Leviticus and Christmas (2)

This is a blog post that I should have put on the website four days ago, on January 1, the eighth day of Christmas.  This is now the twelfth day of Christmas; so, please pardon the lateness.  In the Gospel of Luke we are told that

21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.

Leviticus 12:3 provides the prescription behind what happened to Jesus on this eighth day.

On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised.

Now, contrary to what one might think, Luke’s report that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day is in fact a very important part of redemptive history and of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Here are just two reasons why.

(1) As a supposed Old Testament scholar, and one who should have known better, I was quite surprised to learn, when I examined the scriptural data, that this verse in Leviticus is actually the only passage in the legislative portions of the Pentateuch that prescribes physical circumcision for Israelite boys on the eighth day.  There are some narratives in non-legal portions (Genesis 17, Genesis 34, and Exodus 4) that talk about circumcision.  And the passage in Genesis 17 actually prescribes it.  But in the actual formal legal texts of the Pentateuch, aside from the one very short verse in Leviticus 12, there is no such prescription.  In Exodus 12:44, 48, we are told that if non-Israelites wish to join with Israelites in celebrating the Passover, they must be circumcised.  And in Deuteronomy 10:16 and 30:6 there are metaphorical references to the circumcision of the heart.

Of course, the Genesis 17 passage is a very important one, and most certainly stands behind the prescription in Leviticus 12:3.  Nevertheless, one might have expected that the legislation about circumcision would have been more prominent in the legal portions of the Pentateuch in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  My point here is that, comparatively, this single short sentence about circumcision is practically the equivalent  of what Jesus, in Matthew 5:18, refers to as a “jot” or “tittle,” which will not “by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

It is interesting to note, then, what Paul says in an almost creedal statement in Galatians 4:4-5:

But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.

Commentators on the Gospel of Luke have noticed that, especially in the opening and closing chapters of the book, Luke is at pains to emphasize the piety of certain characters in the birth and death narratives, and how they carry out things “according to the law” or “according to the commandment,” and how they are obedient in general to God (e.g., 1:6, 38, 59; 2:15,21-24, 27, 39, 41; 23:50-56).  Luke emphasizes not just Jesus’s own obedience to the law, but also that of those whom God prepared to take care of the infant child, and to take care of his body after he had died.  Luke’s emphasis corresponds to Paul’s emphasis: Jesus was born under the law, and even pious individuals in the birth and death narratives played their part in Jesus’s obedience to the law.  Jesus, born under the law, was circumcised on the eighth day, in obedience to that law.  And, as a multitude of theologians have pointed out, Jesus’s active obedience to the law plays a huge role in the accomplishment of our redemption.

(2) Second, it is important to keep the covenantal context in mind here.  According to Genesis 17, circumcision was a sign of the covenant.  As I have mentioned before in other posts, covenantal signs have a “cross my heart, hope to die” kind of character.  The person who performs the covenantal sign is swearing an oath and calling a curse upon themselves if they do not keep the demands of the covenant.  God, himself, had already taken this oath in Genesis 15 with the sign of the “smoking firepot with a blazing torch” that passed between the pieces of the cut up animals, a sign that God was calling a curse upon himself if he failed to keep the covenant he was making with Abraham.  Now, in Genesis 17, Abraham is called upon to swear an oath with the rite of circumcision.  The curse is spelled out in verse 14:

14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

Indeed, there is almost a bit of punning going on here, with the terms “circumcised” and “cut off” acting as synonyms.  We could, with justification, capture the import of this verse if we translated it this way:

Any “uncut” male, who has not been “cut” in the flesh, will be “cut” off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

So, in Luke 2, when Jesus is circumcised, he is receiving the sign of the covenant.  And unlike, faithless Israel in the Old Testament, which horribly and repeatedly violated the covenant, Jesus, as the new Israel, perfectly keeps the covenant.  He is truly the “Israelite in whom there is no guile.”  Indeed, it is his very sinlessness, his complete and perfect obedience to the demands of the covenant, which qualifies him to be the one who can, by his own death, provide forgiveness and redemption for those who have broken the covenant.

And most interestingly, this circumcision, this covenantal “cutting” of Jesus’s flesh when he is born, anticipates what will happen to him when he is crucified, concerning which, Jesus, on the eve of his crucifixion, holds up the cup before his disciples in the upper room, and declares:

“This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22:20).

It is this connection between Christ’s covenantal circumcision and his covenantal death which led the biblical theologian, Geerhardus Vos, in his Reformed Dogmatics, to write this so strikingly:

It is rightly observed that the blood of the Savior’s circumcision is as much atoning blood for us as is the blood shed on Golgotha.

So, you see, that Christ was circumcised on the eighth day was not simply an incidental detail in the birth narrative of our Lord.  It was, in fact, one more highly significant pointer to that truism, which nevertheless is completely true, “He was born to die.”

Jesus kept the law on our behalf.  He received the sign of the covenant in his flesh when he was born.  And he gave that sign its deepest significance when he offered himself as a covenantal sacrifice on the cross.

All glory to Jesus, who was circumcised and sacrificed for our redemption.

Jerry Shepherd
January 5, 2017

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