The Cradle And The Cross: Simeon’s Song
December 22, 1991 | Ray Pritchard
It’s a good question, isn’t it? If Jesus were born today, would it be any different than it was 2,000 years ago? We like to think the answer is yes, that we would be ready, that we wouldn’t make the mistake of turning the Son of God away. There would be room in our inn, we confidently say. We’d find room, or make room, or maybe we’d throw somebody out of their room, but in any case, we’d be ready if Jesus were born in Chicago.
But is that the truth? Are we any more prepared for the coming of Christ than they were in Bethlehem? That really is the crucial question.
It seems when you read the Bible that most people weren’t prepared for his coming. Herod certainly wasn’t, nor were the scribes (even though they knew where he was to be born). The rich and powerful of Bethlehem (assuming there were such) don’t seem to have paid any attention to the young couple from Nazareth. The rulers of the world never knew he was born. Many never knew he lived or died. By the standards of the world, his birth was only a slight blip on the radar of history, a peasant child born to peasant parents. In Rome they paid no attention; in Athens and Alexandria no one took note. In China and India no one knew a thing.
For the most part Phillips Brooks had it right: “How silently, How silently, the wondrous gift is given.” He came silently, quietly (as quietly as a newborn baby boy ever arrives), without fuss or ruckus, without making a stir or announcing his presence. He came in the same way all babies come, and most of the world paid no attention. The Apostle John put it this way: “He was in the world, and although the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:10-11) His own what? His own world, his own people, his own nation. The very people who should have been happiest to see him, instead paid no attention at all.
The Quiet In The Land
But that’s not the whole story. While it is true that the nation as a whole was not ready for his birth, there were some who were ready. The Magi are a good example. They came all the way from Persia to greet the infant King. They represent a great number of Gentiles who were ready to receive the Lord Jesus with joy, honor and reverence. But even with Israel, there were those who believed the time was drawing near for God to at last keep his promises and send Messiah to the earth.
Among those was a group known as the Quiet in the Land. They were a group of loosely organized people who eschewed political intrigue and violent action. They refused to get involved in movements to overthrow Roman rule. Through godliness and prayer, they hoped to be ready when Messiah at last came on the scene.
Luke tells the story of one man who may have been a part of the Quiet in the Land. His name is Simeon. He had been waiting for years to see the Messiah, and when he meets the baby Jesus, he knows his long wait is finally over.
The Days Of Purification
We pick up the story in Luke 2:21-24.
On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.
When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the law of the Lord: “A pair of doves or two young pigeons.”
Three different aspects of the Old Testament Law are intertwined in these verses:
1. The Law required that all male children be circumcised on the eighth day after birth. That’s verse 21.
2. The Law also required that women wait 40 days after the birth of a son before presenting themselves in the temple for their purification. That’s verse 22.
3. The Law also required that a mother and father present their firstborn son before the Lord to be “redeemed” by the offering of a sacrifice. That’s verse 23.
All three things are happening in these verses. Verse 21 takes place 8 days after Christmas, and verses 22-23 take place 33 days later. The circumcision could have taken place in Bethlehem, but the presentation and redemption had to take place in Jerusalem. The purification was in fulfillment of Leviticus 12 and the redemption was in fulfillment of Exodus 13.
Two Doves Or Two Pigeons
These verses, although somewhat incidental for our purposes, show clearly that Jesus was born into a god-fearing, law-abiding home. They illustrate the truth of Galatians 4:4 that when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, “born under the Law.” They also illustrate our Lord’s own words in Matthew 5:17, “I did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.” Jesus was no law-breaker, as some of his opponents would suggest many years later. He was born under the Law, lived his whole life in obedience to the Law, and kept its precepts to the very end.
