Righteous Parents: God in the Manger (Part 9)

Many local television stations across the United States entitle their newscasts Eyewitness News. Obviously, the impression station managers and news directors want to convey is that their newscasts are accurate and that viewers can count on the broadcasts as bona fide sources of daily community information. Such telecasts do not always achieve their goals of accuracy and balanced reporting, but use of the term eyewitness by the producers implies a desire to attain those ideals. That’s because eyewitness, in some sense, still connotes the idea of a credible, reliable report—a trustworthy individual actually witnessed certain events and can provide a truthful account of them.

The principle of the honest eyewitness also derives from the traditions and standards of Western jurisprudence. Courts accept a story as true when two or three witnesses can corroborate and verify its major elements. But the principle goes back much further to the biblical affirmation that testimony had to be confirmed in the mouth of two or three witnesses (Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6; Matt. 18:16; 1 Tim. 5:19).

Luke, ever the careful historian and theologian, used the testimony of reliable witnesses to great effect in confirming the truth of his narrative of the birth of Christ. His efforts were all the more effective because he could cite the most credible witnesses any writer ever had. And he did all that so we would know beyond a doubt that Jesus Christ was the greatest and most special child ever born.

The Righteousness of Joseph and Mary

First of all, Luke removed any uncertainty about the character and honesty of his witnesses by relying on the testimony of Jesus’ parents. Because of the righteous character of Joseph and Mary’s lives, Luke knew his readers could trust their testimony.

Matthew 1:19 identifies Joseph this way: “Joseph … being a just man.” That means he was right with God—a righteous man. And that was notable because in those days Israel had quite an array of theological and political viewpoints that were out of step with God’s righteous plan. There were those influenced by the Sadducees, who were essentially the religious liberals (they denied the supernatural and a bodily resurrection from the dead). Many Jews followed the system of the religious legalists, the Pharisees, who believed in tradition, ceremonies, and good works as a means to salvation. Then there were the adherents of nationalism, who politicized Judaism and were fanatically intent on overthrowing Roman control and regaining independence for the nation of Israel. The Zealots most clearly represented that outlook. And there was even a segment of Jewish society that lived out in the desert as separatists. The Essenes, with their asceticism and contemplative piety, epitomized that sectarian element.

Those crosscurrents of unscriptural emphases had led the nation of Israel far from God. But He was still working among a small remnant of His people, reassuring them that Messiah was coming and that His plan of redemption was still intact. The Lord was faithfully carrying out His program through righteous people, those who believed His promises, repented of their sins, and cast themselves on His mercy for the forgiveness of sins. Joseph was a prime example of this righteous remnant, as was his young wife, Mary, whom Luke earlier quoted as saying, “‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior’” (1:46–47). It’s clear that Jesus’ parents knew and loved the Lord.

The Testimony of Joseph and Mary

Joseph and Mary’s devotion to follow the will of God in everything pertaining to their new son was also clear. Luke 2:21–24 features that faithful, joyful spirit of obedience:

And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.

Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male who 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.”

The Circumcising and Naming of Jesus

The first way in which Jesus’ parents testified to His identity as Messiah and Savior was by bringing Him to be circumcised and formally named.

The Law of Moses prescribed that the parents of male babies, when the boys were eight days old, were to have their sons circumcised (Lev. 12:3). However, God first introduced the rite of circumcision (Gen. 17:9–14) to Abraham when he underwent the formal procedure as an adult and the Lord identified him as the father of the Israelite nation. From then on, as a sign of the covenant, every male child in Israel was to be circumcised on the eighth day.

Although circumcision was physical and done for health reasons (by having the man’s foreskin cut away, God was protecting the Jewish wife from receiving harmful infections and bacteria from her husband), it primarily symbolized the need for spiritual cleansing. Every time Jewish parents brought a son to be circumcised, it was a reminder of original sin—they were sinners; they had borne a sinner—and their need for a cleansing at the deepest level of their souls. That’s why Scripture commands us to circumcise our hearts (Rom. 2:28–29; Phil. 3:3; Col. 2:11).

