The Circumcision and Naming of Jesus
January 1, 2011
“The Naming of Jesus”
St. Luke 2:21
And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called JESUS, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. Luke 2:21
We know very little about the life of Jesus from the time he was born until his baptism at age thirty. His ministry lasted about three years. In those three years of teaching, healing, and doing miracles he revealed his glory as the only begotten Son of God. The four Gospels devote most of their space to those years, focusing especially on the week leading up to his suffering and death on the cross and resurrection on the third day. But it was not in the Garden of Gethsemane, struggling in prayer and sweating drops of blood, that he first shed his blood to take away our sins. He first shed his blood for us when he was circumcised at the age of eight days.
God commanded Abraham to circumcise his infant male children at the age of eight days. This was to be the sign of the covenant that God made with Abraham and with his descendents after him. In the Bible, a covenant is cut. It isn’t signed or sealed. It is cut. It always involves the shedding of blood. The covenant God made with Abraham was that God would be his God and that Abraham and his seed after him would be God’s people.
God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations. He promised that his wife, Sarah, who was ninety years old, would bear a son and call his name Isaac. God would prove, by a miracle of an impossible birth, his faithfulness and his gracious intent.
Abraham took God at his word. He believed his promise. God did not choose Abraham because Abraham obeyed God. God chose Abraham purely out of his unfathomable grace. God promised that through Abraham the Savior of the world would be born.
Circumcision was a sign of the covenant that God cut with Abraham. It signified a relationship between God and Abraham, his son Isaac, and his son Jacob or Israel that continued down through history. God proved his faithfulness to the covenant when he rescued Israel from bondage in Egypt. After setting them free he gave them the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments or ten words were written, not primarily as a list of do’s and don’ts, but as a description of what God’s chosen people would be doing and avoiding. But they didn’t describe the lives of God’s people. Instead, the Ten Commandments accused them of sin. God was faithful to the covenant. His people were not.
Not one circumcised baby grew up to be what God said his people should be. Not one did what God commanded. Every single one of them disobeyed the Ten Commandments. Though they were called by God to be his holy people, they soiled themselves. The sign of circumcision was a sign of God’s faithfulness. It was a sign of God’s grace. But since no one who received the sign in his body lived in his body the holy life the sign signified, the sign of God’s faithfulness became a sign of his people’s unfaithfulness.
God’s grace can be known through faith but it cannot be dissected and examined as if under a microscope. Why God chose Abraham and his descendants, the children of Israel, is God’s business. But what we can know is that had God chosen any other people and had given them the Ten Commandments they would not have done any better than Israel did.
The proof is all around us. Who among us can point to the life he lived during 2011 and honestly say that the Ten Commandments describe it? Consider what God’s law requires of us. Consider what God demands of us. Listen to the words that God inscribed on tablets of stone and gave to his chosen people:
“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Have you feared God or the leader of the crowd to which you wanted to belong? Have you loved God or yourself, your comforts, and your things? Have you trusted God or the fashionable opinions of the crowd?
“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” Have you used God’s name as an expletive to express your own annoyance? Have you hidden behind your Christian identity to excuse your own sin instead of to repent of it?
“Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” Have you skipped church, ignored the word of God, and consigned it to the backseat while holding your own ideas as more valuable than God’s?
“Honor thy father and thy mother that it may be well with thee and thou mayest live long on the earth.” Have you dismissed the wisdom of your parents because you think you know better than they? Have you broken the rules, placing yourself above those who follow them?
“Thou shalt not kill.” Have you ignored the pain of someone you could have helped but didn’t want to bother helping? Have you hated the one who did you wrong? Have you lashed out in anger against those who have hurt you instead of forgiving them?
“Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Have you broken your wedding vows? Have you looked at someone who was bound to another and wanted that one for yourself? Have you done outside of marriage what God insists belongs within marriage?
“Thou shalt not steal.” Have you paid your debts? Or have you expected someone else to do it for you? Have you disciplined your own appetites or have you lived beyond your means?
“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Have you enjoyed hearing reports damaging to the reputation of someone you don’t like? Have you repeated them? Have you defended someone’s good name or have you remained silent?