Verse 23 also tells us something about the financial situation of Mary and Joseph. You might read right over the mention of “two doves or two pigeons” without thinking a thing about it. But Leviticus 12 tells us that when a woman came for her purification she was to bring a lamb as an offering. If, however, she could not afford a lamb, she could bring two doves or two pigeons instead. That made it possible for even poor women to obey the law of purification. All of which confirms the fact that Mary and Joseph were very poor, since lambs were not considered a luxury item. Our Lord was not born into an upper-class home. He was not born into a comfortable middle-class home. He was born into a loving, godly home that would at best be considered lower middle-class. Jesus knew poverty and hardship from the very beginning.
Forty days have passed since the birth of Jesus. Here come Mary and Joseph into the Temple precincts, ready to “redeem” their firstborn son. There was nothing outwardly to distinguish them, no marks or signs that indicated they were anything other than another poor young couple coming with their newborn son.
At this point Simeon enters the story. Aside from what we are told in Luke 2, we know nothing about him. We don’t know his background, his hometown, his education, or even his occupation. We assume he was a priest—although the text doesn’t explicitly say so. We also assume he was an old man—but even that is not a certain fact. He simply appears on the stage of history as a bit player in the drama surrounding the birth of Christ. After his part is over, he fades from the scene, never to be heard from again.
Here comes Mary, here comes Joseph, and here comes Simeon. He has never seen them before, they have never seen him before. But a divinely-planned encounter is about to take place. Luke tells the story this way:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. (Luke 2:25-26)
These verses tell us several key facts about Simeon. First, he was a righteous man. Second, he was a devout man. Third, he was waiting for the Messiah to come (that’s what “waiting for the consolation of Israel” really means). Fourth, he was a Spirit-filled man. Fifth, and most importantly, he was eagerly awaiting the imminent appearance of the Messiah. That last part is fascinating. The Holy Spirit had told him, “You will not die before you see the Messiah.”
“Is This The One?”
What a promise that was. If Simeon is now an old man (as seems likely from verse 29), then he’s been waiting in the Temple for many years. Day by day he had prayed for the Lord’s Christ to finally appear. Year after year his prayers were to no avail. As he grew older, his anticipation grew stronger because he knew he couldn’t live forever. Perhaps he is now 70 or 75 or even 80 years old. Perhaps he has a long gray beard, stooped shoulders, wrinkled face, bushy eyebrows, and trembling hands. If so, then he knows it can’t be long. The Lord’s Christ must be coming at any moment.
Can you imagine the scene? Early every morning Simeon goes to the Temple, watching and waiting for the Messiah to come. How would he know him? What should he look for? Did he know to look for a baby? Or was he looking for a teenager or a strong young man? No one knows the answer to those questions.
Day by day he kept watch over the throngs coming into the Temple. Each time a young couple came in with a baby, he whispered, “Is that the one?” If he saw a fine looking teenager, he would say, “Is that the one, Lord, or is it someone else?” Each day he watched, and looked, and questioned. Each day the answer came back, time and again, “No, that’s not the one. Keep looking. Keep watching. Keep waiting.”
Here comes Mary holding the baby in her arms with Joseph by her side. Jesus is only forty days old. Never was there a more unlikely couple. He is a poor carpenter from Nazareth, she is a peasant girl carrying a little baby boy. They are obviously from the country. They obviously don’t have much money. If you were people-watching, you wouldn’t give them a second glance.
Not educated. Not part of the intelligentsia. Not from the upper-crust. And here they are in cosmopolitan Jerusalem, timidly walking onto the Temple courts. When Simeon sees them, he asks his question for the 10,000th time, “Is this the one?” And the Holy Spirit says, “Yes.”
“This Is The One”
Suddenly Simeon’s heart leaps within him. The long days of waiting are finally over. The Lord’s Christ is before him. Here is the One for whom the nation has been waiting. He walks over, introduces himself, and says, “Do you mind if I hold your child?” As Mary gives the infant Jesus to Simeon, the thought hits him, “I am holding the salvation of the world in my arms.”
At that point Simeon breaks out into a song of praise, a song that is so beautiful that it has come down through the centuries to us as the final and climactic song of Christmas. The song is called the Nunc Dimittis, the title being taken from the first two words of the Latin translation of Simeon’s words.
