[January 4, 2009] Matthew’s gospel shows the pagan magi coming to Jesus by following His star. In Luke’s gospel Simeon says explicitly that Jesus will be a light for revelation to the Gentiles (2:32). The celebration of Epiphany is the celebration of Jesus’ manifestation to the Gentiles.
Since each gospel is different, we want to understand what Luke is doing—how he is presenting Jesus in his own way—so we can hear what he is trying to say to us through his version of the story of Jesus. Remember that Luke was a Gentile who attended synagogue before he became a believer in Christ as a result of Paul’s preaching. We will find from reading Acts and the epistles that this was the case of many of the early Gentile believers. Before they became Christians, they were very interested in Judaism and God’s covenant with Israel. The God of Israel was different from the pagan gods.
To the Gentiles in the ancient world, gods belonged to ethnic groups, and though you may honor other people’s gods—out of respect, or for good luck, or simply out of curiosity—you always honored the gods of your ancestors. The more ancient the god was, the more respectable it was. The God of Israel was considered rather rude as far as gods went because He demanded exclusive worship—but pagans respected Him simply because He and His cult were so ancient. Of course, for pagans like Luke who attended synagogue and learned the Old Testament, there was more than respect. They worshiped Israel’s God, even if they did not yet give up the gods of their ancestors. Once they became Christians, they did give up these gods (which is why Christians were so unpopular with their neighbors).
Knowing this will help us understand what Luke is doing in chapters 1 and 2 with the contrast between old people and young. Zachariah and Elizabeth were old. Mary and Joseph are young. And now we have the baby Jesus held in the arms of the very old Simeon, and the excitement of the eighty-four year old Anna (Hannah).
Judaism and the religion of the Old Testament, to Luke and his contemporaries, are old. Zachariah, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna are also old, and they are all faithful to the religion of the Old Testament. None of them abandon it. But the old religion is about to become new. The baby Jesus, through the actions of Mary and Joseph, also does not abandon the Old Testament. He is circumcised on the eighth day according to the law, and presented to the Lord as the firstborn, according to the law. But the month old baby, held in the arms of Simeon who is about to depart from this life, represents something altogether new, even though connected to the old.
We Gentiles need to appreciate what is new in the coming of Jesus and not reject the old. The old is the Old Testament. When we read the Old Testament, we need to hear it as the word of God—as Jesus did—but we also need to recognize that it is spoken to Israel and not to us Gentiles. When we read it, and we are invited to, it is like looking over someone else’s shoulder, reading someone else’s mail. The Old Testament is God’s word spoken to Israel and shared with us. But Jesus is God’s word spoken directly to us Gentiles.
Jesus is the capstone that fulfills and makes sense of the entire Old Testament for Israel. He is Israel’s salvation. But as that, He is the embodiment and crystallization of the entire Old Testament for us Gentiles. In a sense, He is all we need, though we still need the Old Testament as background to understand who He is for us. “For my eyes have seen Your salvation [the baby Jesus], which You have prepared before the face of all the [Gentile] peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of Your people Israel.” Biblically, the Gentiles live in darkness because they worship false gods and are enslaved to delusion. Luke discovered—when He discovered Jesus—that Jesus is the light of revelation for Gentiles, and therefore He is their salvation as well.
Although the Jews for the most part do not accept Jesus as their Messiah, in the end (notice the order of these two phrases) Jesus will be the glory of God’s people Israel. The Jews today look forward to the Messiah and one day He will come (He will still be Jesus!) and He will be Israel’s glory. He was, is, and will be, the salvation of Israel.
But the statement that Jesus will be the light of revelation to the Gentiles (quoted from Isaiah 49:6) is the keynote here, the thing that stands out most, that Luke most wants us to notice. We take it for granted. This is a shame because then we tend to misunderstand our own context. We tend to mix Christianity with our pagan culture as if Christianity were a natural part of the makeup of society. But we still live in a pagan world. Even though it has changed drastically, the change is superficial. The light of Jesus is completely alien to it. If sometimes it seems as though it is not, it is not because the culture has bought into it, but usually because the culture has conquered and subdued it. It has acclimated it to itself. This is why we need to be so wary of any form of civic religion. The light of Jesus is revelation to the Gentiles. It lets us see what we could never otherwise see. For us Gentiles, it is wonderfully refreshing in our secular darkness, because, if our eyes are opened by the Gospel, it lets us see for the first time.
