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Author:Rev. Joe Poppe
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Congregation:Redeemer Canadian Reformed Church
 Winnipeg, Manitoba
 www.redeemer-canrc.ca
 
Title:The LORD requires that Israel’s firstborn be dedicated to Him
Text:Exodus 13:1-2; 11-16 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Calling
 
Preached:2008-10-19
Added:2009-01-14
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Confession of Dependence and Divine Greeting

Ps.100

Ten words of the covenant

Ps.51:1,4

Prayer of confession and illumination

 

Ministry of the Word

Reading: Exo.13:1-16; 1Pet.1:13-21; Titus.2:11-15

Ps.34:5,9

Text: Exo.13:1-2,11-16

The LORD requires that Israel’s firstborn be dedicated to Him.

We’ll consider:

  1. why Israel’s firstborn belong to the LORD.
  2. how Israel’s firstborn could be redeemed.
  3. what the law about the firstborn signifies.

Hy.37:2,3,4

 

Offering

Ps.111;1,2,5

Prayer of thanksgiving and intercessions

Hy.59

Divine blessing

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Joe Poppe, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,

Did you hear how I just addressed you?  Often we take the opening words of the sermon as the minister’s way of beginning his address.  Because we hear them each service, we take them for granted.  But they are very important.  They speak to us about how God sees us.  Through the mouth of his servants the Lord addresses us as “beloved,” that means “loved ones.”  He addresses us as “congregation,” which means “gathering or assembly.” He addresses us as the congregation “of the Lord Jesus Christ,” emphasizing that that we “belong to the Saviour Jesus Christ.”

How is it possible for God to call us His loved ones, who belong to Christ?  Is that how you see yourselves?  Who really are you?  What are you?  I’m not asking about how others would see you, or how you would explain yourself to them.  From your own point of view, at a basic level, how do you understand yourself in relation to everything and everyone else?  What is your reference point, your centre of gravity, for your self understanding?  If you could name an event in history or something that happened in your life that anchors you and gives you a frame of reference for who you are, what would it be?

If we were to ask a religious Jewish person to answer such questions, we would probably get this reply.  He would tell you that he was one of God’s chosen people.  And if you were to press him for a foundational moment in history that defines who he is, he would probably identify the giving of the Law through Moses on Mount Sinai.  To a practising Jew, that episode is central to his self-understanding.  For in the Law of Moses, God gave all these ordinances and decrees that form and shape every aspect of a Jew’s life.  How to dress, what to eat, how to organize their families and society, who to marry, how to administer justice, what feasts to celebrate, etc.  Religious Jews see themselves as keepers of the Law of Moses.  For a Jew, the Law of Moses stands central to his faith and practice.

It is a great pity that many Jews identify themselves according to the Law of Moses.  For that is not how the LORD intended for them to see themselves.  Their starting point is incorrect.  The LORD did not begin to make Himself known to His people in Exodus 20, with the giving of the law.  He did so already in the first chapters of Exodus, revealing Himself as Israel’s Redeemer.  Their redemption came about through a series of plagues, culminating in the death of the firstborn of the people and livestock of Egypt.

To emphasize this point, the LORD gave some very specific commands after redeeming His people from Egypt.  Commands about how they were to remember His mighty works.  The Lord gave the command to celebrate the Passover Feast, and also the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  Feasts that show how God passed over the Israelite homes with blood on the door when He killed the firstborn of Egypt, and to how He brought them out of Egypt.  These feasts were to be kept as a memorial throughout the generations to come, to remember the LORD’s work as Redeemer.

In addition to this, the LORD also gave a command that the Israelites consecrate the firstborn of both the men and animals.  God told the Israelites that the firstborn had to be set apart, dedicated to Him.  Every time a couple gave birth to their first son, he was to be dedicated to God.  Every time one of their livestock gave birth to its first male offspring, it was to be sacrificed to God.  Through these means the LORD was reminding Israel: I brought you out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.  Your life is mine.  Show that by consecrating your firstborn to me.  I preach to you the word of God under the following theme:

The LORD requires that Israel’s firstborn be dedicated to Him.  We’ll consider:

  1. why Israel’s firstborn belong to the LORD.
  2. how Israel’s firstborn could be redeemed.
  3. what the law about the firstborn signifies.

