Luk_2:21. And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
THE naming of children has often been used, not merely for distinction’s sake, but also to express some expectation or wish which the parent entertained respecting his child. Of course, the name must frequently have ill-suited the character of the person that bore it. This was remarkably the case with the two first children that were born into the world. Adam named the first Cain, (which signifies getting,) supposing that he had gotten that Promised Seed who was to repair the ruins of the fall: and his second son he named Abel (vanity), having already had abundant evidence of the sinful dispositions of Cain. But in both he was mistaken; for the former proved a murderer; and the latter a distinguished saint.
But God has on several occasions condescended to give names to children previous to their conception in the womb: and the names so given have always designated the real character of the persons themselves. We are particularly informed, that God required the child which he gave to Zacharias and Elizabeth to be called John, which means grace or favour; because, whilst he was a favour bestowed on them, he was to be an object of God’s peculiar favour, and an occasion of much good to others [Note: Luk_1:13-14.].
The name of Jesus also was given by the angel to the Virgin’s Child, “before he was conceived in her womb.” And how significant this was, it is scarcely needful to mention. It was the same name with Joshua, and meant Divine Saviour: and was therefore most fitly given to Him, who was “Emmanuel, God with us,” and who was destined “to save his people from their sins [Note: For a fuller explanation of this, see Disc, on Mat_1:21-23.].” The time of imposing the name on a child was generally that of his circumcision. It was thus in the case of John [Note: Luk_1:59-63.], as also in that of Jesus: the solemnity of that rite giving an additional weight to the name imposed.
But it is to the rite itself, that is, to circumcision, that we shall confine our attention at this time: for, in point of importance, it seems to have been the first and greatest of all the ordinances among the Jews. We propose to shew,
The nature and intent of circumcision—
It was originally given to Abraham as a seal of the covenant of grace—
[God made a covenant with Abraham, to give him a numerous posterity, with the land of Canaan for their inheritance; and at last one particular Seed, “in whom all the nations of the earth should be blessed.” This promise Abraham believed; and he looked forward to that peculiar Seed as the true and only source of blessings to himself. In consequence of this faith, he was accepted of God; who engaged to treat him as a righteous person, through the righteousness of the Saviour imputed to him [Note: Rom_4:3; Rom_4:18-25.]. And in token that he would execute every part of this gracious covenant, he appointed him and all his posterity to be circumcised. This is the account which St. Paul himself gives of this ordinance: he calls it a “sign,” and a “seal:” a “sign” to Abraham and his seed, that they were the Lord’s peculiar people; and a “seal” to them, that God would be his and their God, provided they walked in the faith, and in the steps of their father Abraham [Note: Rom_4:11-12.]. As a sign, it shewed them their engagements to God; and as a seal, God’s engagements to them.]
But, as continued to the Jews, in and after the days of Moses, it was a seal of the covenant of works—
[The Mosaic covenant differed materially from that of Abraham, and yet the same ordinance was a seal to both. The rite of circumcision was absolutely indispensable to all [Note: Gen_17:14 It was equally enjoined by the law. Compare Exo_12:48. with Joh_7:22.]: it was invariably the rite, by which, and by which alone, any persons, whether infants or adults, were initiated into that covenant. And in what light were they taught to view it? We answer, as binding them to an observance of the whole law of Moses, and as suspending their salvation on their performance of this condition. In this light St. Peter viewed it, when that famous controversy respecting circumcision was brought before the whole College of Apostles at Jerusalem: he reproved those who insisted on the observance of that rite, for “putting a yoke upon the Christians, which not even the most eminent among the Jews had been able to bear [Note: Act_15:1; Act_15:10.].” Of course, if circumcision had not bound them to the observance of the whole law of Moses, there could have been no foundation for this objection. St. Paul yet more strongly confirms this statement: for he says to those who were in danger of being misled by the Judaising Christians, “Behold, I Paul say unto you, that, if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing: for I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law [Note: Gal_5:2-3.]” Here then the point is clear; that though circumcision was given primarily as a seal of the covenant of grace, it was eventually (though not expressly called so) a seal of the covenant of works also. From the time that it was first instituted, it continued to be a sign and a seal; but the privileges of which they were a seal, and the obligations of which they were a sign, varied according to the nature of the covenant to which the rite itself was annexed: to Abraham, it sealed the covenant of grace; to Moses and the Jews, the covenant of works.]
This view of the rite will throw light upon,
The reasons of our Lord’s submitting to it—
These were chiefly two;
That he might appear to be the Promised Seed—
[The Person in whom all the nations of the earth were to be blessed, was marked out by God as one particular individual, who should in due time arise, and in whom “the covenant made with Abraham should be confirmed.” St. Paul infers this from the very term used on that occasion being in the singular number: and though we should not have conceded to him that inference, as a critic, we doubt not but that the truth he affirms, was intended, by the Holy Ghost, to be marked in that very expression on which he founds his remark [Note: Gal_3:16.]. At all events, the Messiah was to be of the posterity of Abraham; all of whom were circumcised: therefore, if Jesus were not circumcised, he could have no claim, no allowable claim, to this distinction: whatever he might be, he could not be acknowledged to be a child of Abraham. It is true, this mark could not distinguish him as the Messiah, because it was common to all the Jews: but the want of it would have been an infallible proof that he was not the Messiah; and therefore he submitted to receive it.]
