“And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord” (Luke 2:22).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
To better understand our text, we must first go back to the time shortly after the first Passover, about 1446 B.C. The Israelites had been in slavery in Egypt for 400 years. But God had not forgotten them. He sent Moses as His spokesman, warning Pharaoh again and again, “Let My people go.” Pharaoh stubbornly refused, so the Lord sent nine plagues to persuade him that rebellion against God is a very foolish thing. Finally, the Lord declared that He would come through the land and take the lives of all the firstborn males of Egypt, both man and beast.
Every firstborn would die… unless. The Lord declared to His people that their firstborn sons could be saved. They were to take a lamb without blemish and sacrifice it. They were to put the blood of the lambs on the lintels and doorposts of their homes, and they were supposed to roast the lamb and eat it for dinner. The people of God followed His instructions about His Passover to the letter; and when the Lord came through Egypt to take the lives of the firstborn males, He passed over every dwelling marked with the blood of the lamb and spared those inside.
The tenth plague—the death of the firstborn—finally moved Pharaoh to submit, at least temporarily. He ordered the people of Israel out of his land. As they left Egypt, the Lord commanded them to remember the Passover every year. He also said, “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 13:2). The firstborn males of animals were to be sacrificed as an offering to God. The firstborn males of the people were to be redeemed, consecrated to God.
As God brought the people of Israel out of Egypt, He gave them His Word in the Torah, often called “the Law of Moses.” These five books, the first five in our Old Testament, tell how God brought His people out Egypt, how He led them through the wilderness, how He made a covenant with them, and how He established and regulated their worship. In addition to the instructions for the consecration and presentation of the firstborn that go back to the Passover, God also gave laws and restrictions for keeping Israel separate from the nations as the people from whom the Savior would come.
Among those regulations was the ritual purification of mothers after childbirth. When a baby was born, the mother was ceremonially unclean. This was not because procreation itself is sinful. It is indeed the will of God, a command and a blessing. God told Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). The inspired psalmist said, “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward” (Psalm 127:3), and “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord” (Psalm 128:3,4). The Israelites thought of children as a blessing. In fact, in ancient Israel, childlessness was considered the height of misfortune and even a judgment from God. No, it was not the birth itself that made the woman unclean, rather it was the discharge of blood that occurs following birth.
The ritual passage began with the birth of the child. Immediately after that had occurred, the mother remained in social seclusion for a week if she had given to a son or for two weeks if she had given birth to a daughter. Following a ritual washing, she was free to resume her normal domestic role in the family.
This period of social separation for one or two weeks was followed by a longer period of ritual quarantine. If she had a male child that lasted an additional thirty-three days; if she had a female child, it was sixty-six days. During this time, she was not allowed to have any contact with the sacred domain. She was not considered to be unclean, but neither was she considered to be ritually clean because she was not allowed to touch any holy things in her household, such as meat from a peace offering or anything that had been dedicated as an offering to the Lord or, if she was the wife of a priest, any of the holy food from the sanctuary.
The period of religious quarantine was concluded by an act of sacrifice. The woman who had given birth to a child offered a lamb as a burnt offering and a turtledove or pigeon as a sin offering (Leviticus 12:6). If she was too poor to afford a lamb, she brought another bird instead (Leviticus 12:8). She entered the sacred precincts and brought the offerings to the priest on duty at the entrance.
These two sacrifices performed two specific functions. Through the rite of atonement with the blood from both sacrifices, the woman was cleansed from any impurity that she had incurred from her flow of blood (Leviticus 12:7). Through the burning up of the lamb on the altar she was accepted by God and reinstated as a member of the congregation. She was once again ritually clean. She therefore had access to God’s holiness and His blessing. That meant, too, that she was once again open to the gift of another child from Him.
