[Commentary on Luke 2:25-38] God has used angels and shepherds to declare the coming of the Messiah. Now, in the temple complex, He uses a devout Jewish man and woman to do the same. But we learn that with tidings of comfort and joy come warnings of confrontation and rejection. Jesus is not who the Jews think He is -- He is much, much more.
Indeed, this child is destined to cause the fall and rise of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed. Luke 2:34
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I grew up in Houston TX, a passionate-but-tortured sports town. When my professional football team finally reached the Super Bowl, they weren't in Houston anymore but had moved to Nashville. When my professional baseball team finally won the World Series in 2017, a trash can consumed all my joy. My one incontrovertible joy as a Houstonian was Hakeem Olajuwon (still my sports hero), who delivered two championships to us and was by far the best player in basketball (except perhaps for Jordan, and that's only because Jordan was a guard).
So, 2020 has been a pretty rotten year. Let's have some fun by thinking of rotten things that aren't really a big deal: playoff and championship droughts for your favorite sports teams. Everyone doesn't live in Boston, where someone wins a championship every year. Some people around here root for Atlanta teams. The Atlanta Falcons have been around since 1966 and have yet to win a championship. (Also, 28-3. You know, in case you forgot.) The Atlanta Hawks haven't won a championship since 1958, and that's when they were in St. Louis. (Hey, Trae Young is fun to watch play offense, kinda like Dominique Wilkins.)
Whatever drought you end up thinking about, think of it this way: surely we can all agree that it would be a lot worse to be a fan of the Jets or the Lions. Just in principle.
So, with that in mind -- you, passionately waiting for your team to deliver some sort of victory -- maybe you can slightly appreciate the longing experienced (at a much greater level) by the Jews waiting for their Messiah. They were now going on 400 years waiting for God to send them a word, any word, about their future while they were occupied by various foreign powers. Your Falcons-sorrow isn't so bad after all.
Fancy Meeting You Here!
If you're not a sports nut, that topic might not interest you. But I bet this one will. Think of a time you shockingly ran into someone you knew. Or, you were looking for someone in a sea of people and actually found them. We all have a story like that. My favorites are the ones where someone was vacationing in a foreign country and ran into someone they went to high school with. Or boyfriend is shopping for girlfriend's birthday present, and she happens to come into the store and finds him shopping (that one often gets delightfully awkward). I remember going to the Masters and running to someone I knew from Texas.
I tried to look up stories like this online and could really only find annoying things like "the universe is telling you something" and "chance or fate" and "coincidence or synchronicity" and even more bizarre things than that. So, forget the internet here -- just think of your personal experiences with chance encounters.
Because here's one of those most amazing "coincidences" you will ever read: imagine finding someone you've been looking for on the National Mall, with thousands of people milling about, who was only going to be there once for a very short time and then leave, and you don't know what they look like. That's the encounter we're talking about today with Simeon and Anna and Mary and Joseph -- the "odds" of this happening are astronomically small . . . unless God is uniquely involved. (Which He is.)
This Week's Big Idea 1: The Time Between the Testaments
If my idea of "sports droughts" resonates with you, it would help to be aware of what happened in Israel in the centuries preceding Jesus' birth. Here's a very, very brief overview.
Israel Is Dominated by Foreign Powers
The overall era can be divided into major powers, some of which are explained in detail in the Bible:
Assyrian dominance (722-605 BC)
Babylonian dominance (605-539 BC)
Persian dominance (539-333 BC)
Greek dominance (333-166 BC)
Brief independence (166-63 BC)
Roman dominance (63 BC-135 AD)
That's a long time, and you might be able to imagine the confusion the Jews experienced when their independence was ended by the Romans. [Note: I used a chart from the internet with a few slightly different dates to demonstrate that there is not universal agreement on some of this, and that's okay. We can agree within a few years.]
But let's focus on the time between Malachi (~430 BC) and the ministry of John the Baptist (~26 AD). After Nehemiah, the Persians allowed the Jews reasonable freedom to observe their religion without interference. And when Alexander the Great conquered Persia (333 BC), he also respected the Jewish religion.
Life under the Ptolemies. When Alexander died, the empire was divided between four of his followers. The first group to control the region of Israel were the Ptolemies, whose base of power was in Egypt. They were very tolerant of the Jewish religion, making some Jews tolerant of the Greeks. This is when Jews began speaking a simplified version of the Greek language called koine ("common") which led to the Septuagint (and is what the New Testament is written in). This is also when some Jews began adopting Greek institutions and ideas (they became "Hellenized"), which led to much internal strife. Life under the Seleucids. During those years, a rival Greek faction whose base of power was in Syria also claimed authority over Israel, and they eventually defeated the Ptolemies in battle and took over local rule. Unfortunately, they also sided with Hannibal against Rome (foreshadowing), leading newly ascendant Rome to take heavy tribute from the Seleucids. In order to pay this debt, the Seleucids (led by one Antiochus IV Epiphanes -- look him up) plundered the Jewish temple. And in order to make Rome think that he had Judea under control, they put great pressure on the Jews to adopt Greek culture and religion. See Daniel 11 for more.
