Jesus the Savior: The Temple | Luke 2:21-40
Brian Hedges | December 27, 2020
Turn in your Bibles this morning to Luke 2:21-40. I think one of the priorities for Bible study in our lives is that we always approach Scripture with a twofold focus. We’re always looking for both how Scripture applies to us personally and also for the truth that Scripture teaches us about Jesus. When we come to the Bible, whether it’s for personal devotions and Bible study or it’s gathering together, as we are this morning, to open up the word of God and to study it together, we should always be thinking about how the Scriptures apply to us personally, always looking for sins to confess and commands to obey and examples to follow. We need to constantly be applying the Scriptures to our lives.
You remember how Paul told Timothy that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for doctrine [or for teaching],” as well as for reproof and correction and for training in righteousness. Well, that has to do with the application of Scripture to our lives, and we always need to be paying attention to application.
But we also come to Scriptures with a focus on Christ. We’re asking the question, “What does this teach me about God? What does this teach me about Jesus? What does it teach me about the work of Christ on my behalf for my salvation? What does it teach me about the gospel?” As long as we take those two lenses and we look at Scripture through those two lenses, we’re not going to go far wrong in our interpretation; but if we neglect either of those two things we will find ourselves in extremes on one side or the other.
The passage before us this morning in Luke 2 is a wonderful passage that has both practical application as we look at examples of godly people that are recorded here in this chapter, but as we look at what they do and what they say, the words in this passage also teach us much about Jesus and about the work of Christ on our behalf.
We’ve been looking through the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel during Advent, leading up to Christmas. On Christmas Eve, just a few days ago, we looked at the nativity story in Luke 2:1-20, and today we look at what follows, an event that takes place just eight days after Jesus was born and then another event that takes place about 40 days after Jesus was born, as Mary and Joseph take the baby Jesus, the infant Christ, to the temple to fulfill their obligations to the law, their covenant obligations, and to dedicate the Lord Jesus to the Lord.
We see them encounter two people when they’re there at the temple, a man named Simeon and a woman, who was a prophetess named Anna. As we look at these episodes in Luke 2, we’re going to see both practical things for us as well as truths about Jesus for us to receive and to respond to.
We’re going to break it down into just three parts:
1. The Obedience of Mary and Joseph (vv. 21-24, 39-40)
2. The Song of Simeon (vv. 25-34)
3. The Devotion of Anna (vv. 36-38)
1. The Obedience of Mary and Joseph
Let’s begin reading in verse 21: “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every male who first 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.’”
Then drop down to verse 39: “And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him.”
Now, the first thing you notice in reading that passage is the emphasis on the law, the law of the Lord. You have reference to the law of Moses (verse 22), the law of the Lord (verses 23-24, and then again in verse 39). Also in verse 27 we read that the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him according to the custom of the law.
So, in these verses you have five references to the law of God, and what’s very clear is that Mary and Joseph are very attentive in their obedience to the law of God. They were obeying the law of Moses and fulfilling their obligations.
Now, they do this, first of all, in the circumcision and the naming of Jesus in verse 21. Every male child in the family of Abraham, the children of Israel, was to be circumcised on the eighth day. This was the covenant sign in the old covenant. You couldn’t be a member of the covenant without being circumcised, so this was necessary for Jesus as a young Jewish male.
But it’s also the first part of his suffering. Donald Grey Barnhouse said that his circumcision was his first suffering for us. Jesus here begins to undergo all of the obligations of the covenant and of the law, and he’s doing this as his parents are fulfilling the law in keeping this covenant sign.
Of course, they also obey the Lord in naming him Jesus. In circumcising him they are obeying the law of the Lord as given in the Old Testament; in calling him Jesus they are obeying the word of the Lord given to them by the angel. You remember how the angel told Mary that her child was to be named Jesus; you have that in Luke 1. The angel also gave this message to Joseph, recorded in Matthew 1.
Then, in verse 22, you see them coming to the temple—this would have been about 40 days after Jesus was born—they’re coming to the temple with this twofold purpose. You see it in verse 22. First of all, for their purification according to the law of Moses. This especially would have been Mary’s purification, because every woman after she had a child would have to come and make an offering in order to be ceremonially clean to be able to have access to the temple worship.
