Sermon

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Consecrate to Me All the Firstborn (Exodus 13:1-2, 11-16; Luke 2:22-24)

Sermon by Rev. Nollie Malabuyo | Preached by Rev. Lance Filio

Beloved congregation of Christ: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the next two major events in his life are found in our text. First, Jesus was circumcised by his father Joseph on the eighth day of his life. Second, Joseph and Mary went up to Jerusalem 33 days later to fulfill two requirements: Mary’s purification and Jesus’ presentation. These two requirements were done before the priest in the temple in Jerusalem.

The birth of Jesus and Samuel in 1 Samuel 1 have many parallels. Hannah, Samuel’s mother, was barren, while Mary had no physical relationship with a husband. Two verses in these birth narratives are similar. 1 Samuel 1:20 says, “And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel.” In the angel’s announcement of the birth of Jesus, he told Joseph, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (Matt 1:21). Both Samuel and Jesus were presented to the Lord (1 Sam 1:24; Luke 2:22).

After the birth announcements, Hannah’s song in 1 Sam 2:1-10 parallels Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55. Eli the priest blessed the baby Samuel, while Simeon blessed the baby Jesus. The summaries of the birth narratives conclude with how both Samuel and Jesus grew physically and in favor with God and men (1 Sam 2:21, 26; Luke 2:40).

So Samuel was a type of Christ in his birth and even in his life. But Christ is better than him and every being in heaven and on earth. This is because he is eternal God who came down from heaven and assumed human flesh and blood. He was like us in “every respect,” except for sin. All his life, he did not commit a single sin in thought, word or deed. When he first came down to earth, he had a mission: to fulfill all of God’s laws to the smallest dot so he would be the perfect Lamb of God who would save all his people from all their sins.

Our text in Luke 2 tells us that even in his infancy, Jesus already obeyed the Law of Moses, through his parents, when they presented him at the temple. But this text is also very commonly used by most evangelicals as a warrant in “dedicating” their infants in a church service ceremony. Since they believe that water baptism is a believer’s testimony of faith before the congregation, and infants are not able to profess faith, infants should not to be baptized. But somehow, they cannot accept that their children are excluded from the church. So they are caught in a dilemma. What is there to do? The answer is: perform a “dedication” ceremony: this is not a baptism, and at the same time, their children cannot be branded as “outsiders.”

But why did Jesus’ family go to the temple, and why was Jesus “presented” at the temple? Luke 2:22-24 and the Exodus 13 and Leviticus 12 passages will give us the answers. This third Sunday of Advent, our lesson is, “Consecrate to Me All the Firstborn” which we will meditate upon in a series of three questions: (1) Who Are Consecrated? (2) Why Are They Consecrated? And (3) How Are They Consecrated?

WHO ARE CONSECRATED?

Exodus 13 begins with instructions to the people about the feast of Unleavened Bread. In Chapter 12, the LORD describes how Passover is to be commemorated, and this carries over into Chapter 13, “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” (Ex 13:2).

While Passover is celebrated once a year when a Passover lamb is sacrificed so that the people will remember how the LORD redeemed them from Egypt, all the firstborn of Israel are consecrated to the LORD after they are born. The verb “to consecrate” means to “make holy,” “keep sacred” or to “devote.” Often, it is used to mean to set someone or something apart for God’s use, “all the firstborn… shall be the LORD’s” (Ex 13:12). For example, when God redeemed Israel out of slavery in Egypt, God said they were “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Moses should “consecrate” them or make them “holy” or set them apart for the LORD (Exo 19:6, 10).

Who are to be consecrated? According to our text in Exodus 13, not only all Israel’s firstborn sons, but also all firstborn male animals must also be consecrated. Our text mentions two kinds of animals to be consecrated, both clean and unclean animals. Clean animals such as sheep or cattle must be sacrificed to the LORD at the temple. But unclean animals such as horses, donkeys and camels cannot be used as sacrifice.

What about their firstborn sons? Did God require them to be sacrificed like the firstborn male sheep or cattle? Absolutely not, because child sacrifice is an abomination to God! What must be done? They must be redeemed by a sacrifice (verse 13). Why? This is where the parents have some explaining to do to their children.

WHY ARE THEY CONSECRATED?

The answer is that it is God’s reminder to them of the mighty works, the 10 plagues, he did to redeem them from slavery in Egypt. In the tenth plague, all of the Egypt’s firstborn sons were killed, while Israel’s firstborn sons were spared. So this is what they would tell their children when they ask about the sacrifice, “What does this mean?” They would answer by retelling the story of God’s mighty hand and mercy when he heard their groaning and cry for help.

God’s covenant promises to their fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are also part of the story. After he brings them to the Promised Land, “you shall set apart to the LORD all that first opens the womb” (Ex 13:11-12).

But what does this have to do with our text in Luke where Jesus was “presented” at the temple 40 days after he was born? According to our text in Luke 2, why was Jesus presented at the temple? And when was he presented? Luke tells us two reasons why:

First, “when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses.” Who was to be purified? From Leviticus 12:1-8, we read that a woman who has just given birth is considered ceremonially unclean from the day of her baby’s delivery. On the eighth day after the baby is born, the baby is circumcised, but she continues to be considered unclean for 33 more days, ”until the days of her purifying are completed” (Lev 12:3-4). The discharge of blood makes her unclean, and to complete her purification, she goes to the temple to offer sacrifices for atonement.

