Christmas builds up a great amount of anticipation, and sometimes it ends in disappointment. We set our expectations on certain things only to find that what we got was not as nice as we envisioned.
We all know what it is like to wait for something that fails to live up to our expectation. Or, we immediately desire something else that makes the previous object less satisfying. This happens a lot with goal setting. The reward for reaching a goal quickly diminishes so we have to set a new goal to keep us motivated.
Could you imagine waiting a lifetime for the gift or reward to arrive? That is what we see in this passage. Simeon and Anna, both exemplify faithful waiting.
Luke repeatedly reminds his readers just how awe inspiring the event of the incarnation is. Why? The reminder is necessary, because unfortunately, for most people, Christ’s first coming was almost entirely inconsequential. Or its value had completely diminished after generations of unfulfilled waiting. When Jesus was born, few were waiting in anticipation. Those that were, like Simeon and Anna, had lived lifetimes filled with suffering.
What Luke makes clear, here and throughout his gospel, is that: Jesus was born to relieve the suffering of his people, by entering into that suffering himself.
Read Luke 2:21-38
The Dedication of Joseph and Mary (21-24)
In accordance with the law, Jesus was circumcised and named on the eighth day (21, cf. Gen. 17:12). Joseph and Mary call him Jesus in obedience to the angel’s earlier pronouncement (1:31).
I never really understood the point of circumcision until I started studying covenant theology. It did not seem relevant anymore. I figured it was another example of the strange commandments of the Old Testament. Have you ever wondered why Jesus was circumcised?
Circumcision was instituted with Abraham (Gen. 17), but that was fourteen years after he believed the covenant promise (Gen. 15:6). He was declared righteous on account of his faith, prior to his circumcision (Rom. 4). Circumcision was given to Abraham and all of the males within his household—from eight-days-old and up—as a sign and seal of the covenant of grace (and all of the benefits that accompany salvation). But the Old Testament saints were never to glory in their fleshly obedience. It signified the spiritual circumcision of their heart that only God could accomplish for them (Deut. 10.16; 30:6).
Bavinck The covenant of grace finds its realization then in the families of the patriarchs. These families are separated from the other nations by circumcision as a seal of righteousness, and by faith as a sign of the circumcision of the heart.
Circumcision certainly had religious significance under the Old Covenant, but a richer fulfillment of the covenant of grace would arrive under the New Covenant. The Apostle Paul makes it clear that circumcision no longer means what it used to mean (Gal 5:6). Its religious purposes have been satisfied and abrogated.
Jesus inaugurated the new covenant at the end of his first coming, but prior to his death, he perfectly fulfilled the righteous requirements of the law. Luke makes Christ’s fulfillment of the law evident throughout his gospel. In the following verses we will see the phrase, “according to the Law of Moses/the Lord” five times (vv.22, 23, 24, 27 39). Jesus received the sign of circumcision in order to fulfill the law.
Circumcision graphically signified the need for bloodshed in order to cover or atone for sin. If Jesus was born of a virgin then he was unstained by original sin. Throughout his life he perfectly obeyed the law. Thus, he never had any sin to cover. Circumcision was not personally applicable to Christ, but he fulfilled the law’s demands for sinners. Even the sign of circumcision points us to the gospel. The bloodshed at his circumcision foreshadowed his crucifixion.
Circumcision was the sign of the covenant, now replaced by baptism (Col. 2:11-12). Both signs pointed to the problem of our sin—our need for cleansing, and the penalty of death required in God’s solution. Applying the sign of the covenant was (circumcision) and continues to be (baptism) how the people of God set their children apart for God.
On the fortieth day after giving birth, the family made their way to Jerusalem where Jesus was to be consecrated and Mary would receive her purification (22-24, cf. Lev. 12:1-5). Once again, this ritual reflects an understanding that children were born in sin and therefore the mother needed to be “cleansed”. In this case, the child was not the sinner, but he came to bear our sin (2 Cor. 5:21).
“Their purification” probably refers to Joseph becoming defiled during Mary’s time of purification. At this point it becomes clear that Jesus was born into a poor family. They only offered two birds because they could not afford to sacrifice a lamb too (Lev. 12:8). This offering represents the substitute that allows the family to redeem their firstborn child (Ex. 13:2, 12).
These Levitical laws of circumcision and purification reveal the weightiness of approaching God. One does not stand before God flippantly, but with careful and meaningful preparation. It is oftentimes through seasons of suffering that God draws us back to the seriousness of our condition.
The religious rituals of the Old Testament did not represent hardship, but the solution to their hardship. Joseph and Mary were privileged to celebrate the ceremonies, but they point to the ongoing need for rigorous obedience, as they lived before God.
Ultimately, we can rejoice that Jesus perfectly obeyed the law from birth to death. If you want to enter worship with a greater sense of reverence, don’t force a grave countenance—look to the Savior! Our salvation not only depends upon the death of Christ, but also the life of perfect righteousness that he lived in our place.