Also they are coming for a presentation, to present the baby Jesus to the Lord and dedicate him to the Lord. That’s explained in verse 23: “As it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord.’” This was the requirement, that every firstborn was to be redeemed. This went all the way back to the Passover; you have the law given in Exodus 13:1-12. I love the way Warren Wiersbe put it. He says that Mary and Joseph “had to pay five shekels to redeem the Redeemer who would one day redeem us with his precious blood.”
I think all of this is just pointing us to this basic truth in Scripture that Jesus came to fulfill the law. He came to fulfill the law. This is nowhere put more succinctly than in Galatians 4:4-5, which might be viewed as an exposition of this passage in Luke 2. Paul says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law…” Why was he born under the law? Verse 5 answers, “...to redeem those who were under the law.”
You remember how Jesus said in Matthew 5, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus is the great law-keeper, and he is the great law-keeper as the representative and substitute of the people of God.
You have another indication of this in Matthew 3, when Jesus was baptized. You remember he comes to John the Baptist to be baptized in the Jordan, and John the Baptist says, “You don’t need to be baptized by me! I need to be baptized by you!”
Do you remember what Jesus said? He said, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
What’s going on here? Well, Jesus in his role as the redeemer, as the mediator, is the covenant head of his people, and it was necessary for him to fulfill all of the obligations that also rest upon us, all of the obligations of the law. I love the way this wonderful contemporary hymn that we sing puts it. You’ll recognize these words:
“Come, behold the wondrous mystery,
He the perfect Son of Man;
In his living, in his suffering,
Never trace nor stain of sin.
See the true and better Adam,
Come to save the hell-bound man;
Christ, the great and sure fulfillment of the law,
In him we stand.”
Christ is the great law-keeper, and what’s going on here in Luke 2 is the very beginning of his law-keeping, as he is circumcised as a child and then redeemed by his parents in accord with the Old Testament law.
There’s really a twofold application here, isn’t there? There is the obedience of Mary and Joseph, and you see just how attentive they are to the law of God. Certainly you and I should be just as attentive to the law of God in Scripture. Now, there’s a very real sense in which we are not under the law; that is, we are not under the old covenant law. But Paul says we are under the law of Christ, and there is an obligation for us to obey the abiding moral commands of God in Scripture. Every one of us as believers in Christ must obey the Lord. We can follow the examples of Mary and Joseph in this. We also see here that Jesus Christ is the great fulfillment of the law, and this is a crucial part of his work of redemption.
One more thing to note before we move on, and that’s verse 24, where you see the type of offering that was made. This was for the purification of Mary. Verse 24 says they had come to offer a sacrifice “according to what is said in the law of the Lord,” and then it quotes Leviticus 12:8, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now, when you go to Leviticus 12, what becomes very clear is that this was a provision that was made for those who could not afford to offer a lamb. If someone could not afford to offer a lamb, they could offer these two birds instead. It just shows us that Jesus was born into a poor family. He was not born into a wealthy family, he was born into a poor family. They couldn’t afford a lamb for the offering for Mary’s purification, so they offered the two turtledoves instead.
It’s a reminder to us of the poverty of Jesus and the truth of the great exchange that Paul expresses so well in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” Jesus literally became poor. He divested himself of the full expression of the glory of his divinity, although he never ceased to be God, and he took upon himself human flesh, and not only human flesh but human flesh in poverty. Why did he do that? So that you could be enriched by the grace of God, so that you could receive the riches of God’s grace in and through Jesus Christ.
This is the obedience of Mary and Joseph pointing us to Christ and his representative role on our behalf.
2. The Song of Simeon
The second thing we see in this passage is the song and the blessing of Simeon, in verses 25-34. Again, I like the words of Warren Wiersbe, as he describes Simeon in this way: “He was a man who was led by the Spirit of God, taught by the word of God, and obedient to the will of God; and therefore he was privileged to see the salvation of God.” That’s a beautiful summary of what you see here in this passage.
Look at verse 25. It says, “Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.” The consolation of Israel. That’s a reference to the great prophecies of Isaiah, where through the servant of the Lord comfort would come for the people of God—consolation is comfort. In fact, we often sing during Advent a song that references this directly. You remember these words from Wesley’s hymn:
“Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free!
From our fears and sins release us;
Let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth thou art,
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.”
That directly echoes the words of Simeon, as we are about to see.
