“The Firstborn Son Is Presented in the Temple” (Luke 2:22-40)

First Sunday after Christmas
December 26, 2021

“The Firstborn Son Is Presented in the Temple” (Luke 2:22-40)

Yesterday was Christmas, and now we’re into the days after Christmas. For us, these days mean eating leftovers, returning gifts that don’t fit, and taking down the decorations. But what about for Jesus? What did the days after his birth mean for him? Our text is one the few places we have an account of what happened during that time. It’s the story of what happened forty days after his birth, when “The Firstborn Son Is Presented in the Temple.”

Actually, the first event after Christmas we have is found in the one verse between Christ’s birth and our text today. In Luke 2:21, we’re told that on the eighth day he was circumcised and given the name Jesus. That was on the eighth day, one week after his birth. Then in verse 22, the beginning of our text today, we come to the next event Luke gives us in his infancy narrative. It’s the presentation of this firstborn son, on the fortieth day, at the temple in Jerusalem. That’s how these things were done in Jewish families. After forty days, the mother was purified, that is, she was considered ready to reenter the temple grounds after being ritually unclean after giving birth. And, after forty days, in the case of a firstborn son, which is what Jesus was, that son was presented to the Lord, consecrated to the Lord, at the temple. The purification of the mother and the presentation of the firstborn son both took place on the fortieth day, after the child’s birth. And for the presentation of the firstborn, sacrifices were offered at the temple in Jerusalem.

That’s what’s going on here: “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.’”

Notice the emphasis on the Law being fulfilled. That’s what Jesus came to do, and he starts doing it even from infancy. The circumcision on the eighth day, when Christ first shed his holy blood. The presentation on the fortieth day, when Christ first entered the temple. Right off the bat little Jesus is busy fulfilling the Law of the Lord in our place. This will continue and reach its climax years later on the cross. But Jesus sets out on his Law-fulfilling work right away, even in his infancy, in the circumcision and the presentation.

There’s some history behind this practice of presenting the firstborn. It goes back to the Exodus and the plague of the death of the firstborn that the Lord sent upon Egypt. That was the tenth and last plague that led to the people of Israel being let go and set free from their bondage. All the firstborn in Egypt were struck down that night, save for the families of the Israelites, whose homes were marked with the blood of the lamb. The angel of death passed over them. The lives of the firstborn of Israel were spared. Therefore, all the firstborn sons of Israel thereafter were to be set apart, consecrated to the Lord’s service.

This law applied to all twelve tribes of Israel. The firstborn sons of all the tribes were to be set aside to the Lord’s service. But there was a substitute clause provided with the law. One tribe, the tribe of Levi, would serve as a kind of “designated hitter” for all the others. The Levites would “pinch-hit” for all those firstborn sons in the service of the Lord. The Levites were the “church worker” tribe, if you will. The men who worked at the tabernacle and later at the temple–the priests, especially–all came from the tribe of Levi. But for the firstborn sons from all the other tribes to “get out of the draft,” so to speak, their parents would offer up a sacrifice at the temple as the price that released their sons from that obligation. That’s what Mary and Joseph are doing for this firstborn son. They’re not from the tribe of Levi but from the tribe of Judah. Tribe of Judah, kings. Tribe of Levi, priests. Jesus is from the tribe of Judah. But he is a firstborn son, and that’s why he’s presented at the temple on the fortieth day.

Even though he’s not from the tribe of Levi, and even though the sacrifice price is paid to get him out of priestly service, there is no “draft-dodging” for this boy. He truly is holy, consecrated to the Lord, as no other son is, whether firstborn or Levite or whatever. Jesus is drafted into the Lord’s service from the get-go, and there’s no going AWOL. Jesus will carry out the greatest priestly service when he offers up his life as the perfect sacrifice for all sin. His body and his blood are the offering, whole and complete and holy.

When Jesus is presented at the temple, this is a foreshadowing of his entire priestly service on our behalf. Years later, on Good Friday, Christ will shed his blood on the cross as the once-and-for-all atoning sacrifice, fulfilling the Law in our stead, paying the price by which our lives are spared. Death passes over us because we are marked with the blood of the Lamb of God. All this gets underway when this firstborn son is presented at the temple.

There are two aged saints at the temple who recognize this. Their names are Simeon and Anna. They see in this baby Jesus the Savior who came to fulfill the promises the Lord had given to Israel. Not only is Jesus the great High Priest, greater than any from the tribe of Levi, he is also the great King from the tribe of Judah. He is the Messiah, the Christ. Simeon and Anna can see this. Oh, it wasn’t as though there was a halo shining around this particular baby’s head, to mark him out as the Messiah. Rather, this was revealed to Simeon and Anna by a special work of the Holy Spirit. They see Jesus, and in him they see the Savior, the fulfillment of what they had been waiting for.

We first encounter Simeon: “Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God. . . .”

Notice what Simeon was waiting for: the “consolation of Israel.” “Consolation” means “comfort.” Think of that great prophecy from Isaiah 40: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” That’s the comfort, that’s the consolation, that Simeon was waiting for. The Lord had told him that he would not die before he saw the consolation come in the person of the Christ. Now, finally, he does see him, in the little baby being brought into the temple courts. Here is the long-awaited Messiah!

Simeon takes the little baby in his arms and says: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” This song of Simeon has come into the church’s liturgy as the canticle the Nunc Dimittis. We sing this song after Communion, because, having encountered Christ up close and personal, now we are ready to depart, whether that means departing the service or even departing this life. Now we can depart in peace. Through the child he held in his arms and beheld with his eyes, Simeon saw the Lord’s salvation in the person of the Christ. Same with us, brothers and sisters, when we receive Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament. We’re ready to depart in peace.

Simeon says that this child is the salvation God has prepared “in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” But how will this salvation come about? In darkness and in pain. The shadow of the cross is present at the presentation. Simeon says to Mary: “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” Jesus will suffer opposition. He will be spoken against by his enemies. They will conspire against him and have him put to death. And the death of her firstborn son will be like a sword piercing Mary’s soul, causing her great grief, as she stands at the cross and sees her son dying.

But there could be no other way. This is the only way salvation could come. It takes the death of God’s only-begotten Son to do the job. Only his holy blood, only his priestly service of offering up the perfect sacrifice, would suffice. And it is more than enough to do the job for you. You are saved from eternal death and condemnation. You are saved for life at peace with God and eternal life forever. This is the consolation Simeon was waiting for and he found in Jesus.

There’s one other saint we want to meet, and that is Anna. It says that Anna was “waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” “Redemption” means being set free, liberated. Anna sees her Redeemer, her liberator, in this child. Yes, Jesus Christ has redeemed us lost and condemned persons, purchased and won us from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil. He redeemed us by his holy precious blood and his innocent suffering and death. And the redemption he won for us is an eternal home in his kingdom.

Consolation and redemption, salvation and peace–these are the gifts Jesus brings with him when he enters the temple. He is the firstborn son, the infant priest. In the temple, here in this temple, we find the same Christ and receive his same gifts. In him we find our consolation and our redemption. In Christ, we find our salvation and our peace. Here in the temple, the firstborn son is presented for us. And so we sing with Simeon, “Lord, now you let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.”

Published in: on December 25, 2021 at 11:36 pm  Leave a Comment  
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