Proclaiming Jesus’ Birth

Luke 2:22–40 forms part of the lectionary readings for the first Sunday after Christmas, which is December 27th. We learn that following Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph stayed on for a while in Bethlehem.

During that time, the family traveled at least twice to the temple in nearby Jerusalem to fulfill their religious duties. On one occasion, the parents had Jesus circumcised. Another time they presented Him to the Lord.

On the second visit, two elderly people—Simeon and Anna—recognized Jesus’ special nature and made pronouncements concerning Him. In a sense, they served as two credible Jewish witnesses (one male and the other female) who affirmed the truthfulness of Jesus’ status as the Messiah (Deut 19:15).

Mary and Joseph were careful to adhere to the requirements of the Mosaic Law. In the case of Jesus, while He was God’s Son, He was not born above the Law.

So, it was fitting for Jesus’ family to observe its religious customs. Accordingly, eight days after Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph had the Christ child circumcised (Lev. 12:3; Luke 2:21).

Circumcision symbolized the Jews’ unique relationship with God. It was also customary for Jewish boys to be named when they were circumcised.

With respect to Mary’s firstborn son, she and Joseph named Him “Jesus.” This was in accordance with the directive of the Lord’s angel before the Christ child was conceived in Mary’s womb (Luke 1:31).

A woman who had given birth to a male child was considered to be ceremonially unclean for seven days (Lev 12:2). Then, for 33 days more, she was not to touch any sacred thing, nor was she to enter the sanctuary (v. 4).

After 40 days, the mother was required to go to the temple to be purified in the prescribed manner (Luke 2:22–24). The woman’s purification included offering a sacrifice.

According to Leviticus 12:6, the above offering was to be a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. Yet, the Law also said that if the woman could not afford a lamb, two pigeons or doves would suffice (v. 8). Mary chose the second option due to her modest financial situation (Luke 2:24).

According the Mosaic Law, the woman’s firstborn son was considered holy and so had to be dedicated to the Lord in service (Exod 13:2, 11–16; Luke 2:23). This requirement went back to that night in Egypt when the firstborn sons were saved from death by blood applied to the doorposts (Exod 12:12–13).

Yet, since the entire tribe of Levi was chosen for service, a firstborn son could be released from service by the payment of a ransom (Num 3:11–13; 18:15–16). This act of buying back, or redeeming, the child from God was performed during a presentation ceremony at the temple, at the same time as the mother’s purification ceremony (Luke 2:22).

A sacrificial offering was how the ransom was paid. In this way, the parents acknowledged that their firstborn belonged to God, who alone had the power to give life.

In this special circumstance, however, Jesus was a gift from God to the whole world (John 3:16). Moreover, amid the fulfillment of legal requirements, God put the stamp of approval on His Son with the unusual but blessed ministries of Simeon and Anna.

So, while Mary and Joseph were at the temple with Jesus, they met a man named Simeon, whose name means “God has heard” (Luke 2:25). From verse 26 we get the impression that he was advanced in years, and such a conclusion is supported by church tradition.

Throughout his adult life, Simeon had distinguished himself as being “righteous and devout” (v. 25). This means he was morally upright in his behavior and reverent in his observance of the Law.

Simeon’s faithfulness and sincerity in keeping God’s ordinances is especially seen in his “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” This phrase refers to Simeon’s hope that the Messiah would come and deliver the nation (Isa 40:1; 49:13; 51:3). Indeed, Simeon loved God so much that he looked with eager anticipation for the comfort the Redeemer would bring to all people.

Simeon was also filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 2:25). This means Simeon had been given special insight by God’s Spirit to recognize the Messiah. Furthermore, the Spirit had disclosed to Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah (v. 26).

So, on the right day and at the right time, the Spirit led Simeon into the temple. This circumstance is just one of several examples in the first two chapters of the second Synoptic Gospel of a promise from God being fulfilled.

It’s worth mentioning that Christ comes from a Greek word meaning “anointed one.” It is equivalent to Messiah, a word derived from Hebrew.

Both terms signify divine commissioning for a special task. For instance, in Old Testament times, kings and priests were anointed with olive oil as a sign of their divine appointment.

