am saying that at the moment of our Lord’s circumcision we first meet Jehovah Jesus, the God of the Bible, identifying with us as one who has been made in the likeness of sinful flesh, humbling himself to death, even the death of the cross. God was willing to come so low to raise us, not a God pulling puppet strings, not a God simply spectating our agony but one who submitted to bloody circumcision, who sweated drops of blood and threw himself onto the ground and prayed in agony. That is the God who comes close to us and understands us.
So here is the week old baby Jesus bleeding after his circumcision, and crying with pain. When a hymnist wrote a Christmas carol with the line “but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes,” he surely was referring to the absence of petulant, selfish, ego-endorsing crying. When babies cry they can be communicating that they are in pain, or that they are hungry, or wet, or cold, and that isn’t sinful, it’s human. So Jesus at eight days was already into the pain and bloodiness of fallen human existence. The blood of Mary’s boy-child is being shed. His life begins with bloodshed. It ends with bloodshed. Down and down and down our Lord was willing to descend for our salvation. So the first thing we are told was Jesus’ circumcision.
2. IDENTIFICATION: JOSEPH AND MARY GAVE HIM HIS NAME JESUS.
We are told, “he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived” (v.21). My daughter and her husband have chosen the name for their unborn son and they’ve prayed for him by name every day for weeks ever since a scan revealed that the baby was a boy. His date of birth is not for another five or six weeks. When we ask them, “So what’s his name?” They say, “We’re not telling you that yet. We want to have something with which to surprise you in November.” Now you will remember that Jesus’ parents did not choose his name, that both to Mary (as recorded in Luke chapter one and verse thirty-one), and to Joseph on a separate occasion (as recorded in Matthew chapter one and verse twenty-one) they were told separately by messengers from God that the name of the child was to be ‘Jesus.’ It was God’s chosen name for his own Son. In a sense the name of every one of us was chosen by God, wasn’t it? He is the ultimate first cause for everything, and so, though some of you may not be very fond of your names, God did have some part to play in permitting your parents to make that choice, and it is good to think of your name, its choice and its meaning as one given you by God. Let me give you two illustrations of people considering their names. At a time when John Bunyan began to feel the power of the written word and his books were spreading all over the country he was rearranging the letters of his name. He came up with “NU HONY IN A B”. That was the effect of God’s grace in his life. The new sweetness of the divine mercy had totally transformed Mr. B.
Again the father of Mary Steele (a relation of the hymn-writer Anne Steele) gave his six year-old daughter a book and wrote inside the cover this acrostic;
My God, my refuge and delight,
Attend my humble cry;
Remember I’m a sinner great,
Yet Thou canst me supply.
So shall I love and live Thy praise,
Till I resign my breath;
Eternally adore Thy name,
Ev’n now and after death.
Lord, lead me by Thy Spirit still,
Ev’n guide me to Thy holy hill.
So God chose the name ‘Jesus.’ He could have given his Son the name ‘Moreh’ meaning ‘teacher’ because Jesus was the most inspiring teacher that this world has ever heard. Or God could have given him the name ‘Mehlech’ meaning ‘king’ because Jesus had power over creation, over men, over demons, over disease and over death itself. Supreme authority was his, but neither was he named ‘Mehlech.’ God passed by titles like that and he selected a name which speaks of deliverance, grace and help for lost men and women. He was named ‘Jesus,’ and that name means ‘Saviour’, or ‘He saves’, or ‘Jehovah the Saviour,’ or ‘the Lord saves.’ This is how he principally wants to be known, as the Redeemer of men and women.
There is no Saviour like him on earth or in heaven; there is no Saviour who has achieved what he has achieved; there is no Saviour who has earned the exaltation he has earned; there is no Saviour doing what he is doing today. He is the unique Saviour because he has done the impossible. By his life and death he has saved us (past tense) from the condemnation of sin by taking that condemnation in our place. He is saving us (present tense) from the power of sin by actually indwelling us and giving us strength to resist sin changing us year by year. He will save us (future tense) from the very presence of sin because when we see him then we shall be like him, totally freed from sin. He has taken the supreme responsibility for the salvation of all his people – and they are more in number than the stars of heaven – from the beginning to the end he saves. His name will always be ‘Jesus’ and so Charles Wesley says,
“Happy, if with my latest breath
I might but gasp His name:
Preach Him to all. And cry in death
Behold, behold the Lamb!”
