In his letter to the Galatians Paul has summarised the Christmas gospel in that one glorious sentence: “When the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4,5).
It is remarkable that those two aspects born of a woman and born under the law enjoy a very different degree of interest in today’s Christmas. Many focus all attention on the first aspect, that Jesus Christ was born of a woman, and totally ignore the other, that He was born under the law.
No doubt there are several reasons for this. We tend to think that the actual historical Christmas event must be in the centre with the result that the first part of Luke 2 receives more attention than the remainder of this chapter. Added to this, what Luke writes about being born of a woman seems so much more romantic than his message about Christ being born under the law. The latter involves us in the ceremonial law of Moses, about which church people don’t know nearly enough, and which is, furthermore, considered anything but cheerful.
The trouble is, though, that this impoverishes our Christmas celebration, because we miss out on the intense comfort which Paul extends to us in the words “that we might receive the adoption as sons”. For if we pay attention to these words with their specific redemptive-historical content, they speak of the abundant grace by which the New Testament believers are favoured over and above God’s people in the Old Testament.
However, once this message of Paul has struck a chord, the believer who desires to taste the pure joy of Christmas will, as a matter of course, also devote much attention to the verses of our text, in which Christ is three times subjected to the ceremonial law: first when he is circumcised, second when he is redeemed at the temple, and third when his mother is purified.
In this article I will focus on the first—the significance of Christ’s circumcision.[i]
We read in Luke 2:21: “And when eight days were completed for the circumcision…” There you have it; that’s what the law required. That’s what Luke 1 tells us about John: “on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child”.
So that’s what happens to Jesus. After all, it was the normal thing to do, wasn’t it? Hadn’t the LORD, when He established the covenant with Abraham, given him the express command that every male had to be circumcised on the eighth day? The LORD wanted that covenant to be “in their flesh”. And He had added the serious threat that any male child who remained uncircumcised would be cut off from the people: “he has broken My covenant”. Even for a man like Moses there was no exception. Under pressure of his wife Zippora he had neglected to circumcise his second son. That’s why the LORD sought to kill him in the inn.
And so we say: that’s why Jesus also needed to be circumcised! It’s natural, we would say.
But hang on a minute! Haven’t Joseph and Mary made a great mistake here? They knew who Jesus was; they knew also what circumcision meant. How then could they do this to Him?
Shouldn’t they have thought along the lines of John the Baptist? Remember how, years later, he stands at the Jordan baptising everyone who comes to him with the baptism of repentance unto the forgiveness of sins? And then, when Jesus also came to receive John’s baptism, John refused point blank. No way! “I have need to be baptised by you, and are you coming to me?” John baptised anyone; but for that very reason he objects to baptising Jesus; for Jesus is not just anyone. John understands the situation very well: Jesus is different; He is the Messiah, and without sin. Everybody is in need of baptism as a sacrament for forgiveness, everyone – except Jesus.
But isn’t that also the situation here? Mary has heard the angel say: “that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God”. Joseph knows it as well. How come they didn’t understand that in this situation there was no need for circumcision? Was not their child the Holy One; the Son of God?
To be sure, it is commendable that they honour the sacrament of circumcision. One shouldn’t mess about with sacraments. And the timing is also important: “as soon as feasible”. It’s therefore a good thing that they don’t want to fall into sin, and come into the condemnation of Moses.
But here, in this very special case? Doesn’t it seem as though they circumcised their child simply out of custom or superstition? They were right on time; they strictly obeyed the rule of the law. But had they given sufficient thought to the meaning of circumcision? Doesn’t it look like a strict observance of a formality?
No, I don’t want to think evil of Joseph and his wife. But my question is the one that John asks: “I have need to be baptised by you, and are you coming to me?” John understood the problem. Jesus must administer baptism; for He is the Christ who earns the grace that is sealed by baptism. But if that’s the case, surely it would be impossible for Him to receive baptism!
And isn’t that also true here? Jesus is the one who has to earn the grace signified and sealed in the sacrament of circumcision! Isn’t Joseph making a big blunder by circumcising Him? The One who earns grace for others surely doesn’t need that grace Himself!
For every Christian knows that circumcision was, just as baptism is, a sacrament of the covenant of grace, a sign of the righteousness by faith. It was a guarantee of the forgiveness of sins by pure grace, obtainable only by faith. In choosing this sacrament the LORD had deliberately made use of a practice used in the ancient Far East where circumcision was common as a hygienic measure to promote physical cleanliness. He expressly used this act of physical cleanliness as a symbol and guarantee of the spiritual cleansing which he wanted to give to Israel in the covenant of grace. But can that covenant of grace now be given to Jesus. Does He who is sinless need grace? Does He need a seal of the righteousness of faith?
To ask is to answer. Of course Jesus had no need of the sacrament of the covenant of grace; no need of a sign and seal of the forgiveness of sins and renewal of life. This very act would have been a great insult for Him, would it not? It would imply that this act had the same meaning for Him as it did for Abraham and John.
