Meeting Simeon and Anna in the Temple (Luke 2:21-38)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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Text

Rembrant, The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple
Rembrandt. The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. c. 1627/28. Oil on panel. Hamburger Kunshalle, Hamburg, Germany. Larger image

Luke 2:21-38

[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."

[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. [27] Moved 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."

[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."

[36] There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, [37] and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. [38] Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.


Exposition

As clear as it may seem, sometimes forget that Jesus was born into a very Jewish family which kept all the Jewish laws blamelessly. In our attempt to universalize Jesus, we must not make the mistake of isolating him from his cultural context. As the Apostle Paul observes: "But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law..." (Galatians 4:4-5). In this week's passage we get a glimpse of three Jewish ceremonies:

  • Circumcision, performed on the eighth day, for all male children
  • Purification from childbirth for Mary, 40 days after her son's birth, and
  • Consecration of the firstborn, in recognition that the firstborn son belongs to the Lord.

We'll look briefly at these, but our main focus needs to be on Simeon and Anna -- their devotion to the Lord, sensitivity to the Holy Spirit's voice, and the words of Simeon's prophecies.

Jesus' Circumcision and Naming (2:21)

"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." (2:21)

We caught a glimpse of John the Baptist's circumcision ceremony in 1:59-66. The Jewish ceremony of circumcision on the eighth day after birth represents placing the sign of the Covenant upon each male child who becomes part of the nation (Genesis 17:11; Leviticus 12:3). At both John's and Jesus' circumcisions, naming is mentioned.

Circumcision may have been performed by the village rabbi. Edersheim notes that a benediction would have been said before the circumcision and the ceremony closed with a prayer over a cup of wine.[1] But in our passage only Jesus' naming is mentioned, and Luke notes "he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived" (2:21). His name "Jesus" (Hebrew Yeshua) means, as mentioned before, "salvation."

Mary's Purification after Childbirth (2:22, 24)

The text refers to Mary's purification from childbirth in verses 22 and 24 (skipping for the moment the parenthetical verse 23 which refers to Jesus presentation).

"When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed ... to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: 'a pair of doves or two young pigeons.'" (2:22, 24)

After childbirth, mothers were considered ceremonially unclean for a period of time. The Law reads:

"A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over... When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering.
If she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean." (Leviticus 12:2-6, 8)

The sacrifice for her cleansing was to be offered on the fortieth day at the Nicanor Gate on the east of the Court of Women.[2] Women who lived far from the temple might not even attend the purification ceremony in person,[3] but since Bethlehem is only about six miles south of Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph come to the temple for two ceremonies -- Mary's purification and the presentation of her firstborn. Because of their poverty, Mary brings a pair young pigeons or doves as her sacrifice -- that was all the family could afford.[4]

Presentation of the Firstborn (2:22-23)

The third ceremony mentioned in this passage is the redemption of the firstborn.

"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')..." (2:22-23)

To understand this ceremony we need a little background. The early Hebrews believed that the firstborn male of humans and animals belonged to God (Exodus 13:1). They were "consecrated" or holy" to God. "Consecrated" (NIV) or "holy" (KJV) in verse 23 is the Greek adjective hagios, "pertaining to being dedicated or consecrated to the service of God, in the cultic sense 'dedicated to God, holy, sacred,' i.e., reserved for God and God's service."[5] Firstborn animals were sacrificed. But in the Old Testament, Yahweh is very clear that the child sacrifice practiced by the surrounding pagan religions is abhorrent to him (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; 2 Kings 16:3; 2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chronicles 28:3; Jeremiah 7:31; 32:35; Ezekiel 16:20; 20:26, 31).

In the Exodus, the firstborn sons of Egypt are killed due to Pharoah's stubborn refusal to let the Israelites go, but the firstborn of the people of Israel are "passed over" because of the Passover sacrifice made by each family.

"The Lord also said to Moses, 'I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites in place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are mine, for all the firstborn are mine. When I struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, I set apart for myself every firstborn in Israel, whether man or animal. They are to be mine. I am the Lord.' " (Numbers 3:11-13)

For the firstborn of non-Levites a redemption price was five shekels was paid (Numbers 3:46-47; 8:16-18; 18:16; See also Exodus 13; 22:28-29; 34:19-20; 18:15-18; Deuteronomy 15:19-20). The redemption price was a way of supporting the priesthood in their priestly service to God.