It says that Simeon was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. There are three references here to the Holy Spirit in verses 25, 26, and 27, so that it becomes clear that Simeon is a Spirit-filled man, a Spirit-led man. Look at verse 26. “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,” before he had seen the Messiah. “And he came in 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…”
What follows is the third hymn or canticle that is recorded for us in Luke 1-2. We’ve already looked at the Magnificat, which is the song or the canticle of Mary; we’ve looked at the Benedictus, which is the song of Zecharia; and this is called the Nunc Dimittis. It comes from the Latin for the words “now dismiss your servant in peace,” because Simeon, now that he has seen the Messiah, is ready to go home, he’s ready to depart and to be with the Lord. Let’s look at these words in verses 29-32. This is what Simeon says:
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
What beautiful words! As Simeon holds the baby Jesus in his arms, he says, “My eyes have seen your salvation.” How does he see the Lord’s salvation? He sees it because Jesus is salvation incarnate! Jesus is the one who will bring salvation to the people of God.
He had been waiting for the consolation of Israel, but Simeon has amazing insight into the Old Testament prophecies, and again, he’s directly referencing the prophet Isaiah when he says here that this child, this salvation that is the Lord Jesus, has been “prepared in the presence of all peoples [plural], a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” Simeon seems to understand that the Messiah, the servant of the Lord, would come and would bring salvation not just to the children of Abraham, not just the people of Israel, but he would be a light to the nations, a light to the Gentiles. It’s a reference to Isaiah 42:6, “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you, I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations.” These are words spoken to the servant of the Lord in the first servant song.
In the second servant song, Isaiah 49:6, “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” It shows us that Christ is the Savior, and not just of Israel, but the Savior of the world, the Savior of all peoples, of all the nations of the world, of all who will believe and trust in him.
That’s the song of Simeon, and what follows in verse 33 is the response of Mary and Joseph and then the blessing of Simeon in verses 34-35. Let’s read these words, beginning in verse 33:
“And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.’”
These are really interesting words, and this is really the first time in the Gospel according to Luke where you get the shadow of something sinister that is coming, that Jesus is coming as the Savior, yes, but he’s coming as a Savior that will also bring about opposition and will bring suffering, not only into his own life but also suffering and affliction into the life of Mary.
Once again, I found Warren Wiersbe very helpful, as he explains this with three images: a stone, a sign, and a sword. First of all, a stone. You see in verse 34, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel.” A fall, because people would stumble over him. Perhaps Simeon is thinking of Isaiah’s prophecy in Isaiah 8:14 that spoke of how the coming one would be a “stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.”
Of course, we know this, that in the life of Jesus, many people stumbled over him. He is the cornerstone, and yet people stumble over this stone. He offended many people. He is resisted by many people, he is rejected by many people.
He is a sign as well, a sign that is opposed, or perhaps better, as the NIV puts it, “a sign that is spoken against.” That is, Jesus is continually faced with opposition as people speak against him. This happened in his own life and ministry. Many of the religious leaders of the day—the scribes and the Pharisees and the priests—they rejected the Messiah. There were many people who opposed Jesus, so much so that throughout his earthly ministry they were looking for occasions to seize him, to take him by force, to put him to death, and finally he is tried and crucified.
Certainly, when you look down through the history of the church, you can see a history not only of many triumphs in the church, but a history that is marked by suffering and by persecution of the people of God, as people have opposed the Lord’s Christ.
Simeon says he is “for a sign that is opposed,” and then skip the parentheses and look at the end of verse 35, “so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” What I think he means by this is that as people oppose Jesus it reveals something about the state of their hearts.
John MacArthur used an illustration that I found helpful. He told the story of a man who toured Paris. He was given an all-day-long tour of Paris; they went to the great Louvre Museum, to a wonderful symphony that night—he spent this whole day looking at these magnificent pieces of art, these things that have been valued and treasured for decades and even centuries.
At the end of the day, the tour guide asked him what he thought. He said, “Well, I really wasn’t that impressed.”
To which his guide said, “The museum and its art were not on trial, and neither was the symphony; you were. You were on trial. History has already determined the greatness of those works of art and this music; all that your attitude reveals is the smallness of your appreciation.”
