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January 1: Circumcision of Christ our Lord

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In ancient Israel, it was the custom for Jewish boys to be circumcised when they were eight days old. January 1, being the 8th day after December 25, is the day on the Church Calendar when Jesus’ circumcision is commemorated. As is often the case with the baptism, or christening, of infants, during a circumcision ceremony, a child was formally given his name. Often, when churches commemorate January 1 as the day of Jesus’ circumcision, they place special emphasis on Jesus’ receiving his name.

The name Jesus, or Yeshua as it would have been pronounced by Jesus and his contemporaries, literally means “Savior”, or more specifically, “Yahweh saves”. What did Jesus, who is himself Yahweh in the flesh, come to save people from? The hopes of many of the Jewish leaders of the first century had a political focus—they longed for the Messiah to liberate Israel from Roman oppression.

The angel explains to Joseph why Mary’s child is to receive this name in Matthew 1:21: “He shall be called Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” Jesus’ mission of dying on the cross and rising from the dead, though it wasn’t what was expected by so many of Jesus’ fellow Israelites, was actually a far greater work of salvation than the political hopes of the people. Israel could have been set free from Roman tyranny, but the problem of bondage to sin and death would have remained.

Though many Israelites saw liberation from Rome as their most pressing need, Jesus helped people see that their greatest need is, in fact, reconciliation with God. As Jesus explained, whoever commits sin is a slave to sin. The wages of sin is death. We are, by nature, enslaved to sin and sin, if not atoned for, leads to death—not just physical death, but spiritual death, eternal alienation from God.

This need of forgiveness is what Jesus provides. The salvation Jesus worked out for us was accomplished, not through military conquest, but through dying. This was why the gospel was such a stumbling block to so many. The Messiah was supposed to be a victorious conqueror, not someone who is himself conquered. Jesus’ death, though, was not a sign of defeat. In dying, Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the real sacrifice for sins that all of the animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant merely foreshadowed. His blood atoned for the sins of the world, meaning that God’s wrath against sin was completely satisfied. In fairness, our blood should have been shed for our own sins. Yet God, in his mercy, sent Jesus to be our sin-bearer so that he could declare us forgiven through trusting in Jesus’ sacrifice.

This is why Jesus was named “Yahweh saves”. God the Son saves us from the wrath of God the Father, yet this doesn’t mean that the members of the Trinity are in any way working against each other, as if the Father wanted to punish humanity, and the Son had to persuade him otherwise. No, the gospel itself was God the Father’s good plan from all eternity. As John 3:16 says, God the Father loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son. Through Jesus, our sins no longer stand in the way of fellowship with God. God doesn’t wink or simply overlook our sins—this is impossible for a holy God to do. Our sins no longer stand in the way, not because they’ve been excused, but because they’ve been paid for. As Peter says in his epistle, Jesus has suffered in his own body the punishment due us.

This is the good news of the gospel, and the good news of the Christmas season. Let us be thankful for Jesus, thankful that Yahweh, who would be more than justified in punishing us for our sins, saves us from our sins—in essence, saves us from ourselves. Happy New Year!

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