Luke 2:21-38

Text Comment

There is a question in the commentaries as to whether or not the 21st verse concludes the previous paragraph or opens the next. We read it last week and we’ll read it again this morning.

v.21     As we learned in 1:59 in the case of John, it was apparently the custom among the Jews at this time formally to name a child at his circumcision.

v.24     A point is obviously being made of the fact that everything was being done in strict obedience to the Law of God. Two quite different ceremonies are alluded to here: the presentation and redemption of the child and the purification of his mother. The reference to “their purification” in v. 22 probably refers, however, to Joseph and Mary. Mary was ceremonially impure from giving birth, it is quite likely that Joseph would have been as well, living in proximity to her as he was, perhaps assisting in the childbirth, touching the blood, and so on. In any case there was no need to purify the baby, only to redeem him, so Joseph and Mary would have paid the five shekels required by the Law of Moses to redeem the firstborn son (Num. 18:15-16). The sacrifice of doves or pigeons – required for ceremonial purification for the adults – you will remember was a provision made in the law for those who couldn’t afford a lamb or goat. Joseph and Mary were obviously not well-to-do. It doesn’t mean that they were abjectly poor either. Only the well-to-do in that day were able to afford an entire animal for sacrifice.

v.25     “Consolation of Israel” was a standard Jewish way of describing the coming age of the Messiah. It was drawn from the opening words of Isaiah 40: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God…” [cf. Str.-B, ii, 124-126]

v.27     All of the references to the Holy Spirit in vv. 25-27 indicate that Simeon’s song which we are now about to read was a true prophecy; the “word of God” in other words.

            Notice that Joseph and Mary are called the baby’s parents. In every way but generation, Joseph was and would be Jesus’ father.

v.29     In view of the fact that Simeon had been told that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah, this good and probably old man concluded that now that he had seen the infant Messiah he was soon to die.

v.32     Much of Simeon’s song is taken from that same part of Isaiah from which the phrase “consolation of Israel” was coined. We know this song as the Nunc Dimittis from its first two words in Latin translation. From very early times it came to be a standard part of the evening service of the Christian church, with the approach of night an image and a reminder of the approach of death. You will see that this really is a prophecy: “salvation to the nations of the earth” being foretold in it.

            Note especially the emphasis on Christ’s salvation going to all peoples and to the Gentiles. This is a prophecy of things to come!

v.35     That last line suggests that Jesus will force upon people a decision and that by their reaction to him we will know on whose side they stand: with God or against him, believing in God’s promise or rejecting it. It will be a major theme of Luke’s Gospel that Jesus was a cause of division. In any case, Joseph and Mary marveled as the revelations about their baby boy just kept coming. [Bock, i, 246]

v.37     A typical hyperbole here: obviously she departed from the temple – she had to eat and sleep – but it seemed as if she were always there because, as we might say today, “she never missed a service.” [Morris, 107] In 24:53 we read the same thing of the apostles after the Lord’s ascension to heaven: “they were continually in the temple blessing God.”

v.38     It is said of both these elderly saints that they were waiting for God’s ancient promises to be fulfilled. Indeed, “redemption of Jerusalem” means the same as “the consolation of Israel”, the age of the Messiah being meant in both cases. Later on in Luke we will read of Joseph of Arimathea, who is said to have been awaiting the kingdom of God (23:51). “Kingdom of God,” “redemption of Jerusalem,” “the consolation of Israel,” all these describe the great consummation which the prophets of the Lord had long ago foretold. The Sadducees were expecting nothing; the Pharisees were expecting a political and military deliverance because their understanding of salvation from sin and divine judgment did not require any further intervention on God’s part; but the small company of the devout awaited the consolation, the redemption, the spiritual deliverance of the people of God. It is as much today as it was then a mark of true faith and piety that one waits for and looks forward to the coming of the Lord that has been promised and that one lives his or her life in that expectation. In those days such people were a remnant within the church of God; they are as well today, at least in the western church: people whose entire view of life is oriented to the future events that God has promised in his Word.

If you were unacquainted with the history of the Gospels, with the story of Jesus’ life and ministry, his death and resurrection; if all of this were brand new and you had begun to acquaint yourself with the story by reading Luke chapter 1 and the first part of Luke chapter 2, I can quite confidently predict that you would not have expected the second half of chapter 2. Even the pious among the Jews, those whose faith was shaped by the ancient Scripture and not by the religious system of rabbinic Judaism, struggled to come to terms with what comes next in Luke chapter 2.

