[Note: This is the “Old” version of the Grace Commentary on Luke. It will be updated to the new version soon.]
The description in 2:21-24 of Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the temple to present Him to the Lord introduces the events of 2:25-38, namely two Jewish people who have been waiting for the Messiah, and who are at the temple to meet and bless Him. It seems that Luke, following the instructions of Deuteronomy 19:15 to confirm a matter by two or three witnesses, is intentionally presenting three witnesses to the birth of the Messiah: the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna.
The shepherds have already witnessed the birth of Jesus; Luke now presents two individuals who provide further testimony. The first of these is Simeon in 2:25-35. It is possible that Simeon was a Levitical priest, and it was to him that Mary gave the five shekel redemption offering, and who then pronounced the blessing upon Jesus that Luke records here (Pentecost 1981:65; contra. Bock 1994:240). The blessing reiterates much of the Jewish expectations that were seen in the statements of Mary and Zacharias (1:46-55; 67-79), but includes some new elements as well. Simeon and Zarcharias are placed in parallel, as both are righteous men in the temple who act under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Green 1997:143).
2:25. At the time when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple for Mary’s purification and to redeem Jesus, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. Jerusalem was the political and religious center of Israel. Simeon means “God has heard.” There are numerous legends about Simeon. “We are told that he was high priest and successor to Zacharias (cf. Protevangelium of James 24:3-4), that Jesus raised his two sons from the dead (cf Acts of Pilate 17:1), and that he was perhaps the son of the great Rabbi Hillell (b. Shabbath 15a). All of these traditions are dubious” (Evans 2003:54; cf. Bock 1994:238). Though there was a Rabbi Simeon, the son of Hillel, alive at the time Jesus was born, this Simeon mentioned by Luke cannot be Simeon, the son of Hillel. For one reason, Simeon the son of Hillel lived a long time after the birth of Jesus, and later fathered a son named Gamaliel, whom Luke writes about in Acts (Lightfoot 1989:40). From Luke, it appears that this Simeon did not live too much longer, and was probably too old to produce a son. So all we really know about this Simeon are the four things Luke records.
First, Simeon was just (Gk. dikaios), which could also be translated “righteous.” From a Jewish perspective, it refers to one’s right standing before God, specifically in regard to God’s Covenant with Israel. Luke has previously informed his readers that Zacharias and Elizabeth were righteous, “walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (1:6), and that the ministry of John the Baptist will include helping people practice the wisdom of living righteously to prepare the way for the Messiah (1:17).
Simeon was also devout, which means he was reverent and pious. Though obedient to the law, he was not proud and arrogant about it (cf. Acts 22:12).
Third, Luke writes that Simeon was waiting for the Consolation of Israel, which is a prophetic term for the Messiah, the One who would bring peace, comfort, and relief from afflictions to the people of Israel. Such consolation is a frequent theme in Isaiah 40-66. Sometimes, in Rabbinic tradition, the Messiah is called a “consoler” (Evans 2003:54; cf. Lightfoot 1989:41). The term Luke uses, paraklesis is used later by John to refer to the coming Holy Spirit (John 14-16).
Finally, Luke records that the Holy Spirit was upon Simeon. Luke writes more about the Holy Spirit than any other Gospel writer. By doing so, he lays groundwork for the birth of the church at Pentecost in Acts 2. Prior to Pentecost in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit only came upon a select few, and only for a short while so they could accomplish a specific task. He would come upon kings to provide leadership, prophets to speak God’s Word, and builders to construct the temple. After Pentecost in Acts 2, He remains in all believers permanently. If Simeon had the Holy Spirit upon him, he was specially chosen by God to do something specific for God.
2:26. The specific task given to Simeon was that he would be a witness to the birth of the Messiah. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Scripture doesn’t say how old Simeon was, or how long he had been waiting, but tradition says he was 113 years old (Wiersbe 1989:177). Again, this is only speculation and tradition, not Scripture (Bock 1994:238).
