In the last essay we studied Luke 2:1-20, which presents Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus. In this essay we study 2:21-40, which tells us about the circumcision and presentation of Jesus at the temple.
In 2:21 we see a very brief account of Jesus’ circumcision and naming. Of course this took place, according to Jewish custom, on the eighth day after Jesus’ birth. And he was named Jesus, as the angel had commanded before Jesus’ conception (1:31).
The presentation of Jesus at the temple, which begins at verse 22, often is not well understood. There are two aspects of the presentation. The first is the purification of the mother. The law declares that a new mother of a son is ceremonially unclean because of the birth for seven days, that is, until the circumcision. And then she is unclean for 33 more days because of her bleeding, a total of forty days. Interestingly, both periods of time are doubled if the child is a girl. At the end of the period of uncleanness, the mother was to make an offering of a lamb and a turtledove or pigeon, if she could afford it. If she could not afford a lamb, an offering of a pair of turtledoves or pigeons was considered appropriate. All of the details are in Leviticus, chapter 12. Mary made the lesser offering, so she obviously could not afford a lamb.
The second aspect of the presentation was the offering of the child to the Lord. All first-borns belonged to the Lord. You will find that law in Ex. 13:2. They normally were redeemed with a five-shekel offering (Num. 18:15-16). But it appears that Jesus instead was offered to the Lord for his coming service to him. This has a little similarity to the situation of Samuel in the Old Testament, though Jesus was not a Nazirite from birth, and he never lived at the temple as Samuel did (1 Sam. 1).
As the naming of John was followed by Zechariah’s prophecy (1:67-75), we find in 2:25-29 the naming and presentation of Jesus followed by a statement of praise from an old man named Simeon. Simeon is otherwise unknown. Thus this is the extent of our knowledge of him. However, several very important things are said about him. First, he was a righteous man. Nothing is said about why he was righteous, but in the New Testament it normally means that the person is right with God and his fellow men.
Second, Simeon was a devout man. That means that he kept the law and cultivated his relationship with God.
Third, Simeon “was looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” The “consolation of Israel” was a way of speaking about the comfort that would come to Israel with the coming of the Messiah. It referred to the expected comfort of the messianic age.
Fourth, and most important, the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon. Now it was rare for the Holy Spirit to fill people in Old Testament times, but not so rare for him to come upon people. Simeon was among those who were blessed by the power of the Spirit coming upon them.
Now then, the Holy Spirit had prepared Simeon for this magnificent day. He had revealed to Simeon that he would not die physically before seeing the Messiah (v. 26). Then the Spirit guided Simeon to the temple on the day when Jesus’ parents brought him there for his presentation. So God arranged for Simeon to be there that day (v. 27). The Spirit also obviously indicated to Simeon that Jesus was the one, because in verses 29-32 he took Jesus in his arms and praised God.
In Simeon’s praise or song he interprets his opportunity to see the Messiah as a release from his vigil. He has seen the Messiah, and now he can die in peace (v. 29). Simeon declares that by seeing the Messiah he has seen God’s salvation (v. 30). And notice that he has the insight that God’s salvation is for all peoples, both Jews and Gentiles (vv. 31-32). This was not a new idea. In Isaiah and other places the Old Testament clearly taught that God’s salvation of Israel was to benefit Gentiles as well as Jews. The Jews had a hard time understanding that.
Having blessed God in his song, in verses 33-35 Simeon now blesses Joseph and Mary. The parents were amazed at Simeon’s song (v. 33). This was one more mysterious revelation. Mysterious revelations had come to them rather fast and furiously since before the birth of Jesus’. However this probably was the first time that they had heard of Jesus’ significance to Gentiles.
After blessing Joseph and Mary, Simeon speaks directly to Mary and reveals four things all of which proved true. First, he says that Jesus “is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel.” Most commentators see this imagery coming from Is. 8:14-15 and 28:16, where Isaiah speaks about a “stone” which one can believe in or stumble over. Whether that is the case or not, many continue to rise or fall spiritually depending on their response to Jesus.
Second, Simeon declares that Jesus would be “a sign” that would be opposed. That certainly proved to be the case. He not only was opposed; he was unjustly tried and murdered.
Third, Simeon says “the inner thoughts of many “would be revealed. Again this turned out to be quite true. No one can hide when faced with the claims of Jesus. One must make a decision. Either we accept or reject those claims. And our eternal destiny depends on our choice.
Finally, fourth, Simeon reveals to Mary that she would personally suffer in her soul. And of course that also happened in a devastating way when Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified.
At verse 36 another person is introduced. Her name is Anna. Anna was a prophetess who spent “night and day” at the temple in praise and worship. Verse 37 says that “she never left the temple,” but I suspect that is Semitic hyperbole. It probably means that she spent all day, every day, there.
After a seven-year marriage, she was widowed; and she remained a widow until the age of 84. The implication is that she was 84 at the time these events took place. Some believe that the text is saying that Anna was a widow for 84 years, which would have made her over 100 when Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple. But I don’t think the Greek is that ambiguous. We are told that Anna began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for redemption; but unfortunately, we are not told what she said.
Verses 39-40 provide an historical conclusion. After the presentation, the family returned to Nazareth, and they took up their normal lives. Verse 40 parallels 1:80, which was about John. In terse fashion we are told that Jesus grew, that he became strong, that he was filled with wisdom, “and the favor of the Lord was upon him.”
Turning to application, we can learn one major thing from this lesson. It seems to me that the overall theme is one of trust. First Joseph and Mary time and time again found themselves forced to trust God. They didn’t understand everything the angels had told them in connection with Jesus’ conception and birth, but they trusted. At the presentation in the temple, they didn’t know exactly how to respond to Simeon and Anna. But they accepted the events in trust. And that is something we all must learn to do. That is, all of us must learn to trust God. Faith sometimes is messy. That is, things happen that we don’t understand, or that seem to be hindering, rather than helping, us to accomplish the will of God. And all we can do is trust.
Simeon and Anna also learned to trust God, and in similar ways. Both were old. And they showed their trust in God by living a righteous and devout life, something that all of us are capable of doing by the power of the Spirit. Both were looking forward to the promises of the messianic age, “the consolation of Israel.” Again not only are we capable of that, the New Testament commands us to do it. Finally, both had the Holy Spirit resting on them. That isn’t specifically said of Anna; nevertheless it is clear from her words and actions that the Holy Spirit was resting on her as well. Amazingly, we are in a better position than either one of the elderly pair, because we have the Holy Spirit, not just resting upon us, but dwelling within us.