Circumcision & Name of Jesus
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Luke 2:21 Sermon
January 1, 2012
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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
114 "Jesus Name Of Wondrous Love"
117 "The Ancient Law Departs"
115 "O Blest The Day When First Was Poured"
119 "Great God We Sing That Mighty Hand"
NOTE: This is an "encore" sermon, originally preached on January 1, 2006. It has been slightly revised.
CIRCUMCISED FOR US
TEXT: “On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.”
There is a story—probably more of a legend about an Anglican nunnery in Oxford, England. In the days after Christmas, the Mother Superior realized she had forgotten to send a Christmas card to the head Bishop. So she went to the card shop and bought a New Year card for him instead. When she pondered the card a bit, she felt that the simple “Happy New Year” wish seemed a bit too secular; so she decided to add her own wish. Inside the card she wrote: “I wish you a very happy circumcision.”
As odd as that greeting might sound, yet it is the Biblical significance attached to New Year’s Day. The church liturgical calendar identifies January 1st as the minor festival known as “The Circumcision and Name of Jesus.”
Pastors down through the ages have dealt with this day in a variety of different ways. For the most part, they just sort of glide right on by it, almost unnoticed. But far be it from me to take the easy way out.
In researching this topic, I visited many different websites. As a result, I can tell you that there is literally tons of information about Biblical circumcision, and circumcision in general out there. I even watched two short instructional videos on You Tube where a baby was being circumcised. That was enough to make me cringe.
Let’s take a brief look at the festival. The celebration of the Circumcision and Name of Jesus dates back to the 5th Century, originally noted as the “Octave of Christmas,” “Octave” meaning “Eighth,” or the 8th day of Christmas. It was added to the Roman Christian calendar in about the 9th century, and it has been part of the liturgical church calendar ever since.
I would guess that the whole circumcision thing has been shoved into the background for a number of reasons. Even though the Bible talks a lot about circumcision and foreskins, and every Christian would recognize that the subject is there, yet it seems just a bit too personal to talk about. Somehow, it would be one of those “taboo” topics that the prim and proper “church people” wouldn’t want to hear expounded upon from the pulpit. You can almost hear some people gasping and shuddering at the mere mention of the word.
So where did the practice of circumcision originate? The Biblical mandate is stated in Genesis 17, which is our Old Testament Lesson for today. Reading once again verses 9-14: “9 And God said to Abraham, 'As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.'”
And so Abraham, at the ripe old age of 99 has the honor (maybe a little dubious in his initial estimation) of circumcising himself, and then all of his servants and kin. And then when Isaac was born, he was circumcised on the eighth day, as God had prescribed.
Circumcision amongst God’s Old Testament Israelites was a very important thing. It was an outward, physical sign of God’s covenant, or promise between himself and his people. So as a result, all of the true Jews of the Old Testament were circumcised according to this command of God. Even today’s version of Judaism practices this ceremony of circumcision, regardless of the particular sect.
In Hebrew, the term used is “Bris Milah,” which means “Covenant of Circumcision.” When a boy was born, this ritual took place on the eighth day of life, the actual day of the birth being counted as day one—hence the reason January 1st is considered to be the 8th day after Christmas.
It was the father’s responsibility to see that his son was circumcised. In many early instances, the father would do this himself. We're not sure, but maybe Joseph circumcised Jesus. Otherwise, there was a person known as the “Mohel” (in Hebrew) who performed the operation. A special double-edged steel knife, called an “izmail” was used for this procedure.
The child was presented before the Lord on the eighth day. The name of the child was given. Then came the bris, or the removal of the foreskin from his genitalia. Following this, there had to be a Metzitzah, or the drawing of some blood from the wound. Blood had to be spilled in the process.
Uncircumcised converts to Judaism had to be circumcised, regardless of their age. Even a convert to Judaism who might have already been circumcised had to go through this blood drawing; so they would make a little “nick” in the appropriate area by which a drop of blood could be extracted.
This was the practice of circumcision and naming the Jewish boys that started with Abraham, and continued pretty much unchanged until the time of Christ and Christianity.
Let’s turn our attention to part of our Epistle reading today, from Galatians chapter 4, verses 4-5 as we consider the role of Jesus in all of this: “4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”
Jesus was born under the law, under the old covenant. In order for him to be the redeemer of the world, Jesus had to keep every part of God’s moral and ceremonial law perfectly. Part of God’s ceremonial law was this practice of circumcision.
Naming was also part of this. The angel Gabriel told Mary that his name was to be Jesus. Jesus, which is the same as the Hebrew name “Yeshua” (or Joshua) means “Saviour.” He was to be given the name “Jesus” because, as the angel told Joseph, he would save the people from their sins.
In order to be the one atoning sacrifice for sins, Jesus had to shed his blood. Hebrews chapter 9 verse 22 says, “…without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.” Of course we immediately think of Jesus shedding his blood for us when he suffered and died on the cross. But his shedding of blood came far earlier than that; in fact it was on the 8th day when he was circumcised that he shed his first blood for us. Jesus shed blood at his own circumcision, done under the old covenant to free us from the demands of the law.
Through the shedding of his blood, Jesus has paid the price for our redemption. Through faith in him, we are brought into a new and perfect relationship with God.
In the Old Testament, the male foreskin represented a type of barrier, seen metaphorically as the barrier that exists between man and God. Through circumcision and through the shedding of blood, this barrier was removed; and for an Old Testament Jew, he bore the physical mark that he was one of God’s people.