That he might be fully under the obligations of the Mosaic law—
[Mankind at large were subject only to the moral law; and therefore for their redemption it would have been sufficient for the Son of God to assume our nature: but the house of Israel, for whose salvation he was sent in the first instance, were under the ceremonial law; and therefore for their redemption he must be made under that also. This is particularly noticed by St. Paul, who says, that “in the fulness of time God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, that he might redeem them that were under the law [Note: Gal_4:4-5.].” Now it was by circumcision that the children of the Jews were initiated into the Mosaic covenant, and brought fully into subjection to the law. Hence therefore Christ submitted to circumcision, and acknowledged at all times his obligation to obey that law in every thing. He says himself, “I am not come to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfil them.” There is one very remarkable instance of his obedience to the law, which reflects considerable light on the subject before us. Baptism was not any part of the original law: but it had been introduced as an additional rite for the admission of proselytes into the Jewish religion: and the introduction of it had been so far sanctioned by God himself, that John, the forerunner of our Lord, was expressly commissioned to baptize all who desired an admission into the kingdom of the Messiah. Hence Jesus Christ himself went to be baptized of him: and upon John’s declining it as unsuitable to the dignity of our Lord, Jesus said to him, “Suffer it to be so now; for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness [Note: Mat_3:15.].” The same strict adherence to the law was observable in him at all times, except when the execution of his high office, and the establishment of his Divine authority, required a temporary deviation from it. Indeed, he not only fulfilled the law, but was himself the completion of it; every part of it being accomplished in him as its great prototype. In a word, if he would redeem mankind, he must do it by obeying that law which we had broken, and enduring those penalties which we had incurred. This therefore he undertook to do, that, by his atoning sufferings and perfect obedience, he might restore us to our forfeited inheritance. Of this work his circumcision was the commencement: it was the commencement of those sufferings which constitute his atoning sacrifice, and of that obedience which constitutes our justifying righteousness. It was the commencement of that “work which God had given him to do,” and which terminated at last in what the Apostle fitly calls, “his obedience unto death.”]
Let us now turn our attention to,
The lessons, which his submission to it may teach us—
It may well teach us,
To observe the instituted ordinances of our religion—
[Circumcision, with respect to us, is done away, and is superseded by the milder rite of baptism. But baptism is as necessary for us, as circumcision was to the Jews; and it is to be administered to the very same persons.
We know that this is a point disputed by many; who are fond of bringing forward the controversy on all occasions. Far be it from us to encourage a controversial spirit: we would avoid it, and discourage it, to the utmost of our power. Yet it is necessary that we should instruct those who are under our charge in all things relating to their duty; and therefore, without offence to others, we may be allowed to state with plainness our views and sentiments.
Two reasons in particular are urged for not administering baptism to infants: the one is, that we are not any where commanded to do so; the other is, that children are not capable of all the ends of baptism; since baptism presupposes a knowledge and approbation of those principles, into which we are baptized.
But to this we answer, What occasion was there for renewed orders concerning a thing that had already existed two thousand years? A rite more suited to our dispensation was introduced; but the persons interested in it were not therefore deprived of their birthright. If it was intended to abridge the privileges of children, we might well expect that such an intention should have been expressed: but where has God expressed it? and who but God can take away the privileges which God has given?
Again: If it be any argument against the baptism of children, that they cannot understand the principles which they become pledged to maintain, it is equally so against the circumcision of infants: and whosoever will condemn that, let him answer it to God.
Be it so; children are not capable of all the ends of baptism. But was Christ capable of all the ends of circumcision? was not one end of it to put away (emblematically then, and really afterwards) the lusts of the flesh? But had he any lusts to put away? Yet he was circumcised: and consequently, children may now be baptized, though they be not capable of all the ends of baptism.
Once more: Are not children capable of receiving the blessings of the covenant? for our Lord says, “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of God.” And if they are capable of the blessings of the covenant, are they not also of the seal; when that seal is nothing more than a token from God that the blessings shall be theirs?
We have said thus much, not for the sake of stirring up controversy, but of confirming you in the principles, which, as members of the Church of England, you profess.
This only we add, that if Jesus Christ submitted to circumcision for the good of his enemies, much more should you consult the benefit of your children by dedicating them to God in baptism.]
To seek that purity of which circumcision was an emblem—
[What the true circumcision was, we are abundantly informed both by Moses and the prophets [Note: Deu_10:16. Jer_4:4.]. Even at that time circumcision, if not accompanied with a suitable course of life, was accounted for uncircumcision: and much more, under our dispensation, must those only be accounted Christians, who are such in deed and in truth [Note: Rom_2:25; Rom_2:28-29.]. We will call upon you all then, not to rest in your baptism, as though that made you Christians, but to seek the baptism of the Holy Ghost, and “the answer of a good conscience towards God [Note: 1Pe_3:21.].” It is remarkable that St. Paul represents this very purification as the thing intended to be produced by the circumcision of Christ. We are (federally) “circumcised in him:” but (personally) we are to “put away the body of the sins of the flesh [Note: Col_2:10-11.].” And the very promise which God has given us, is, that “he will circumcise our hearts, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul [Note: Deu_30:6.].” Look ye to it then, my brethren, that this seal of our covenant be found in you. “Put off the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and put on the new man, which after God is renewed in righteousness and true holiness.” It may be painful thus to mortify the flesh; but it must be done, if you would have any well-founded hope towards God: for, notwithstanding “salvation is bestowed by grace through faith,” yet it is an unalterable truth, that “they who are Christ’s, have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.”]