Think about this. Great predictions of the ancient prophets were coming to pass. Angels had appeared to make the announcement that the forerunner of the Messiah, whose coming was foretold by Malachi, the last Jewish prophet, some 400 years earlier, would be born to Zechariah and Elizabeth. Soon thereafter the angel Gabriel appeared to a Jewish lass in Nazareth to announce to her that she would bear the long-awaited King of Kings who would save his people from their sins. In the great songs of Luke 1 all is vindication, triumph, and conquest. Then the babies are born precisely as the angel had predicted and, in the case of Jesus, his birth was announced not by one angel but by a host of angels in the night sky near Bethlehem.

Any reader of Luke up to this point could easily be forgiven for believing that the rest of the story would be more of the same. But the scene and the mood changes abruptly in the second half of chapter 2. This section begins with the baby boy’s circumcision, not in itself a sorrowful thing, until one looks back upon it from the vantage point of the Lord’s crucifixion.

Perhaps the greatest poet of the English language reflected on the fact that the sinless baby Jesus was nevertheless circumcised on the 8th day, a rite that was redolent of cleansing from sin and was, in any case, an imposition of pain upon the Savior of the world. Baby boys cry when they are circumcised on the 8th day. It hurts. They bleed because they have been cut.

He who with all Heaven’s heraldry whilere
Entered this world, now bleeds to give us ease.
Alas! How soon our sin
            Sore doth begin
            His infancy to seize! …
…But oh! Ere long,
            Huge pangs and strong
            Will pierce more near his heart.
[Upon the Circumcision, lines 10-14, 26-28]

Read Milton’s entire poem Upon the Circumcision and you will see the great poet’s point. This circumcision was part of his perfect obedience and part of his suffering that would culminate on the cross and would be the punishment he bore for our sins in our place. He is being hurt for us; at his circumcision he is beginning to bleed for us.

But it is doubtful that anyone, including his parents, fully realized this at the time. They were doing what all obedient Jews did and rejoiced to do it because it was the will of God for their baby boy. But, in fact, the pain and blood of his circumcision was just the beginning of his sorrows. They were still living in the glow of all that had happened: the appearance of angels, Zechariah’s speaking again after weeks of being deaf and dumb, the virginal conception of Mary’s child, the story of the shepherds, and all the rest. I doubt any of them saw a shadow begin to descend over the life of their baby boy at his circumcision.

But then they met Simeon and his prophecy was a bucket of cold water to the face. He began to speak as the angels had before him and as Zechariah and Mary had sung in chapter 1.This baby would change the world and bring salvation both to Israel and the nations. More of the same and no doubt Joseph and Mary thrilled to this next wonderful thing that had been prophesied about their baby boy. But the rest of Simeon’s prophecy was a jarring interruption in what had been a steady diet of wonderful news.

The appearance of Jesus would divide Israel: some would rise, but some would fall. Which is to say some would receive him and some would oppose him, as Simeon goes on to say: he would be a sign spoken against. Jesus would have enemies and they would be found among his own people. No Jew at this time expected that the Messiah would be rejected by the very people he came to save and to rule!

And those who loved him, his mother Mary in particular, were going to discover that loving him would bring sadness and pain. People who speak hatefully about him, Mary would hear that and know that the leadership of the Jews in particular hated him. And eventually she would have to watch her son suffer and die, standing there beside his cross as his life ebbed from him in the agony of crucifixion.

The apostles would learn from accompanying Jesus to the end of his life that he in fact had entered the world to suffer and to die but that was hardly the expectation at the beginning of his life. It would be one of the most difficult lessons they would have to learn. But, in fact, the suffering, the opposition, the sword piercing the heart is going to prove to be the largest part of the story of Jesus told in the Gospels. As one scholar has put it:

“Even by the most generous reading, the Gospels give us information about less than a hundred days in the life of Jesus; but for the last two or three days of his life, they provide a detailed, almost hour-by-hour scenario. And the climax of that scenario is the account of Good Friday and of his three hours on the cross. The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed recognized this when they moved directly from his birth “from the Virgin Mary” to his crucifixion “under Pontius Pilate.” [Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries, 95]

And, of course the rest of the NT will make very clear that it was not the glorious circumstances surrounding his birth that are the truest meaning of the life of Jesus but his terrible, cruel, and utterly unjust death, a death to which he surrendered himself for our sakes. That  was the purpose of his coming.