Many Jews believed that a man would appear as the Lord’s anointed prophet, priest, and king to bring salvation to the people of God. Also, tragically, most had defined salvation in political terms (John 6:14–15).

The people in the first century AD failed to understand that the Savior’s mission would be to free them from sin. This explains why many of Jesus’ contemporaries failed to recognize Him as the individual who fulfilled the most comprehensive definition of the Messiah (1:10–11).

The Spirit led Simeon into the temple courts the same day that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus (Luke 2:27). What was the nature of the Spirit’s work among the people of God in the Old Testament era (namely, before the day of Pentecost)?

While the Old Testament mentions the Spirit of God frequently, it tells little about people possessing the Spirit. The Hebrew sacred writings do, however, reveal that those who experienced the Spirit in that era included rulers, such as elders (Num 11:25), judges (Judg 3:10), and kings (1 Sam 16:13).

Prophets also experienced the Spirit (Ezek 2:2). In at least one case, a craftsman experienced God’s Spirit (Exod 31:3). Nonetheless, the Spirit was sometimes also withdrawn from people (1 Sam 16:14).

When all the evidence is considered, the impression is conveyed that the Spirit mainly came upon selected individuals for specific jobs in the Old Testament era. This truth notwithstanding, the Hebrew prophets also entertained a lively hope that a time was coming when the Spirit of God would be given out more broadly (Isa 32:15; 59:21; Joel 2:28–29). That hope, which was manifested in upright persons such as Simeon and Anna, was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14–21).

Because of the special insight Simeon had been given, he immediately recognized Jesus as the Messiah. The reference in Luke 2:27 is to the larger temple area, not to the Most Holy Place. Simeon was either in the court of the Gentiles or the court of women, since Mary was present.

Amazingly, the parents allowed the elderly man to hold their son (v. 28). Simeon’s words of praise concerning the Christ child occurred at the epicenter of the Jewish religion. This implies that, far from being a foreigner and outcast, Jesus was accepted and worshiped by the most pious individuals in Israel.

Simeon’s brief, prophetic declaration in verses 29–32 is sometimes called the Nunc Dimittis, which comes from the opening phrase in Latin, “now dismiss” (in other words, “now permit to die”). In this short refrain, we see the heart of a humble and godly man.

Simeon’s hymn is a patchwork of passages and themes found in the prophecy of Isaiah (40:5; 42:6; 46:13; 49:6; 52:9–10). During the first century AD, it was common in Jewish writings to link Scripture verses together, like pearls on a string, to make an important point in a cohesive, convincing manner.

Simeon’s vision of the future included salvation for the Gentiles, along with God’s chosen people, Israel. We also find similar theological emphases in the Minor Prophets.

Simeon’s words were revolutionary and, in some respects, visionary. As a loyal and devout Jew to whom God had given special insight, Simeon recognized that because of the Messiah’s advent, God’s redemption would forevermore be available for all people—Jews and Gentiles alike.

Simeon said he was God’s “bondservant” (Luke 2:29). This concept did not imply a menial, servile existence, but rather privilege and honor in service to the Creator.

Moreover, Simeon referred to God as the “Sovereign Lord” (Luke 2:29). The phrase renders the Greek word, despótes, which means “master” or “absolute ruler,” and from which we get our English term, “despot.”

The divine promise to Simeon had been fulfilled, and now he could die in peace. He explained that he had seen God’s salvation (v. 30). The idea is that to see Jesus, the Messiah, is to witness the Lord’s deliverance (John 14:9).

There is some debate as to whether the phrase “all people” (Luke 2:31) refers to Israel alone or to both Israel and the Gentiles. Verse 32 makes it clear that Simeon included non-Jews as well as Jews. This is a key thematic emphasis of Luke (Luke 24:47; Acts 10:34–43).

There is also disagreement over the best way to structure Luke 2:32. The KJV sees “light” and “glory” as parallel, or corresponding, ideas. In other words, Jesus is a light to bring revelation to Gentiles and glory to the people of Israel.

The NIV sees “light” as a summary statement that refers to the entire verse. In this case, “revelation” and “glory” would be parallel, or corresponding, ideas. In other words, Jesus is a light for all, but is a revelation for the Gentiles and glory for Israel (Luke 1:78–79; Acts 26:22–23).