And yet….Yet we must say this: although the time and act of circumcision on this occasion are the same as always and everywhere, yet its significance here is completely unique. For what was the meaning of this sacrament for every Israelite up to now? This: the LORD, Yahweh, assured him: I will be your God, and remove your guilt from you. But the background of that assurance had always been: I’m doing this on the basis of the work of the coming Christ. I want to be your Father, but only for His sake. I forgive you everything, but only because of the perfect payment which He will later give.
Every Israelite received the covenant; but only because of the legal basis which the Messiah would provide in the fullness of time.
Now the person who receives the sacrament, and the Person who gives the sacrament its content and its legal basis, had up till this moment always been totally different. All the grace poured out and sealed to every Israelite in the covenant was due to the work of Another, of the One who was to come.
And now that One has come, Jesus. And here He is being circumcised. That is to say, also to Him, the LORD in all earnestness gives the seal that he will be a Father to him; but also that He can only be a Father to Him on the basis of the work of Christ. These two aspects come together here: the person who receives the sign, and the person who is to give the sign its meaning and content, are one and the same. Jesus received the assurance that God will be his Father only on the basis of his own work.
But that means that at this moment circumcision, this most comforting gift to every Israelite, becomes something horrendous for Jesus. For to every other Israelite circumcision seals grace; but God swears to Jesus that he must work. The LORD says to everyone, and He gives the stamp of it in their flesh: I am your father because of the Other, the one to come.
But He says to Jesus—and God writes it indelibly into his flesh—I want to be your Father only on the basis of your own work. In everyone else the blood of circumcision is the divine guarantee that the Lord desires no more shedding of blood; but here it is the public confirmation that God demands Jesus’ blood. Up till then the sacrament of circumcision meant life; for the drops of blood that flowed were evidence of grace; they are the receipt which exempted them from personal bloodshed. But here with Jesus it is a sacrament of death: God assures him that he must pay up, to the very last penny. When his blood begins to flow here it’s no receipt for him but an IOU, a promissory note: God marks his invoice as “not yet paid”, but He presents the invoice showing the amount that Jesus owes Him. That is the payment that is to be fulfilled on the cross of Christ.
Now I understand also why, at this particular moment, at his circumcision, he received the name Jesus—Saviour—the name which had been specified and explained by the angel well before his birth. It is now that the covenant, established with the fathers, receives its basis; and it is through this circumcision that the salvation promised in the covenant becomes reality. It is on this day, in this first shedding of the blood of Jesus Christ, that the foundation is laid for the covenant of grace. And at this moment, when the conditions in this covenant come into force and receive legal status, the name Jesus confirms it: “The LORD saves”; and the LORD does that through this boy who later, as the angel had announced, “shall save his people from their sins”.
The LORD saves; that is the name of God when He is God of the covenant. He does not save from misery and adversity, but from sins; from everything that disturbs the communion in the covenant.
It has sometimes been suggested that there is a conflict between preaching about Jesus and preaching about the covenant. But now I understand that that is nonsense. Who can separate the covenant from Him who laid its legal foundation? And who can speak about Jesus and at the same time ignore the background of the covenant? These two may not even in our thoughts be separated from one another.
It makes me glad to know that Jesus was circumcised. It tells me that Jesus is concerned with one thing only, and that is the grace of the covenant. Or is His circumcision merely a cold fact that doesn’t touch me. But that’s never possible, is it? “The LORD saves”; but is salvation ever a cold fact? Salvation is always a covenant matter, which for that reason automatically involves the people of the covenant. Accordingly, Paul writes in Colossians 2 that through the circumcision of Christ we were also circumcised, “buried with Him in baptism in which [we] were also raised with Him”. This circumcision of Christ is therefore not an academic fact that doesn’t touch us, that stands apart from us. For through baptism God created the bond between Christ and His people. He united the church with Christ in His death.
This concerns everyone who has been baptised: older people with much experience in life and faith, as well as younger ones who still have much to learn, and young children. There’s no one who is not involved. For God has placed all of us in a relationship with the blood of Christ.
It is through this circumcision that baptism now becomes a most wonderful thing, a reality of the greatest comfort: God has forgiven all my sins for the sake of Christ. However, baptism now also becomes the most frightening thing for everyone who trifles with it. Don’t think that disregarding your baptism is just ignoring a symbol or withdrawing from a ceremony in which you were once the central figure. On the contrary, to ignore baptism is to abandon the legal basis on which you were accepted by God. It is to trample underfoot the blood of Christ by which you have been sanctified.
Here is real grace, thanks to the circumcision of Christ. And we can do one of two things: accept that grace in faith, or reject it in disobedience.
[i] This article is a translation of the first part of B Holwerda’s “Christus, geworden onder de ‘wet’”, in De Verborgenheid der Godzaligheid, http://www.reformationalpublishingproject.com/pdf_books/Scanned_Books_PDF/VerborgenheidderGodzaligheid.pdf