The Man Who Circumcised Jesus
By Kenneth Westby
Shepherds in the Judean hills east of Bethlehem were the first to see something unusual was taking place. It was a dark night as the new moon of the seventh month had yet no light to cast. Bethlehem lay dark in the distance, typical for all small towns before the modern age. During the day there had been much travel on the road passing through Bethlehem leading to Jerusalem, but now deep into the night all was quite and the stars shone bright.
It was fall and the Feast of Tabernacles was fast approaching and soon Jerusalem and the Temple courts would be thronged with Jews celebrating the most joyous festival of the year. In addition to the festival crowds the Roman overlords, for taxation purposes, had ordered another census of Judea requiring males to travel to their ancestral territory. Many were traveling in Israel that season including a humble couple who had journeyed from Nazareth in the north to be registered in Bethlehem, Davidic territory.
Joseph was of Davidic decent and his pregnant wife, Mary, joined him on the trek. With so many travelers coming and going it was no surprise the couple could find no lodging in Bethlehem. But Mary’s child chose that night to be born and they had no choice but to settle for the shelter of an animal stall.
It was a night the shepherds on the hills would never forget. A glorious angel of the Lord appeared to them with a blinding brightness leaving them terrified. Quickly the angel quelled their fears and announced that on this night Israel’s Messiah would be born in the nearby little town of David. "You will find him newly born, wrapped up in clean cloths and lying in a manger." Suddenly, the angel was joined by hundreds of other angels filling the sky above the shepherds, praising and glorifying God in song. Just as suddenly the angels ascended back to heaven.
The shepherds immediately left their flocks and headed to Bethlehem where they found Joseph, Mary, and the baby lying in a manger, just as the angel had announced. The excited shepherds told the couple all the words they had heard from the Lord’s angel. Mary said nothing, but treasured it all up in her heart. The shepherds returned to the hills praising God for all they had heard and seen.
The Circumcision Journey
After a day or two of rest the couple set out for Nazareth seventy miles away, Mary with baby riding upon a donkey led by Joseph. Circumstances dictated their choices. A mother could not enter the temple until after forty days following the birth of a male child and it made no practical or economic sense to stay in a manger for forty days. If they had kinfolk in Bethlehem they would not have been forced to settle for lodging in animal quarters. The journey would take but five or six days allowing them to arrive home in time for the baby’s circumcision.
We don’t know if Joseph and Mary made that schedule or stopped for the circumcision rite along the way. But the biblical record is quite clear; the baby was circumcised on the eighth day. Circumcision was a sign of the covenant made between God and Abraham’s offspring of promise. It represented a "marking" by God on those who were the Sons of the Covenant made with Abraham. (The word circumcision comes from Latin circum, meaning "around" and caedere, meaning "to cut".)
Circumcision came to symbolically represent many facets of God’s requirements for man from repentance from the filth of sin—spiritual circumcision—to the NT rite of baptism which came to symbolize entry into the New Covenant and becoming an heir to Yahweh’s eternal promises.
Abraham’s son of promise, Isaac, was circumcised on the eighth day as instructed by God. From that time circumcision became a most important rite in Israel and was carefully honored by the Jews in the days of Jesus. (Ishmael, Abraham’s other son by handmaid Hagar, was circumcised at age thirteen and to this day Arabs practice circumcision upon their males at age thirteen.)
"On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived" (Luke 2:21).
The Unnamed Circumciser
The circumciser of Jesus is unnamed in Luke’s account. He may have been a rabbi and many were. Joseph would have known where to contact the nearest circumciser who was a member of a class of respected and important functionaries in Israel. They bore title the Mohel and the sacred rite they performed with a sharp knife was called Bris Milah (lit. "Covenant of circumcision"). Originally the command to circumcise was given to the boy’s father but it became custom to delegate that responsibility to a trained and practiced circumciser, the Mohel.
The Gospel of Luke gives a long and detailed account of the circumcision of John the Baptist, but no more than a sentence devoted to that of Jesus. One reason is that the elderly Zechariah was a well-known and respected priest who had ministered in the temple much of his life. His wife, Elizabeth, was too old to become pregnant; nevertheless she did and gave birth to a boy. All these unusual circumstances provided drama and added to the crowd of family and neighbors attending John’s circumcision when the official naming would take place. One gets the impression than no such attention accompanied Jesus’ eighth-day event.