Jesus is the one and only Saviour. There is none other name under heaven given amongst men whereby we must be saved. The folly of our human nature is that it wants to put something else alongside Christ in our salvation; “Jesus does a part, but I do my part too.” Our very nature itches to make some contribution to our salvation, towards what I call “Jesus plus.” But your name is not ‘Jesus’; that is his name uniquely. He alone is the Saviour. My salvation before God is not in the least dependent upon myself or anyone at all except Jesus only. All by himself he became the Lamb of God and he suffered and bled alone. When you stand before God in that tremendous day Jesus, as the only Mediator, will present your soul unblemished and complete to his Father. He will do it and he will do it without any assistance from man. Christ only for your salvation. Rest your confidence where it must rest. When you sin then grieve for it please, but don’t think that your grief must be added to Jesus’ salvation. When you witness for him speak wisely please, but don’t think that your boldness must be added to Jesus’ salvation. Remember that just as your righteousness can never make Christ’s righteousness any better, so your sin can never make Christ’s righteousness any worse. If you are clothed in Christ’s righteousness, even though you see yourself black with sin, you may stand now, and stand at the Judgment Day, and say I have a Saviour who lived and died for me, and that fact will see you through. Please be always abounding in the work of the Lord Jesus, and be happy to be a mere disciple of Christ, but don’t do those things to be safe. Your good works add nothing whatsoever to the work of Christ’s salvation. It is Christ who died. It is Christ who rose and now lives in heaven and in you. It is Christ who is at the right hand of God, and it is Christ who makes intercession for us and so saves us to the uttermost when we come to God by him. The parents identified their baby as ‘Jesus,’ the Saviour. Is he your Saviour? Let’s not be content to be church attenders, or admirers of Jesus, but let’s make sure that he knows us and we know him who is the Deliverer from the guilt and power of sin and Redeemer from Satan’s bondage. Let’s make sure we can say, “The Saviour from God is my eternal friend.” The third word, what is that?
3. PURIFICATION: JOSEPH AND MARY PURIFIED THEMSELVES.
We are told, “the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed” (v.22). What’s all this about? Again it was an Old Testament ceremonial requirement found in the book of Leviticus chapter twelve; “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Say to the Israelites: A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over’” (Lev. 12:1-4). Now you may complain about this being in the Bible, that it is boring, that it is anti-women or demeaning to women, and that it is irrelevant to us today, but let me say a word in its defence and about its relevance to all of us.
By this law, and many like it, the children of Israel were being taught some simple lessons about living pure lives (remember that during this Old Testament time they were, as it were, in the childhood of their faith). “The God you serve is a pure God and he wants you to live a pure life.” That was the basic lesson. Those of you who’ve read the Old Testament through from Genesis chapter one onwards have often met these teachings about cleanness and uncleanness in the first five books of Moses. For example, there were rules about what happened if you had skin disease, or bodily discharges, or if you touched unclean things, or ate unclean foods. Then you had to purify yourself ceremonially, wash yourself and make a sacrifice because of this contact. So Mary had had a baby and Joseph had assisted her in the birth, and that might be the reason Luke writes about the time of their purification, not just Mary’s. Or Luke might be referring to Joseph’s involvement in the purification ceremony that he was the one who got the pigeons and sacrificed them for Mary. Paul explains in Colossians 2:16 and 17 that those laws are the shadow of Christ who is the substance. Every time a baby was born, or a certain time each month for women, or with other bodily discharges then Old Testament Christians had to relate them in their minds to the fascinating issue of living a pure life. If you took them in that way they became a divine teaching device. So you hear the prophet Isaiah talking to the people about their sin and saying, “But we are all as an unclean thing” (Isa. 64:6), and the people listened and they had a picture of living a clean and pure life which pleased God in all of life and everything, in what they ate, and wore, and how they washed themselves. Isaiah was exhorting them to always think of the purity of God and the pure Spirit.
So the people were taught during the Old Testament dispensation that after the birth of a baby, for forty days the mother was in this category of ‘unclean.’ Now there were some compassionate reasons for this law; it protected the woman for six entire weeks immediately after the pains and occasional tearing of childbirth from a demanding husband. He shouldn’t bother her. Let her heal! Then there is the reason of hygiene; let these weeks after the birth of the baby be a time when the mother enjoys washing and luxuriating regularly in her bath. People of two or three thousand years ago in the Middle East knew little about how essential cleanliness was when there were open wounds, but God here provides this good rule. Let the new mother spend some time washing and lying in warm water after the baby was born. God insists on this no matter if her boorish husband complains. That is the sort of God who reigns in heaven and in his church on earth, how kind and understanding he is to the needy and weak, the woman with child or to one just getting over having a child.
