Luke’s Gospel presents a man named Simeon as the first to identify Jesus as the world’s consoling, Savior King. In alignment with the Magi of Matthew’s Gospel, who follow a star to the Bethlehem stable, Simeon identifies Jesus in his child state, speaking prophetic words over him that alert us to how Jesus and his way might be identified and received, or rejected now. In a time of socio-political turmoil and partisan division, let’s see what we can learn from Simeon to help us rightly discern Jesus and his Kingdom now.
“And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him” (Lk 2:25).
Luke distinguishes Simeon from other men who lived in Jerusalem by observing that this man was righteous and devout, inviting us to consider what this might mean and where we stand in comparison. All we know about him are his subsequent actions.
Simeon was looking for the consolation (paraklesis) of Israel, which suggests that he hadn’t yet found consolation in the religion and politics of his time. The underlying Greek verb translated “looking for,” prosdechomai, is not the usual verb for literal physical looking with the eyes. Rather its meaning has to do with the action of “looking for, expecting, receiving or giving access to oneself, and embracing.”
In our Tierra Nueva faith community I recently asked the question: “what do we find ourselves going after in attempts to comfort ourselves?”
People mention the expected “drugs, sex, food, money, our image, the Casino, work…,” and we readily confess that our comforts of choice do not fully satisfy. We can identify with Simeon in his wanting and waiting for something more.
Though the Holy Spirit was upon Simeon, and this Spirit is identified by Jesus as the Comforter (parakletos– Jn 14:16,26), Simeon was still expecting something more, or someone in addition to the Spirit. The next verse gives us the key.
“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” (Lk 2:26).
The Holy Spirit who was upon Simeon, had also personally revealed to him that he would see (horao) the Lord’s Christ, the Messiah, before he saw (horao) death. The Greek verb horao combines physical and spiritual seeing, suggesting a contemplative posture here. It was this revelation that caused Simeon to ready himself prayerfully, waiting and actively anticipating meeting the expected One. This also required that he evaluate and refuse pretender saviors or false Messiahs—a posture that is desperately needed today, as Jesus warned his followers:
“See to it that you are not misled; for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am He,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not go after them” (Lk 21:8).
Who or what is actively seeking your allegiance, trust or vote? I feel challenged by Simeon and Jesus to fine-tune my spiritual and political discernment.
“So, what more can we learn from Simeon as he moves towards recognizing Jesus as the one and only Savior?” I ask.
“And he came in the Spirit into the temple,” Luke continues (and notice this is now the third time he identifies the Spirit’s presence). In the first instance, the Holy Spirit is “upon” (epi) Simeon (Lk 2:25). In the second instance the Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon details about the timing of his seeing (Lk 2:26). Now in the third instance Simeon is physically moving (he came) “in (en) the Spirit” into the temple. Simeon models a full-immersion in the Spirit, and this leads to direct action.
Simeon’s movements in the Spirit are chronologically coordinated with the moment Jesus’ parents bring Jesus into the temple in compliance with the Mosaic Law.
“And when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to carry out for him the custom of the Law” (Luke 2:27) timely alignment with Simeon becomes possible, resulting in their physical meeting and the pledging of total allegiance. I think of Hebrews 1:6, which speaks of God.
“And when he [God] again brings the firstborn [Jesus] into the world, he says, “and let all the angels of God worship him.”
Let’s look at which law Jesus’ parents were fulfilling here, to understand what Simeon was tuning into.
In direct association with the Jewish Passover, God required Israelites to “sanctify to me every firstborn… it belongs to me” (Ex 13:2). On the eve of Passover, every Jewish family was to take an unblemished, male lamb, in the place of their firstborn son, slaughtering it, sprinkling the doorpost and lintel of each family’s house with its blood. By doing so, the angel of death would “pass over” the family gathered inside the home when Egypt’s firstborn were struck on the eve of God’s liberation of his people from slavery.
The Law indicated that the firstborn could be redeemed either with a lamb, or if the family were too poor, they could sacrifice turtledoves or pigeons. In the case of Jesus’ parents, Luke 2:22-24 specifies:
“they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Many Jewish parents brought in their firstborn sons into the temple to comply with the Law’s prescriptions regarding the redemption of the firstborn in Exodus. In compliance with the Law, Mary and Joseph’s firstborn and God’s firstborn son needed to be redeemed by sacrifices proscribed by the Law, so Jesus’ earthly ministry as the fully-human Son of God could take place—fulfilled in his death on behalf of all humanity as God’s firstborn Son.