Over the past months we’ve considered God’s great acts of delivering His people from Egypt.  It was like a birthing process.  Tremendous contractions and birth pangs, accompanied by great pain, followed by a miraculous birth!  New life bursting forth out of impossible circumstances!  The LORD accomplished what He had already stated in Exodus 4:22-23.  He told Moses to say to Pharaoh, “This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, "Let my son go, so he may worship me." But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.”

Now that Israel has been birthed, the LORD requires something back from His people for His mighty acts in delivering them.  He requires His people to give back to Him something of immeasurable value.  The LORD says, “Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether man or animal.” (Exo.13:2).  God demands that the firstborn of every household, of every stable and every pasture be consecrated, set apart to Him.  Each one is to belong to the LORD Himself, and serve as a living reminder of the His great acts.

We need to stop, and question: what does it mean to consecrate the firstborn?  Does it mean anything at all for us in the 21st century?  Or is this ancient practice just something that is mildly interesting, but largely irrelevant to our lives today?  To “consecrate” means: to make holy, to set apart, or to dedicate to God.  This applies to both the firstborn sons, as well as to the firstborn males of Israel’s animals.  They were to be set apart for service to God, devoted to Him and His worship.

Practically speaking, this meant that the firstborn sons were to be devoted to the worship of God.  They were to be set apart for temple service.  The LORD’s command was that the eldest son in each family was to be given back to Him, to minister before Him in His house.  For the animals, the firstborn males were to be offered as sacrifices on the altar.  Some of the animals, like the donkeys, were unclean.  They could not be given as a sacrifice to God.  Thus they had to be redeemed, or killed.  If someone wanted to keep a firstborn donkey, he had to pay the price for it by sacrificing a lamb in its place.  The point is: the firstborn belong to God; they must be set apart, dedicated to His service.

So why was this necessary?  So that Israel would remember God’s mighty acts in redeeming them.  The LORD had delivered His people with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.  His act of slaying the firstborn of Egypt, while sparing the firstborn of the Israelites was so great, so profound, it must never be forgotten!  It must be commemorated from generation to generation.  Not just in Israel’s various feasts.  But also in the identification of actual people and animals as symbolic reminders of the LORD’s great deeds.

The LORD entered time and space and transformed the natural order of things to redeem His people.  The firstborn were thus to be set apart as special and unique.  As walking, breathing reminders of God’s faithfulness.  Every time a husband and wife were joined in marriage and brought forth a son, he was to be given back to God.  A living reminder of God’s mighty acts of deliverance.  Every time one of the cattle or sheep of goats or other livestock gave birth to its first male offspring – it was to be offered as a sacrifice to the LORD.  Remembering and giving thanks for His wondrous deliverance from Egypt.

Remember, beloved, that the firstborn was to be dedicated to God.  That is significant.  For in ancient cultures, the firstborn son had a special place.  In many ways a family’s hope was centred on the firstborn.  He held the key to carrying on a family’s name, legacy, and wealth.  The firstborn son took over the position of head of the household when his father died.  The father would give the firstborn son a special blessing; he also received a double share of his father’s inheritance.

Yet the LORD says: the firstborn are mine.  They were not to be the hope and future of Israel.  The LORD Himself is Israel’s hope and expectation.  He was to One who avenged the slaying of Israel’s sons in the Nile.  He was delivering His people from slavery in Egypt.  He would give them a land of their own, a piece of paradise, flowing with milk and honey.  The LORD would dwell among His people, give them reason for being, and make them great among the nations.

In requiring His people to devote the firstborn to Him, the LORD was not demanding fair payment for His acts of deliverance.  This is not a situation where the LORD says: I killed the firstborn of the Egyptians to save you, and now demand your firstborn as compensation for my actions.  No!  The reason the Israelites had to devote their firstborn to the LORD was as an act of remembrance.

The LORD was commanding Israel to remember where they came from.  That is why our text has commands about the celebration of the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the midst of the instructions about the firstborn.  For it was a feast of remembrance.  God wanted His people to remember the cost paid to deliver them.  He wanted them to remember who it was who had brought about their miraculous escape.  The command to consecrate the firstborn was given so that Israel would have many living reminders of God’s wondrous acts of redemption.