“The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many”  (Mark 10:45)

In explaining to the Corinthians the nub, the substance of his message, Paul said:

“…we preach Christ crucified…” (1 Cor. 1:23)

You would not have gathered this from the opening paragraphs of the Gospel of Luke, but the mist is beginning to clear. And when the future begins to take shape what is it that we see? Is it this?

“See, the Conqueror mounts in triumph;
See the King in royal state, riding on the clouds his chariot, to
            his heavenly palace gate….

No, not yet. First it is opposition, rejection, and a mother’s broken heart. The promise of Luke 1 and the opening paragraph of Luke 2 is not forfeit, of course. All of that triumph and salvation and world conquest is still to come, first in the Lord’s ascension to heaven once he had completed his work of atoning for sins, then in the world-wide gospel mission that would follow Pentecost and be the subject of Luke’s second volume, the book of Acts, and then ultimately at the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus when he will bring salvation to those who are eagerly waiting for him (Hebrews 9:28). But before the conquest can begin, there must be the opposition and the piercing sword.

But, of course, as any reader of the Bible and any thoughtful Christian know very well, the pattern of suffering before triumph that marked the life and work of the Lord Jesus becomes thereby the pattern for the life of his followers as well. Suffering before glory; affliction, sorrow, pain, and death before triumph. Remember what the Savior himself said to his disciples:

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. … A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” [John 15:18, 20]

And his apostles took that lesson to heart, a lesson they had proved to them in their lives over and over again. As Luke will record Paul saying in Acts 14:22:

“…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”

Suffering and tribulation indeed, first in Christ’s life, now in ours and for the same reasons: it is what is required for victory in the battle with sin and death and it is what is made necessary by the fact that so many oppose the Lord whom we love and serve. Every war, every desperate battle produces pain, loss and sorrow and though Jesus was God, and in his Godhead he was omniscient and omnipotent, he was also a man and it was as a man he fought his desperate battle for our salvation. And though his victory has guaranteed victory for us, it remains nevertheless a desperate battle we must fight. It is nowadays the first and principal objection to the Christian faith that so much suffering exists in the world. How could a good God allow so much sorrow, pain, and death? But in the Bible suffering, first in the life of Jesus Christ and then in his people’s lives, is the indispensible instrument of final victory.

In the middle of the Second World War, in April of 1944, two months before the D-Day landings, C.S. Lewis spoke to a large audience of British factory workers. A set of questions had been prepared in advance and he answered them one by one. The transcribed shorthand notes of his remarks make for fascinating reading. It was a time of terrible suffering in Europe and Great Britain; hardly a family had not been touched to some degree with sudden and violent death. People were worried, they were grieving, and they had no idea how much more pain awaited them before the war came to an end. Victory was in sight but much terrible fighting remained. Among the questions asked Lewis that day was this one:

“Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness?”

I can well imagine any number of sophomoric answers to that question, but, characteristically, Lewis’ answer was nothing of the kind.

“Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness? While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is the best.

I have an elderly acquaintance of about eighty, who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and self-admiration from the earliest years, and is, more or less, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know. From the moral point of view it is very difficult! I am not approaching the question from that angle. As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity. I am certain there must be a patent American article on the market which will suit you far better, but I can’t give you any advice on it.” [God in the Dock, 58-59]

That was all Lewis said on that occasion, but he might have said much more. He might have said that suffering is essential to the Christian faith and life: it was in the ministry of Jesus himself and, for that reason and for others, it continues to be so in the life of his followers. He might have elaborated on his statement, “While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is the best.”  But then perhaps the understatement was the more powerful; everyone would have picked up on those words. Obviously suffering in Christ’s life was endured with a view to what would come after, to what his suffering would achieve. “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, suffering its shame…” His suffering opened the way to a life of everlasting satisfaction, fulfillment, love, and joy for vast multitudes of human beings. In the case of the Christian it is suffering that in so many ways prepares and fits us for that life. Suffering sanctifies and purifies us. It is the universal testimony of thoughtful Christians that suffering both softens the heart and hardens it, makes it tender and tough as steel. It was Bonhoeffer who said,

“Pain is a holy angel, who shows treasures to men which otherwise remain forever hidden; through [it] men have become greater than through all the joys of the world.” [Citing Stifter, in Metaxas, 495]