The Maccabean Revolt. Antiochus's actions, which also included selling the office of High Priest and compelling pagan sacrifices by threat of violence, led to open revolt in 166 BC. The central figures were a priest, Mattathias, and his five sons. As far as I know, they organized the first successful guerilla war. Because the Seleucids were distracted by larger events, they underestimated the Jewish fighting ability. One son, Judas "Maccabeus", even took control of the temple and purified it (this is the origin of the Feast of Hanukkah). His and later successes (all achieved at great personal sacrifice) led to more and more concessions from the Seleucids, who just wanted this problem to go away. The Jews essentially ruled themselves for a few generations under the "Hasmonean Dynasty" (committing plenty of atrocities of their own, even against other rival Jews). And then Rome squashed them.
Rome Comes to Town. In 63 BC, the Roman general Pompey seized control of Judea. (I briefly described some of the early Roman power struggles last week.) Pompey and Julius Caesar worked together to take over the Roman government and military. And, as I mentioned last week, Herod's family supported them. After much intrigue, assassination, war, and politics, Augustus Caesar became the first Roman Emperor and appointed Herod king of Judea in 40 BC. Life under Herod. As I mentioned, Herod was a paranoid megalomaniac. He had delusions of grandeur, leading him to undertake massive and impressive building projects, but he also believed everyone was out to get him. He had killed anyone he thought might be plotting against him, leading to an era of stability and relative peace (but for all the wrong reasons).
This was the world into which Jesus was born. You can read the books of the Maccabees (in the Apocrypha) to get the Jewish perspective on that recent history.
This Week's Big Idea 2: Herod's Temple
If you like my "chance meeting" topic, it will work best if you know a little bit about the temple complex where Simeon and Anna were located.
Herod's greatest building project (and there were many! - fortresses, palaces, stadiums, aqueducts, and more) was the renovated temple. When the Jews returned from exile, it took a long time for them to obtain the resources they needed to rebuild the temple. And when you read Ezra 5-6, you realize that their new temple was not very impressive. The ornate decorations could not be crafted. Things like the ark of the covenant didn't even exist anymore. It was plain, but functional.
[This screencap comes from a video produced by BYU that is found all over the internet.]
Herod thought he would obtain favor from the Jews by making the temple grander. He brought in fine decorations and furniture. He built the inner courtyards and walls around the temple and greatly expanded the platform on which the temple complex sits. He began this work in 20 BC; some say that he completed all of the inner work within 3 years. The outside of the platform and the porticos/porches (mentioned in Jesus' ministry and Acts) were not completed until after Jesus was born. But his project was successful. The Jews were very impressed with his temple. (But it didn't make them love him.)
By Jesus' ministry, most of the platform and most of the walls and porticos were complete, though final touches were still being made thirty years later.
In our passage this week, we are told that Simeon found Joseph and Mary "in the temple courts". This could refer to the large, outer courtyard (where Gentiles were allowed), or the courtyard in front of the temple (where Jewish women were allowed). (Mary would not have been allowed in the courtyard directly outside the temple.) The full complex is almost 36 acres. For comparison, that's quite a bit larger than Centennial Olympic Stadium/SunTrust Park/Truist Park, which can comfortably accommodate 50,000 people.
Do you see where I'm going with this? There could easily be 20,000 people milling around, and Simeon "happens" to find Joseph and Mary. God's fingerprints are on more of the events of the Bible than you might realize.
Where We Are in Luke
Some Christians seem to be in the habit of shutting Luke after the angels and shepherds, but this next story is equally important. Look at everything that happens:
Joseph and Mary are established as a poor couple, but devout.
Righteous Jews recognize Jesus as the Messiah.
We learn that Jesus has come to bring significant change to the Jews.
These establish key themes for Luke.
But before we get into "the action" (January 10), we have one more lesson about Jesus as a child. Children, a helpless class of society, are highlighted in Luke as important, active, and loved by God -- representing all other such classes of people.
Part 1: Anticipated (Luke 2:25-27)
25 There was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, looking forward to Israel’s consolation, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he saw the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, he entered the temple. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform for him what was customary under the law.
Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple for purification and dedication rites. Mary also had to be purified (40 days after childbirth; and it's possible that Joseph did, too -- he would have helped with childbirth). They offered the sacrifice of a family that cannot afford a lamb. In other words, this is a family we can relate to and cheer for -- they are faithful and righteous, but they have no social or economic advantages.
We are introduced to Simeon (the Greek form of "Simon"). All we are told is he was:
Righteous. This meant he lived according to the Mosaic law and standard of behavior. Today, we know that such a righteousness does not make one right with God, but Luke intended this to be a compliment.
Devout. This basically means "active devotion". In other words, he didn't just do the surface-level acts of visible righteousness -- he was devoted in his heart to doing the right thing.
Looking forward to Israel's consolation. This is sneaky important. It's a reference to the Messiah. Simeon still believed in God's promises despite the centuries of silence and oppression, promises to give Israel her true comfort (Isaiah 40).
Under the Holy Spirit. I've mentioned that Luke emphasized the ministry of the Holy Spirit (remember that his Gospel leads into Acts) to help prepare readers for the astonishing events of Pentecost. Simeon was being led by God to see God in the flesh -- a hint at how the Trinity works.
We don't know how old Simeon was or how long he had been holding this information. We can guess that he was very old and that he had been waiting a long time (as had Anna). At just the right moment, he went to just the right place to encounter a family he had never met. This is not even a long-shot coincidence; it's a miracle.
Part of Luke's purpose in including this story is to make it clear that even devout Jews understood that Jesus was the Messiah -- not just dirty shepherds (or in Matthew's case, foreign magi). But Simeon, as a "nice, old man", would relate to readers from every background, not just Jews.
For the purposes of this Bible study, try to imagine being Simeon. First, what is something you desperately want to see happen in your lifetime? Imagine that God has told you it will happen, and He will show you when it does. Second, imagine being prompted to go to a crowded place and walk up to a couple you don't know who are holding a baby (and realizing that this baby is connected with that great event). What are the emotions you would experience? How do you think that would even work?
(Perhaps it would be easier to think about times you have "felt" prompted to walk up to someone you don't know and talk to them about Jesus. Missionaries and evangelists share amazing stories about those encounters. I recently read where a missionary got gas at a station where a man looked to be standing guard while holding a submachinegun. He felt prodded to talk to him, only to find out that this man had a dream in which he was waiting at the gas station for someone to give him a word from God. Needless to say, that man became a Christian. There are so many stories like that!)
In the case of Simeon, all of these things come together in this incredible moment, when you realize that all of God's promises you have hoped for are coming true -- and yet you're looking at a baby. What a mind-blowing event.
Part 2: Recognized (Luke 2:28-35)
28 Simeon took him up in his arms, praised God, and said,
29 Now, Master, you can dismiss your servant in peace, as you promised. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation. 31 You have prepared it in the presence of all peoples— 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory to your people Israel.
33 His father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and told his mother Mary, “Indeed, this child is destined to cause the fall and rise of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed— 35 and a sword will pierce your own soul—that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
These verses are the crux of the encounter. In Latin, "now dismiss" is nunc dimittis, which is its famous name in song. The depth and power of Simeon's song, read in light of the events of the previous centuries, is unassailable. Simeon established his utter subservience to God (and God's plan) and realized that his role in God's plan is complete. He had seen and declared the identity of the Messiah, and he will live out his days in satisfaction (we don't know how long Simeon lived after this).
Here's what Simeon realized: the consolation he had been waiting for was actually Israel's salvation. But it was not their own political or military salvation -- it was the revelation of salvation through the Jews to all peoples (the glory of the Lord shining through the Jews into the world). That's a lot more than he probably bargained for.
[Note: this is why I shared the history of the Jews from the previous centuries. You should be able to see why they were fixated on political and military deliverance and independence, as well as why they had turned inward -- following the trend we talked about in Isaiah.]
Luke would flesh this theme out much more clearly in Acts. The salvation provided by Jesus was not for Jews only. It was for everyone. But the fact that Jesus was a Jew would establish Israel's place in the world. [History aside: that's not how it went for a long time. Christians considered Jews "Jesus-killers" and persecuted them. Even today, there is a range of attitudes toward the Jewish people.]
But then things change dramatically. Christmas isn't just a feel-good story about a family and their new baby. Christmas comes with a cost. Jesus confronts the world with a choice.
Oppose Him and fall. Jesus explained this in the Parable of the Tenants (Luke 20:9-19). Those who oppose the Son are actually opposing God the Father. Jesus, the stone the Jews rejected, will become the cornerstone of everything God is now doing in the world. (See Isaiah 8:14-15 for more of this image.)
Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but on whomever it falls, it will shatter him. (Luke 20:18)
Accept Him and rise. Those who followed Jesus would start a movement that would encompass the world and be remembered and celebrated for all the ages. Further, they would literally ascend to be eternally with God in heaven.
But there's more. Mary would have a unique experience with her Son's ministry. She would watch everything that happened to her Son. And while it certainly ended on a positive note, with the fledgling church spreading around the world, that end would not undo the pain she felt while her Son lived. But it would give it meaning.
And then Simeon left with one final truth bomb: no one can escape the plan that God was enacting in Jesus. Everyone's thoughts would be revealed: it would become clear "whose side they were on". Simeon uses "many" not to suggest that some people can escape judgment, but that some people will work to hide their allegiance.
What do you think of Jesus? On what "side" do you stand?
[Aside: if you knew your child's future . . . This discussion topic might be more distracting than helpful, which is why I'm calling it an aside. Mary knew from the beginning that not all would be well with her Son. Many parents have endured some form of heartache with respect to their children. I'm not just talking about if the child grows up to do regretful or hurtful things. I'm also talking about the tragedies of life. Serious injury or illness, even untimely death. If you knew all of the sorrows that would come with a child, would you still choose to have that child? Every parent I've talked to who has endured significant heartache with respect to a child has said 100% yes without hesitation. The joy and love of a child so far outweighs the pain that comes with the tragedies of life. Strangely, this is a major plot device of the sci-fi movie Arrival, in which one parent cannot handle the revelation of his child's future. It is a tragic and heartbreaking development. Here's my purpose in even bringing up this thought exercise: if we know that we would gladly endure heartache over our children, then let's make sure that when that heartache actually hits that we hold firm in it, trusting God and resting in His love for us and for our children. "Bad times" come for us all -- God is with us as our God in bad times and good.]
Part 3: Shared (Luke 2:36-38)
36 There was also a prophetess, Anna, a daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was well along in years, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and was a widow for eighty-four years. She did not leave the temple, serving God night and day with fasting and prayers. 38 At that very moment, she came up and began to thank God and to speak about him to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
Luke continued the themes of amazement with this next encounter. There are a few textual questions to address first. Anna could be 84 years old, or she could have been a widow for 84 years (making her 100 or older). The comment about her great age implies that her husband had died 84 years before. The term "prophetess" was used of any woman through which God sent a message. It was not an "office" in the sense that some used "prophet", but it was a term of great respect. Miriam (Ex 15:20), Deborah (Judg 4:4), and Isaiah's wife (Isa 8:3) were all called prophetesses. God had a message He was going to deliver through Anna; she would testify to His mighty acts.
Tracing her lineage to Asher simply established that she was a "true Jew", reiterating Luke's idea that "true Jews" also acknowledged Jesus as the Christ. To really put it over the top, Luke explained that she had fasted and prayed in the temple for 84 years. The phrase for "did not leave the temple" could be a colloquialism like "every waking moment". She didn't necessarily live there, but she was there seemingly all the time. This was an incredibly pious woman, someone we should all respect.
"At that very moment" probably points back to Simeon -- as in, while Simeon was talking to them, Anna came up to them. She is not given the same word-time as Simeon, but we can assume that she said amazing things to all the people around her.
Taken together, the encounters with Simeon and Anna establish the themes of the internal and confrontational message of the gospel, pointing the ministry of Jesus to God the Father, and the need to take the message to everyone you see.
To personalize this story, I think of the incredibly godly women I have known in the churches I have served. They make community happen. They keep churches moving. They pass on wisdom to multiple generations. They guide the future. They bring joy to everyone they know. That's who Anna was -- a well-respected, godly widow. Don't you take seriously the words you hear from the older godly women in your life? Surely Anna's message would have had a profound impact on the people she told.
But Jesus was just a baby. It would be another 30 years before anything would come of these amazing events. 30 years is plenty of time for people to forget.
This is the true story of Christmas. Celebrate with your family and give gifts with joy. But remember that Christmas comes with a cost. And it comes with a choice. And if we're not careful, we might forget.
[Aside on women in the temple complex. Like Mary, Anna would have been restricted from entering the inner court surrounding the temple which was reserved for adult Jewish males. I wonder if Luke was deliberately calling attention to this. Think about it -- Mary would have had to stay outside the gate and watch as Joseph took Jesus in for His dedication and sacrifice. That's a true segregation. But what did Jesus do? He tore down every dividing wall -- between Jew and Gentile, between male and female, between God and man. I could be wrong, but this could be a foreshadowing of all of the walls Jesus would remove.]