When we think about Jesus Christ, who has been shown and given honor and glory by God, by angels, by saints, and by the church throughout history—when people oppose Christ—it’s not showing anything about the greatness and the worth of Christ, it’s showing the deficiency that is in the heart. It exposes what is in the heart.
As the apostle John puts it in his Gospel, “The light has come into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light.” When people reject Jesus, it is a sign of their own judgment, because they are rejecting the Messiah.
A stone, a sign, and then, number three in verse 35, a sword. This is a parentheses, as Simeon says directly to Mary, “A sword will pierce through your own soul also.” What is this sword?
A.T. Robertson, in his Word Pictures of the New Testament, says, “This was a large sword, properly a long Thracian javelin.” He says that the word occurs in the Septuagint (that is, the Greek translation of the Old Testament) in 1 Samuel 17:51 as a description of Goliath’s sword. Then Robertson says, “How little Mary understood the meaning of Simeon’s words that seemed so out of place in the midst of the glorious things already spoken, a sharp thorn in their roses, a veritable bittersweet. But one day Mary will stand by the cross of Christ with this Thracian javelin clean through her soul.”
You remember how in John 19, when Judas has betrayed Jesus, Peter has denied Jesus, the disciples have fled from Jesus, but a group of women stand around the cross of Christ, and one of them is Mary, the mother of our Lord, and she sees her son crucified.
Anyone who’s a parent knows that as soon as your children are born into the world you begin to feel a new kind of vulnerability, a vulnerability because your children, because your wellbeing is now so tied in with the wellbeing of these kids. There have certainly been times in the lives of my children, when they were suffering in some way from sickness or something like that, where I’ve wished I could just take it for them, because it hurts me to see them in pain or see them in distress of any kind. Can you imagine how much more Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus, felt that when she saw her son being crucified for the sins of the world on the cross?
There was a suffering that she experienced, and yet her suffering pales in significance with the suffering that Jesus himself experienced for us. If a sword pierced through the soul of Mary, how much more was a sword piercing through the heart of Christ. In fact, as the old 18th century Baptist theologian John Gill put it, “God sheathed his sword of justice in the Savior’s side.”
All these images show how Jesus as the Savior comes bringing both judgment and salvation, and he brings salvation through taking our judgment upon himself. The song and the blessing of Simeon. It shows us Simeon’s devotion to the Lord, it shows us his attentive reading of the Old Testament Scriptures, and how his eyes were peeled for the Messiah; and it reminds us of how we also should be waiting. We’re not waiting now for the first Advent of Christ, we’re waiting for the second, but we are waiting for the ultimate consolation and redemption of the world when our Savior comes again.
3. The Devotion of Anna
Finally, we have the devotion of Anna in verses 36-38. Look at verse 36:
“And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
Once again we see a beautiful example of a woman, this time, characterized by godliness, by devotion, by piety. Her devotion to the Lord; we see that as she spent so much of her time at the temple. The text says “not departing from the temple”—that doesn’t mean she lived there, but that was her place, that was where she spent her time, devoted to the temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day. Here’s a woman who has devoted herself to the worship of God and to the service of God.
It also shows the dignity given to women in the Gospel of Luke and in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. This is an important thing to emphasize, because it is one of the distinctive emphases of the Gospel of Luke. I’ve pointed some of these out already in this series, that there are themes that get more emphasis in Luke’s Gospel than in the other three.
We saw this, for example, with poverty, how there is more emphasis on Jesus’ ministry to the poor in the Gospel of Luke. The same is true in regards to women. There is more included about women who had encounters with Jesus in his earthly life, more in Luke’s Gospel than anywhere else. There are, in fact, 43 references to women in the Gospel of Luke, and this stands in sharp contrast to the attitude towards women in the ancient world, including even the Jewish attitude towards women.
Some of the scholarly resources tell us that rabbinic literature was filled with contempt for women. The rabbis taught that women were not to be saluted or spoken to in the street, they were not to be instructed in the law or receive an inheritance. A woman walked six paces behind her husband, and if she uncovered her hair in a public place she was considered a harlot. According to rabbinic oral tradition, a Jewish man prayed three benedictions a day, including one in which he thanked God that he was not born a woman.
Jesus must have seemed like a radical in that day in his association with women, and when you read through Luke’s Gospel you see that women figure into the narratives again and again and again. We see it, as we already have, in the infancy narratives, where the focus is really not on Joseph or even on Zechariah as much as it is on Mary, on Elizabeth. Then you have this inclusion of Anna.
