Text: Exodus 13:1-2, 11-16
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Consecrate to Me all the firstborn, whatever opens the womb among the children of Israel, bothof man and beast; it is Mine.”
This morning I’d like to talk about child sacrifice.
Human sacrifice is a feature of many religions over the course of history. If look at other cultures, somewhere in nearly all of them, there is a story of human sacrifice. They all know that the most valuable is the firstborn son. They know this because it is true. And the Bible, while not advocating for the literal practiced of child sacrifice, nevertheless highlights the deep truth under this sentiment. More than this, it shows us the true fulfillment of this sentiment, not in barbaric rituals of men, but in the sacrifice of God’s own eternal Son, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Our text this morning is tied to Passover. It’s in the same section as the feast itself. This shows us the final end of Passover, and it shows us the end of all sacrifice. Christ is the climax of the law, and His sacrifice stands in all of our places. It provides us peace, and it provides us salvation.
God Commands The Firstborn to Be Sacrificed
Take a look at these texts in Exodus. Exodus 13 says “Consecrate to Me all the firstborn, whatever opens the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and beast; it is Mine” (Ex. 13:2). A little bit later it repeats the same idea (vs. 11-16), and it says “you shall redeem” your firstborn sons.” What does redeem mean? It means that you will put something else in place of the son. The son will not actually die. Something will be in its place. Nevertheless, this is explained as if you were sacrificing the son.
Look again at Ex. 13:15:
…when Pharaoh was stubborn about letting us go, that the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of beast. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all males that open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.
The redemption is a way to sacrifice the son figuratively or symbolically.
And this rather strange law comes up again in Ex. 22. In the middle of a list of what your Bible probably calls “miscellaneous laws,” we see vs. 29-30, “You shall not delay to offer the first of your ripe produce and your juices. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to Me. Likewise you shall do with your oxen and your sheep. It shall be with its mother seven days; on the eighth day you shall give it to Me.”
So we have in a few places in Exodus what appears to be a command of child sacrifice. It’s right there with the animals and the produce. But the key difference, of course, is that the human is not actually killed. He is not actually slaughtered but is redeemed. A substitute takes his place.
If you are curious, literal child sacrifice is forbidden in Lev. 18:21. It says that you shall not pass your sons through the fire, and it references human sacrifices given to pagan gods. That’s not allowed. Yet in Exodus, we are still told, “Give you sons to me.” They are to be sacrificed but redeemed. And so, even though it’s not a literal child sacrifice, it’s still a kind of child sacrifice. And it’s connected to Passover. Just as God took a sacrifice for the sons then, Israel continues to make a sacrifice for their sons.
What’s this all about? Why is God doing this? Earlier in Exodus we are given an explanation. Egypt has killed the sons of Israel, and in fact, Israel itself is God’s son. Ex. 4:22-23 says, “Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn.” Thus, Passover is eye for eye and tooth for tooth. Passover was grounded in justice, equal retribution. Yet in the Passover, God did provide a means of deliverance for His people—the substitutionary lamb.
Why continue exact this demand from Israel? Israel is not the same as Egypt. But we have to go back further in history. Israel comes from the family of Abraham, who comes from Noah, who comes from Adam. And what did Adam do for the world? Adam sinned and introduced death into the world. By one man’s sin, death spread to all men. And what was Adam warned would happen if he ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? “You will surely die.” And so Israel, even after they are redeemed from Egypt, are still in Adam and therefore still deserve punishment.
The wages of sin is death. You are owed death. What would we say of an employer who withheld the wages from his workers? He would be unjust! All men, then, deserve death. And so the Passover and the continuing sacrifice in Israel showed the way that men could escape that judgment.
Notice that God doesn’t just wave the requirement of justice. He doesn’t just flip a switch and say “Don’t worry about it.” He still requires something to stand in place of the condemned. The children of Israel are owed to the Lord as a sacrifice, yet He allows a means of substitution. Something else can stand in their place.
What becomes of this odd law?
Now, what happened to this law? We don’t hear a lot about it later on in the Bible. It actually undergoes an interesting course of development. In the book of Numbers, this sacrifice of the firstborn is actually transformed through the order of the Levites. The Levites are the priestly tribe who work for the Lord, and this consecration is explained as a sacrifice.
In Numbers 3 and again in Numbers 8 this is explained. Numbers 3: 9 says, “And you shall give the Levites to Aaron and his sons; they are given entirely to him from among the children of Israel.” Then it goes on to say this in vs. 12-13, “Now behold, I Myself have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the children of Israel. Therefore the Levites shall be Mine, because all the firstborn are Mine.” Then it keeps going and connects it to Passover. “On the day that I struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I sanctified to Myself all the firstborn in Israel, both man and beast. They shall be Mine: I am the Lord.”
So the Levites replace the sons. An entire tribe stands in place of the firstborn. This is repeated in Numbers 3:45, “Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn.” Then in Numbers 8, verses 13-19 there is a lengthy explanation which says that the Levites are an offering.
