Luke 2:21–38

Simeon was promised by God that he would not die until he saw the Messiah with his own eyes. Continuing his series in the gospel of Luke, in this sermon, R.C. Sproul examines the song this old man sang when he finally looked into the face of the baby Jesus.


We are continuing with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. I will be reading Luke 2:21–38.

And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.

Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the LORD”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law, he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said:

“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,
According to Your word;
For my eyes have seen Your salvation
Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,
A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.”

And Joseph and His mother marveled at those things which were spoken of Him. Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

Now there was one, Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, and had lived with a husband seven years from her virginity; and this woman was a widow of about eighty-four years, who did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And coming in that instant she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem.

I sometimes approach the border of insanity in trying to preach on this whole text in one sermon. It is a testimony to my mental weakness. I probably will not get to all of it in this sermon, but I will endeavor to do it.

This is a glorious text that the Lord has given us through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. It includes a portrait of one of my favorite characters in the Bible, Simeon, who sings in this text the fifth of the infancy songs in Luke that attests to the glory of the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity. This is God’s Word for you, the people of God. Receive it with all of your heart. Let us pray.

Our Father, as we look at this passage that describes this moment in the history of the life of Jesus, which is a moment full of significance for the life of Your church, we pray that we may be enlightened and edified by the words we read in it.For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

A Man of Folklore

His name was Indian Joe—not the Mark Twain character—and he was an integral part of the folklore of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the decade of the forties and into the fifties. As part of the mythology surrounding this person, he was known as “Indian Joe.” However, he was most likely not an Indian, and he probably was not named “Joe.”

Indian Joe directed traffic on Route 51 at an intersection just past the Liberty Tubes that connected downtown Pittsburgh to the southern hills of that municipality. He was a harmless man who stood by the traffic light at an intersection every afternoon at rush hour, helping the traffic to make the right moves. He did not stand in the middle of the road; instead, he stood beside the road, by the traffic light. When the light turned green, Indian Joe would motion to the traffic to proceed. However, when the light turned red, he would raise His hand and stop the traffic along the road. He was not breaking any laws; nobody bothered him; the police left him alone; the city officials did not speak against him, but everybody assumed Indian Joe was crazy as a bedbug.

I saw him many times as a boy. All the visitors who passed that way would inquire about this strange fellow, until one day, Joe was not there. He was gone, and we never saw him again. As a boy, I used to scratch my head and say, “I wonder what happened to Indian Joe?” I still don’t know what happened to him. What does that have to do with the text we have just read? Every time I read this text about Simeon, who is one of my favorite characters, I think of Indian Joe.

The Bible does not tell us everything associated with Simeon, only that he was a man of great devotion, that he was a righteous man, and that God had given him special revelation as a layperson. God was pleased to say to this presumably elderly man that he would not die until he laid eyes upon the promised Messiah. I do not know how often Simeon came to the temple, but I assume that he came almost every day looking for the Messiah or what the Scriptures tell us was “the Consolation of Israel.” Note that this is one of the titles that is given to Jesus in the early chapters of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. Here, Jesus is called the Messiah who would bring God’s consolation to a suffering people. I am sure that after several years of waiting, just as Abraham waited for the fulfillment of the promise that he would have a son with his wife Sarah, Simeon became a fixture and part of the folklore of first-century Jerusalem.

Jerusalem was already over one thousand years old in the first century. It was also a major tourist destination because it had one of the wonders of the ancient world—the temple built by Herod. Tens of thousands of people would pilgrimage to Jerusalem to visit the Holy City and look at this temple. They even had tour guides, who I am sure went along to point out the great building that Herod the Great had constructed. I imagine that when they reached the temple, people would say: “Who is that old man hanging around the temple?”

The tour guides would laugh and say: “He is not Indian Joe, but he is kind of a forerunner of that poor fellow. This guy is a little tetched in the head. He comes here every day thinking that he is going to see the Messiah, the Consolation of Israel.”

I do not know if that is true, but I am convinced that he was an object of derision and scorn. The people would laugh at this old man and say, “Simeon, what are you doing?”

“I am going to see the Messiah, the Consolation of Israel.”

“Why are you doing that?”

“Because God told me that I was not going to die until I laid eyes upon His Anointed One.”