For the Mohel Joseph selected, this circumcision of Jesus was just one of hundreds or thousands he’d performed on Jewish boys. Nothing special. The service would take no more than twenty minutes and the actual cutting no more than a few seconds. Joseph named the boy Jesus, paid the Mohel for his services, and followed his instructions for caring for Jesus’ wounded male member.
I shall never forget the different circumcision circumstances for our two sons. A regular pediatric medical doctor did the procedure on Kennet, our oldest son. The MD did the job, but we thought our son would never stop crying. For our younger son, Eyvind, I secured, with some difficulty, the services of a circumcising rabbi in the Washington D.C. area where we lived in 1968. He wasn’t too keen on performing the rite for a non-Jew, but finally acquiesced. On the eighth day he arrived with his wife, put on his prayer shawl, said a brief prayer, placed a sweet wine-soaked piece of gauze between my son’s lips and did the cutting so quickly that if you weren’t paying close attention you would have missed it. Eyvind made a quiet whimper, sucked on the gauze, and that was it. It was like watching an artist who had made these same careful strokes a thousand times. A delightful experience by comparison.
He Didn’t Have a Clue
The unnamed Mohel that placed hand and knife upon the baby Jesus had no clue there was anything distinctive about this little baby. How might he have felt realizing he was about to mark for God the Son of the Covenant, the literal first born son of Yahweh, creator of heaven and earth? Would his hands have uncontrollably shaken knowing he was touching the long-promised Messiah of Israel? Would his joyful, tear-filled eyes force him to pause to regain composure before cutting the foreskin of God’s firstborn?
Would his heart be racing in excitement over his unique honor and knowing he was in the company of a young mother who had personally talked with the mighty angel Gabriel who came directly from the presence of the Almighty; and standing next to Joseph who had received an angel in a dream telling him to accept Mary’s son and instructing him to name the babe "Jesus" (the Greek form of "Joshua," which means the Lord saves)? Would this Mohel be struggling to breathe?
What if he perceived the full truth concerning the babe his hands held? Before him was the King of Glory, the King of Kings, the one who would ascend through the heavens to be seated at the right hand of the Ancient of Days. This is the one Moses and the prophets foretold would usher in Paradise. This eight-day-old baby was destined to be the Savior of all mankind, the Second and true Adam made in the Image of God, and the King of the age to come, the Kingdom of God. Would his mind have become undone with such a precious treasure of information?
What if he knew the newly named Jesus would become a great teacher in Israel, train disciples, do marvels and miracles, but one day be brutally murdered? What if he also understood that this Jesus would be the first to raise from the dead, be glorified and given eternal life? I doubt any man could contain himself upon receiving such understanding all at once.
Our unnamed Mohel knew none of these things. He knew none of the things about Jesus we’ve been privileged to know. He probably forgot the brief encounter and the names Mary, Joseph, and Jesus as he went on to circumcise hundreds of other Jewish boys in the years following. In all likelihood he was dead by the time the man Jesus began his ministry some thirty years later.
A month later when Jesus was brought to the temple to be consecrated to the Lord two elderly saints, Simeon and Anna, did have spiritual eyes to see that this child was destined for greatness and the salvation of Israel. Their comments amazed Mary and Joseph.
Forgive Him for His Blindness
We can forgive our circumcising Mohel for, on that fall day in Judea, being dull to the greatness all about him. If we had been there that fall day in Judea we would have been as blind as that Mohel who saw only an ordinary Jewish baby boy needing the rite of circumcision.
The man who circumcised Jesus didn’t have a clue. I smile at the thought of him being resurrected and meeting face to face Jesus Christ, the King of Kings. He will be in for the shock of his life. Jesus may say to him, "Remember me? You circumcised me in Galilee?" I expect the awestruck fellow’s jaw will drop to his shoe laces as he struggles to remember his participation in the most important circumcision in the history of the world.
Let’s change our focus for the moment and leave our clueless circumciser to history where he presently rests. Given the circumstances of his time and place he can be forgiven his blindness. Can we be forgiven for our blindness to the presence of greatness?