The observance of this rite of passage had a profound impact on the life of every mother. It connected her life as a mother with her participation in the divine service and her reception of blessing from God. Negatively, it ensured that she did not become involved as a woman in pagan practices of the fertility cults. Positively, it affirmed her status as a full member of the holy congregation and recognized her role as a bearer of blessing from God. The original language in Leviticus 12:2, literally calling the mother a “seed-bearer,” hints at this connection between her vocation as a mother and her call to holiness. Moreover, the continuity and survival of her family—and, more broadly, of Israel—depended on her and her access to the blessing gained from the presence of God in the sacred domain.
The description of the mother as one who “produces seed” recalls the promise to Eve, the “mother of every living person” (Genesis 3:20), that her “Seed” would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). God repeated to the patriarchs His promise that through the Seed of Abraham all nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 22:18). The apostle Paul expounded the fulfillment of this promise about the “Seed” by Christ and in all those who are baptized into Christ and thereby become the “seed” of Abraham (Galatians 3:15-29).
Over 1,400 years after God gave His Law to Israel through Moses, the Seed of the woman is born in Bethlehem. On the fortieth day, Mary and Joseph come into the temple in obedience to the Lord’s command. They bring Jesus to the temple for the first time to include Him in her purification. Since Jesus is her firstborn son, He is presented to be consecrated to God at the same time.
That she offers the sacrifice of two birds, helps us to understand that Joseph and Mary were likely of a “humble state” (Luke 1:48), that is, too poor to be able to afford a lamb. On a theological level, no lamb was necessary because already here at forty days old, Jesus is the Lamb brought to His temple for sacrifice.
No mention is made of Jesus’ redemption then or later. Jesus’ life is consecrated to the Lord in the fullest possible way. Luke quite deliberately connects Mary’s purification to Christ’s presentation, for she was purified by her son—as are all the saints—for access to the heavenly sanctuary. The purification of Mary is celebrated on the day of the presentation of our Lord on February 2nd of each year. On this day, the Church prays for cleansing by Christ so that, like Mary, the people of God may be brought and presented to Him with clean hearts.
Jesus is the firstborn in many ways. Colossians 1 calls Jesus the firstborn of creation, for the eternal Son of God is now incarnate, born of Mary. Colossians 1 also calls Him the firstborn of the dead, because the One who was once the Sacrifice for sin is also now the risen Son of God. Crucified for the sins of the world, He lives again to give life forever. And now the Spirit is at work calling you to faith, interceding on your behalf, conforming you to the image of God’s Son, in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29).
Like Simeon, you, by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the Word of God, know of Jesus. You know that the Son of God became flesh, lived, and died for you. By faith, you also know where to find your Savior: as the Spirit pointed Simeon to the infant Jesus in the temple, so He points you to your baptism, to the Word, and to the Supper. There your Savior is found, present with forgiveness and life. You hear the Word. You receive Christ’s body and blood. It’s no wonder that, after the Supper, you sing Simeon’s song—because the Savior is just as body-and-blood present with you as He was with Simeon when Simeon held Mary’s firstborn in his arms. And so you may depart in peace.
As you do, what does the Lord call you? Firstborn.
Hebrews 12:23 calls the Church “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven,” and you are numbered among them. Like the firstborn sons of Israel in Egypt, you have been saved from death by a sacrifice of blood: the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Like the firstborn of Bible times, the inheritance of the Father is yours: The Lord declares that the kingdom of heaven is yours. This is so because Jesus, the firstborn of creation has joined you to Himself in Holy Baptism; there, you were adopted as sons of God. For the sake of Jesus, you are sons of God, heirs of the kingdom, and God is your Father who works all things for your good, even as the Holy Spirit is at work conforming you to the image of the Son.
It is not your doing. It is not your righteousness or works or obedience or sacrifice that make you an heir of the kingdom of heaven. But it is yours because, as our Epistle reading for today reminds us, Jesus Himself partook of flesh and blood, that through death He might destroy the one who has power over death, that is the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. To help us, the seed of Abraham, Jesus was made to be like us, His brothers, in every respect, so that He might make propitiation for our sins (Hebrews 2:14-18) that you and I might be presented to the Lord, adopted as His sons, justified and sanctified, co-heirs of His kingdom that has no end.
Redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the firstborn from the dead, you are among the assembly of the firstborn, for you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.