Why Did Jesus Have to Be Circumcised?

Finally, the day came when the Spirit of God came upon Simeon and brought him to the temple at the same time that Mary and Joseph brought their infant child for His presentation at the end of the forty days of purification for Mary after childbirth.

Before I look at this meeting between Simeon and Mary and Joseph, I want to explain why they were there in the first place. Look at the beginning of the section that I read: “And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.” That one sentence tells us that eight days after the birth of Jesus, He was circumcised. People raise their eyebrows at that and say, “Why would the Lord Jesus Christ have to submit to this Old Testament ritual of circumcision that was given to Abraham and His seed as a sign of God’s covenant promise?”

The Apostle Paul tells us in the fourth chapter of Romans that the sign of circumcision included, among other things, the sign of the righteousness that was by faith in this ritual, which was a cutting rite. It had a twofold significance. On the one hand, those who were circumcised were symbolically cut off from the rest of the world—the world of paganism and idolatry—and set apart or consecrated to be a part of the covenant people of God.

Circumcision was also a sign that the person had his sin removed through the grace of the covenant, just as the foreskin of his flesh had been removed ceremonially, which raises the question: Why should Jesus be circumcised? He was not born with original sin. He was perfectly sinless from the moment of His conception to the moment of His death. However, the Scriptures tell us that the Lord Jesus was born under the law, and everything that the law required of Israel was required of Israel’s Redeemer and Champion. So, it was necessary that Joseph and Mary, as devout parents, would make sure that their firstborn was circumcised.

In the old covenant, circumcision was a sign of salvation, which only came through faith. However, it did not automatically confer salvation. Paul labors this point in his letter to the Romans. Many Jews believed that they were automatically saved just because they were circumcised—with or without faith. However, Paul tells us that the doctrine of justification by faith was not an innovation in the New Testament, because it was the same way Abraham was saved in the Old Testament—by faith. The covenant promise of salvation came to adults in the Old Testament only after they made a profession of faith. Yet, God mandated that the same sign be given to their children before they were even capable of professing faith because the sign was not a sign of their faith. Instead, it was a sign of God’s promise of salvation to all who believe. That is why the children of Old Testament believers were included in receiving the sign of the covenant for two thousand years, and that did not change in the New Testament.

God gave a new covenant and a new sign, the sign of baptism, and required that those who made a profession of faith as adults would receive that sign. However, their children were to receive it too, as we see in the book of Acts with the household baptisms. That principle of family solidarity remained intact and was never abrogated or repealed. That is why it is very important, and not optional, that the children of believers receive the sign of the new covenant, which is the sign of the promise of salvation to all who believe. Baptism conveys salvation no more than circumcision did in the Old Testament, but it is a sign of the promise of God, and our Lord Jesus received the sign of the covenant of circumcision as an infant.

Circumcision was not the only thing that had to be followed in Old Testament law. There was also the presentation of the firstborn son in the temple, which was accompanied by the giving of sacrifices, usually the slaying of a lamb. Only in cases of extreme poverty could birds be substituted as a sacrifice. You might conclude that Joseph was living in abject poverty since birds are used here in the presentation of Jesus at the temple. While this was not necessarily the case, it was probably very expensive for him to bring his child and wife for this time of presentation in Jerusalem. So, he was allowed to use this principle of offering the birds instead of the lamb.

The presentation of the firstborn son was a sign of the redeeming of the people. Before He redeemed His people from sin, the baby Jesus symbolically experienced the sign of that redemption Himself. The Redeemer, in following the law, had to be redeemed before He could ever save anyone. So, those were the legal circumstances, the requirements of the law that brought Joseph and Mary with the baby Jesus to the temple, and they arrived at the same moment as Simeon.

Longing for a Better Country

When Mary and Joseph brought the child Jesus to do according to the custom of the Law, Simeon interrupted them, took the baby into his arms, and under the influence of the Holy Spirit began to sing a new song, the Nunc Dimittis, which is one of the greatest of the New Testament hymns celebrating God’s salvation. The beginning words of the song in Latin are taken from the original words of the song itself. This old man Simeon was holding the baby to his breast, singing this song: “Now, lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all people. Mine eyes have seen that light which will be a revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of Israel.”

