Pastor Scott Andrews | October 1, 2023
There are certain names or even ideas that immediately divide a room – that divide this room. The list is potentially long, but here’s a few: President Biden or former President Trump – almost evenly divided the nation. Republican or Democrat. Pro-life or pro-choice. Second Amendment or gun control. Open or closed border. Masks or no masks. Vaccines or not. Ok, let’s leave the political world – how about these lighter ones: Carolina or Duke, Alabama or Auburn, Michigan or Ohio State. Country music or well, anything else. Let’s bring it to the spiritual before I get myself in trouble – hymns or choruses, piano or guitar. Halloween or Reformation Day. Infant or believer’s baptism. Pre-mill or Amill, pre- or post-trib. Paul or Peter – Corinth divided over them. Sovereignty of God or free will of man, Calvinist or Arminian – now I am in trouble, I’ve divided this room. Eternal security or eternal anxiety. I have thoughts about all of those – I suspect you do as well. I might even be right on some, you might be, too.
At the end of this month, we will remember, I hope, a little German monk named Martin Luther, who on October 31, 1517, posted his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenburg, Germany. Talk about dividing a room – he divided countries, kingdoms. He divided the church. You see, he stood against the Catholic Church and its Pope, and their pernicious, unbiblical doctrines.
He was called to the Diet of Worms in April 1521 to give a defense of his teachings and his writings. The Pope’s legate, Johann Eck, and the Holy Roman Emperor, young Charles V, were present. You may know the story – when he arrived in the crowded hall, his works were spread before him on a table. He thought there would be some debate, but Eck simply asked him two questions: first, are these your writings? Luther looked them over and said, they are. Eck then asked the second question – do you recant them? Luther began to tremble and asked for a day to consider before giving his answer. His request was granted. Luther himself said he hardly slept that night, asking himself the question, am I alone right?
He returned the next day at the appointed hour, and again was asked the question, do you recant your works, to which Luther gave his now famous reply:
“Your Imperial Majesty and Your Lordships demand a simple answer. Here it is, plain and unvarnished. Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have often erred and contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
I cannot recant. Here I stand, I can do no other. It was said of him, Luther contra mundum – Luther against the world. Think of it – he stood alone in the room – against the highest spiritual authority, the Pope’s emissary and the Catholic Church, and against the highest political authority, the Holy Roman Emperor. He also stood against the King of England, Henry VIII, who had earlier written a treatise against him and had received from the pope the title, Defender of the Faith. Luther stood against the world, and divided almost every church and tavern and home, every room. Luther stood against the world, and my brothers and sisters, the time seems to be coming that we must do the same. Will we stand against the world – the church contra mundum?
If there is one person, a name that divides every room, it is the name of Jesus. Think of it – you can say Mohammed, Allah, Buddha, Krishna, even Abraham or Moses, and not get the same reaction. Say the name Jesus and strong divisions arise. And an obscure man named Simeon said that He would. We arrive this morning in our study of Luke to the fourth of the four Christmas carols found in the first two chapters of this gospel – four hymns that herald the birth of Jesus of Galilee, called Christ the Lord. Such a title did, and still does, divide the room.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve talked about the birth of two boys – John the forerunner, and Jesus the Christ. Luke brilliantly switched back and forth between these two – writing of their prophesied births, of their miraculous births to an aged woman and a virgin girl, to the response to those announcements and respective births in Mary’s Magnificat, Zacharias’ Benedictus, the angels’ Gloria, and today, Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis.
This two-chapter study has given us the opportunity to talk about Christmas in July, and August, September and October. When we think about the Christmas story, there is much with which we are familiar. The angel Gabriel, the annunciations, Joseph and Mary, Bethlehem, the nativity, the shepherds, the wisemen, Herod and the slaughter of the innocent boys, maybe even the flight to Egypt. But today, we learn the Christmastide stories of Jesus and His circumcision, Mary’s purification, and the offering of two pigeons. And we also meet two characters at the Temple who were not mentioned before and are never mentioned again – Simeon and Anna.
They appear only here – and we may be unfamiliar with their stories. But can I suggest that Simeon’s song ought to be most precious to us – not more so than the other songs – but precious in that he sings our salvation song. That is, Jesus came not only for the nation of Israel, for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles. Oh, and His coming will forever – until He returns – divide nations, divide peoples, divide rooms, divide families. Perhaps the name of Jesus has divided your family – both Simeon and Jesus said it would. Maybe, you’re not sure of Him this morning. Listen to this less than familiar story and be encouraged to believe. Luke 2:21-35.