What is the big message of purification? Please associate our loving Lord in heaven with the fulness of life and wholeness and purity, not with death and defilement and disorder. God commands that all of life be lived under his direction, the food we eat, our monthly cycles, the birth of our children – it is all to be connected with honouring God. He was warning them at that time, “Don’t you or your husband run to the temple immediately with the newborn baby because that is what the priests of the fertility gods demand, claiming that it’s their idols who’ve caused this. Don’t give them publicity by parading a newly born baby in the temple of Baal. No! Let the weeks go by; there is no connection between worship and sex – in spite of what’s said by the Baals, the fertility cults in the nations all around Israel with their lurid priestesses. You children of Abraham are not to be like the Gentiles all around you; you are not to pick up their attitudes to women and child-bearing and their obscene temples.”
But the most important message conveyed by these laws about ritual purity is that God is pure, and man, conversely, is contaminated and unfit, in and of himself, to approach a holy God and only by the sacrifice can cleansing come to you. That is the main thrust of this teaching. Mary and Joseph needed to be purified, but they didn’t realize that the actual way of their purification lay in the baby they had circumcised, and named. So it was strange that one the one hand because of Jesus’ birth they needed to be purified, but on the other hand purification came to them only because Jesus had been born. We need purity for everything we do, and we find the mainspring of pure living in a living relationship with the Lord Jesus. What is the fourth word?
4. PRESENTATION: JOSEPH AND MARY PRESENTED JESUS AT THE TEMPLE.
We are told that after the days of purification had ended, and Jesus was six weeks old, that then, “Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord” (v.22). “Son we are taking you to your Father’s house,” Joseph might have said as he smiled down at his baby boy. They took him there that first definitive time, and they could have said to Jehovah, “Here he is, your blessed Son. Help us to care for him and put no stumbling block in the way of raising him to love and serve you.” Then to the feasts in Jerusalem a few times each year they took Jesus, and then their other children, so that Jesus became very familiar with the Temple, his true Father’s home, and knew it was his home too. You remember Hannah, the mother of Samuel presenting him at the Temple, how she had prayed long for a son, and then God heard her prayer, and soon she brought him, young as he was, to the house of the Lord and she said to Eli the priest, “‘As surely as you live, my lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the LORD. I prayed for this child, and the LORD has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the LORD. For his whole life he shall be given over to the LORD.’ And he worshipped the LORD there” (I Sam. 1:26-28). Hannah had said to the Lord, “If you should give a child to me, then I will give that child to you for all the days of his life.” That is the movement and model for every Christian parent. Children are an inheritance from the Lord, and we give them back to God to serve him all their days.
5. CONSECRATION: JOSEPH AND MARY COMMITTED JESUS AS HOLY TO THE LORD.
We are told, “(as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord’), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons’” (vv. 23&24).So here we are told the last step that these two young Old Testament parents took in presenting their first born child to God. On the fortieth day of the life of Jesus he was consecrated in the Temple to the Lord. You may not remember this, that every single firstborn son in Israel was considered to belong to the Lord, to spend his life working for the Lord in the Temple. But exemption was obtained for those firstborn by paying at the Temple five shekels’ redemption fee (except in the case of the tribe of Levi whose firstborn did give lifelong service in the Temple). That redemption price for Jesus was paid by Joseph and Mary. He was consecrated to the Lord but not to work only as a priest in the temple but to work as a prophet preaching the word all over the land, and to work as a king showing his power over creation, demons, sin and death, and especially as a priest and sacrifice laying himself on the altar of Golgotha. Here is the incarnate eternal Son of God, Jesus, and yet he was born under the law in order to redeem us from the curse of the law. That means he was born under sentence of death and he bore that sentence absolutely and voluntarily and he also satisfied the law’s demand for perfect obedience. The Son of Man came to give his life a ransom for many.
Then Joseph and Mary finally purchased the purification sacrifice for cleansing from their own impurity, and the sacrifice was the very cheapest, the kind of sacrifice poor folks bought, a couple of pigeons. What an elaborate business! Five great acts that every godly family under the Old Covenant should have gone through to present Jesus Christ to a life, not of being served, but to serve. But having children and raising a family is enormously influential. Raise up a child in the way that he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.
30th September 2007 GEOFF THOMAS