Here is a question we should ask following our discussion above: Am I clueless to my brushes with greatness? What awesome associations am I missing as I live my Christian life? In what ways today am I blind as a bat to the sacred and holy about me?
Here are a few examples to consider. Start with a fellow Christian you know. Any Christian. Your best friend and soul mate. The one you usually sit behind in church. The one who tends to irritate you. The one you dislike. Fast forward a few years to the glorious First resurrection when that lowly Christian will be exalted by God, glorified, given a crown and rulership in the everlasting Kingdom of God. Should that future fact—as sure as the promises of God—change your view of him or her now?
Sure, he/she is just one of many Christian folk with whom you’ve interacted over the years, many of whose names you’ve forgotten. We’ve all grown accustomed to seeing our brethren as unremarkable, fault-ridden, plain old regular people. Nothing special, right? Can we or should we view them otherwise?
I like to people-watch and maybe you do too. There you are sitting astride an airport concourse, or on a bench in a busy mall, or along a lakeside walking path watching humanity walk past. We can view them as a faceless crowd like those we frequently plow through to get to where we are going. Or we can think about them as individuals like us and look at them face by face as they pass by. What are they thinking about? Where are they going? What is their family like? Are they happy? Would I like them as a friend? Do they know God?
I’ve done the following mind experiment many times. Looking at each person passing by I focus on this one particular thought, namely: there goes a man, a woman, or child made in the Image of God and destined for ultimate glory and eternal life. I admit that it takes some mental work to keep your mind just on that fact and not on how they look, their clothes, race, body shape, displayed attitude, etc.
The truth is, each passerby is a child of God and belongs to Him. Is there a benefit to my mind-experiment? I think so as it brings me to catch a glimpse of reality and be amazed that God will one day deal with each of these strangers (to me), as He has with me. He is their loving Father too, whether they know that now or not.
Such ponderings should help me have a kinder, more respectful attitude toward the individuals that make up the "teeming mass of humanity." They all count to God, He knows their names, and they are His entire heritage. Even though many, or perhaps most at present, don’t realize it, they will one day come face-to-face with their Maker and discover that they belong to Him, that He cares for them, and has planned a spectacular future for them.
We Rub Shoulders with the Holy, with Greatness
Doing that same mind-experiment among our Christian community should be a lot easier for us. The Mohel didn’t know he was in the presence of a holy couple and touching the Son of God; do we know that with every handshake among brethren we hold the hand of one who has the Holy Spirit of God within them? Do we pause, from time to time, to see our fellow Christian as just being a few years away from being crowned by Christ? Does it resonate in us that we are talking to holy brethren who are destined for glory and eternal life? It might help our relationships if we did.
The old but true aphorism "familiarity breeds contempt," too often characterizes our day-to-day relationships. It shouldn’t. Just because you know that person doesn’t mean he is any less worthy of respect, honor, or perhaps even a touch of awe.
That Christian husband of yours across the breakfast table is destined for unbelievable glory and is highly esteemed by His Majesty. That wife of yours talking away on the phone with her friend will one day soon possess powers beyond those of any human that every existed—and she is personally loved by the creator of heaven and earth. That church lady you have never talked to is destined to command angels. That gawky teenager whose name you haven’t bothered to learn will soon be baptized and receive the power of God’s Holy Spirit. Should those facts temper our human tendency to take one another for granted, or worse yet, disrespect them?
Can we from time to time let ourselves see the uniqueness and preciousness of our fellow sons and daughters of God? Can we let our minds see the flicker of greatness in those around us? Can we dream of them in the embrace of The Mighty Savior and members of the Heavenly Kingdom? It will happen, you know.
God has graciously given us eyes to see that we Christians are members of the holy assembly, the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. Together we are called "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God…"
Peter writes, "Show proper respect to everyone [because every human being bares the image of God]: Love the brotherhood of believers…."
I believe we can cut the man who circumcised Jesus some slack for missing the grandeur, the magnitude of the moment. His eyes were not opened. He didn’t see the Savior of Mankind, but only an eight-day old Jewish baby of common parents. No such slack can be cut in our case. We have eyes to see the magnitude of what God is doing in His Church, among His people, and that should affect the way we view and deal with each other.