And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” Luke 2.21-24.
Yesterday was the day in the Church calendar when Christians remember “The Presentation of Christ in the Temple” and have Luke 2.21-40 as one of the Bible readings. That is what happened in the fellowship that I belong to; and, after the reading, our vicar began his sermon by saying that “here we are told how Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple to redeem him according to the law because he was their first-born son.” Now I imagine that most people — even those who know their Bible reasonably well — would go along with that statement, but I happen to believe that it is incorrect and that what actually happened at the temple that day is important … so important that I feel drawn to write about it this morning.
In the Judaism into which Jesus was born, there were three ancient ceremonies associated with the birth of a boy. There was circumcision which took place eight days after birth and which was also the occasion on which the boy was formally named.
Then there was the purification of the mother. Under the law, childbirth rendered a woman ceremonially unclean for forty days if she had given birth to a boy, eighty days if she had given birth to a girl, and at the end of that period, the woman was required to bring to the temple a lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon for a sin offering. That was a heavy expense for those who were poor so the law provided an alternative: a sacrifice of two doves or two pigeons could be made by a woman who could not afford to bring a lamb (Leviticus 12.8).
Third, there was the redemption of the first-born. According to the law, every first-born male, of human beings and cattle, belonged to God: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine'” (Exodus 13.1-2). There was however provision for those first-born who were God’s to be bought-back: “Nevertheless, the firstborn of man you shall redeem, and the firstborn of unclean animals you shall redeem. And their redemption price (at a month old you shall redeem them) you shall fix at five shekels in silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, which is twenty gerahs. But the firstborn of a cow, or the firstborn of a sheep, or the firstborn of a goat, you shall not redeem; they are holy. You shall sprinkle their blood on the altar and shall burn their fat as a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the LORD” (Numbers 18.15-17).
Now this is where the confusion arises in Luke’s account of what happened in the temple. Without this reference back to the provisions of the law relating to the purification of the mother on the one hand and the redemption of the first-born on the other, we may read Luke’s account of Mary’s offering of two turtledoves or two young pigeons as relating to the presentation of Jesus to God … as referring to the redemption price; but it is quite clearly not. Indeed — and this is my point — there was no redemption of Jesus. No five-shekel redemption price was paid. What happened in the temple (and this is what Luke is making quite clear) is that Mary and Joseph were acknowledging God’s ownership of Jesus and consecrating Jesus to him. You did not take a child to the temple if you were going to redeem him — you just went and paid the five shekels.
So what is the significance of Jesus being unredeemed? Well, it is firstly that he remains in every sense of the term “the son of God” that he was through birth. Though people may refer to him as “the son of Mary,” he never passes into the “ownership” of Mary and Joseph; so when Jesus goes to the cross, God is truly so loving the world that he is giving his only son — not Mary’s son — “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3.16).
But (to my mind) there is more. When I look back to the provisions of the law in Numbers 18, I see that the principle of first-born redemption is that what is not redeemed must die. That is what being “holy to the Lord” involves. It is being so set aside for God that the life that is present in the unredeemed must actually be returned to God. And in the cross I see that happening. I see the life of the unredeemed Jesus, the First-born, being returned to God. But I see too God so using the death of the unredeemed Jesus that he becomes the Redeemer of the lives of all who will put their trust in him. His blood becomes, as it were, the five shekel price that saves me from death.
There are mysteries here almost too deep to understand; but what wonderful patterns are there for me to find in the grand designs of God if I will only open my eyes to look for them.