Also, Numbers 8: 13 “And you shall stand the Levites before Aaron and his sons, and then offer them like a wave offering to the Lord.” A wave offering was one of the Levitical sacrifices. The priests would take a bread offering and “wave” it before the Lord. Here the Levites are said to become that offering. There is even instruction on how to consecrate them and prepare them as a sacrifice. And in vs. 16 it says, “they are wholly given to Me from among the children of Israel; I have taken them for Myself instead of all who open the womb, the firstborn of all the children of Israel.” Then it again repeats the logic of Passover in the next few verses.
This is fascinating history that is rarely talked about. And let’s face it, it’s pretty weird. But God has commanded human sacrifice, and then He has provided a way to substitute for that. Finally, He says that He will take an entire tribe of Israel and make them a sacrifice. They will be the priestly people who work for Him, live in His house, and do his work.
This meant that you had a perpetual testimony to substitutionary atonement in the person and work of the priesthood. As long as the Levitical ministry continued, you had an ongoing picture of Passover. Passover perpetually. God claiming the firstborn unto Himself.
We can see then that the Exodus narrative isn’t just one story that you read and move on. It’s really more like a constitution, a founding story that Israel always goes back to. And when your children ask you about it—Why do we do this? Why do we eat this meal? Why do we have these Levites?—you tell them that there was a time when we were captive in Egypt and the Lord delivered us with a strong hand. Thus, you have a memorial for all generations.
Jesus Christ is the Firstborn
Now all of this so far is the Old Covenant religion. You had a continual sacrifice going on to account for sin, to right the wrong, and to provide a means of deliverance. But what does this have to do with Christianity? Christianity doesn’t do sacrifices. We didn’t show up here this morning with lambs and sheep, and none of us would sacrifice our children. In fact, the very idea of a sacrificial religion seems to strike us as gross and immoral. But that would be a mistake to jump that far.
Because, you see, Christianity is based on sacrifice. It’s just that we believe that this history of sacrifice came to a conclusive point. God, in the fullness of time, sent His Son, to be born of a woman, under the law, and He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God. Jesus Christ is our Passover, and the logic holds. God required a firstborn. Jesus is the firstborn.
That language might strike you as a little strange. Jesus is the only son of God. But I want to show you a few places where the language of firstborn is applied to Him. Psalm 89:26-28 is one example.
He shall cry to Me, ‘You are my Father,
My God, and the rock of my salvation.’
Also I will make him My firstborn,
The highest of the kings of the earth.
My mercy I will keep for him forever,
And My covenant shall stand firm with him.
Jesus is made to be the firstborn.
In the book of Colossians, this is picked up again. We know that Jesus is eternal. He is God, of God’s very nature. But Colossians says this and more:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. (Col. 1:15-18)
Now we could do a whole sermon on that passage. There’s so much there. But did you notice that two times Jesus is called the firstborn. He’s the firstborn of all creation. That’s somewhat mysterious language. It seems to mean that Jesus was the pattern or blueprint from which creation was made. Then He becomes the firstborn of the dead because He is the first to be raised from the dead.
Jesus Christ is the firstborn. And so God, in His justice and His mercy, saw fit to sacrifice His own Son. He did this so that we can be redeemed.
The book of Romans explains this in many places. Chapter 3 is perhaps the most clear. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood” (Rom. 3:23-25). We have sinned. We deserve death. But we are redeemed. Like those children in the Old Testament who are redeemed by a substitute, we are redeemed by the propitiation of Christ’s blood to demonstrate God’s righteousness, “that He might be the just and the justifier.”
So we see the logic of Passover. It isn’t dismissed. It isn’t waved away as if that was then and this is now. The logic of Passover runs through the whole Bible and comes to a climax in Jesus Christ. His sacrifice on the Cross was our redemption. Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us.
So what does this mean for us today?
We do not practice human sacrifice or child sacrifice because we believe that sort of sacrifice has already been taken care of. Jesus Christ has done it for us. It was not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins… but we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all! (Heb. 10:4, 10)
Because this is true, we don’t do any propitiating of sins. That’s all taken care of in Christ. We are free from guilt. We are free from self-salvation. This allows us to rest.
This also means we do not and must not scapegoat. We must not try to find other sacrificial victims out there to solve our problems. You can lay your sins on Trump, but that won’t save you. You can lay your sins on Harvey Weinstein, but that won’t save you. You can lay your sins on your absent or abusive father, but that won’t save you. The only person on whom you should lay your sins is Jesus. He will save.
You cannot and must not “sacrifice” your children in the sense of dedication and consecration to anyone but God. They belong to Him. Bring them to the covenant. Baptize them! Raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 6:4).
And when they ask you why—why they are baptized, why you bring them to church, why you give them a Christian education—tell them about the great Passover. Tell them about God’s deliverance. Tell them about Jesus.
Let us pray.