Jesus came to reveal hearts – to divide the room. We’ll save Anna for next week – wouldn’t want to go too fast. Two unfamiliar people. I looked it up – there is actually a painting by Rembrandt about this story, and some figurines available on Etsy – but I bet most of us don’t have those out at Christmas. Maybe we should. Let’s look at it.
I want you to notice we have two witnesses to the birth of the Son of God, the Messiah. Some point out according to OT law a fact must be confirmed by two or three witnesses. Simeon and Anna – a man and a woman, some suggest representing all of humanity. We also have the witness of the angels and the shepherds and the wisemen and Mary and Joseph. Lots of credible witnesses. Notice, two obscure people – because Jesus is the center of this story, and Jesus came in a way you would never expect to people you would never pick. The outline of the text goes like this:
- The Circumcision and Naming of Jesus (21)
- The Presentation of Jesus and Purification of Mary (22-24)
- The Proclamations of Simeon (25-35)
Let’s start with that circumcision and naming. When eight days passed after His birth, His name was called Jesus, the name given Him by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. We know the story – the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary while she was still a virgin and before conception to tell her she would bear the Son of God when the power of the Most High overshadowed her. And the child to be born would be named Jesus.
Later in Matthew 1, the angel – we assume Gabriel – appeared to Joseph when Mary was found to be pregnant. They were already betrothed to be married, but had not come together, so Joseph was considering divorcing her privately. The angel appeared and said, Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins. And we remember the name Jesus is the OT name Joshua, which means, the Lord saves.
Don’t miss that Joseph and Mary did what they were told to do by the angel. This whole passage screams their obedience – five times through the end of the chapter we read something like they did “according to the Law of the Lord.” Everything Jesus did – even the things done to Him since birth – were in perfect obedience to the Law. In order to be our perfect substitute and sacrifice, His obedience was necessary. We are reminded of Galatians 4, which reads, “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” The perfect Son was born to live a perfect life, that we who are imperfect might become sons and daughters of God. And His perfect life began at His birth.
We find Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day according to Law. We read about it in Genesis 17 where the rite was given to Abram and his descendants as a sign of the covenant between God and Abram – the Abrahamic Covenant. It set apart those so physically marked as the children of Israel, and was supposed to be symbolic of the necessity for a circumcised heart. We remember Paul wrote in Romans, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter (that is, the Law); and his praise is not from men, but from God.”
Nonetheless, Jesus received the mark of circumcision as a Jew – He had to, according to Leviticus 12, in order to meet the requirements of the Law. But think about it, from the beginning, not being born in sin like the rest of us, circumcision of His heart was never necessary. Which is confusing – why did Jesus receive the sign if He didn’t need that to which the sign pointed? Good question – and we remember He was fully identifying with sinful humanity – though Himself without sin. Later, He would have John the forerunner, the Baptizer, baptize Him – again, as a full identification with sinful humanity to fulfill all righteousness. Notice, by the way, Jesus was circumcised as an infant, yes, but baptized as an adult.
Jesus came, took on human flesh, and perfectly fulfilled the demands of the Law, so that He might in that perfect flesh die for sinful humanity. Hebrews 2 says it this way:
14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, [meaning, the cross was not Satan’s action, it was his defeat – it was God’s action]
17 Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
Don’t let that fact escape your notice or become too familiar. Jesus, the Son of God, humbled Himself to take on human flesh, and in that flesh became obedient unto death, even death on a cross – that He might make propitiation not for His own sins, but for ours. And that humbling began as baby in manger, and continued through the rite of circumcision. Did He cry – you bet He did – it hurt.
I have to hurry – I’m still in verse 21. At His circumcision, they gave Him the name Jesus, just as John had received His name at His circumcision. There is no biblical command to name a boy on the eighth day, but it seems to have become practice, perhaps because Abram’s name was changed to Abraham when he received the rite of circumcision.
Bringing us to our second point – the presentation of Jesus and the purification of Mary at the Temple. There are two things happening here: first is the purification of Mary in verses 22 and 24. According the Law of Moses – in Leviticus 12 – after the birth of a child, the mother was ceremonially unclean, presumably because of the presence of blood. If the child was a son, she was unclean until the 8th day – the day of his circumcision – then another 33 days for a total of 40 days. If the child is a girl, the mother was ceremonially unclean for 14 days, then 66 days after that for a total of 80 days. Forty days for a son, eighty days for a daughter – no reason is given for the difference in time – and men, I would suggest you not make a joke about that, since they are the ones who go through the pain of childbirth.
