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Good News From Israel
To The Ends Of The Earth
Verse Commentary on Luke 2:21-35

Jirair Tashjian


Jesus was a Jew. His parents observed the Law of Moses when it came to such things as childbirth, circumcision, and other rituals. Luke is careful to point out that Jesus had his roots in the Old Testament. But that’s not all. The good news of Jesus was also for the whole world. Yet, there was something unsettling about Jesus. Jesus was going to cause a crisis in Israel. Luke intends to emphasize these points in this passage.

1. Jesus had his roots in the Law of Moses (2:21-24)

21 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. 22 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 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord"), 24 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."

21. Mary and Joseph did everything according to the Law of Moses. The Law required that a male child be circumcised on the eighth day (Leviticus 12:3). By circumcision, Jesus became a son of the covenant which God established with Abraham (Genesis 17:10-12). However, the main verb in this verse is not the circumcision but the naming of the Child. Jesus, the same name as the OT Joshua, means "God saves." Even the name of Jesus had Jewish roots.

22. The Law is mentioned three times in verses 22-24. Two additional references to the Law are in verses 27 and 39.

The Law of Moses required the purification of the mother only (Leviticus 12). Neither the father nor the child was required to be purified. Luke’s use of the plural, their purification, implies both Joseph and Mary. Why both?

Luke apparently combined two different rituals that were originally separate and distinct in the OT. The first is the purification of the mother, as discussed above. The second is the presentation of the firstborn to the Lord (Exodus 13), which was done by both parents. Since Luke combined the two rituals, he included Joseph.

Mary needed purification even though she was a virgin. A mother became ceremonially unclean at the point of giving birth, not at the point of conceiving. Neither the Law nor Luke suggests that sexual union made a woman unclean. Here is the irony of the incarnation: the birth of this holy Child made his mother become ritually unclean under the Law.

Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. The Law did not require that the presentation be made at the sanctuary. Luke apparently draws a parallel between the story of Jesus and that of Samuel. Hannah, Samuel’s mother, presented her son to the Lord at the sanctuary (1 Samuel 1:24-28).

23. The Law required that every firstborn male... be consecrated to the Lord. The firstborn belonged to God for priestly service (Exodus 13:2, 12, 15). This was to be a constant reminder of God’s deliverance of Israel’s firstborn when Egypt’s firstborn perished. However, since the tribe of Levi was chosen to be priests, other firstborn males could be redeemed from priestly service with five shekels (Numbers 18:16). Since Jesus was not redeemed, it meant that he belonged to God just like Samuel.

24. To offer a sacrifice...: "a pair of doves or two young pigeons." If a mother could not afford a lamb she could offer the less expensive sacrifice of two birds (Leviticus 12:8). Jesus came from a poor family.

This sacrifice of two birds was to be the mother’s purification ritual after childbirth, not the child’s consecration. Luke has combined the two ceremonies into one.

2. Jesus was God’s Promise for Israel and all nations (2:25-32)

25 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. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: 29 "Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the sight of all people, 32  a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."

In the previous section Luke showed that the story of Jesus was rooted in the Law of Moses. In this section (vv. 25-40), Luke will show that the story of Jesus was confirmed by two prophets, Simeon and Anna, who spoke of Jesus under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Therefore "the Law and the Prophets" confirm Jesus to be Messiah (Luke 16:16; Acts 28:23).

25. Simeon, just like Zechariah and Elizabeth and Joseph and Mary, as well as the prophetess Anna a little later (vv. 36-38), represented the best in Israel. Simeon was righteous and devout, spending his days in the Temple and waiting for the Messiah. There is no indication that he was a priest or had official duties.

Simeon was waiting for the consolation of Israel. This is the promise of comfort and restoration proclaimed to the exiles in Isaiah 40:1-2: "Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem..."

Simeon was under the direction and instruction of the Holy Spirit. First, the Holy Spirit was upon him. Luke uses this expression to speak of the coming or presence of the Spirit on Mary (Luke 1:35), on Jesus (Luke 4:18), and on Cornelius and his household (Acts 10:44). The Holy Spirit was active in the world even before Pentecost.

26. Secondly, the Holy Spirit revealed to Simeon that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Private revelation claimed by individuals can easily get out of hand. In Simeon’s case, however, what the Spirit revealed was not some new-fangled thing. It had to do with what the OT had already promised--that a Messiah would come. Scripture and the Holy Spirit went hand in hand.

27.  Thirdly, Simeon, moved by the Spirit, ...went into the temple courts. Again, this was not something unusual; Simeon was used to being in the Temple. And it was in the Temple that he could expect to see the Messiah. For Luke the Temple is extremely important. At his birth Jesus was brought to the Temple. At the age of 12 Jesus was expected to be in the Temple (Luke 2:49). After his death, resurrection and ascension his followers continued to gather at the Temple (Acts 2:46). The Christian movement was not a contradiction of the old Jewish customs and traditions.

Luke refers to Joseph and Mary as the parents of Jesus. This is simply to say that Joseph assumed the responsibilities of father. It does not contradict the virgin birth of Jesus.