“Thou shalt not covet anything that is thy neighbor’s.” Have you been satisfied with what God has given you? Have you resented those more prosperous than you?
These commandments describe the lives of those who belong to God. Do they describe you? So then, where do you stand? How are things between you and God?
As the famous author, Henry David Thoreau, lay dying, his aunt came to him and asked, “Have you made your peace with God?” He replied, “I didn’t know we had quarreled.” He is admired for his wit, and witty he may have been, but he was a fool. A fool says he hasn’t quarreled with God. A fool says he hasn’t disobeyed God. A fool ends one year and enters another, getting older, approaching the end, and remaining a fool. For time heals nothing, teaches nothing, gains nothing, but brings sinners closer to the time when they must face the eternal God.
Sinners are born under the law. The law is for sinners. If anyone had ever been born innocent, he would have been born outside of the jurisdiction of the law. The law has nothing to say to someone who is pure, holy, and without sin, for he does by nature what is good and pure and holy and sinless. What need has he of a law? No need at all!
Jesus did not need the law. He did not need to be circumcised. Why then was he circumcised at the age of eight days just like every other Jewish boy who was born in sin? Why should the only innocent child be placed among the sinners?
It was for us. It was to fulfill the law. The name Jesus means the Lord saves. Jesus is the Savior. His circumcision tells us how he saves. And the how is vital for us to understand as we look back on the year ended and look ahead to the year just beginning.
The law of God condemns the whole human race. One need not believe in gravity to fall down a flight of stairs. One need not believe in God to face his judgment. You need the forgiveness of your sins because you are guilty and God punishes sinners. You need a Savior who will take your sins away.
The circumcision of Jesus is Jesus placing himself under the law. It was a law that applied to sinners and he had no sin. But he chose to become the substitute for sinners and to do in his holy body what circumcision signified. God chose circumcision as the sign of his covenant with his people. God was faithful. He was Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God. He kept every promise he ever gave. But not a man, woman, or child among them kept their side of the covenant. This is why Sinai, instead of issuing a description of the holy lives of God’s holy people, issued a decree of death upon every single human being born into this world.
Until this Child shed his blood. That changed everything. For from the time he first shed his sacred blood at the age of eight days he lived the life of God’s covenant people. He fulfilled the desire of his Father in heaven. He who received his divine nature from the Father in eternity and received his human nature from his mother in time, now in the fullness of time lived the one and only life of human perfection.
He was called Jesus, the name given to him by the angel before he was conceived. He is named Jesus because of his holy work: he saves sinners from their sins. The first work he does is to submit to circumcision. He does in his body what we in our bodies failed to do. He loves his God with a single-minded holiness that permits nothing and nobody to come between him and his Father in heaven. He hallows his Father’s name in everything he says and does. He submits perfectly in faith and obedience to God’s word. He submits to the authority of his parents even when they don’t know what they as parents should be doing. He loves those who hate him and sees to the bodily needs of his neighbor in need. He lives a pure and chaste life, perfectly faithful to his bride, the Church. He takes only what he has the right to take. He speaks only the truth about his neighbor. He covets nothing but what his Father promises.
This is our life. This is Jesus living our life. This is our God become our brother doing everything required of us to do and doing it precisely so that we would receive the credit for it.
Here we find our identity as God’s children. The promises God gave to Abraham are fulfilled. We are baptized by Christ’s authority and in God’s holy name. We are made children of God. The sign of the Old Testament has been replaced by the sign of the New. Circumcising baby boys in anticipation of the perfect obedience of the promised Savior has given way to baptizing baby boys and girls that they may be joined to the holy obedience and suffering of Jesus and become God’s dear children.
God’s gracious covenant with Abraham has been fulfilled on both sides. God became one of us to fulfill our side of it. He obeyed. His obedience is now reckoned to us as righteousness. Our sins are gone. They are covered under the obedience and suffering of him whose name means the Lord saves. We enter another year under the shelter of God’s grace. God promises it in our baptism. With father Abraham we take God at his word. Amen