Our sinfulness is the thing that separates us from God. It is the barrier that exists between a holy and righteous God, and the sinful human race. Through faith in Christ, that barrier has been completely removed. Our sins have been paid for through Jesus’ perfect sacrifice. Jesus’ sacrifice of blood started at his circumcision, and was completed on the cross. He shed his blood lovingly and willingly, for you and for me, so that through nothing but simple faith in him, we would be saved and be his for all eternity.
Even though Jesus brought an end to the Biblical mandate for circumcision, the Bible still uses circumcision in a metaphorical sense. In Acts chapter 7, verse 51 Saint Stephen rebukes the high Jewish council known as the Sanhedrin when he says: “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!” In a similar sense, the people are admonished in Deuteronomy chapter 10, verse 16 to “circumcise the foreskins of their hearts.” The Prophet Jeremiah in chapter 6, verse 10 berates the unrepentant who cannot hear, because their “ears are uncircumcised.” And finally in Romans chapter 2, verse 29, Paul states, “He is a Jew, that is one inwardly; and the circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter.”
People took pride in their circumcision and being marked as one of God’s people, but their lives often didn’t reflect that fact. The absence of a foreskin was not an automatic ticket into heaven.
Being one of God’s people involved more than just some outward sign. It involved a complete change of heart and soul. When Stephen scolded the Sanhedrin, it was because of their complete lack of faith, and their unwillingness to hear God’s Word as it applied to them. Sure they were Jewish by name and by circumcision, but they were still steeped in unrepentant sin and evil. Satan had control of their lives.
Circumcision of the heart, in the metaphorical sense refers to complete spiritual renewal. When the Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts, this type of circumcision takes place. We are no longer strangers and aliens to God; rather through faith in Jesus we are brought into fellowship with him. We were baptized into his death, so we might have new life. Our lives are then to reflect this faith that lives within us. The Bible does make a correlation between Old Testament circumcision and New Testament baptism, but that covers more material than we have time for today.
Even though Christ brought an end to the Old Testament circumcision law, still there were those who still believed that it had to be done. Acts 15 records some of the proceedings of the Jerusalem Council. Here are some excerpts: “Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’…Peter got up and addressed them, ‘Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.’”
And amongst the Church in Galatia, the same sort of argument arose. Paul replies in chapter 5 verse 6: “For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.”
As far as God is concerned, it doesn’t matter whether a person is circumcised or not. The Bible emphasizes this fact in numerous places. However, the early church had to deal with this issue quite a bit during the transition between Old Testament Judaism and New Testament Christianity.
A good example would be the two young Greek men that Paul was training for the ministry: Timothy and Titus. Neither of these two men were circumcised. Paul decided to circumcise Timothy, but not Titus. Why?
The people to whom Timothy would minister were Jews, who knew Timothy was a Greek. By Timothy being circumcised, it was an outward sign to them that he was truly one of them, and his message was more readily accepted.
Titus however was working with a group of people who were Christian, but were still demanding circumcision. By not circumcising him, Paul was showing that in Christ a person did not have to be circumcised in order to be saved.
As we continue on in the tradition of the New Testament Christian Church, we know that it does not matter to God whether or not a male is circumcised. The importance and significance of Old Testament circumcision was fulfilled by Christ.
In our society today, apart from those who still practice Old Testament Judaism or some other religion that requires it, circumcision is a matter of choice. When a baby boy is born, the decision is most often made by the parents right there at the hospital as to whether or not they want their son circumcised; and sometimes its years later before a boy actually knows what the decision was. There are various reasons given for circumcision—appearance and hygiene are probably the top two.
In the United States, roughly 68 percent of the male population is circumcised; in other western civilized countries, the figure is about 30 percent; in other parts of the world, the figure is much lower than that; and in some parts of the world, circumcision is virtually unheard of.
Some years ago, one woman told me the reason she had her infant son circumcised. She said, “Well, it’s in the Bible; besides Jesus was circumcised, and…well, I wanted to be on the safe side, just in case God wanted him to be.” Of course that particular comment begat a rather lengthy discussion between the two of us about the Biblical practice of circumcision.
We can indeed be thankful that Jesus was circumcised for us, and fulfilled God’s Old Testament covenant. The circumcision obligation is no longer a requirement. Can you even begin to imagine how difficult our mission and evangelism efforts would be if we entered the mission field with a knife in our hands, ready to start cutting away?
The Christian Church is the benchmark of freedom—freedom from the curse of the law, freedom from sin, death, and the devil; and freedom from the rituals of an old covenant, which have now been fulfilled in Christ.
Physical circumcision for the Christian is a matter of free choice—it doesn’t matter to God one way or another. What does matter is the circumcision of the heart. When the Holy Spirit enters our lives and works faith in our soul, our old sinful self has been cut away and discarded. Through our faith in Jesus our Saviour, all of the barriers between ourselves and God have been eliminated. What’s left is a joyful and refreshed spirit, rejoicing in the name of Jesus, given to him before his birth, because he came to save us and all people from sin.
I’d like to close with a couple stanzas from our hymn of the day: “The wound he through the law endures, our freedom from that law secures; henceforth a holier law prevails, that law of love, which never fails.—Lord, circumcise our heart, we pray, and take what is not thine away. Write thine own name upon our hearts, thy law within our inward parts.” (TLH 115)
May God grant you a blessed New Year—and yes, a happy circumcision, for Jesus’ sake.