Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
Eight days after Jesus was born, he was circumcised (2:21), according to the law (Gen. 17:11-12), and given the name Jesus (2:21), just as the angel Gabriel had said (1:31). Jesus was circumcised to identify with Israel; He was/is our representative, and is the one who is preeminently a son, the chosen One (Lk. 9:35). [Jesus undergoes baptism for the same reason].
Joseph and Mary were pious, law-abiding Jews (2:22-24, 39). After the time of Mary’s purification (40 days after birth, Lev. 12:2-4, 6), they traveled from Bethlehem to the temple in Jerusalem to present their firstborn, Jesus, to the Lord (2:22; cf. Ex. 13:2; Num. 18:15-16) and His service (I Sam. 1-2), and to offer a sacrifice in accordance with the Law of the Lord (2:24; cf. Lev. 12:8). The Law stated that one was to offer a lamb as a burnt offering and a turtledove as a sin offering. If one was poor and could not afford a lamb, then either two turtledoves or two pigeons would be sacrificed. Joseph and Mary’s offering was that of the poor which identified with those Christ came to save (1:52; 4:18-19; 6:20).
The Historical Context
The focus of this fourth and final song is Simeon, a righteous and devout man, who was waiting for the consolation of Israel. When he saw the baby Jesus, his wait was over. He took him in his arms and praised God. Simeon’s praise and prophecy are known as Nunc Dimittis.
In obedience to the law, Joseph and Mary had their baby boy circumcised on the eighth day, and named him Jesus. They do what all Jewish parents would have done who had given birth to a Jewish son. In the Old Testament, the law stated tan any son of Abraham should be circumcised on the eighth day (Gen. 17:11-12; Lk. 1:59). In the baby’s circumcision he was identifying with his people as their representative leader or as a representative human. But the main emphasis of this text of Scripture is on the naming of this baby boy – Jesus – not his circumcision. The name means save or salvation, which aligns closely with how he was referred to in 2:11: “Savior, Christ the Lord.” Jesus is his name, Christ is his title, and Savior is his purpose.
After the prescribed time of purification, according to the law, Joseph and Mary took Jesus to Jerusalem to present their firstborn to the Lord and to dedicate him to the Lord’s service (Lk. 2:22-23). The law stated that the mother of a male child was unclean for 7 days and then had to be confined for 33 days before traveling to the temple to offer a sacrifice. The presentation of the firstborn to the Lord (Ex. 13:2, 12, 15) and the dedication of the firstborn to the Lord’s service (1 Sam. 1-2) were both commanded in Scripture.
The sacrifice they offered for their purification was that of the poor. One of the birds was for the burnt offering and the other for the sin offering (2:24). In Leviticus 12:2-4, 6 a lamb and turtle dove are to be offered unless you cannot afford it. Then it was to be either two turtle doves or two pigeons. There offerings emphasizes different aspects in the process of communion with God. The sin offering emphasizes punishment or retribution for sin borne by the animal instead of the worshiper. The burnt offering emphasizes complete, whole consecration to God, which includes utter destruction of sin and uncleanness – the animal sacrifice is completely consumed. Even here we look forward to Christ as the final offering to which all the animal sacrifices find their fulfillment. As Mary and Joseph make the offering of the poor, they identify with those their son, Jesus, came to save (1:52; 4:18-19; 6:20).
While Joseph and Mary were in the temple with Jesus, they were met by an old man named Simeon who said great things about Jesus (2:25-35). We will say more about Simeon below, as we focus on his “song.” There was also an old prophetess named Anna who continually worshiped in the temple. She too gave thanks to God for Jesus and tied Jesus in with the redemption of Jerusalem (2:36-38). Anna was married but lost her husband at a young age and never remarried. She was a pious woman. Although she did not live on the temple grounds, there would have been a place for her to stay, and she was there daily, fasting and praying. We are told that she worshipped night and day. Anna’s activity pictures a person whose life is totally focused, consumed on serving God (as the burnt offering, totally consecrated, consumed).
Anna, too, encountered Jesus while in the temple. She gave thanks to God for this child-Redeemer, and also spoke to the crowd about Israel’s redemption through this child – he would redeem those enslaved to sin (2:38). The focus is on the Redeemer and the new age ushered in with his birth. Anna reveals that before the Messiah came, one could be decent and live a good life. But it is an unfulfilled life, which reflects a life absent true, real, lasting and abiding life. That is why John’s words are so apt: “He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him” (1 Jn. 4:9).
When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the law, they returned home to Nazareth (2:39).
The infancy events began in the temple with Zechariah (1:5ff) and ended in the temple with Jesus (2:41-51). After all the events of Jesus birth, “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (2:19). After an early fulfillment of Simeon’s prophecy regarding the blessing and pain brought about in Jesus, while he tarried in the temple that caused his parents concern when they could not find him, Mary “his mother treasured up all these things in her heart” (2:51). Jesus’ public life begins in the temple and it ends by him replacing the temple or becoming the true ultimate temple that the earthly temple foreshadowed. Humankind, both male (Simeon) and female (Anna), praise God for Jesus.
A Word About Simeon
Simeon was in Jerusalem waiting for God’s appointed consolation (2:25). Israel’s consolation referred to the hope of deliverance for the people. In the Old Testament various agents brought God’s consolation, but a primary agent who was anticipated was the Servant of God. This desire for consolation or deliverance characterizes the believer or God-fearer in Luke (6:23-24; 17:22-37; 21:25-36).