The ceremony of their purification in the temple allowed them to hear…
The Declaration of Simeon (25-35)
The sheer amount of space that is given to the account of Simeon, compared to the birth narrative itself, is shocking! It compels all of us to pay attention.
Simeon was a man of character. He was “righteous and devout” waiting for the consolation of Israel (25). This points to the comfort and deliverance the Messiah would bring to the suffering Israelites (Isa 40:1-11). Simeon was filled with the Spirit and understood that God would allow him to see the Christ before he died (26). He knew all of this as the Spirit led him into the temple (27). His anticipation reached its peak as he saw the young couple bring their child. He took Jesus into his arms and made his declaration (28).
“Nunc Dimmittis…” (“now you are letting…depart”) Those are the opening words of Simeon’s blessing declaring that he could now depart in peace (29). Simeon had seen the inauguration of God’s salvation (30). Jesus would bring revelation to Gentiles even as he represents the culmination of God’s promises to Israel (31-32). Simeon’s declaration was recalled explicitly by James during the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:14).
These words cause Joseph and Mary to marvel (33). This is the same word we looked at last week in reference to the people who heard the shepherds and “wondered” (18). It is an ambiguous word that depends upon the context. The word can mean extremely disturbed, highly impressed, or deeply inquisitive. Joseph and Mary are astonished as they learn more about their son.
Maybe they marveled that God would grant Simeon this blessed experience before his death. Or maybe they were beginning to grasp more about God’s intention for Jesus to be a light to the Gentiles. We know from her song that Mary anticipated her child to “bring down the high and mighty and exalt the lowly” (1:50-53). This is why Simeon directs his attention to Mary. He has some harsh news to share with her.
Jesus would turn Israel on its head. Many would fall and many would rise. Jesus will be the object of opposition (34, cf. Isa. 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12). How would it affect Mary? It would feel like a sword piercing through her soul (35). She would be devastated by the humiliation that he would endure. Although this prophecy speaks of the general rejection the Messiah would experience in his life, it primarily refers to his death on the cross (John 19:25). Mary’s despair would remain until the resurrection. The sword imagery also completes the thought of separating those who rise from those who fall on account of Jesus. He is the rock upon which many will stumble (Isa. 8:14-15), even though he is the only rock upon which all must stand—if they wish to see God.
We know almost nothing about Simeon other than the fact that he had the steadfast integrity to wait a very long time for the Messiah. This was the single hope that characterized his life! His waiting implies suffering. How so? We know that suffering produces endurance, character, and hope (Rom. 5:3-5). We might safely assume that whoever possesses these traits, has gone through much to get there.
This text poses a series of questions for the modern reader:
- Are you waiting for Jesus? As Simeon waited for the Christ to come the first time, we await his return.
- Are you prepared to die? As Simeon saw the fulfillment of God’s promise, he was finally at peace. Only those who believe in Jesus—regardless of age—can answer correctly.
- Do you still marvel at the gospel? Mary and Joseph were astonished by the compounding signs God sent them. Mary was probably about 14-years-old! Marveling does not have an age limit.
The key to answering each of these questions is the chief reason Simeon endured:
- The Holy Spirit was upon him,
- The Holy Spirit revealed God’s promise to him,
- The Holy Spirit led him to the temple at that time.
It is only by the grace of God that we endure with hope.
Someone else overheard Simeon’s Song…
The Devotion of Anna (36-38)
Anna was a rare prophetess as this time. She became a widow after seven years of marriage (36). She was either living as a widow until she was 84 years-old or 103+ (depending on when she married, 12 being the earliest). Luke say’s she was “very old”, but she was also still very active.
She worshiped with fasting and prayer night and day (37, cf. 1 Tim. 5:5). It is probably hyperbole to state that “she did not depart from the temple”. “Night and day” seems to imply that she would enter the temple for worship when the sun rose, and then returned again when the sun set. The expression “coming up at that very hour” suggests that she had just arrived at the temple.
Anna began to speak of Jesus to those waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem (38). She anticipated the same thing as Simeon (25). Anna came to the temple, thanked God for sending his Son, and then told everyone she saw about the arrival of Jesus.
Anna is described as someone who was committed to a routine of fasting and praying. These are aspects of a healthy spirituality. As we come to the close of another year, many of us are thinking of resolutions to make for 2022. According to Gallup, the most common resolutions are:
- Improve personal finances
- Stop smoking
- Lose weight
- Get more exercise
As Christians who long to persevere in hope, we should emphasize resolutions that reflect our eternal destination. The early church was known for their devotion to four things (Acts 2:42):
- The apostles’ teaching (Bible)
- Fellowship (Hospitality)
- Breaking of bread (Communion)
- Prayers (Fasting)
The goal is not to display a legalistic commitment to religious rituals, but it is to worship God with the peace of Simeon, the gratitude of Anna, and the tendency to marvel like Mary and Joseph at the grace of God!