Second, Joseph and Mary “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’”). The reason why Jesus was “presented” to the Lord was because of the “firstborn rule” commanded in our Old Testament texts, “as it is written in the Law of the Lord.” Jesus was their firstborn son (Lk 2:7), and he had to be redeemed with a sacrifice, to remind Joseph and Mary of God’s redemption of their forefathers from Egypt.

HOW ARE THEY CONSECRATED?

For her purification and for Jesus’ redemption, Joseph and Mary offered two young pigeons. Why not a lamb? Because they were poor and cannot afford it (Lev 12:6).

This brings us back to the question about “dedication” of infants. Is infant dedication today the same as the presentation of Jesus at the temple after he was born? Certainly not! This passage does not speak of the idea of “dedication” according to the contemporary understanding of offering your child to the Lord with the hope that he will one day be a Christian and serve the Lord Jesus. As Luke says, this occasion of ”presenting Jesus to the Lord” (v. 22) was in fulfillment of the Law, stating this in our text three times. That the firstborn sons of Israel deserved to die even as the firstborn sons of Egypt were killed (Ex 12: 2,11-12). In short, by “presenting Jesus to the Lord” in connection with His circumcision (Luke 2:21-23), Joseph and Mary were confirming God’s gracious saving covenant with them and Jesus’ role in this covenant.

However, contrary to popular belief, infant dedication was not a universal practice, not in the Old Testament, and certainly not in the New Testament. But many ask: What about Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptizer? In the case of Samson and John, they were “dedicated” (set apart) for special ministries in God’s redemptive plan as “Nazirites”: Samson will save Israel from the Philistines (Judges. 13:3-5) and John will “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” as Christ’s forerunner (Luke 1:16). Samuel, on the other hand, was consecrated by his mother also as a Nazirite for a lifetime of Temple service (1 Sam 1:11, 28).

Thus, Jesus’ “dedication” rite as a model for infant dedication services today raises several baffling issues: Why is the mother’s purification rite not included in the service? Why is there no offering of a lamb or two doves for the redemption of the infant from death? Why are all children in the same family, not just the firstborn son, dedicated? Are those children (like Samson, Samuel, John, and Jesus) being consecrated by God for special, extra-biblical work in His (uncompleted!) redemptive plan? These issues are not intended to make fun of infant dedication, but they are real. They seem to be silly because infant dedication is nowhere taught in the New Testament. And none of these old covenant ceremonial rites are still in force in the new covenant because all the Law— including the law about the redemption of firstborn sons—has been fulfilled by Christ (Mt 5:17; Heb 8:4-6).

Thus, the modern concept and practice of infant dedication has no semblance whatsoever to these passages often cited in support of “dedication.” This is not only erroneous, but bordering on the ridiculous. Contrary to the belief of most evangelicals, it is infant “dedication” that is not in the Bible, not infant baptism. There is no command whatsoever in Scripture to “dedicate” children in the new covenant, especially in the way that evangelicals today perform it.

Conversely, the reason for infant baptism, as we have learned from previous studies about God’s covenants with his people, is that God commands baptism. By so commanding baptism and not “dedication,” God excludes “dedication” from his commandments in the new covenant.

Brothers and sisters in Christ: We have seen that “infant dedication” as practiced today in most evangelical churches is not a substitute for water baptism. But are there other significant implications of Jesus’ presentation to the temple that might benefit us today?

First, that all of us are unclean sinners who are under God’s condemnation and wrath. Isaiah said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Is 6:5). All our works are as filthy rags before the LORD. All of us are sinners who have fallen short of God’s holy requirement.

But no, we are not hopeless and helpless. Because Christ offered himself once for all as a sacrificial Lamb to make us clean and to purify us. So we don’t have to offer lambs or pigeons to be clean. Christ has done all the required atoning sacrifice for our complete purification from sin.

Second, Christ is God’s only-begotten firstborn Son (Heb 1:6). He is the firstfruits from the dead. This is why he is also called “the first to rise from the dead” to proclaim salvation to both Jews and Gentiles (Ac 26:23); “the firstborn from the dead” (Cl 1:18; see also Rev 1:5); and “the firstborn among many brothers” (Rm 8:29). “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1Co 15:20).

But Christ the firstborn Son was not redeemed by God. Death would not pass over him. But because he had no sin, no sacrifice is needed for him. We needed to be redeemed, and he the Clean One was sacrificed for us who are unclean. He redeemed us from sin and death with his precious blood, not with the blood of lambs or pigeons, “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1Pt 1:18- 19).

Third, since Christians are united to Christ in his death and resurrection, we are more than “children of God” (John 1:12); we are also firstborn children. Hebrews calls us the “firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb 12:23). Since we are firstborn children, we are also granted an inheritance as if we too were firstborn sons (Heb 9:15), just as all Abraham’s descendants are to receive the promised inheritance forever (Ex 32:13). And our inheritance is great, greater than anyone else’s, so that it is a called “double” portion (Deut 21:15-17). Also, if you are firstborn children of God, we also have the “firstfruits of the Spirit,” the “guarantee of our inheritance” (Ro 8:23; Ep 1:13-14).

Our inheritance is forward-looking. We have been redeemed from sin and death, but not yet completed. We still sin and die. But when our Firstborn Brother returns from heaven, he will give us our full inheritance of all blessings in the heavenly places.

This is what we celebrate during the Advent season. We look back to the First Advent with praise and thanksgiving to Jesus who was born to be consecrated for his work of salvation for us. Then we look forward to the blessed hope, his Second Advent to complete our eternal salvation.

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