But why did Jesus, the holy and sinless Son of God (Isa. 53:9; 2 Cor. 5:21), need to be circumcised? Because that’s what God’s Law required. Whatever His Law mandated at that time in redemptive history, Jesus, through His earthly parents, wanted to comply with those commands. As the apostle Paul wrote, “God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal. 4:4).

Christ came to fulfill every aspect of the Law (Matt. 5:17), whether He did so passively as an infant at His circumcision or actively as an adult at His baptism. “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?’ But Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he allowed Him” (Matt. 3:13–15).

Jesus entered this world and lived obediently as a child, young person, and adult under the Law—an entire life of perfection—so that at the Cross the Father could credit the Son’s perfect life to sinners’ accounts. Without the death of One who lived a perfect life, there could be no substitutionary atonement. At Calvary, God treated Jesus as if He had lived your life so He could treat you as if you had lived Jesus’ life. That is a simple summary of the doctrine of justification.

According to Jewish custom, the parents named the son at the same time they had him circumcised. So on that occasion Christ’s parents formally named Him Jesus—and the choice of that name was an easy one. The angel had told both Joseph and Mary that they were to name their Son Jesus (Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:31).

Jesus is the New Testament equivalent of the Hebrew name Joshua and means “Yahweh saves.” Joshua, Moses’ successor, was a great deliverer (Deut. 31:1–8; Josh. 1:1–7) who led the people of Israel into the Promised Land. But the Child whom Mary and Joseph named Jesus was a far greater Deliverer than Joshua. He was God the Savior, come in human flesh to willingly and compassionately save all those who believe.

God is by nature a saving God (Ezek. 18:23, 32), and Jesus demonstrated those sympathies when He wept over the lost condition of Jerusalem: “‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!’” (Matt. 23:37; Matt. 11:28; Luke 15:11–32).

Christianity, as the world’s only true religion, is the only one that provides a genuine savior, and that Savior is Jesus. He affirmed that when He declared, “‘For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost’” (Luke 19:10). And Joseph and Mary testified to that truth when they named Him at His circumcision.

Jesus Presented to God After Mary’s Purification

The second aspect of Joseph and Mary’s testimony to Jesus was twofold: Mary observed a prescribed time of purification for herself, and she and Joseph formally presented Jesus to God. “Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every male who 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’” (Luke 2:22–24).

As Luke tells us, Mary observed a set time for personal purification, in keeping with the Mosaic Law. In Leviticus 12:2–4, the Lord commanded Moses, “‘Speak to the children of Israel, saying: “If a woman has conceived, and borne a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her customary impurity she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall then continue in the blood of her purification thirty-three days. She shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary until the days of her purification are fulfilled.”’”

The seven-day uncleanness was a ceremonial uncleanness that meant the woman could not enter the tabernacle (later the temple) or touch anything holy during that time. The week was symbolically parallel to the woman’s monthly menstrual period, during which God also considered her unclean. Both types of uncleanness were regular reminders to the woman and to her family that they were still sinners in need of God’s forgiveness.

Beginning on the eighth day, the new mother of a male child had to face another period of uncleanness, the thirty-three days of her purification. As in the previous seven days, she was not to touch any consecrated item or enter the worship sanctuary. So for Mary and all other obedient Jewish women who bore sons, there was a somewhat bittersweet forty-day period. On the one hand, they experienced the great joy of having a new son, which meant the family name would continue. But on the other hand, they had to endure a mandatory disassociation from holy things as a reminder that they were sinners, that they had borne sinful sons, and therefore that as human mothers, they needed purification.

Once Mary had carefully observed and completed the forty-day period of uncleanness, she could joyfully and with a clear conscience present Jesus to the Lord. She was accompanied by Joseph, which meant the entire little family was present at the temple for the special observance of the completion of Mary’s purification.