In either case, the central idea is clear that Jesus makes salvation available to all people. Interestingly, both Mary and Joseph were amazed at what Simeon had said about their infant son (Luke 2:33).

Simeon’s words tell us that in the birth of Jesus, the next stage of redemptive history had begun. Gentiles would experience the same deliverance promised to Jews. Indeed, for all who put their faith in Messiah, God promised to give them eternal life.

After invoking God’s blessing upon Joseph and Mary, Simeon prophesied concerning Mary and her son (v. 34). Here we find the first hint in the third Synoptic Gospel that Jesus’ advent would be accompanied with great difficulty.

Perhaps God revealed to Simeon that Joseph would not be alive when the sorrows foretold would come to pass. Although the Scriptures do not give an account for the death of Joseph, no mention is made of him after Jesus began His public ministry. It is generally believed that Joseph died before that time.

The phrase “falling and rising” emphasizes that Jesus would bring division in the nation. Some would fall (or be judged), while others would rise (or be blessed) because of how they responded to the Messiah (Isa 8:14–15; Mal 4:2).

Others, moreover, see in Simeon’s words the fact that Jesus’ preaching of repentance would cause many to fall from their self-righteous opinion of themselves. In turn, they would come to the point where they could recognize their sinfulness and be saved, or exalted, through faith in the Redeemer.

Simeon related that Jesus would be a sign against whom many would speak (Luke 2:34). This is because God would appoint the Messiah as the provision for salvation from sin.

While some (like Simeon) would receive the Redeemer with joy, others (like the religious leaders) would reject Him. As a result, the deepest thoughts of many people (namely, their reasoning and motives) would be exposed by the way they responded to the Savior (v. 35).

Although Jesus came to be the Redeemer of His people, many would despise Him. Tragically, despite the glory of the salvation He would freely offer, some among His contemporaries would reject Him as the Messiah.

Simeon mentioned a sword piercing “your own soul.” The remark seems directed specifically to Mary (as opposed to the entire nation of Israel).

Simeon’s reference to a sword (namely, a large, broad, two-edged weapon) is figurative and pictures great pain. The statement probably refers in part to the cross. Yet, Simeon may also have been referring to the pain that all of Jesus’ ministry would cause, especially the opposition He would encounter throughout His ministry.

The broader truth is that no would be able to remain neutral about the Messiah, and it’s still the same today. We must have an opinion about Jesus. Either we are for Him or we are against Him. Likewise, either we submit our lives to Him or we are at war with Him.

Mary, Joseph, and Jesus also met a woman named Anna. Verse 36 relates that Anna (whose name means “grace” or “favor”) was a prophetess. In other words, she had the gift of prophecy and was recognized for having that gift.

Anna was also the daughter of Phanuel, who was from the tribe of Asher. So, Anna was a Galilean who lived in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth.

There is some dispute concerning Anna’s age. Some think the Greek text indicates that she was 84 years old when she saw the Messiah. Others think she had been a widow for 84 years, having been married to her husband for seven years before he died.

In either case, Anna was an exceptionally committed, elderly woman. She worshiped God so constantly with fasting and prayer that Anna never left the temple (v. 37). She may have lodged in one of the outer rooms of the temple complex, or at least she spent most of her waking hours at the shrine.

During her lifetime, Anna had undoubtedly witnessed her share of war and national oppression. It is no wonder she had an intense longing for the “redemption” (v. 38) promised through the Messiah. This hope of deliverance sustained Anna through many years of patient waiting.

God honored Anna’s faith in the birth of His Son. Also, as evidence of His miraculous timing, the Lord allowed Anna to cross paths with Mary and Joseph at the same moment they were talking with Simeon. Consequently, Anna became a grateful and continual witness to others who had been waiting for the promised King.

The accounts of Simeon and Anna provide a valuable reminder that God rewards the faithful. He preserved the lives of these two individuals until they saw the Messiah. Similarly, God’s plan includes showing us kindness throughout our lives.

Verse 39 indicates that by bringing Jesus to the Jerusalem temple to be presented before the Lord, his parents sought to perform everything required by the Mosaic Law (vv. 22–24). This pious couple wanted to ensure that they reared Jesus according to the teachings and traditions of the Jewish faith.