"The ceremony," says Edersheim, "consisted of the formal presentation of the child to the priest, accompanied by two short benedictions -- the first one for the law of redemption, the other for the gift of a firstborn son, after which the redemption money was paid."[6]

But the presence of Jesus in the Temple on this occasion is curious, since the presentation and redemption could be made to any priest -- and not just in Jerusalem. Nor is the redemption money mentioned in this account. Perhaps, instead of being redeemed, Jesus is presented in the Temple for God's service, in the same way that Samuel was presented before the Lord in his mother Hannah's words, "So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord" (1 Samuel 1:28, cf. 1:22).[7] 

Pious Simeon (2:25)

Next, the story moves to Simeon and Anna who just "happen" to be in the temple at this time. Both of them are righteous, God-fearing people whom God has sent as witnesses.

"Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout ... and the Holy Spirit was upon him." (2:25)

Simeon is a Hebrew name, for which the similar-sounding genuine Greek name Simon is sometimes substituted.[8] The name means "hearing" in Hebrew. We learn several things about Simeon:

  1. He is "righteous" (NIV) or "just" (KJV). This is a common Greek noun dikaios, which means, "pertaining to being in accordance with high standards of rectitude, upright, just, fair."[9]
  2. He is "devout," translating the Greek noun eulabes, "devout, God-fearing, pious, reverent."[10]
  3. The Holy Spirit rests upon him. In the phrase "the Holy Spirit was upon him," the preposition epi, "upon," reminds us that among the Old Testament prophets, the Holy Spirit sometimes came upon prophets and others to accomplish particular tasks for the Lord (Numbers 24:2; Judges 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 14:6, 19; 15:14; 1 Samuel 10:6, 10; 11:6; 16:13; 19:20, 23; 1 Chronicles. 12:18; 2 Chronicles 15:1; 20:14; 24:20; Ezekiel 11:5; Luke 1:35; Acts 8:16). The characteristic NT idea, on the other hand, is the Holy Spirit dwelling permanently within Christians, rather than just sporadically for particular tasks.

Waiting for the Holy Spirit's Promise (2:25-26)

Simeon has been anticipating this day in the temple for some time.

"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." (2:25-26)

"Waiting" is the Greek verb prosdechomai, which has two senses, (1) "to receive favorably, welcome," and "to look forward to, wait for."[11] Probably the latter sense applies most to Simeon; he has been eagerly expecting to see the Messiah.

But what is the "consolation of Israel"? "Consolation" is the Greek noun paraklesis, "comfort, consolation." It comes from the root word parakaleo, "call to one's side" then "help, encourage, comfort." The Holy Spirit is referred to in the Gospel of John as the Paraklete (parakletos), "mediator, intercessor, helper." In our passage Simeon is eagerly looking forward to the time when occupied, weary Jerusalem receives her comfort and relief from the Lord, which was popularly expected to be brought about by the Messiah.

The Holy Spirit has made Simeon a promise. Luke employs the word "revealed," the Greek verb chrematizo, "impart a divine message, make known a divine injunction or warning."[12] The message to Simeon is that he won't die until he has seen the Messiah. The phrase "the Lord's Christ" means "the Messiah promised/sent/provided by the Lord."

Simeon Meets the Holy Family in the Temple Courts (2:27-28)

And today is the day. The Holy Spirit nudges Simeon, and Simeon is attuned to the voice of the Spirit.

"Moved 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, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying...." (2:27-28)

"Moved by" (NIV) or "came by the Spirit" (KJV) translates the common verb erchomai, "come," but the cause of his coming is the Spirit.[13] Now he offers praise to God. "Praised" (NIV) or "blessed" (KJV) in verse 28 is the Greek verb eulogeo. When directed toward God we translate it "to say something commendatory, speak well of, praise, extol." It appears in verse 34 as "to bless."[14] If you've ever just witnessed an answer to prayer, then you know something of the joy that Simeon feels welling up within him.

Simeon's Prophetic Praise (2:29-33)

"Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
'Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you 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.'
The child's father and mother marveled at what was said about him." (2:28-33)

Simeon's prophetic hymn is called the Nunc Dimittis, after the first two words of the prophecy in Latin.