What follows is first the song (vv. 29-32) and then a personal word of prophetic blessing to Mary (vv. 34-35). The song goes like this:
Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.
Simeon’s first thought is that he is now ready to die. The word “dismiss” is a military word, used to describe a sentinel who has stood watch during the long hours of the night. Now at last as the sun comes up over the eastern horizon, he knows his work is done, and he goes to his commanding officer to be dismissed. Once dismissed, he goes back to his barracks to sleep. That’s the way Simeon feels. The long wait is over, the years of anticipation have been fulfilled, his sentry duty is finished, for he has seen and personally held “the Lord’s Christ.”
Sometimes we hear stories of terminally ill patients who say, “Doctor, I’d like to stay alive until Easter.” Then when Easter comes, they quietly slip away. Or they say, “I’d like to stay alive until my granddaughter gets married.” They live long enough to see her down the aisle, and then they are gone. Doctors see it happen all the time. Once the goal is reached, life is complete and death comes quickly.
That’s exactly how Simeon feels. He won’t live to see the Lord grow up. He won’t witness any of the great miracles. He won’t see Jesus walk on water, feed the 5,000 or raise the dead. Simeon will be long gone when Jesus stands before Pilate. The crucifixion is hidden to him, as is the resurrection. But it doesn’t matter that he won’t see the end because Simeon has seen the beginning, and that is enough.
What Child Is This?
Notice what he says about Jesus. In the words that follow Simeon tells us three important things about who Jesus is.
I. He is the Glory of Israel
In verse 32 Simeon calls him “the glory of Israel.” In this baby, Simeon sees the fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people across the centuries. To call Jesus “the glory of Israel” takes us back to the time of Abraham when the Lord said, “I will make your name great, and make of you a great nation, and through you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” After that came the reaffirmation to Isaac, and then to Jacob. Still later God told Moses that one day a great prophet would come who would be unlike any other prophet before him. Still later God promised David a son who would reign on his throne forever. Still later God spoke through Isaiah and promised that a son would be born of a virgin, and that his name would be called Immanuel—God With Us. Still later, Micah predicted that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. For genera-tions the promises were repeated—from father to son, from mother to daughter, from family to family, from the older to the younger, and Jewish children were taught to pray for the Messiah’s appearance.
“Why Does Messiah Delay His Coming?”
By the time you get to the first century, you have all these centuries of expectation built up. In his great work The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim tells us that when Jesus was born there was great excitement in the nation of Israel. While it is true that many people were not looking, it’s also true that many others were aware that something was up and that God was beginning to stir the pot of history.
Some Jews thought the Messiah would be a great political leader who would overthrow Rome and restore Israel to its rightful place in the world. Others thought the Messiah would be God himself. Still others expected a second Moses or a second Elijah. So you had a lot of confusion mixed with a general sense of expectation. Edersheim says that by the time Christ was born, one question above all others was on the lips of every expectant Jew: “Why does Messiah delay his coming?”
Now after all these years, all God’s promises are coming true. That’s what Simeon means when he calls Jesus “the glory of Israel.” As the song says, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.”
II. He is the Savior of the World
Then Simeon calls him “a light of revelation for the Gentiles.” Here is a completely new thought. You won’t find this in the other songs of Christmas. Mary’s song is completely Jewish. She thinks in Jewish terms and expresses her thoughts in Jewish ways. The Gentiles are nowhere in view. The same is true of Zechariah. The angels’ song broadens the viewpoint by mentioning, “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” But nowhere in any of the previous songs are the Gentiles mentioned by name.
But Simeon explicitly says that this baby will not only be the glory of his own people Israel. He will also be the light of revelation for the Gentiles. He’s not just for Israel. He didn’t come just for their benefit. He came to shine a light of the revelation of God into every nation, every tribe, every kindred and every tongue. The Jews couldn’t say, “He belongs to us and you can’t have him.” Nor could they say, “You have to become a Jew to enjoy Messiah’s benefits.” No! Doubtless that’s what some Jews expected. But Simeon’s words explode forever that narrow nationalism.