Now, beloved, what does all this mean for us today?  The firstborn does not really play a major role in our society anymore.  But in Israel, the firstborn symbolised a family’s hope and future.  Whether we have children or not, we all have a firstborn.  We all have a place where we put our hope.  We all have something we invest in for the future.

What is your firstborn?  In who or what do you put your hope?  Perhaps it is your children.  Does your happiness and satisfaction depend on the success of your kids?  Does it depend on them doing well in school, in sports and music?  Do you feel that if they are achieving, you are succeeding?  If they are not, does your world fall apart?  Are you trying to find your worth in your kids?

Do you find your hope in your material wellbeing?  In your bank account, your retirement savings, or the equity in your home?  Does it make you feel insecure when there is economic uncertainty, and when the stock market crashes?  Where, beloved, is your life grounded?  On who or what do you base your hope?  Where do you find satisfaction in life?

What the LORD is teaching us in the command to devote our firstborn to Him is that He is our hope and future.  God is teaching us to invest our lives in Him.  It is as the Lord Jesus taught His disciples when they were worrying about food and clothing and what tomorrow might bring.  In Matthew 6:33 Jesus said, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  The LORD is our Redeemer.  Our life, and everything we need for life can be found only in Him.

This brings us to our second point.  It is we’ll consider how Israel’s firstborn could be redeemed.  Israel’s firstborn sons were to be devoted to God.  Set apart, for service to Him.  The LORD’s intention was for the firstborn to be devoted to His service.  Later in Exodus, the LORD would give instructions to Moses about the building of a tabernacle.  He needed people to serve in the temple ministry.  It involved leading Israel in the worship of God.  Offering sacrifices, praying, leading the congregation in song, teaching, and much more.  The firstborn were to be set apart, dedicated to God for such service.

Yet Israel interfered with the LORD’s plans, with their sin of worshipping the golden calf.  At that time the Levites rallied to Moses, to help to get the people back under control.  At the LORD’s command they went through the camp, killing many who had worshipped the golden calf.  As a result Moses said to them, “You have been set apart to the LORD today.”  From that day onwards the Levites were consecrated for the temple ministry.

So what about God’s command that the firstborn was to be devoted to Him?  That command remained.  It is repeated many times in Scripture (Exo.22:29-30; 34:19-20; Lev.27:26,27; Num.3:11-13; 8:16-19; 18:15-18 Deu.15:19).  Consider, for example, Numbers 3:12-13.  The LORD says, “I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites in place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are mine, for all the firstborn are mine. When I struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, I set apart for myself every firstborn in Israel, whether man or animal. They are to be mine. I am the LORD.”

What changes is that instead of being set apart for temple ministry themselves, Israel’s firstborn sons could be redeemed.  Parents were required to pay a price, so that the Levites could serve in the place of their firstborn son.  In Numbers 18:16 the LORD tells His people, “you must redeem every firstborn son and every firstborn male of unclean animals.  When they are a month old, you must redeem them at the redemption price set at five shekels.” (Num.18:16).  Thus Israel’s parents had to pay the redemption price of five shekels of silver to set free their firstborn sons.

Here we have a picture of how the LORD would secure our redemption.  In Q&A 19 of the catechism we confess that we know our Mediator the Lord Jesus Christ “through the holy gospel…, which God… foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law.”  The Belgic Confession makes the same point in Article 25.  It says that “the ceremonies and symbols of the law have ceased with the coming of Christ…  Yet their truth and substance remain for us in Jesus Christ, in whom they have been fulfilled.”

Christ is often referred to in Scripture as God’s firstborn Son (Rom.8:29; Col.1:15,18; Heb.1:6; Rev.1:5).  Since He came to fulfil the law, He was subject to it.  Luke 2:22-23 tells us that Joseph and Mary took Jesus to Jerusalem to present Him before the Lord according to the command given in verse 1 of our text, that every firstborn son had to be consecrated to the Lord.  Christ was subject to the law, to redeem us from it.  Paul explains this in Galatians 4:4-5.  He said, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.”