As with the circumcision and purification, Joseph and Mary obeyed the Old Testament when they presented their Son to God: “The firstborn of your sons you shall give to Me” (Exod. 22:29; 13:2, 12, 15; Num. 8:17). It was not mandatory for them to go to the Temple to present Jesus. But in the spirit of how Hannah brought Samuel to the Lord (1 Sam. 1:24–28), they went above and beyond the normal duty and brought God’s Son to God’s house. They knew the Child was very special and that He, of all children, belonged to the Lord already. By their action Jesus’ parents in effect said, “We are devoting this Child to You, God. He is already Yours, so do whatever You will in His life so He serves, honors, and glorifies You.”

That special presentation did not mean, however, that Joseph and Mary dedicated Jesus to the Levitical priesthood. They were of the tribe of Judah and therefore, like all non-Levite families, they needed to redeem their Son from that priestly responsibility by paying five shekels of silver (Num. 18:15–16). That would have been equivalent to many days’ wages, a difficult amount for a working-class couple like Joseph and Mary to pay. But God made sure they had the necessary coins.

That Jesus the Redeemer was ceremonially redeemed is an interesting irony, but it is nevertheless an important scriptural reality. Just as with His earlier circumcision and later baptism, Jesus did not need to go through any picture of redemption. He was the sinless Son of God; He did not need to be cleansed from sin or redeemed from condemnation. But He was circumcised, He was baptized, and He was “redeemed” as part of His presentation to God—all because He had to obey the letter of the Law to fulfill all righteousness on our behalf.

The Sacrifice for Mary’s Purification

Jesus’ ceremonial dedication to the Lord by His parents, as significant as it was, did not officially end Mary’s time of uncleanness. That end would come only by her offering a sacrifice for purification. And once again Mary, as a righteous woman, followed God’s original pattern for offering such a sacrifice:

When the days of her purification are fulfilled, whether for a son or a daughter, she shall bring to the priest a lamb of the first year as a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove as a sin offering, to the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then he shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement for her. And she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who has borne a male or a female.

And if she is not able to bring a lamb, then she may bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons—one as a burnt offering and the other as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for her, and she will be clean. (Lev. 12:6–8)

Notice that Mary had several options in offering her sacrifice. If she and Joseph had had the resources, they could have brought a lamb and a bird. But since they couldn’t afford to do that, they utilized the second option and brought a pair of birds (Luke 2:24). That indicates again that Mary and Joseph were not wealthy. However, the Lord enabled them, with their middle-class resources, to purchase the two birds in the temple, even at inflated prices.

After the priest made atonement for Mary by sacrificing the birds—one for a burnt offering, the other for a sin offering—she was clean. That didn’t mean the blood of the sacrifices washed her sins away; it simply meant Mary’s heart was then right with the Lord because she had confessed her sin and impurity and asked Him for forgiveness.

The sacrifice for Mary’s purification was a wonderful picture that looked ahead to her Son’s final sacrifice, which alone can actually remove people’s sin. When Christ was sacrificed on the cross, God revealed the only answer for sinful alienation from Him. Remember what happened right after Jesus’ death? The thick temple veil that separated mankind from God was ripped in two from top to bottom. That momentous event signified there was now access to God because the final atoning sacrifice was complete. Never again would repentant sinners, such as Mary, need to deal with ceremonial uncleanness.

So Joseph and Mary gave the first confirming testimony to Jesus’ birth, identity, and true purpose. They named Him Jesus because they knew He would save His people from their sins. They came to the temple (which they didn’t have to do) and offered Him to God because they understood that, in a special way, He belonged to the Lord. They had that understanding, of course, because they knew their newborn was the Christ, the Son of the Father.

Because of Joseph and Mary’s faithful testimony, we also can know that the Babe born in Bethlehem was and is the Son of God, the Redeemer of all who trust in Him.[1]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). God in the manger: the miraculous birth of Christ (pp. 111–118). Nashville, TN: W Pub. Group.

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