Upon completion of the purification, the mother was to take an offering to the tent of meeting, later the Temple. Now, we see in verse 22 that when the days of their purification were completed, they made the short trip from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. But the purification was for Mary, not their – that is, not Mary and Joseph. But since they were away from home in Nazareth, Luke simply says that Mary and Joseph went to the Temple. Also found in Leviticus 12, she was to offer a sacrifice of a lamb and a pigeon or turtledove – one for the burnt offering and one for the sin offering so the high priest could make atonement for her – that is, the mother – simply to sacrifice now that her ceremonial uncleanness was past. It’s not that having a baby was a sin – she had been ceremonially unclean and unable to sacrifice. Now she could.
But, if the couple could not afford a lamb, they were to take two pigeons or two turtledoves. We note Joseph and Mary took two birds, which reminds us again of their poverty. Because Jesus came in a way you would never expect to people you would never pick.
We find secondly, they went to the Temple to present Jesus to the Lord there, and this too was according to the Law of the Lord. You see, after the 10th plague of Exodus 13 when the firstborn of all Egypt were killed, God told the Israelites the firstborn males of all animals and people belonged to Him. The animals were to be redeemed by sacrifice or themselves sacrificed; the boys were to be dedicated to the Lord. Of course, Levites took the place of the firstborn sons. But after that, we find in Numbers 18 that the firstborn sons were to be redeemed from service to the Lord for five shekels.
But note, when they presented Jesus, there is no mention of paying the redemption price. There are a couple thoughts about that. First, some suggest they paid it, Luke just doesn’t mention it. Second, Jesus was God’s Son and the redemption price was not needed since He was already devoted to God and was God – besides, His was a ministry devoted to God – He was the great High Priest. But, His presentation as the firstborn to the Lord according the Law was done.
Bringing us to our third point – the proclamations of Simeon. I say proclamations, because there are actually two – one a praise to God, and one a warning to Mary. But first, who is this Simeon? We simply read he was a man in Jerusalem. He plays such an important role that later traditions suggest he was a priest or the son of the famous rabbi Hillel and the father of Gamaliel – but there is not biblical evidence for that. He was simply a man, but notice, a righteous and devout man. Righteous means he is in right standing before God.
How? The same way any person ever was in right standing before God – by grace through faith. It’s never been any other way. It’s important we understand that – a person was made righteous in the OT the same way as in the New – by God’s grace through faith empowered by the Holy Spirit. No one was ever made righteous by his good works – Paul makes that clear in Romans and Galatians. The Law never justified a single person. Even Abraham was justified by faith. Even Mary who was favored by God was not chosen because she was herself especially righteous, but because God favored or graced her by choosing her to bear the Son of God.
So, Simeon was righteous by God’s work in his life through the Holy Spirit – the text even suggests that by saying the Holy Spirit was upon him, and he came in the Spirit to the Temple. But then, he was devout in that his subsequent actions were devout or pious toward God and others. Think about that – justification – being declared righteous by God through the work of the Spirit always comes first, resulting in sanctification – a devoutness toward God and others. In other words, justification changes you so that you now pursue righteousness as a way of life through the Spirit’s work of sanctification.
Anyway, as a result of his God-wrought right standing before God and his devotion to God, he understood that the consolation of Israel was to come. The word consolation speaks of comfort and is promised throughout the OT, especially Isaiah. And further, it came to be rightly understood that consolation or comfort would only come when the Messiah came. So, Simeon was looking for the coming of the Messiah at a time when most were not. He was part of a small remnant.
As one commentator points out, the Sadducees had dismissed any idea of a coming Messiah – they saw themselves as fulfilling the messianic ideal; the Pharisees had replaced the Law of God which should drive them to God’s grace with a system of legalistic righteousness; the Zealots had decided to pursue their own freedom through rebellion apart from the Messiah; and the Essenes had pursued a self-righteousness through a removal from society and an ascetic lifestyle. The various religious sects were a mess – they all missed one thing – the grace of God.
Which is interesting – how many people today in either false religions or self-focused pursuits think to gain rightness and freedom through their own devised systems of self-justification; becoming their own gods and declaring what is right for themselves. How many have truly found Christ by grace and are looking for His return? Simeon was.
The Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Christ. We surmise from this and the fact when Simeon saw Jesus that he said he could now depart in peace, meaning die, that Simeon was an old man. By the way, that’s what Nunc Dimittis means – now you are dismissing. Who knows how long Simeon had waited for the fulfillment of the promise – weeks, months, years, decades? He likely showed up at the Temple regularly, looking for the promised coming Messiah. With those around him following their own man-made religious schemes even within Judaism, undoubtedly, he was mocked as a crazy old man. Each time he came, he would wonder, is today the day?
Finally, verse 27 indicates he came to the Temple in the Spirit – that is, prompted by the Spirit. Perhaps the Spirit revealed to him, this would be the day. Can you imagine, running up to each set of parents with a newborn – is it He? When Mary and Joseph came carrying now 40-day old Jesus to fulfill the custom of the Law, Simeon took the young boy in his arms – I’m sure to the surprise of his parents – and he blessed or praised God. The Nunc Dimittis.
Now Lord – with an emphasis on now – You are releasing Your bond-servant – the one to whom You have revealed the Christ, to depart in peace. Have you noticed how peace seems to permeate these stories? The angels sang it – Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased to give it. Which means, peace comes through the arrival of the Prince of Peace, and only to those God gives it, who trust Jesus by faith.
Our world is a mess. There is anything but peace – not only around the world, but in our own nation. Washington is not going to fix it. The European Union is not going to fix it. The UN is not going to fix it. Let’s make it more personal. Graduation is not going to fix it. Getting the right job is not going to fix your lack of internal peace. Getting married won’t do it. Having children won’t do it. Owning a home and a huge mortgage won’t do it. The Prince of Peace is the only source of true, lasting peace.
Simeon says, You are releasing me to depart in peace according to Your word – You said I would die until I saw the consolation of Israel – and now he says, I have seen Your salvation. Holding Jesus in His arms, Simeon calls Jesus God’s salvation. This Child is God’s way, the only way to righteousness and peace. It is not the incarnation that saves us – it is the death and resurrection of Christ – but we could not be saved if He did not come.
You have prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. Stop right there. That’s a little different – Simeon takes it a bit further from the previous song when the angels spoke of joy which will be for all the people – the people in Luke’s gospel speaks of the nation of Israel. And certainly Jesus was the nation’s Messiah. But now, Simeon says this salvation has been prepared in the presence of all peoples – plural. This salvation has been prepared for all people. For all who believe.
You see, he goes on, a light of revelation to the Gentiles. Again, stop – don’t skip over that. The nation of Israel was to be a light to the nations, Isaiah 46, but they failed. Not only did they not follow God as a nation, they didn’t lead others to God. But here, Simeon, filled with the Spirit, says Jesus was a light for the Gentiles – right out of Isaiah 9. Do you see, do you understand why I suggest this song should be most precious to us – that perhaps it deserves more attention than it gets? Simeon’s song is our salvation song. You see, Jesus had earlier said, I am the light of the world – the one who follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
And because He provides salvation for all peoples, coming through the nation of Israel as God promised Abraham, Jesus would be the glory of the people of Israel. Jesus, the savior of the world, was a Jew, as promised. And we read that His father and mother were amazed at the things which were said. Yes, they had heard the angel, yes, they had heard the shepherds, but now, Simeon tells them Jesus will not only be the savior of the nation, but the savior of the world.
Which leads to Simeon’s second proclamation and our conclusion. Yes, your Son will be the Savior of the world, but it will come at great cost. Simeon peals back for a glimpse of that which awaits Jesus. Look at verses 34 and 35.
And Simeon blessed them, pronounced God’s blessing on them, and said to Mary, the mother of Jesus, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed.” A sign in that everything He did was a sign, pointing to He was – but He was, and is still opposed. Notice, this Child is appointed for the rise and fall of many – bringing us back to our introduction – Jesus will always divide the room. How? For some who refuse Him and His gospel, He will be a rock of offense upon which they will fall. For others who accept Him and His work, they will rise. Interesting, the word for rise is the word often used for resurrection. They will fall because of their sin and rejection of Christ, or they will receive Christ and one day rise in glorious resurrection. He divides rooms and families, nations and kingdoms.
And it will come at great cost – not only and ultimately for Him on the cross – but for you, Mary. A sword will pierce your heart. Luke doesn’t use the word for a short dagger-like sword often carried by soldiers, but a large, two-edged broadsword used to wield much destruction. This sword will pierce your own soul, Mary. When you see the rejection, when you are there at the foot of the cross, it will pierce you. But he finished: this opposition and cross and sword which will pierce you is necessary for the hearts of people to be revealed – those who reject and those who believe – those who fall, and those who rise.