Had Simeon considered Jesus’ parents according to normal class prejudices, he may have disqualified this baby as the Messiah, since his parents redeemed their firstborn son with the humble offering allowable to an impoverished couple.
Luke’s description of “the child Jesus” makes use of the Greek noun paidion, rather than referring to Jesus as their “firstborn son.” This aligns the story directly to the Septuagint version of Isaiah 9:5-6, which Simeon most certainly knew.
“Because a child (paidion) was born for us, a son also given to us, whose sovereignty was upon his shoulder, and he is named Messenger of Great Counsel, for I will bring peace upon the rulers, peace and health to him. His sovereignty is great, and his peace has no boundary upon the throne of David and his kingdom, to make it prosper and to uphold it with righteousness and with judgment from this time onward and forevermore.”
Simeon was most certainly also familiar with Isaiah 53:1-3, where in the Septuagint version the Servant of the Lord is here referred to as paidion.
“Lord, who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? He grew up before him like a child (paidion), like a root in a thirsty land; he has no form or glory, and we saw him, and he had no form or beauty. But his form was without honor, failing beyond all men, a man being in calamity and knowing how to bear sickness; because his face is turned away, he was dishonored and not esteemed.”
We can assume that Simeon comes into the temple as a true believer in Isaiah’s report, as one trained by his knowledge of Scripture to know what to look for, to whom the Spirit had specifically revealed that he would “not see death until he saw the Lord’s Christ.”
Right when the parents bring in the child, “then he took him into his arms, and blessed God,” writes Luke, reflecting Simeon’s total embrace of God’s firstborn Son, the Suffering Servant.
There’s no mention of turtledoves or pigeons. Simeon here is embracing Jesus as God’s offering of his firstborn– the lamb of God. It’s like Simeon is ahead of John the Baptist, who identified Jesus: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29).
The underlying Greek verb used here, dechomai, has an especially rich meaning, including “to welcome, to receive readily, to accept, to have as a guest.”
While fully embracing the child Jesus, Simeon next says something that is completely shocking, revealing a profound awareness of Jesus’ identity. He blesses God, and then says to the child Jesus there in his arms:
“Now despota,” says Simeon, not using the expected title kurios that usually translates Lord). Despota means “absolute ruler, master,” and can refer to a human master over servants (1 Tm 6:1; Titus 2:9; 1 Pt 2:18), but also God (Acts 4:24) and Jesus (2 Tm 2:21; 2 Pt 2:1; Jude 4; Rev 6:10).
Simeon’s recognition of who Jesus is causes him to humble himself to the extreme before his Master. He tells the child Jesus: “You are releasing your bond-servant [slave] to depart in peace, according to your word” (Lk 2:29)– which the Holy Spirit had revealed. There as Simeon receives the comfort he’s been actively awaiting, he surrenders himself as a humble servant to the Master Comforter, and then gives his carefully-crafted reason.
“For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel” (Lk 2:30-32).
According to Simeon, his own seeing of God’s salvation is something possible for everyone. God has prepared it publicly before all peoples, as a revelatory light to the non-Jews, the very glory of God’s people Israel. Yet here we are still not perceiving Jesus’ identity. Even Jesus’ parents don’t find it obvious.
“And his father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about him” (Lk 2:33).
“And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this one is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed — and a sword will pierce even your own soul — to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Lk 2:34-35).
In response to Joseph and Mary’s amazement Simeon blesses them, which they (and we) most certainly need to be able to stay the course before the resistance that he then prophesies.
That Jesus is appointed for the fall and rise of many is demonstrated by Simeon’s own humbling himself as a servant before the child Jesus, his Master. Simeon echoes Mary’s own words in her song in Luke 1:51-53.
“He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed.”
The proud, the rulers and enthroned must bow before the King, while the humble are lifted up, to sit with him at the right hand of the Father. Most certainly this revolutionary Master and Kingdom has been and will continue to be opposed.
Simeon’s words to Mary that a sword will pierce even her own soul, likely a reference to her son Jesus’ execution, will result in the thoughts from many hearts being revealed. May we choose to humbly confess our own thoughts that doubt, resist, and even oppose Jesus’ humble way of saving the world as they come to light. May we choose to “fall” should that be still required, which is the only position from which we can rise.
Order your copy of Daniel Bourguet’s The Humble Divinity of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, volume 1 here and volume 2 here. These fine books will help you read Scripture afresh and strengthen your discernment.