Thus Jesus had to be consecrated to the LORD.  As the firstborn, He was set apart, dedicated to God’s service.  His parents paid the price to redeem Him.  They did that so that in every way Christ would fulfil the Law of Moses.  Yet though He was redeemed, Christ was not freed from the priestly service the LORD required of Him.  He came voluntarily into this world to render such service to God.  He came to secure our redemption.  Not from slavery in a foreign land.  But from bondage to sin and the devil.

Peter writes in His first letter about our redemption.  In 1 Peter 1:18-19 he says, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed… but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.”  To redeem something means to buy it back, to ransom it from captivity.  To secure the release of Israel from Egypt, God extracted a terrible price from Egypt: the death of all the firstborn.  He was teaching His people, I purchased you, I brought you out of your misery through the death of many Egyptians.  To secure our release from sin and misery God demanded a much higher price: the death of His own firstborn Son.  Thus we see that our redemption was secured only by the price Christ paid for us, by offering His body and blood for us on the cross.

This brings us to our final point.  In it we’ll see what the law about the firstborn signified.  There was a central point that the LORD wanted to make to His people by requiring the consecration of the firstborn.  It was that He had paid the price to redeem them, and that they were His.  The LORD now had a special claim on the people of Israel.  He was their God, not just because He had created them, but especially because He had saved them.  Israel was God’s chosen people, bought at a high price.

The Lord has the same claim on us, and on our lives.  Christ has paid the price to redeem us from our sins, and to set us free from the power of the devil.  A mighty act of redemption; a wondrous work of grace!  Paul speaks about this in Titus 2:14.  He speaks about our Saviour Jesus Christ, “who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.”

The result of God redeeming us through the blood of Christ is that He now requires that we be consecrated to Him.  We are to be set apart, dedicated to God, devoted to His service.  Practically speaking, God now demands holiness from us.  In 1 Peter 1:14-16 Peter says, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.  But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: "Be holy, because I am holy."”  This is the response of thanksgiving that God requires from us, his redeemed people.

Do you remember all the plagues the LORD brought on Egypt?  How He delivered His people with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm?  Mighty works of redemption!  So that His people would remember Him.  So that they would recognize Him as their God and Saviour.  So that out of thankfulness, they would learn to love and serve Him.  Consider our redemption, beloved.  God’s grace in giving His dearly beloved Son as a sin offering in our place!  So that we too would learn to know God our Saviour, and be devoted to Him.  So that our lives might reflect much thankfulness for the wondrous redemption accomplished for us.

I’d like to conclude the sermon by going back to where we began.  By examining who we are, what grounds our lives, where our hope lies.  Who are you, beloved? You might answer, “I’m John or Bill, Debby or Emily.” But that’s only your name. Who are you? “I’m a carpenter, a business man, a teacher, a home-maker.” But that’s only what you do. Who are you? “I’m a Canadian.” But that’s only a reference to where you live. Who are you? “I’m Canadian Reformed.” But that only tells me what church you are a member of. You could go on speaking about your height and weight. But your physical dimensions and appearance aren’t you either. So who are you?  Who really are you?

In 2 Corinthians 5:16 Paul says that we “regard no one according to the flesh.” And yet that is how we tend to identify both ourselves and others.  We define ourselves by what we do, and what our role in church life is.  We recognise others by their physical appearance, what family they come from, and the measure of their ‘success’ in life.  But is who we are determined by what we look like?  Is it determined by what we do?  Is that what counts in the kingdom of God?  Do we find our life in our kids?  Do joy and happiness in life come from being pretty? Or having a good job?  Or making a lot of money?  Or having an important position in the church?  Is that the basis for our comfort and security in life?  I certainly hope not, for if it is then at some point in time in our lives we will end up being very miserable people.

Our happiness, our peace, our joy, our comfort, and our security come from knowing who we really are.  They come from the fact that we are members of Christ.  By His blood He has purchased us as His own possession.  By His Spirit He renews us to be His image.  In this way we are restored to the lofty position of being children of God.  We are the Bride of Christ.  We are the dearly loved congregation of the Saviour Jesus Christ.  Finding our identity in Christ is the basis for a joyous life in the service of God, both now and eternally.  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Joe Poppe, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2008, Rev. Joe Poppe

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