2:27-28. Luke seems to imply that Simeon was the priest to whom Mary and Joseph brought Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law. As discussed in 2:23, this custom required them to redeem Jesus as their firstborn son with five pieces of silver. As Mary would not be allowed past the Court of Women, this meeting took place there, or possibly in the Court of Gentiles. The location is not without significance. In Israel, the temple was viewed as the center of worship, and the place where God dwelled among men. Yet it is here, in Israel’s temple, that God reveals His plan to send a Messiah who will be for all the world, not just for Israel (cf. 2:30-32; Green 1997:146).
Once the offering was made, the priest would take up the child in his arms, and pronounce a blessing of praise to God, as Simeon does in 2:29-32.
2:29. Simeon begins by stating that he is now ready to depart in peace. The term means that Simeon is ready to die. He has been acting like a sentinel, waiting and watching for the arrival of some great event or person, and now that the task is complete, God can do with Simeon as He wishes (Bock 1994:241). Simeon is ready to die because the promises of God have been fulfilled. Simeon states that these promises were according to Your word, which does not refer to promises in Scripture which Simeon had read, but promises from God which had been spoken directly to Simeon (cf. 2:26). This implies that although God had not spoken to Israel through a prophet in over 400 years, God still spoke specifically to certain individuals who lived in faithfulness to Him. There are, of course, promises from Scripture which Simeon refers to in verses 30-32.
2:30. Simeon states that the reason he can depart in peace is his eyes have seen God’s salvation,namely, the Messiah Jesus. By referring to salvation Simeon is not stating that he now knows he has eternal life, or that he knows that through Jesus, he gets to go to heaven when he dies. Those sorts of questions and issues are relatively new on the theological scene (primarily since the Bubonic Plague hit Europe in the 1340s, killing millions). Throughout biblical history, when people spoke and wrote aboutsalvation, they were referring to physical deliverance from some sort of temporal calamity, such as sickness, premature physical death, enemies, and natural disasters like storms, floods, and famines. In the case of Israelites like Simeon, they most often thought of salvation in the way it is used in prophetical passages like Isaiah 40:5 and 52:10. Salvation is the time when God would deliver Israel from enemy occupation, and restore her to her rightful place among the nations, with the Messiah ruling and reigning over the entire world from Jerusalem (cf. Green 1997:145). This is what Simeon had in mind, as confirmed by what he says in verses 31-32. Forgiveness of sins (national and personal) was definitely a part of this, but only as a prerequisite to the permanent and perpetual deliverance from enemies that Israel hoped and longed for.
2:31. The salvation (i.e., the national deliverance of Israel from her enemies through the Messiah; see v 30) is something that God has prepared before the face of all peoples. The plans which God has for the nation of Israel were intended to reveal something about God to all other nations. Israel was not to be set apart simply for the sake of being different, but so that people could see who God was, and how He wanted to bless them and restore them unto Himself. Due to frequently falling short of the covenant requirements, the nation of Israel never fully revealed to the nations all that God intended, so now Simeon indicates that this will be the task of the Messiah, Jesus.
2:32. The task will generally involve two things, which both involve bringing light to a particular people group (cf. Bock 1994:244-245). First, the light of the Messiah bring revelation to the Gentiles (cf. Isa 42:6; 49:6; 60:1; Luke 1:79). Unlike Israel, the nations were without reliable revelation from God, and without knowledge of how to be reconciled to Him. The Messiah would bring (and be) revelation to the Gentiles and show them how to be welcomed into the family of God. Previously, when Mary and Zacharias spoke of the salvation that would come through the Messiah, they spoke only of deliverance from enemies for Israel (cf. 1:51-55, 69-74). Simeon’s words here both build on that, and reveal more. The salvation will not be just for Israel, but will somehow include the Gentiles as well. Luke’s depiction of the nature and mission of Jesus’ ministry is being molded continually by the shape and progress of the narrative (Green 1997:144).
Israel, of course, would receive what was promised to her as well. The light of the Messiah will bringglory to His people Israel (cf. Isa 46:13). “As Isa. 60:1-3 shows, the nation’s hope was that, with the coming of salvific light to Israel, the attention of all people would be drawn to Israel” (Bock 1994:245). So the coming of the Messiah will accomplish for Israel what they never could accomplish on their own. This, however, does not mean that they will be set aside, but only that asa result of the Messiah, they will be able to enjoy the benefits of the covenant, and achieve all that God intended for them. There will, of course, still be stipulations, but that is addressed later in Luke’s Gospel and elsewhere.