And in a similar vein Malcolm Muggeridge, in a letter to William F. Buckley,

“As an old man, Bill, looking back on one’s life, it’s one of the things that strikes you most forcibly – that the only thing that’s taught one anything is suffering. Not success, not happiness, not anything like that. The only thing that really teaches one what life’s about – the joy of understanding, the joy of coming in contact with what life really signifies – is suffering, affliction.” [Happy Days were Here Again, 411]

Is that not right? Is it not true that real love, real purity, real godliness is found only by fighting through pain and loss to the other side as our Savior did and as we are called to do after him? Is there a true Christian in the world – at least a Christian who has lived for some years in a genuine effort to be faithful to the Lord Jesus – who has not himself or herself cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me”? But, as the whole of Scripture and of life bears constant and eloquent witness, this is the price of love and this is what is required to become a man or woman of true love, which is, after all, what Christ was and what he has summoned his followers to become by his grace. Genuinely to love God and others is the most difficult thing in the world. That Jesus did it all his life is the most astonishing thing in the world! But the whole Bible teaches us that first the Lord Jesus himself and then we his followers can be made perfect in love only by suffering. Suffering and love must always go together so long as we live in this world given over to sin and death.

It is this reality that is intimated so powerfully in Simeon’s prophecy here near the end of Luke 2. This is the first notice we get of it of what is going to be a great theme of the Gospel and the book of Acts. Christ will suffer – he will be opposed, persecuted, and finally executed – and for the same reasons, because we are involved in a lesser dependent way in the same desperate battle, those who follow him and join his cause will suffer in similar ways if not so horribly. That is what Simeon so clearly predicts: not only Jesus will suffer, but Mary also because she loves her son. And so it has been for all who have loved her son ever since. It is not for nothing that he bears the nickname, “The Man of Sorrows.” And his followers are described as “sorrowful but always rejoicing.”

And remember the sort of sorrows that Mary had to endure. Not only the sorrows of any human life – she lost her husband when he was, apparently, still a comparatively young man (widowhood, the sorrow visited upon us by death has always been a supreme trial of human life – but precisely those sorrows that fell to her because her son was the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel. She presided for several years over a spiritually divided home during the years that the Lord’s brothers and sisters did not believe in him. Her faith and her godliness did not prevent doubts from rising in her mind or prevent a great deal of confusion about what her son eventually would do and what he was about. Nor did her faith shelter her from the exquisite pain of seeing her beloved firstborn – about whom the angels had spoken so grandly – hated, reviled, shamed, and finally put to death in the most ignominious and tortuous way then imaginable. Simeon never spoke a truer word than when he spoke of the sword that would pierce Mary’s heart.

A superficial reader of Luke 1 and the first part of 2 might well think that the story would jump straight from Bethlehem to the confession of the Messiah as Lord by the whole world, but one who reads on and one who ponders the Christian life knows better: there are many steep hills and deep valleys, sun-baked deserts, roaring floods, and bone-chilling ice-fields that lie between Bethlehem and the Right Hand of God.

Listening to Simeon, so soon to die, we know better. Listen to Simeon tell us what life in this world must be for Christ and his followers. And looking at Anna, who lived as a widow for decades, another very godly person, we become aware that the story of Christ in the Gospels and the story of Christ in human hearts is the story of suffering for the sake of the world’s salvation and your salvation and mine. As Martyn Lloyd Jones once put it in a sermon, “The first thing the Bible does is to make a man take a serious view of life.” Nothing trivial, nothing frivolous, nothing superficial or sentimental here. Opposition, suffering, and death for Jesus himself on our behalf and for us on his.

What is our calling when we read the verses we read this morning? It is first to lift our hearts of love to God and Christ and bless him for a salvation that cost both Father and Son so much woe. Love is measured by what one is willing to pay for it, is it not? And, second, it is to take our Savior’s yoke upon us and learn from him that the road from this vale of tears to the city which has foundations is one on which even the best and wisest will tread heavily from time to time, their joys – and they are not inconsiderable – their joys notwithstanding, they will walk much of the way with a sword in their heart. It is the way our Savior went and Luke will tell us as we proceed that we ought never to expect that a servant would be greater than his master.

There are those among us this morning that are suffering and sorrowing, some with burdens they have long borne, others from recent events that have broken their hearts or struck fear into their souls. It is as it must be in a world of sin and death where Christians are called to forsake the world and learn the love of God by following the Suffering Savior. Hard as it must be, it must be! But for the Christian, the follower of Jesus, there is always this: weeping may last through the night, but joy comes in the morning.