(A) Introduction. (Read the passage.)

It is strange that Luke, writing for the Gentiles, should deal with three religious rites belonging very much to the old dispensation. They may well seem to us very inappropriate, indeed, distasteful ceremonies to associate with childbirth. However, Luke includes them in his gospel for a purpose. They are not an irrelevance! Consequently, however reluctantly, I need to examine the circumcision and redemption of Jesus and the purification of his parents.

(B) The circumcision of Jesus.

(1) What was circumcision?

Circumcision was a small operation to the foreskin of a male child performed 8 days after birth. It was a sign of the covenant or agreement God made with Abraham. See Genesis17v10to14. The covenant God made was that so long as Abraham and his descendants practised circumcision he would be their God and Abraham would be fruitful and the father of many nations. It is highly significant that the Jews did not choose God to be their God but God chose them to be his people.

It is possible that God considered this minor operation on such an unruly member of man's body an appropriate sign because it was the means of reproduction and fruitfulness.

Circumcision was very important to the Jew because it became a rite of entry. It was a necessary procedure to become one of God's chosen people. The operation was so important it could even be performed on the Sabbath.

(2) How was Jesus' circumcision appropriate?

(a) Jesus was a Jew. He was a child of Abraham. By being circumcised Jesus identified with God's chosen people. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Jn1v11. A lot of the anti-Semitism that has occurred in Christian countries through the centuries should have been checked by the knowledge of what was owed a Jew.

(b) Circumcision was a sign of promise. God promised the man of faith, Abraham: "Through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed." Gen22v18. Jesus was the child of that promise. The words of the hymn, 'O little town of Bethlehem', are so appropriate to Christ's birth:

            The hopes and fears of all the years
            Are met in thee tonight.

(c) The rite of circumcision came to meet the need of devout parents like Mary and Joseph who intended to bring their son up in the Jewish religion. Circumcision was for them a statement of intent. It was certainly God the Father's will that Jesus was brought up a devout Jew. In Jesus own words: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them." Mt5v15.

Today, many Christian parents feel the need for a ceremony at which they express thanks for a newborn son or daughter and state their intention of bringing the child up in the Faith. This is one of the reasons why infant baptism, although wrong, is so popular. Infant dedication would serve the purpose quite as well as baptism without doing violence to the clear teaching of the New Testament about baptism.

Just as Jesus benefited from his religious upbringing in spite of its shortcomings so do we. I have just finished reading the autobiography of H.E. Bates. He was brought up in a stable, decent home by parents of principle and great integrity. Bates benefited greatly from that upbringing but he does not give Methodism much credit for making his father the man he was. As Bates grew older he rejected Methodism and all its works!

There are some aspects of my religious upbringing that I reject - a rather legalistic attitude to Sunday, Calvinist doctrine, false teaching on heaven and hell and a dogmatic insistence on the inerrancy of Scripture. However, I am eternally grateful to my Christian parents that I saw the reality of Jesus in their lives and through them I came to believe in the Saviour too. I would not have been brought up in any other way!

(3) The dangers of circumcision.

(a) There is no doubt that by the time of Christ many Jews put their faith in circumcision to make them children of God. From earliest times there was an awareness of this danger. See Dt10v12to22 and Dt30v1to10. Perhaps, this verse sums up what these passages in Deuteronomy teach: The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul and live. Dt30v6. It was much more important for a person's heart to be right with God than for a an operation to be performed on the sexual organ in infancy. Stephen recognises this in his address to his opponents before being stoned to death. He accuses them of having uncircumcised hearts - hearts that were not right with God - hearts that had no love for God.

(b) In the time of Paul Jewish Christians still considered circumcision so vital that they insisted Gentile converts should undergo the operation. Paul bitterly opposed this view because he knew that salvation depended upon faith and not on any rite whatsoever. He addresses the issue in Galatians. See Gal3v6to9 and Gal6v14to16. Paul's argument is that Abraham was accepted by God because of his faith. Circumcision was just one of the evidences that he had faith. Abraham was credited with righteousness because of his faith. Paul concludes: So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham; the man of faith. Gal3v9. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation. Gal6v15.

(c) Today there are those who hold almost identical beliefs about baptism as the Jewish Christians did about circumcision. This leads to babies being baptised into the Christian Faith. But baptism doesn't make anyone a Christian anymore than circumcision does. A legalistic attitude to baptism is as bad as a legalistic attitude to circumcision. Paul wrote: We who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. Gal2v16. So baptism follows belief even as Abraham's circumcision was an expression of his faith in God. Baptism is something that a Christian undergoes to witness to his faith not something done to a baby to make them a Christian. This is certainly Paul's conviction. He even went as far as writing to the Corinthians: For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel - not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. There is a grave danger of emptying the cross of Christ of its power whenever a legalistic attitude is taken to salvation.

(C) The presentation or redemption of the firstborn.