He’s the Savior of the whole world. Rich and poor, young and old, black and white, Jew and Gentile, American and Japanese, healthy and handicapped. All people are included in his coming. He didn’t come for a small group. He came for the whole wide world. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.”
That means there is hope for you at Christmastime. If you are lonely this year, Simeon meant to include you. If your family has rejected you, Simeon meant to include you. If you feel forgotten, depressed, discouraged, and down on your luck, be of good cheer, Christmas is for you! Whatever sins are holding you back this year, Christmas means that you can be forgiven, because Jesus came for you.
It’s true that our Lord was a Jew. But he didn’t come just for the Jews.
He met a Samaritan woman at the well, and he forgave her.
He met a Roman centurion and said, “I have not found such great faith in all of Israel.”
He met a Syrophoenician woman and healed her daughter.
When he was crucified, it was a Roman centurion who said, “Surely this was the Son of God.”
In all of this, Simeon is telling us something crucial. By sending his Son to the earth, he is not only fulfilling his promises to the nation. He is also bringing to the world a Savior for all people everywhere.
III. He is the Divider of the Human Race
There is yet a third thing that Simeon says. The story continues in verses 33-35:
The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.
Here is the third and final thing Simeon says about Jesus. He is the Great Divider of Men. He will cause many to fall. He will cause many to rise. And many will speak against him, and in speaking against him, the hidden thoughts of the heart will be revealed.
What a thing to say about a tiny baby. “Mary, I know you are happy now, but you will weep later. Today your heart is filled with joy. Later it will be filled with sorrow. Rejoice and enjoy this time because dark days are coming.”
Isn’t it true that if you are a parent, the worst thing that can happen to you is to see your children suffer? Most of us will do anything to spare our children needless pain. We’ll gladly suffer ourselves if it will make the way easier for our children. That’s what it means to be a Mom or a Dad. You take the pain yourself so your children won’t have to.
Born To Die
Simeon is saying, “Mary, they are going to touch this child, and you won’t be able to do anything about it. They are going to hate him, they are going to lie about him, they’ll spread rumors about you and Joseph, they will smear his name with malacious lies. And you will have to stand by helplessly and watch it happen.”
Down the road it all came true. Eventually they questioned not only his parentage, but also his mental ability. They snickered and said, “He thinks he’s the Son of God. But he’s just filled with demons.” In the end hatred took full control and they arrested Jesus and put him on trial as a seditious blasphemer. They beat him within an inch of his life, leaving his skin in tattered ribbons. After the trial, he was condemned to die. In the end, Mary stood by the cross and watched her son die an agonizing, brutal, bloody, inhuman death. Amid the stench and gore of crucifixion, Mary stood by her son, unable to staunch the flow of blood, unable to wipe his brow, unable to hold his hand.
It all happened exactly as Simeon had predicted. When Mary watched her son die, a sword pierced her soul. Above the cradle stands the cross. This little baby was born to die. Dag Hammarskjold, late Secretary-General of the United Nations, put it this way:
How proper it is that Christmas should follow Advent. For to him who looks toward the future, the Manger is situated on Golgotha, and the Cross has already been raised in Bethlehem. (Hymns for the Family of God, p. 189)
The joy of Christmas leads on to the agony of Good Friday. He was born to end up that way.
Did you notice how Simeon put it? Because of Jesus, the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. Underline that in your mind. With Jesus there is no neutrality. No one can ever come face to face with Jesus Christ and remain the same. Every time you see Jesus, you will either be drawn closer to him or you will move farther away. That’s what Simeon means when he says that Jesus will cause the rising of many and the falling of many. You either go higher spiritually when you meet Jesus or you turn around and go the other way. It’s either up or down, heaven or hell.
How can that be? People rise or fall according to their personal response to Jesus. In this world there are only two classes of people: Those who believe in Jesus Christ and those who don’t. And there is no middle ground. There is no fence to sit upon.