First, Simeon addresses God as "sovereign Lord" (NIV) or "Lord" (KJV) in verse 29. The Greek noun is despostes (from which we get our English word "despot"), "one who has legal control and authority over persons, such as subjects or slaves, lord, master."[15] The absolute Sovereign has kept his promise to Simeon, who now asks the Lord to let him die in peace.[16]

In the prophetic praise that follows, the child Jesus is equated with "your salvation" in verse 30. It is not accidental that Jesus' name, in Hebrew Yeshua (a form of the name "Joshua"), means literally, "salvation." So Simeon looks on the child named "Salvation" and says, "my eyes have seen your salvation...."

It is remarkable that Simeon sees Jesus' salvation as extending to all people -- Gentiles and Jews alike. This is the same message the angel spoke to the shepherds on Christmas night: "I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people" (2:10).

The concept of the Messiah and Israel being "a light for the Gentiles" was first developed by the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 9:2; 42:6; 60:1-3), especially in Isaiah 49:6:

"I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth."

Notice how Joseph is referred to as the child's father in 2:33. This is not intended to refute the virgin birth related chapter 1, but reflects the way Joseph would have been understood by society in relation to Jesus.

Simon's Prophecy to Mary (2:34-35)

"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.'" (2:34-35)

Simeon now blesses the Holy Family. In verse 34 we see the Greek verb eulogeo that appeared in verse 28 as "to praise, extol." Here, directed toward humans, it means, "to ask for bestowal of special favor, especially of calling down God's gracious power, bless."[17]

Simeon's prophecy to Mary has four elements:

  1. "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel." How people respond to Jesus and his message will determine their destiny. Many of Jesus' contemporaries receive his message and are saved, but the religious community, by and large, can't bring themselves to believe that Jesus can be God's Messiah. Jesus becomes "a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall" (Isaiah 8:14; 28:16; Luke 20:17-18; Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:6-8).
  2. "and to be a sign that will be spoken against." Jesus is God's sign to his people, but he is rejected. "Spoken against" is the Greek verb antilego, "speak against, contradict someone, oppose, refuse."[18]
  3. "so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed." "Thoughts" is the Greek verb dialogismos, "content of reasoning or conclusion reached through use of reason, thought, opinion, reasoning, design."[19] Here it seems to be used in a negative sense. Those who stumble at Jesus, who reject him and oppose his message, will finally be shown up for what they are. "Revealed" is the Greek verb apokolupto (from which we get our English word "apocalypse"). It means, "to cause something to be fully known, reveal, disclose, bring to light, make fully known" (appearing here and at Matthew 10:26 with a judicial connotation.[20] Jesus himself is to be the judge, sitting on the judgment seat of the Messiah: "This will take place on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ" (Romans 2:16; cf. Acts 17:31; 2 Corinthians 5:10).
  4. "And a sword will pierce your own soul too." Though the Holy Spirit, Simeon can see the deep anguish that Mary will feel as her son is rejected by the nation's leaders and ultimately crucified.

The Prophetess Anna (2:36-37)

Simeon recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, but so does an 84-year-old woman, a pious fixture in the Woman's Court of the Temple.

"There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying." (2:36-37)

Can't you see her? An old lady, a widow for many, many years, with nothing to do but to worship. And so she does. She practically lives in the Women's Court of the Temple, day and night. And she is a prophetess, a female prophet.

The Redemption of Jerusalem (2:38)

"Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem." (2:38)

We don't hear the words of her prophecy, but it seems, like Simeon's, to consist of (1) inspired thanksgiving and (2) speaking about the child to other believing people who are present. Both of the verbs here employ the Greek imperfect tense, indicating continued action in the past -- that is, she kept on thanking God and telling people. The word translated "gave thanks" is anthomologeomai, which indicates to publicly express praise or thanks.[21]

Notice that she doesn't speak about Jesus to everyone, but particularly to those in the Temple whom she knew also looked forward to (Greek prosdechomai) the redemption of Jerusalem. The word "redemption" (Greek lutrosis) seems a curious one in this context. The Greek word is often used in a commercial sense as "redemption of something for a price." But here the meaning focuses on the result, "experience of being liberated from an oppressive situation,"[22] also used in Zechariah's prophecy in 1:68. Like Simeon, who looks forward to the "consolation" or comfort of Jerusalem, Anna looks forward to the time when Jerusalem will once again be free from Roman oppression.