He’s saying, in effect: “I have seen Him. I have looked into the face of my Savior. I do not have to wait to watch Him grow and be nurtured in the admonition of the Lord. I do not need to watch Him in His public ministry, listen to His teaching, or watch the miracles that He will perform. I do not need to see the transfiguration. I do not have to be an eyewitness of the atoning death on the cross or of His resurrection from the dead. I have seen all I have ever needed to see, and in this face, I see the light of salvation that God has promised to His people, which is the consolation that we have been waiting for. Now, it is enough. Let me die. I am tired; I have endured so much. I have seen the salvation that you have promised. Let me go home.”

My grandfather died in 1945, and my grandmother lived as a widow for over twenty years after that. She died when she was eighty-nine years old. In the latter years of her life, she was a devout Christian. When I was a young boy, she would say to me: “I just do not understand it. I do not understand why the Lord will not take me home. I want to go.”

The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said, “There’s no greater anguish for a human being to have than to want to die and not be able to.” Think of that motif in the Old Testament. Moses begged God, “If You have any love for me at all, take me away.” Additionally, Job cursed the day he was born. It was common for the saints of antiquity to long for a better country after enduring so much suffering. They could not wait to get there. That was Simeon’s hope: “Lord, let me go. Lettest thou thy servant depart in peace that I can enter into the heavenly Kingdom.”

No Neutrality

When Joseph and Mary saw this man and listened to his song as he held their baby to his chest, they marveled. They were astonished. Then, Simeon turned his attention to them, and he uttered a blessing upon the parents of Jesus, specifically Mary. He said these words: “Behold, Mary, this child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel. This child is destined to be a sign that will be spoken against.” In other words: “Yes, He will raise many people, but He will also be a rock of offense. People will stumble because of Him, and they will fall into greater wickedness than they are in right now. Every time they reject this baby, the sin that they carry will be greatly magnified. Mary, there will be no neutrality for your son. He will either bring people to life, or He will lead them to death in their sins.”

You are either for Jesus, beloved, or you are against Him. There is no neutrality with respect to Him. “He will be a sign that will be spoken against, and yes, Mary, the time is coming that a sword will pierce your own soul, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

The Long-Awaited Redemption Has Come

I want to discuss two things before I close. All of this was not only foreseen but decreed from the foundation of the world and the covenant of redemption in the Godhead itself. Jesus coming into the world was not an afterthought. It was not plan B in God’s providence. Notice the words of the prophet: “Behold this child is destined for the fall and the rise of many in Israel.” In effect, Simeon was saying, “Jesus is only a baby now, but He has a destiny that began in eternity, and it will surely come to pass because it has been set before Him by His heavenly Father.” You may not like the doctrine of predestination, but if you are going to be biblical, you cannot avoid it. In this case, we see it with respect to the ministry of our Lord Himself.

Earlier in the text, Luke says that Mary pondered these things in her heart (Luke 2:19). One wonders how many times she remembered what that old man Simeon said: “What does he mean that a sword will pierce my soul?” How could she not think of that moment when her baby, all grown up, was before her eyes hanging upon the cross and the soldier took his spear and pierced His side? Do you think that Mary felt that not just in her side but in her soul? She knew that that prophecy had come to pass.

Finally, there was mention of the prophetess, Anna, who was also there in the temple. She went every day. She had been a widow for eighty-four years, as this was presumably after her marriage that only lasted seven years until she became a widow. However, the text is a bit ambiguous. Does it mean that she was eighty-four years old or that she had been a widow for eighty-four years? If that is the case and she was married for seven, that would make her ninety-one, and if she were married at fourteen, that would make her one hundred and five. We do not know for sure what the text is saying here other than that she was a very old lady.

Anna came every day with prayers, and she joined this group at that very moment, giving thanks to God and speaking of him to all who looked for redemption in Jerusalem. Beloved, on that day, their redemption came to them in Jerusalem. My prayer and sincerest hope are that the same redemption has come to you and that you have embraced it completely and fully. Let us pray.

Father, we thank You for that Consolation that only You can give us, for that Savior that only You can provide for us, and for the salvation that only He can accomplish. Give us the faith to look to Him and Him alone. For we ask it in His name. Amen.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.