It’s popular in America, and especially in an intellectual place like Oak Park, to sit on the fence regarding the person of Jesus Christ. It’s popular to call him a good teacher, a good person, a great moral example, and so on. Simeon is saying you can’t do that. You have to make up your mind about Jesus. Either he is the Son of God from heaven, or he’s not. If he’s not, then he is the greatest fraud in human history, and worthy of our deepest scorn. For if he is not the Son of God, then he is either a lunatic or he is a something much worse—he is guilty of deliberately concealing his true identity.
But if he is the Son of God, then the only possible response is to bow down and worship him!
At Christmastime you only have two options regarding Jesus Christ. Either you join Herod in trying to kill him or you join the Wise Men in bowing down and worshiping him. And there is nothing in between!
Remember, if you are indifferent, you’ve really joined the side that wants to kill him.
What Is Jesus To You?
What is Jesus to you this morning?
He’s life or death.
He’s heaven or hell.
He’s joy or sorrow.
He’s guilt or forgiveness.
He’s salvation or condemnation.
He’s everlasting life or everlasting punishment.
Let me press the question home. What is Jesus to you? Not who is he, but what is he to you? Is he life or is he death to you this morning?
That’s what Simeon is saying. This little baby who is the glory of Israel, who is the light of the world, is also the great divider of the human race. You’re either on one side or on the other regarding Jesus. No one stays forever in the middle.
The way you respond to Jesus reveals what is in your heart. Think about that. The way you respond to Jesus tells us who you are and what you are and what is in your heart. But that’s not all. The way you respond to Jesus tells us where you are going and how you are going to get there. And most of all, the way you respond to Jesus tells us where you are going to spend eternity.
Jesus, the great divider of mankind!
And was it not our Lord himself who said, “I came not to bring peace but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34) Simeon saw it from the very beginning.
First there was Herod and the Wise Men. One tried to kill him and the others worshiped him. Then later there was Peter who repented and Judas who committed suicide. Then there was Pilate who tried to wash his hands and the centurion who said, “Surely this was the Son of God.” Then there was one thief who blasphemed and another who believed. From the beginning of his life to the very end, Jesus divided the human race.
What is he to you this morning?
When Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms, he said, “Lord, I’m ready to go home now. I can die in peace.” But no one is ready to die until they have seen Jesus Christ with the eyes of faith. You’re not ready to die until you have seen him and known him and trusted him as your Savior.
Once you have seen him, death is no longer an enemy. It’s true that you may live your life and you may come to the end not having been as successful as you like. You may live in some frustration because you haven’t accomplished all your personal goals. But (and this is a very big but) if you can come to the end of your life and say, “I have seen the Lord’s Christ,” then you have had a good life.
If you come to the end, and you’ve never seen Jesus, you’ve basically wasted your years upon this earth.
He is the great divider of mankind. Everyone who reads these words is on one side or the other.
The Only Thing That Matters Is Jesus
Earlier this week I received a phone call from a dear friend who is going through the experience of watching a loved one die. That’s not easy to do at Christmastime. While everyone else is singing and laughing, you watch someone you love slowly slip away from you. When my friend called me, he made a very telling comment. “At a time like this you realize what’s really important. When you watch someone die before your eyes, you realize that the things of the world aren’t that important. The money and the power and the big career, they all just wash away. At the end the only thing that matters is to know Jesus Christ.”
It’s Christmastime. Do you know him?
He’s the Messiah of Israel. Do you know him?
He’s the Savior of the World. Do you know him?
He’s the Great Divider of Mankind. Do you know him?
It’s Christmastime. He came for you. Do you know him?
Father, we thank you that you didn’t do what you could have done. You didn’t leave us alone in our sins. You could have forgotten us, you could have written us off as hopeless. But you didn’t leave us alone. You came for us! And you found us. You sent Jesus to rescue us. Thank you for coming for us, that we might be safe now and saved forever—in this life and in the life to come. We thank you in Jesus’ name, Amen.