Lessons for Disciples

What are we disciples learn in this passage that can help us to follow Christ more closely?

  1. Jesus was raised in the context of strict observance of the Law, though he transcended the Law. Sometimes God places us in restrictive situations in which we are to live out our lives in service to him.
  2. Mary and Joseph provide a devout home in which the Christ-Child is raised, and in that sense set an example to parents everywhere.
  3. Jesus is presented to the Lord and consecrated by his parents even while he is a baby. We cannot wait until our children are at an "age of accountability" to dedicate them to God. Later, we pray that they will confirm the vows we have said on their behalf.
  4. God has his faithful people -- Simeon and Anna here -- who play no great role on the stage of Bible history but have significant "bit parts." And they are sensitive to God's voice and available when God calls upon them.
  5. The Holy Spirit can speak to us and show us things that others cannot know or understand -- as he promised Simeon that he would see the Messiah before he died (2:26). But we are unlikely to hear God's voice unless we prepare ourselves to do so by living in God's will in righteousness and devotion.
  6. Devout people are full of praise, as were Simeon (2:28) and Anna (2:37-38). Worshipping God can be a worthy full-time occupation.
  7. Jesus' coming offers hope, light, and salvation to all people (2:29-32). When we are really convinced of that we will not be so shy to speak about it to others.


Prayer

Father, our culture warns us that we can be so heavenly-minded that we will be no earthly good. And too often we believe our culture rather than God. Forgive us for our callousness towards you. Put afresh in our hearts a desire to live righteous, holy, and praise-filled lives before you. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.


Key Verse

"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)


Questions

JesusWalk: Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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Why don't you share your answers -- and read others' answers -- at http://www.joyfulheart.com/forums/index.php?act=SF&f=3

1. In what ways do Mary's and Joseph's consecration of Jesus set an example for us?
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2. If Simeon and Anna had never seen the Messiah, in what ways might their lives have been important? In what might your life be important to God?
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3. What did Simeon's and Anna's righteousness, devotion, and praise have to do with their sensitivity to the Holy Spirit's voice? What are some of the reasons that we can't hear God?
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4. What place do praise and thanksgiving have in Simeon's and Anna's lives? What does this say about them? How do we nurture these in our lives? Why does our culture see long periods spent in prayer as wasted? How did Anna see it? http://www.joyfulheart.com/forums/index.php?act=ST&f=3&t=5

5. What expectations do Simeon and Anna have of the Messiah's salvation? What does this have to do with Jerusalem? With the Gentiles? With Jesus' own life? What kind(s) of salvation does Jesus offer today?
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References

Common Abbreviations www.jesuswalk.com/faq/abbreviations.htm

  1. Alfred Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. 1, pp. 157-158.
  2. Marshall, p. 116. He cites Strack and Billerback II, 119f.
  3. Life and Times, vol. 1, p. 194.
  4. Marshall, pp. 117-118.
  5. BDAG 10.
  6. Life and Times, vol. 1, p.195. He invites comparison with the rubric and prayers in Maimonides, Yad haChaz Hilch. Biccur. xi.5.
  7. So Marshall, p. 117; Bo Reicke, "paristemi," TDNT 5:840-841. But on the other side are Morris, Luke, p. 87; Green, Luke, pp. 141-142.
  8. BDAG 957.
  9. BDAG 246-247.
  10. BDAG 407; Louw and Nida, NT Greek-English Lexicon, q.v.; Barclay Newman, NT Greek-English Dictionary, q.v.
  11. BDAG 877.
  12. BDAG 1089.
  13. The Greek preposition en, here carries the meaning "marker of cause or reason, because of, on account of" (BDAG 329.)
  14. BDAG 407-408.
  15. BDAG 220.
  16. "Dismiss" (NIV) or "let depart" (KJV) is the common Greek verb apoluo, "set free, release." Here it bears the connotation, "to permit or cause someone to leave a particular location, let go, send away, dismiss" (BDAG 117-118).
  17. BDAG 407-408.
  18. BDAG 89.
  19. BDAG 232-233.
  20. BDAG 112. Albrecht Oepke, "apokalupto," TDNT 3:590.
  21. BDAG 80; Thayer, Greek Lexicon, p. 45.
  22. BDAG 22.

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