Rev. Terpstra is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Holland, Michigan.
At present in this rubric we are “taking heed to the doctrine” of Christ (Christology). Rev. S. Key has been writing on this subject from the perspective of Reformed dogmatics. As I join him in writing under this rubric, I plan to present doctrinal studies based on specific scriptural passages. For the doctrine of Christ we will consider some aspects of His life and work from the perspective of the gospel accounts. I believe we will also find these biblical studies to be rich in doctrine and will profit from “taking heed” to them.
We begin with a look at the very early life of Christ on earth, specifically the eighth and fortieth days of His life. Our passage of study is Luke 2:21-24, with consideration also given to the testimonies of Simeon and Anna concerning the newborn Christ in verses 25-38. You are encouraged to look up and read this passage before reading on (Go ahead, get your Bible!).
According to Luke 2:21 Joseph and Mary’s son was circumcised on the eighth day. This was, of course, the mandate of the Lord (Gen. 17:9ff.; Lev. 12:3). Joseph and Mary showed their faithful obedience to God’s law by seeing to this circumcision. Yet this act was much more than mere conformity to the law; it was a highly significant act, especially in Jesus’ case. First, it signified Christ’s subjection to the law: “But when the fulness of time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law” (Gal. 4:4). This subjection was not just out of respect for God and His commandments. It belonged to the heart of Christ’s mission as the Savior. He was the Second Adam, sent to be responsible to keep the law in the place of His people, who had broken that law in the first Adam. He was the Child of Israel, sent to fulfill the law for the sake of the rest of the children of Israel (i.e., the elect church), who had violated that law throughout their history. As He Himself said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). It is important to remember that circumcision was a seal of the righteousness which is by faith (Rom. 4:11). This righteousness is not ours, but Christ’s. His circumcision verifies that He came to obtain a perfect righteousness for us through His subjection to and obedience of the law.
Second, Christ’s circumcision was significant in that it marked Him as a covenant child, indeed, as the covenant Child. When God instituted this external sign, He did so in connection with the covenant He had made with Abraham and his seed (cf. Gen. 17). Circumcision was to be a concrete, visible token of the covenant between God and His people. But that covenant bond of friendship and fellowship between God and His own could not be established and realized except through the Seed of Abraham, the Mediator of the covenant of grace, Jesus Christ (cf. Heb. 8:6; 9:15; 12:24). When Abraham and his seed were circumcised, God was already pointing them to that Son of the covenant (cf. Gal. 3:16). Appropriately, therefore, when that Son is born, He is given the sign of God’s covenant. He is marked out as the One through whom God will reconcile His people to Himself and establish with them His covenant of peace.
Third, the significance of Christ’s circumcision is to be found in the fact that it pointed specifically to His saving, covenantal work as Mediator. Circumcision was a bloody sign. It involved the cutting off and putting away of a piece of the male foreskin. As such, it pictured the sinner’s justification and sanctification through the shedding of blood. He (as well as she!) needed to be justified because of his (her) guilty unrighteousnesses. He needed to be sanctified because of the presence of his sinful “flesh.” This could be accomplished only by the shedding of blood, i.e., Christ’s atoning blood. When Christ received this bloody sign, then, His saving work of justifying and sanctifying His people through the shedding of His own blood was pictured. From His circumcision we may know that He came to bear the sins of His people and “cut them away” by giving His blood on the cross. It is through the work of the circumcised Child of the covenant that we are forgiven and cleansed, and in that way given the legal right and the moral fitness to be God’s covenant children.
Fourth, the circumcision of Christ was significant because it included His naming. This is actually what the gospel writer Luke focuses on. On this eighth day the name “Jesus” was given to this baby boy. This is what Joseph and Mary had been instructed by God through His angel to call their son (cf. Luke 1:31; Matt. 1:21). Also in this name is the gospel of our salvation. For the name means “Jehovah saves,” or “Jehovah’s salvation.” This Child is none other than the revelation of Jehovah the Savior, the faithful covenant Lord come down to take on human nature in order to save His people from their sins! It is this which the aged Simeon saw by faith and gave expression to in his beautiful Nunc Dimittis: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation” (vv. 29-30). Is this also your spiritual vision of and confession concerning Him?
The second thing we wish to examine in Luke 2:21-24 is Joseph and Mary’s presentation of Christ to the Lord in the temple. This took place in connection with Mary’s purification. According to God’s law a woman who bore a man child was ceremonially unclean for a period of forty days (Lev. 12). When this time was completed, she was restored to the worship of the temple by bringing an offering for her purification (which proves that also Mary was a sinner and needed Christ for her Savior, something she herself confessed, cf. Luke 1:46ff.). It was at this time that Joseph and Mary also took Jesus with them in order to present Him to the Lord. They did this too in obedience to God’s law, for it was written, “Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord” (v. 23). The reference is to Exodus 13:2 where God said, “Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine.” God gave this directive in connection with Israel’s deliverance from Egypt through the slaying of Egypt’s firstborn. God was declaring that while He was destroying the firstborn of the wicked, He was saving Israel as His own firstborn son (cf. Ex. 4:22; Hos. 11:1). By having His people sanctify their firstborn, God was having them declare that the nation as a whole was God’s firstborn.
Because He was Mary’s firstborn son, Jesus was subject to this charge. But once again, what God said about the firstborn of Israel was fully realized in Mary’s firstborn son Jesus. He was supremely sanctified (holy) unto God. For He was set apart for and consecrated to the Lord God as the Savior who would deliver God’s true Israel, His elect firstborn, from the bondage of sin (typified in Egypt’s bondage) and from the wrath of God which he deserved (pictured in the angel of death that passed through Egypt killing her firstborn). Furthermore, Jesus was specially the Lord’s. Concerning Him God said, “He is mine,” both because Jesus was God’s only begotten Son sent into the world by God, and because only through Jesus did all the other children of God belong to the Lord. We are the Lord’s as His firstborn only because Jesus is the Lord’s as His first Firstborn. This is what was signified when Jesus was presented to the Lord in the temple on that fortieth day.
But that’s not all. In addition, this presentation of Jesus involved His being redeemed. Luke does not mention this, but it was an important part of the ceremony. According to Exodus 13:13, 15 and Numbers 18:16 the firstborn males in Israel had to be redeemed, i.e., they had to be bought back. Because they were the Lord’s, the firstborn sons had to be purchased from God by the parents at a cost of five shekels. It was this redemption which Joseph and Mary also had to make with regard to Jesus at the time they presented Him to the Lord. What we have, then, in this incident in Jesus’ life is the Redeemer being redeemed! Was this a sign of His own purpose in coming into the world? Absolutely! He came to redeem His people, to buy them out of their sin and death and restore them to the freedom of covenant family life with God. As Jesus said, He came to give His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). That was the price He would pay for our redemption—His own life on the cross. It was for this work of the Messiah that the remnant were looking, and it was of this work that Anna spoke according to verse 38.
But what a sign was this of Jesus’ humiliation too! The One who would buy us out of sin’s bondage and bring us into the glorious liberty of the children of God at the cost of His own life was Himself bought back by his parents for the price of five shekels! Our precious Redeemer was purchased for a pittance! Ponder that. And remember that this humiliation was necessary for Him to redeem us. It was precisely through His lowliness that Jesus paid our ransom and set us free. Wonderful Savior! Amazing salvation! Marvelous mercy of God! Hallelujah!