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On Jesus’ Circumcision (St. Luke 2.21)

The Circumcision and Name of Jesus

“On Jesus’ Circumcision”
Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus  

St. Luke 2.21

01 January 2023



Today’s Gospel reading is the shortest Gospel reading for any day on the liturgical calendar, just one verse. It is also New Year’s Day, a secular day. It had been customary even in Luther’s day for the pastor to talk about the new year and to offer good wishes, but those observances presented a lot of “useless fables in place of the divine Word.” [AE 76.39] Luther said in a sermon in 1522: “The Gospel reading requires us to preach on the circumcision and the name of Jesus, and this we will do!”[ibid] And so will we!

Luther has summarized what the focus must be. Two things only, circumcision and the naming of Jesus. All of the is summarized in one verse. Preaching on circumcision must be done sensitively because of young people who might ask questions of their parents that they would rather not answer, yet it is important for us to know why this comes immediately after the account of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. The reasons that God chose this to signify his covenant is better left for a Bible class. Today we simply proclaim.

Circumcision was commanded by God for his people, the Jews. Listen to its institution in Genesis 17:

 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.” [Gen. 17.9-14]

Circumcision was an external mark which separated the Jews from all other peoples. It was understood in connection with original sin. It was imposed on males only as a reminder that man is sinful and condemned, and that sin must be cut off. A man could never forget the sign of the covenant! There is a connection with conception and birth. Our Lord Jesus Christ was not conceived by a man but by the Holy Spirit, so his birth was without sin. Thus, Jesus did not need to be circumcised because he was born without sin.

So, why then was Jesus circumcised if he had no sin? Circumcision did not of itself take away sin, but was a sign of taking away sin. Circumcision was only a sign of the covenant that God made with Abraham, but we know that Abraham was justified by faith, as it is recorded in Genesis before the command to circumcise was given:

And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. [Gen.15.6]

The Apostle Paul tells us very clearly why Jesus was circumcised:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. [Gal. 4.4-5]

By being circumcised Jesus was fulfilling the Law of Moses on our behalf, even down to this event which we often overlook. Earlier we read about the circumcision of John the Baptist in Luke chapter one. After eight days he was brought to the temple to be circumcised and receive his name. The neighbors and relatives thought he would have a name after one of his relatives. His father, Zechariah, had been unable to speak because he doubted the angel’s words about his upcoming birth. He used a writing table to say: “No, he shall be called John” [Luke. 1.63] This was after Elizabeth already told them his name. As soon as Zechariah wrote that message, he was able to speak again.

The second part of this short reading was the giving of his name, the name the angel spoke before he was conceived in the womb All of these events happened on the eighth day after his birth. Eight days has spiritual significance. Think of the creation account. In six days the world was made and God rested on the seventh. The eighth day is the Last Day after this present time, when all human reckoning of time shall end and there shall be only an eternal day.

The name of Jesus means Savior. He is the Savior who fulfilled the Law completely for us. So often we take a short cut and go right to his suffering and death on the cross while ignoring all of the other ways that Jesus fulfilled the Law perfectly. So from birth to death Jesus was fulfilling every last detail of the Mosaic Law for us. So when death fell upon Jesus he did not die as one condemned by his own sin. He took all of our sins upon himself and in his circumcision is the first shedding of his blood for the world.

Jesus was not obligated to receive circumcision because he was born without sin, and so, he has power over it, to abolish it. This is done in Holy Baptism as St. Paul writes:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. [Col. 2.11-14]

One of the beautiful things about the naming of the child at circumcision is that all children who are baptized have their names recorded in the Lamb’s book of life. In the Baptismal rite the pastor asks the parents, “How is this child named?” And the parents speak the name given. It is the child’s Christian name, not a nickname or something else, but the name that is known by God. We become God’s children, He is ours and we are his. God forgives our sins and places us in his kingdom where we live in joy and hope. Holy Baptism makes us heirs of God’s covenant in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Baptism takes the place of circumcision. The old is gone; the new has come.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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