You see it in one of Jesus’ first miracles, the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, in Luke 4. You see it in Luke 7, where Jesus raises the deceased son of the widow of Nain, raises him from the dead, an episode included only in Luke’s Gospel. You see it also as Jesus shows compassion to this sinful woman who comes and weeps over him and washes his feet with her tears and dries his feet with her hair, and how Jesus is so compassionate towards this woman in Luke 7.
In Luke 8 there’s a reference to a group of women who attended Jesus and helped financially support him in his ministry. This included Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Susannah. Luke 8 also records Jesus’ healing of a hemorrhaging woman and the raising of the daughter of Jairus.
Then there’s the well-known association of Jesus with Mary and Martha, with Mary worshipping at Jesus’ feet—all that in Luke 10. In Luke 13 Jesus heals a crippled woman, in Luke 21 he commends the widow who gave her all to God; and then, when you get to the crucifixion, as I’ve already mentioned, while the men have all forsaken Jesus, the women remain loyal and are there with him, faithful to the end, gathered around the cross as he is crucified.
Do you remember who the very first witnesses of the resurrection were? They were women. Luke 24:10-11, “Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them,” they are the ones who go inform the apostles that Jesus has risen from the dead.
All of this just shows the dignity that Jesus gave to women, and it reminds all of us, but especially you as brothers in Christ, it reminds us of the great responsibility we have to treat our sisters in Christ with dignity and respect, to value their ministries, to value the ways they contribute to the church, to the fellowship, and to always treat them with the kind of respect with which Jesus treated women.
Then, Anna’s response to seeing the infant Lord Jesus teaches us something about our response to the Advent of Christ. We’ve been celebrating Advent leading up to Christmas over the last four weeks. How do we respond to the coming of the Savior? It’s so easy, isn’t it, once Christmas is over, to put away the tree, clean up the mess, put away the lights, and it’s kind of out of sight and out of mind until next December. Well, Jesus was not out of sight and out of mind for those who encountered him after he was born. Here was the incarnate Savior, and Anna encounters him.
How does she respond? It’s a model for how we are to respond. Look at verse 38. “And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” How should we respond to the Advent of our Lord?
First of all, with worship. We give thanks to God! We’ll sing it in a few minutes: “Jesus, thank you!” We are to thank God the Father for sending his Son; we are to thank Jesus for coming in our flesh and dying in our place, being our substitute, our representative, rising from the dead and giving us life. All of our life is to be a life motivated by thanksgiving for the grace that we have received through the coming of the Savior. That’s first.
Secondly, we are to speak of him. There’s evangelism. Anna was one of the very first evangelists, as she shares the good news, as she speaks of the Messiah to those who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. How much more should we speak of Christ to others and share the good news with others.
This morning we’ve seen these examples, haven’t we? The obedience of Mary and Joseph; the song and blessing of Simeon, this man who waited for the consolation of Israel, who knew so well the Old Testament Scriptures, so that he was able to recognize the Messiah when he came; and then the devotion of Anna. We should imitate them in all of those ways, but especially let’s lay to heart this morning the truths that this passage teaches us about Christ. He is the great law-keeper, the fulfillment of the law in our behalf. He is the source of salvation. He is salvation incarnate. But our response to him reveals something about our hearts. He is a stone of stumbling for some, he is a sign that reveals the secrets of men’s hearts; but he took the sword of God’s wrath in our place. He is our substitute, he is the Savior of all who trust in him, and I hope that you will do so this morning. Let’s pray together.
Our gracious God, how we thank you for your word, how we thank you for the good news of what Jesus Christ our Savior, our Messiah, has come to do. We pray that you would help us to lay these truths to our hearts, to receive them. Help us to imitate everything that we should follow from this passage. Help us to be attentive to obedience. Help us to know and to love your word well. Help us to live lives of grateful worship. Help us to share this news with others. But especially this morning, help us respond in our hearts with fresh faith and repentance to the gift of salvation given to us through your Son, Jesus Christ.
As we come to the Lord’s table this morning, may we come with our hearts fixed on Christ, remembering the great price that he paid for our redemption. Would you draw near to us as we draw near to you, and be with us as we worship. We pray this in Jesus’ name and for his sake, Amen.