2:33. When Simeon finished speaking these things about Jesus, Joseph and His mother marveled at those things which were spoken of Him (cf. 1:29; 2:19). Joseph is mentioned specifically by name (due to a textual variant the NIV and NAS omit his name) because Luke wants to emphasize two things. First, up to this point, when both are mentioned together, Mary has been mentioned first (cf. 2:16). Here, Joseph is mentioned first, indicating his role of spiritual leader in presenting Jesus at the temple. But secondly, up to this point in the narrative, Mary has wondered about Jesus (1:29; 2:19), and nameless crowds wondered (2:18), but nothing has been said about how Joseph responded. Luke now shows that Joseph finally begins to wonder about what kind of son he has been given. They are amazed because of the new things that Simeon has revealed to them about what kind of ministry Jesus will have, specifically, a ministry to bring revelation to the Gentiles. But Simeon is not done revealing surprises. He now turns to speak to Joseph and Mary to present a surprising reversal.
2:34-35. Then Simeon blessed Joseph and Mary. It does not appear that this blessing is recorded in Scripture, as what follows in verses 34-35 is not a blessing, but more of a prophecy. If, however, this is the blessing that Simeon pronounces, “it is not entirely encouraging” (Bock 1994:246). Simeon states that the arrival of Jesus will cause the falling and rising of many. With this statement, is Simeon referring to two groups, one that falls and one that rises, or to one group, which first falls, and then rises (Bock 1994:246)? If the former, then Simeon’s prophecy reveals that not all in Israel will accept Jesus as the Messiah. Some, such as those in power in authority, will fall and others, who are poor and forgotten, will rise (cf. 1:51-53). If, however, Simeon means the latter, then this is a prophecy about the followers of Jesus, who will have to fall, or die to who they were, and rise again to new life in Jesus (cf. the baptism of John in Luke 3:3-6 with Amos 5;2; 8:14; Isa 24:20; Mic 7:8; Prov 24:16). The first option seems best, since a common theme in Jesus’ ministry is that His ministry divides people into two groups (Luke 4:29; 6;20-26; 12:51; 13:28-35; 16;25; 18:19-14; 19:44-48; 20:14-18). Rather than bless the entire nation, as most Israelites expected, Jesus will instead divide the nation (Bock 1994:247).
In this way, Jesus will serve as a sign to the people of Israel. For the people of Israel, signs were always for the purpose of revealing the truth of the words of a prophet. Simeon, by declaring the sign, is indicating that his prophecies will come true, and the sign will prove it. The sign in this case is that though the Messiah has come to Israel, He will be spoken against. This serves not only to validate Simeon’s words, but also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. God’s concern has always been for the condition of the heart, and how Israelites respond to the Messiah reveals what is in their hearts.
Mary also is given some hard words. Though up until now, she has been considered blessed, she now learns that with the blessing comes great pain. Simeon says to Mary that a sword will pierce through your own soul also. There are about ten views as to what exactly the sword pictures (for the views, see Bock 1994:248). It seems that the best option is that since Simeon was speaking prophetically by the Holy Spirit, he probably didn’t know what the sword referred to either, but from our perspective, we can take it as a foreshadowing of the future crucifixion of Jesus, and the intense pain it would cause Mary. However, since a first-time reader may not be aware of the crucifixion of Jesus, the mysterious allusion by Luke encourages the reader to continue (Green 1997:151).
“Luke is warning us that [the work of the Messiah will not] look like what people had expected. In particular, this is becoming a story about suffering. … Simeon speaks dark words about opposition, and about a sword that will pierce Mary’s heart as well. … Mary will look on in dismay as her son is rejected by the very city to which he offered the way of peace, by the very people he had come to rescue. … But…he is also showing that the kingdom brought by this baby is not for Israel only, but for the whole world” (Wright 2004:25-26).