When I was a child, there were always things I had to do before I was allowed to watch television. I had to finish my homework, clean up my toys, tidy my room and wash the dishes. Only when they were done was I allowed to turn on the TV and watch my favourite shows.
There are lots of people who think that this is how Christianity works: you do what you have to do by obeying a lot of rules, and if you get them all done and do them well enough, you might be able to get to heaven. If you don’t do them well enough, or fail to do them at all, then, a lot of people think, you don’t make it in.
Jesus was born into a religious system that believed this way. For the Jews of Jesus’ time, people needed to keep the Law of Moses, written in the first five books of the Bible, if they wanted to be God’s people. Among these laws, in Leviticus 12:3, Jewish parents were commanded to circumcise their sons on the eighth day after they were born to signify that they were a part of the covenant that God had established with Abraham. Circumcision identified Jewish males that they were one of God’s holy people.
It is easy to skip over Luke 2:21 when we read this part of the Bible. However, this verse is very significant in the story of Jesus saving the world. By being circumcised, Jesus began to fulfil the Law of Moses in order to free us from the demands it makes on us. In Galatians 4:4,5 Paul writes,
But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children. (NLT)
Jesus became subject to the Law of Moses in order to free us from its rules so we can live in freedom as God’s children. It is like Jesus turning up at my house when I was a child to do all the things I needed to do before I could watch TV, so that I could skip over the difficult things and enjoy the good stuff. What is different is that instead of having a few chores to do around the house, the Law of Moses dictated every aspect of life, and the goal is not just watching TV, but a life spent as God’s children, now and for eternity. Jesus said in Matthew 5:17 that he did not come to abolish what God’s law demands of us, but to fulfil its demands. Jesus’ circumcision was his first step in fulfilling the demands of God’s law in order to free us from the law. As some commentators have said, in his circumcision, Jesus shed his first blood for the redemption of the world.
Jesus fulfilling the law for us is important for us in a couple of ways. Firstly, if a relationship with God and eternal life was up to me keeping God’s law, then I could never know if I have done enough or done it well enough. When I fail at loving God and loving others, there will always be doubts about whether I have done what I need to do to be good enough in God’s sight. Jesus fulfilling God’s law, beginning with his circumcision, means that we can find rest and peace in the faith that Jesus has done everything for us. This is grace: that Jesus has done for us what we can’t do ourselves by keeping God’s Law perfectly, and then he gives us the benefit – a new relationship with God as his children and a life that is even stronger than death.
Jesus keeping God’s Law for us also means that we don’t have to spend our lives trying to be good enough for God. Jesus makes us good by giving his perfect life to us as a gift. We can then give our lives to others as an act of grace to them. The big difference between Christianity and other religions is that their whole focus is on trying to be good enough so they can reach their spiritual goal for themselves. This is essentially self-serving. When we live a life of faith, trusting that we are already good because of Jesus’ obedience to the Law, then we can spend our time and efforts loving other people and extending grace to them. We can focus on others because Jesus has already taken care of what we need. Living a life that pleases God is still important because our actions and the way we treat others are the most effective ways of giving witness to our faith. People look for evidence of what we believe in what we do much more than what we say. When we trust that Jesus has done everything for us, then we are free as his followers and disciples to forget about ourselves and live in love for others.
For Christians, New Year’s Day is about a lot more than beginning another calendar year. The eighth day after Jesus’ birth is about him beginning to obey God’s law as he is circumcised. As Paul tells us, Jesus did this to free us from rules and laws and expectations. Because of Jesus’ obedience, and the blood he shed in his circumcision and on the cross, he gives us his goodness so we can be called children of God and live in the freedom that comes with that faith. Today is not just about making resolutions which we may or may not keep. It is about finding freedom through faith in Jesus’ obedience for us, so we can serve each other in love.
More to think about:
- Did you make any New Year resolutions this year? If you did, what are they? If you didn’t, why not?
- If you have ever made New Year’s resolutions, have you been successful in keeping them? If people find it difficult to live up to the expectations we place on ourselves, why do we think we are able to live up to God’s expectation of us?
- Read through the book of Leviticus. What do you think it would be like to live in a culture that expected people to obey every thing it commands?
- As Christians, we can easily take our freedom for granted, but Paul’s words in Galatians 4:4,5 explain that we only have our freedom because Jesus obeyed God’s law for us, beginning with his circumcision. How can that freedom also help to free us from the expectations other people might have on us, and even we might have on ourselves?
- Instead of using our freedom selfishly, Jesus teaches us to use our freedom to love others (see Galatians 5:13,14). If there is someone in your life who has expectations of you, how can you use your freedom to love that person this week?