He was clearly a Spirit-filled and Spirit-led man. What was revealed about Simeon was his spiritual condition, not his vocation or his age. He is righteous and devout, an exemplary saint. The text states “the Holy Spirit was upon him” (2:25). Verses 25-27 reveal his character is a result of the Holy Spirit, his life was guided by the Holy Spirit. He had received a special work of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ (2:26). He was anxiously waiting. Simeon received a promise that God would not let him die without seeing the Messiah, the Lord’s Christ. The Lord’s Christ, the Messiah in verse 26 is linked with the consolation of Israel in verse 25. It was for this that he waited. But he trusted that God’s word was sure and it would be fulfilled so he did not wait hopelessly. Rather he waited hopefully.
Moved by the Holy Spirit, he went into the temple courts and there he met face to face Jesus, the consolation of Israel (2:27). Once again we see Simeon being guided and led by the Holy Spirit. By the Holy Spirit’s prompting, Simeon went to the temple and while there his wait was terminated as he met Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus. Can you imagine his elation and excitement – his wait was now over, but more importantly God’s promise, which always comes true, had been fulfilled.
Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God (2:28). I can imagine that Simeon was overcome with gratitude to the point of tears. As he grabbed the baby Jesus, we can see tears streaming down his face, his knees growing weak, almost to the point of needing to sit down. The praise then completes the excitement, the joy he feels over the fulfillment of God’s promise. This leads him to sing a song of praise to God for the fulfillment of the prophecy, and also to utter a prophecy about the future ministry of Jesus.
The Theological and Doxological Response
Now that he had seen Him, his life could end in peace (2:29), because he had seen the Lord’s salvation (2:30), which is to be for all people (2:31). Simeon also prophesied that Jesus would cause the rising and falling of man in Israel and Mary’s soul would be pierced (2:33-35). In the midst of this worship Simeon “sings,” the fourth and final songs Luke records of the infancy narratives.
The song emphasizes that Jesus’ birth is the fulfillment of God’s promises to redeem his people, and through the song he utters a prophecy of the future ministry of Jesus.
God is praised for the fulfillment of his promise (2:29-32). God is addressed as the sovereign Lord who is faithful to his promises (2:29). God is the Lord, Master over everything. He determines the beginning and the end. What he has ordained will occur. What he has spoken, will come to pass. Here Simeon praises the sovereign Lord who was – and remains – faithful to his promises, and in his kind mercy he allowed Simeon to live to see and experience the consolation of Israel, in the Lord’s Christ, Jesus.
Simeon, God’s servant, can now depart in peace (2:29). In the Greek text, “Now” stands at the beginning of this sentence and is there for emphasis. In the coming of Jesus, “now is the time – the time of the consolation of Israel. (It brings to mind Paul’s urgent and timely exhortation, where the same word is used: “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2, emphasis mine).) Simeon is God’s servant. He refers to himself as “your servant,” much like Mary referred to herself (1:38), and is a fitting contrast to the description of God as the sovereign one. Simeon is like the watcher who can now leave his assigned post because the anticipated event has come. Now the watcher is ready to die and he can depart in peace because he has seen and held the Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6; Jn. 16:33), sent from the God of Peace (Phil. 4:9; Rom. 16:20) and experienced the peace of God (Phil. 4:7) because he was at peace with God (Rom. 5:1).
The reason Simeon can now depart is because he has seen the Lord’s salvation, a light, prepared in the sight of all people: revelation to the Gentiles and glory to Israel (2:30-32). In the coming of Jesus, salvation come. This is why it was essential for Simeon to experience it. Then and only then can he depart, not under a burden, but in peace. Although Simeon was a righteous and devout man, he was not prepared to depart in peace until he met Christ. Only then he was ready. This salvation was not outside of history, given to a few special people. It was done within of history in the sight of all people. God intends to extend to all the salvation that comes in Jesus. The light is Jesus himself and he comes to shine in the darkness (1:79). The effect of this light will be revelation will to the Gentiles – the Word, and glory to Israel, the Shekinah glory. God is acting for his people. This explains how he will be the consolation or deliverer.
Jesus’ future ministry is described (2:34-35): “And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.’"
Jesus’ ministry will cause pain for his mother, Mary. The reference is to the pain that Jesus’ ministry causes Mary, as Jesus creates his own family of disciples and his own priorities, and his suffering because of it. This is seen early in Jesus’ ministry. After a trip to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of the Passover, they returned home, and assumed the boy Jesus was with them. After traveling a day, they realized he was not with them. They returned to Jerusalem looking for him, and continued to search for him three days before they found him – in the temple. Upon being questioned by Mary, he replied, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house” (2:49). Although this was reflective of Simeon’s prophecy, his parents did not understand what he meant by this (2:50).
Jesus will cause the rising and falling of many people. Please will either be drawn to Jesus or stumble over him. Those who reject him are headed for a fall, while those who receive him in faith are headed for a rising, a blessing. The sign will be that of resistance, contention and rejection of Jesus and his ministry. Simeon addresses how people will respond to Jesus. He will be resisted and rejected. For those who resist, Jesus will not be a hope of promise fulfilled, but a figure who is to be opposed. Although Jesus is God’s hope, not all will respond positively to him. The reality of this experience will “pierce through your own “[Mary’s] soul.”
The purpose of Jesus’ ministry will reveal where hearts really are before God. Jesus will expose those who do not believe. How humans respond to God’s promise is made evident by how they respond to Jesus, as that will reveal their thoughts (cf. Heb. 4:12). And that response results in eternal spiritual death or eternal blessedness with the Lord.
Mary pondered and treasured all of these truths in her heart. Simeon states that “thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” in responses to Jesus. With this in mind, ponder these questions, treasure these truths in your hearts, and worship him.
May God’s favor be upon you and may you receive His peace during this Christmas season!