“Consecrate to Me All the Firstborn”
Exodus 13:1-2, 11-16; Leviticus 12:1-8; Luke 2:22-24
December 22, 2013 • Download this sermon (PDF)
Congregation of Christ: It is common practice today for most evangelicals to “dedicate” their children in a church service ceremony. They believe that water baptism is a believer’s testimony of faith before the congregation, and infants are not able to profess faith, so infants are not to be baptized. But somehow, they cannot accept that their children are excluded from the church. On the other hand, their babies cannot profess faith. So they are caught in a dilemma. What is there to do? Perform a “dedication” ceremony: this is not a baptism, and at the same time, their children cannot be branded as “outsiders.”
Last Lord’s Day, we read in Luke 2:21 about the circumcision of the infant Jesus on the eighth day after he was born. During this ritual, the infant was named Jesus, which means “the LORD saves,” according to the angel’s instruction.
But why was Jesus circumcised? J. C. Ryle lists five reasons. First, “Without [circumcision] [Jesus] would not have fulfilled the law’s requirements.” Second, “Without it He could not have been recognized as the son of David, and the seed of Abraham.” Third, “circumcision was absolutely necessary before our Lord could be heard as a teacher in Israel.” Fourth, “Without it He would have had no place in any lawful Jewish assembly, and no right to any Jewish ordinance.” Fifth and last, “Without it He would have been regarded by all Jews as nothing better than an uncircumcised Gentile, and an apostate from the faith of the fathers.”
For God’s covenant family in the Old Testament, circumcision was the demarcation between members of God’s kingdom and members of Satan’s kingdom. In the New Testament, the sign of this membership is non-bloody water baptism, which has replaced the bloody sign of circumcision.
In our New Testament reading today, the story of the infancy of Jesus continues as his earthly parents bring him to the temple in Jerusalem, “to present him to the Lord.” Most evangelicals believe that this “presentation” gives them a warrant to “dedicate” their babies to God.
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. On this last 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 useâ€”“shall be to the LORD’s.”
Who are to be consecrated? Not only all Israel’s firstborn males, but also all firstborn male animals:
“you shall set apart to the LORD all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your animals that are males shall be the LORD’s. Every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. Every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem” (Ex 13:12-13).
Note that the ones “set apart” include all the firstborn males of animals. Our text mentions two kinds of animals to be consecrated:
1. Firstborn males of all clean animals: sheep or cattle: “All the firstborn males that are born of your herd and flock you shall dedicate to the LORD your God. You shall do no work with the firstborn of your herd, nor shear the firstborn of your flock. You shall eat it, you and your household, before the LORD your God year by year at the place that the LORD will choose” (Dt 15:19-20). The people were to sacrifice them to the LORD at the temple, then eat their portion of the burnt offering as they joyfully worship God.
2. Firstborn males of all unclean animals: horses, donkeys and camels. But they cannot be used as sacrifice for worship, since they are unclean. What if the owner wanted to keep them for his own use, such as for transportation or in his field? They must be redeemed by a lamb. If the owner is not willing to redeem them, they must be killed by breaking their necks, and then destroyed.
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 is God’s reminder to them of the mighty work 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 a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals.” Four times in this chapter, the LORD’s “strong hand” in redeeming Israel was mentioned (verses 3, 9, 14, 16). Parents were to be faithful in 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: “I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession” (Ex 6:8). Then, “When the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, 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? We read in Luke 2:22-24:
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.”
According to this text, why was Jesus presented at the temple? And when was he presented? Luke tells us two reasons:
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” (Lv 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 (Lv 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 (Jgs. 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 (1Sam 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 Lawâ€”including the law about the redemption of firstborn sonsâ€”has been fulfilled by Christ (Mt 5:17; Hb 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.
Beloved friends 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 (Hb 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 Rv 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” (Jn 1:12); we are also firstborn children. Hebrews calls us the “firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Hb 12:23). Since we are firstborn children, we are also granted an inheritance as if we too were firstborn sons (Hb 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 (Dt 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.