This was done in the Temple no sooner than 31 days after a firstborn son's birth and as soon as possible after that. In all likelihood the redemption of Jesus and the purification of his parents took place on the same day in Jerusalem.

The redemption of the firstborn was a peculiar ceremony and is described in Exodus13v1to16. The Lord told Moses: The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether man or animal. Ex13v2. The animal (unless it was a donkey) was sacrificed but a firstborn son had to be redeemed, or bought back, from God on payment of 5 shekels. See Numbers18v16.

(1) What was the point of this ceremony?

God established the rite as a reminder and acknowledgment that before the Israelites were set free to travel to the Promised Land the firstborn of Egypt had to die. On the fateful night of the Passover the Isralites were safe as they sheltered beneath the blood from the angel of death that struck down the firstborn cattle and sons of the Egyptians. Moses told the people of Israel that the redemption of the firstborn was: "Like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the Lord brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand. Ex13v16.

It is ironical that Mary and Joseph redeemed their son notwithstanding he was God's very own Passover Lamb that would be slain for us.

(2) Lessons:

    (a) None close to Jesus, including his mother and brothers, anticipated that it was God's will and purpose that he should die. This reminds us that we need to be very cautious before pronouncing on God's will and purpose for others.

    (b) No-one realised that Jesus' great, saving work was to bring the sacrificial system to completion. Perhaps the work we long to do, the work we like doing, the work others respect us for doing is not in God's eyes the work he values most.

    (c) Jesus had been redeemed. The redemption money paid - at some cost to his poor parents - and the law satisfied. This highlights the voluntary nature of Christ's death. He was not compelled to die by man or circumstance. Even God himself could not compel Jesus to die on the cross. Jesus freely offered himself to God as the sacrifice for man's sins.

    (d) It is good to remember and acknowledge what God has done for us. Christians should ponder their release from slavery. We too have benefited from the Passover Lamb slain for us. That is why all Christians everywhere should eat the bread and drink the wine of Communion and remember the Lord's death until he comes. See exposition on 1Cor11v17to34.

(D) The purification. See Leviticus12.

Of all the strange customs attending the birth of Jesus this was the strangest! If a woman gave birth to a son she was ceremonially unclean for 40 days. (For a daughter it was 80 days!)

Luke records: When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed .... . v8. This is odd because the Law states that only the mother is made ceremonially unclean by giving birth. Possibly Joseph considered himself unclean because he had assisted at the birth.

In order to be ceremonially clean and able once again to worship with God's people a couple needed to present a lamb at the Temple for a burnt offering and a young pigeon for a sin offering. A burnt offering was for thanksgiving and the sin offering to make atonement. It is a mark of God's grace that the more costly sacrifice - the lamb - was returned to the giver to feast on. Another instance of God's mercy is that a poor family could substitute a second pigeon for the lamb. So Mary and Joseph being poor offered to God two young pigeons.

(1) Observations.

(a) It is very puzzling that something as wonderful as giving birth to a baby should render a woman unclean. This is certainly not how we think today.

(b) What is even more perplexing is that the birth of Jesus, the holy child, God's own son, the dayspring from on high, should make Mary unclean. How does contact with Emmanuel in any way make the blessed virgin impure?

(c) The fact remains that neither Joseph nor Mary were told by special revelation that purification in their case was unnecessary.

(2) What was the point of Mary's purification.

(a) Mary, like all women, doubtless gave birth in pain. Whenever a child is born God's ancient curse is experienced: I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Gen3v16. Mary for all her virtues was not perfect. The curse remained on her. She needed to make atonement for her sins along with everyone else.

(b) Wonderful, happy, joyous times do not remove the dark stain of sin. We can, like the Larkin family created by H. E. Bates, lose ourselves in joy and happiness and feel all is well with the world. This is what Bates writes about the Larkins in his autobiography: The entire family is gargantuan of appetite, unenslaved by conventions, blissfully happy. Pop is further revealed as a passionate lover of the countryside, as ardent a worshipper at the bluebell shrine and its nightingales as he is of ma's seductive, voluptuous bosoms. He yields to no man in his warm, proud love of England. All is 'perfick'.

But of course it isn't. No amount of bliss can remedy our fallen natures. Hanging over all of us, however delightful our lives, is the threat of death. So the act of purification, following as it does a joyful event, is a reminder of the worm that blights, our indwelling sin that leads inevitably to death.

(c) The holy child born of Mary, the boy king, the fairest of ten thousand, was himself to become unclean. He was made sin for us. Maybe the ceremony of purification anticipated those few hours when Jesus shared our falleness and our estrangement from God.

(E) Conclusion.

The old ceremonies of the Law remind us that:

(a) However good life is it cannot remove the need for cleansing.

(b) Sinful men and women have to rely on God's grace for deliverance

(c) God's grace, like the covenant with Abraham, is made effective through faith alone.