Now that their business in the capital was completed, Joseph and Mary returned with Jesus to their own town of Nazareth in Galilee. Luke, however, neither mentioned the events recorded in Matthew 2 nor any specific event that might have happened until Jesus was 12 years old.

We assume that Joseph and Mary had children of their own during this time. After all, the Scriptures mention four of Jesus’ half-brothers, James, Joseph, Simon, Judas (Matt. 13:55), and Jesus’ sisters (v. 56).

During Jesus’ childhood years, He physically matured and became strong (Luke 2:40). With reference to His human nature, Jesus experienced normal development in body, mind, spiritual awareness, and social acceptance. All these things occurred with the perfection that is suited to each phase of life through which He passed (vv. 40, 52).

Some have suggested that though Jesus experienced such sinless limitations as the need for nourishment and rest, He evidently had a strong, healthy body that escaped the ravages of sickness or disease. In any case, as Jesus gained knowledge through observation, asking questions, and seeking instruction, He progressively became filled with wisdom (v. 40).

Jesus’ wisdom was more than mere intellectual knowledge. It included the ability to use the knowledge He acquired to the best advantage. Though He did not attend a rabbinical college, the Messiah received a common education, which was primarily religious and which prepared Him for the practical duties of life.

Luke also noted that the “grace of God” was upon Jesus. Because Jesus was human as well as divine, during His earthly life He depended on His heavenly Father for all things, just as we do. Nonetheless, Jesus was sinless, and God’s favor upon Jesus was for reasons unique to His earthly life and ministry.

Much of Jesus’ growth and development from infancy to adulthood is difficult for us to fathom. Perhaps this is because, as a human being, Jesus was completely unhindered by those sinful influences that affect all of us who are descendants of Adam. Jesus’ body and spirit responded to His heavenly Father much as a bud drinks in the sunshine and rain and grows into a beautiful and perfect blossom.

Key ideas to contemplate

Several years ago, Unplug the Christmas Machine was the startling title that appeared in bookstores. The main idea behind the book was that the day after Christmas, people are no longer caught in the gears and pulled by the levers of a commercialized holiday. Our consideration of today’s Scripture passage might be the first opportunity for us to pause and recognize the true significance of the Messiah.

1. Significant name. Luke 2:21 says that the newborn babe was called Jesus. This is the Greek form of Joshua, which means “the Lord saves.”

On one level, Jesus liberates us from relying on violence and revenge, and from living in destructive ways. Likewise, Jesus liberates us to serve others and promote justice. Yet, on another more profound level, trusting in Jesus means that we recognize Him as our only Redeemer from sin.

2. Sacred observances. Note how Mary and Joseph observed the religious traditions of their faith both before and after Jesus was born. Our Christian practices are also important to us, and they can have a tremendous positive effect on our children. Likewise, regular times of worship are essential to our spiritual health.

3. Simeon’s fulfillment. God lavished His mercy and grace on Simeon by allowing him to see the infant Jesus. From Simeon we learn three important truths.

First, Jesus is a gift from God. Second, Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. And third, Jesus is the light of salvation and truth to the entire world.

4. Solemn pronouncement. Anna realized that in seeing the infant Jesus, she was privileged to behold the fulfillment of God’s promise of the heaven-sent Deliverer. We have a similar opportunity when we look to Jesus with the eyes of faith. We can smile at whatever might happen to us in the future, for we know that, in baptismal union with the Messiah, we have the hope of eternal life.

Professor Dan Lioy (PhD, North-West University) holds several faculty appointments. He is the Senior Research Manager at South African Theological Seminary (in South Africa). Also, he is a professor of biblical theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology (in South Dakota). Moreover, he is a dissertation advisor in the Leadership and Global Perspectives DMIN program at Portland Seminary (part of George Fox University in Oregon). Finally, he is a professor in the School of Continuing Theological Studies at North-West University (in South Africa). Professor Lioy is active in local church ministry, being dual rostered with the Evangelical Church Alliance and the North American Lutheran Church. He is widely published, including a number of academic monographs, peer-reviewed journal articles, and church resource products.

Leave a Reply