Simeon knew about Jesus not because he had heard about him. He spoke as a prophet inspired by the Spirit.

The custom of the Law refers to the presentation or consecration of Jesus, as discussed earlier.

28.  Simeon took him in his arms and praised God. The aged Simeon was ready to pass away, but in his arms he held an Infant who was the sign of new things to come--a beautiful picture of the old and the new.

29.  Simeon’s prayer in verses 29-32 is a hymn made up of three stanzas with two lines in each stanza. In Greek there is emphasis on the word now because it is the first word of the hymn. The present time of Jesus was the beginning of a new age.

The Greek for sovereign Lord is literally despot, and the word for servant can mean slave. Simeon saw himself as a slave in relationship to God as his Master. Simeon had fulfilled his duties as a slave and was asking his Master to dismiss him in peace, that is, to allow him to die peacefully. He was serene because he knew that what God had promised was now being fulfilled.

30. For my eyes have seen your salvation. Simeon saw nothing but a six-week old Baby. But that was enough. He knew by faith that the salvation he was waiting for was being realized in Jesus.

31. All people. As we saw in the previous lesson, "all the people" in Luke 2:10 is singular and refers to Israel. In this verse "all people" is plural and means all the nations of the world.

32. "All people" is more specifically spelled out as Gentiles and Israel. In Luke and Acts the Gentile Christians do not take the place of Israel. God’s salvation is for Gentiles in addition to Israel, not in place of Israel. This dual nature of salvation in Simeon’s hymn may have its source in the Book of Isaiah. The prophet speaks of the redemption of Jerusalem as well as salvation to the ends of the earth, encompassing both Israel and the nations (40:1-5; 42:6; 49:6; 52:9-10).

3. Jesus was to cause a crisis (2:33-35)

33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 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, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too."

33. Earlier, Luke referred to Joseph and Mary as the "parents" of Jesus (v. 27). Now he calls Joseph the child’s father. This is not a contradiction of the virgin birth. It is possible, however, that in the early years of the Christian movement many considered Joseph to be Jesus’ father (Luke 3:23).

Joseph and Mary marveled at Simeon’s words. Why? Did they not already know that this Child was very special?

Their marvel had to do with a couple of things. First, perhaps they marveled that Simeon, a perfect stranger, knew so much about the significance of this Child. Secondly, this is the first time in Luke that Gentiles are specifically included in God’s salvation through Jesus (v. 32). Joseph and Mary marveled that even Gentiles will benefit from what God is going to do through Jesus.

34. Now Simeon addresses Mary specifically with some disturbing words. This marvelous salvation through Jesus had a dark side. Not everyone will take kindly to Jesus. There will be falling as well as rising of many in Israel. Jesus will be a sign that will be spoken against. Jesus will cause a crisis in Israel. Decisions will have to be made for him or against him. The decision of people about Jesus will determine whether they fall or rise. Salvation does not come automatically to all. There will be people who will contradict Jesus and put him to death, as Luke will tell us later.

35. In this verse, the NIV has switched the order of the two clauses. Most other versions follow the order of the clauses in Greek: "And a sword will pierce your own soul too, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed." In these versions, it sounds as if the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed as a result of the sword that will pierce Mary’s soul. However, it is more correct to see the revealing of thoughts as a result of the sign that will be spoken against rather than the sword that will pierce Mary’s soul. Some versions put parentheses around the sword statement to separate it from what comes before and after. In Greek, no punctuation marks were used. The NIV captures the correct meaning by putting the sword statement last. This means that the response of people to Jesus will reveal their real essence. Jesus will force the issue; no one can be neutral.

The statement that a sword will pierce your own [Mary’s] soul too has been interpreted in many ways. The most popular explanation is that Mary will experience deep anguish when she sees her son on the cross. Others suggest that the spear which pierced Jesus’ side (John 19:34) will be like a dagger in Mary’s soul. The problem with these explanations is that, according to Luke, Mary was not at the foot of the cross (23:49, 55; 24:10). Only John tells us that Mary was there (19:25). We must therefore try to understand what Luke had in mind.

The sword which will pierce Mary’s soul is not simply the anguish of seeing Jesus on the cross being pierced with a spear. It has a broader reference. If we keep this sword statement in the context of verses 34-35, we can see its relationship to the fall and rising of many and the sign that will be spoken against. The hostility against Jesus and his death will cause everyone to evaluate their own thoughts and attitudes. Even Mary herself will undergo the turmoil of having to make a decision about Jesus. The sword here is similar to what is expressed in Hebrews 4:12, that "the word of God is "sharper than any double-edged sword, [which] penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart."

In Luke 12:51 Jesus says he did not come to bring peace on earth but division. Matthew 10:34 uses "sword" instead of "division." Immediately after this statement Jesus talks about divisions that will occur in families because of him (Luke 12:52-53; Matthew 10:35). The sword of Jesus will divide, discriminate, and judge the thoughts, attitudes, and relationships of all people. Mary the mother of Jesus will go through the same crisis. Everyone must decide what to do with Jesus.

-Jirair Tashjian, Copyright © 2018, Jirair Tashjian
and The Christian Resource Institute - All Rights Reserved
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