Fulfilling the Law of the Firstborn (2:22-24, 39)
To fulfill the Torah, Mary needs to offer a sacrifice (or pay for a sacrifice to be offered on her behalf) to ritually cleanse herself after childbirth (Leviticus 12). One bird was for a sin offering and the other (if you were too poor to afford a lamb) for a burnt offering. Since they were near Jerusalem, they went to the Temple themselves and combined this with the offering of the firstborn, also required.
The firstborn males of every family belonged to the Lord as priests and were to be redeemed for the cost of five shekels each (Numbers 18:15) so that the sons of Aaron could serve in their place. Symbolically, the offering of the firstborn meant that the family belonged to God and to His service (the child was the “tithe”).
This is quite literal, but there is a hint of something more. Jesus is presented in His humanity as the firstborn son of Mary. Jesus, however, is also the Firstborn of humanity and of creation. Hebrews 1:6 says, “When [God] brings the Firstborn into the inhabited earth, He says, ‘And let all the angels of God worship Him.’” In one sense, He was the Firstborn before Adam, for Adam was made according to His image. He is also the Firstborn in the sense that He has the first of place in the creation. Hebrews 2:14 and 17 speak of His kinship with us: “Since therefore the children have shared in blood and flesh, He also Himself in like manner partook of the same … Hence He [has] been made like His brothers in all things.” But He has the title of Firstborn of all creation in the fullest sense because He became the first to rise from the dead (Colossians 1:15, 18). This is what Hebrews 2:11-12 speaks of when it says, “He is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, ‘I will declare Your name to My brothers; in the midst of the church I will sing hymns of praise to You.” This was first fulfilled in John 20. He has the right of inheritance, He takes responsibility for us and leads the way, and He is our High Priest.
Salvation for Israel and for the Gentiles (2:25-33)
It is when He is being offered up to God as the Firstborn, that Simeon is also led into the Temple by the Holy Spirit. Simeon represents the faithful of Israel who on the basis of the promises of God in the Old Testament waited for the “consolation of Israel,” which would come when the Messiah arrived. Like the Jewish people as a whole who will live on in history until the coming of the Messiah, Simeon was promised that his eyes too would behold the Lord’s salvation. The faithful of Israel today worship God and keep the Torah, waiting for the Lord’s salvation to arrive. Only, Simeon had his eyes opened to see that it has already arrived, in a preliminary form, in this little baby in the arms of Mary and Joseph.
(Jesus is still set to be “the glory of [God’s] people Israel” after He fulfills His role as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” Even though Jews in the church have seen Jesus as their salvation, this is only preliminary. Israel as a whole has not yet seen this.)
Because Simeon had seen the arrival of God’s salvation, even though it had arrived in such a small package and was not the full-blown version spoken of by the prophets, he could rest in peace. “Now release Your slave in peace” (release from his labor). We who have believed in Jesus are also ready to die, to let go of this life. We can say as Simeon did, “Now You can release Your slave, Master, in peace,” and in doing so we can bless (praise) God. If we have seen His salvation in Jesus, as Simeon did, we can depart this life without anxiety and without bitterness or regret, but instead with praise.
A Sign Spoken Against (2:34-35)
Simeon speaks to Mary as a believer. Jesus forces judgment on people, because confronted with Him people have to decide for or against Him. To not decide is to decide against Him because you will turn away. Jesus has always been this. Mostly people reject Jesus as the “stewards” of Israel did (Luke 13:33-35; 19:41-44; 21:20-24; 23:27-31; Acts 2:23; 3:13-15; 4:10-11; 13:27-29; 28:23-28). This rejection is part of the Gospel wherever it is proclaimed. The world never stops being the world until His coming again. People are delivered from the world by the light of the Gospel of Jesus.
But Simeon warns Mary that a sword will pierce through her own soul. While this must have been so true for Mary personally, it is also true for everyone who would bring forth Jesus into the world. We are all to bear Jesus in us and also give Him birth—like Mary—but there is a price to pay: the killing of our soul (see Luke 9:24).
Finally Anna (Hannah in Hebrew): Hannah means “grace” and Phanuel means “the face of God” and Asher means “happy.” Anna belonged to the tribe of Asher which never returned from exile in Assyria. The northern kingdom of Israel has since disappeared from history, yet the promises of God were for them too. How these promises can be fulfilled in their case has to remain a mystery. What hope is there? Yet Anna was not self-absorbed, praying only for herself. Anna served God with fasting and prayers night and day, waiting for the redemption of her people which would take place in Jerusalem when the Messiah comes. Like Simeon (though also like her people, without a voice left to history), she recognizes in the helpless infant Jesus the fulfillment of all her hopes, and spoke about Jesus to everyone who would listen.
She too is an example for us—to still hope and pray for the people of God, and to speak of Jesus as the future fulfillment of all our hopes.