Luke 2 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
The Witness of a Man and Woman at the Temple
The testimony to Jesus continues as both a prophet and a prophetess reveal God's plan. By showing how each gender among the people of God testifies to what God is doing through this child, Luke is saying that all should rejoice at his coming. And culturally it is no accident that both Simeon and Anna are advanced in years. Here is the testimony of two with a full resume of life experience.
Anna's and Simeon's prophecies share a note of hope and expectation, along with declarations that in this child God's promise is moving into realization. Luke also reveals Jesus' superiority to John in this passage, for the testimony about John stops with his circumcision but the praise of Jesus extends long past the eighth day of life. Here two old and wise prophets of Jewish piety speak not only for the nation but for all humankind, as Simeon's prophecy mentions Jesus' relationship to the Gentiles (for the first time in the book). This passage also provides the first hint that all will not go well. Mary will experience the pain of seeing her son rejected by a divided Israel.The Purification of Jesus (2:22-24)
Jesus' parents are law-abiding Jews. They show up at the temple to perform sacrifices associated with the wife's purification after birth (Lev 12:2-4, 6). Such a ceremony occurs forty days after the child's arrival. At the same time the firstborn child is to be set aside to the Lord (Ex 13:2, 12, 16; 34:19; Num 18:15-16). Jesus' parents bring the child along, though that is not necessary. They offer a pair of doves or two young pigeons. This offering recalls Leviticus 12:8, though the wording is closer to the Greek Old Testament version of Leviticus 5:11. Since this offering is the one usually made by the poor, Jesus is identified with the very people he reached out to save (1:52; 4:18-19; 6:20; 7:22-23; Greeven 1968:69). But Joseph and Mary do not live in abject poverty, since Joseph is a carpenter by trade (Mk 6:3; Plummer 1922:65). This could be the offering of someone from a "middle-class" background as well. Regardless of their precise social status, Luke is making it clear that Jesus' parents are not spiritual renegades, but Jews who are sensitive and faithful to the Mosaic law--a point reinforced in Luke 2:40-52, when they will make their customary annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. All the persons surrounding Jesus at his birth have a heritage of devotion to God. The testimony to Jesus stands on the shoulders of a series of highly respectable figures.Simeon's Prophecy (2:25-35)
The Spirit leads an old man to the temple to greet Jesus. He is righteous and devout (compare Mt 10:41; 19:17; 23:29, 35; 2 Pet 2:7-8), yet another witness to Jesus who possesses a vibrant walk with God. Such piety includes having an eye on the hope of God's redemption. Luke expresses this hope in national terms appropriate for this first-century saint: Simeon has been waiting for the consolation of Israel. He longs for the nation's deliverance, just as Zechariah had (1:68-75; Is 40:1; 49:13; 51:3; 57:18; 61:2; 2 Baruch 44:7). In fact, later rabbis will call the Messiah Menahem, or Comforter (Schmitz and Stahlin 1967:793; y. Berakot 2:3). It was such deliverance that Simeon expected.
The Spirit of God directs this scene, because he had revealed to Simeon that death would not come until he had seen the Lord's Christ. Promise, fulfillment and God's direction stand behind the prophecy of this old saint.
Simeon's remarks are set within a hymn known as the Nunc Dimittis, from the Latin of the hymn's opening phrase. The prophecy itself is a statement of mature faith. Simeon can die in peace as you have promised and be taken by God, his Sovereign Lord (despota or Master), because my eyes have seen your salvation. There is a significant equation in this remark. To see Jesus is to see God's salvation. They are inseparable. There is joy, even in the face of death, when one has seen the source of life. Simeon's job as a sentinel for Messiah is done. The Lord can take him home. Simeon pictures a faithful servant who is at home in God's purpose and plan, even when his time is up.
God's work is for all people (laon). As in 2:10, the reference to the people ultimately is broad, encompassing both Jew and Gentile, as verse 32 makes clear. In fact, Jesus is light (phos), an image that recalls the description of the Davidic son as the dayspring or bright morning star in 1:78-79. But Jesus serves as light in two distinct ways. For Gentiles he is a revelation. This term refers to his opening up the way of salvation to the nations in a way unknown before his coming. But for Israel, God's people, Jesus is glory--that is, his activity represents the realization of promises made by God and thus shows Israel's special place in his heart (Is 46:13). The remarks in this verse recall Isaiah 60:1-3, which in turn recall imagery surrounding the promised Servant of the Lord. Though the church today associates the Servant figure with the suffering of Jesus, Luke prefers here to highlight those aspects of the Servant's work that mean hope and vindication.
Once again, the parents marveled at the prophecy. Luke's reader is to identify with their response and sense of wonder.
But Simeon is not done. There is a note of foreboding he must leave with Mary. Jesus will be the cause of division: This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel. The imagery of this verse comes from Isaiah 8:14-15 and 28:13-16. These Old Testament texts are frequently alluded to in the New Testament (Rom 9:33; 1 Pet 2:6-8; Lk 20:17-18, also at Qumran, 1QH 2:8-10; 14:11). Jesus will divide the nation in two. Some will respond and others will oppose. That means that he will be a sign that will be spoken against. People will contend against and about Jesus. The road to promise-fulfillment is not smooth. To identify with Jesus will bring pain, because many will reject him.
This rejection explains Simeon's reference to a sword piercing through Mary's soul. She will feel a mother's pain as she watches her son go his own way and suffer rejection, but the sword also reflects the pain anyone who identifies with Jesus feels as the world rejects what Jesus has to offer. Simeon's remark to Mary is an aside, but an important one, since it shows that identifying with Jesus has painful personal consequences.
The division Jesus brings reveals the thoughts of many hearts. Jesus is God's litmus test for where a person is. Do I sense a need to depend on God and come to him to walk in light, or do I not? My response to Jesus is the test, and the answer comes from my heart. Each person's response to him reveals where he or she is before God, just as one day Jesus will reveal where everyone's heart is (Acts 10:42-43).Anna's Prophecy (2:36-38)
Though no details of Anna's prophecy are given, this section completes the cycle of male and female witnesses. Again, Anna's piety is underlined by references to her old age, her faithful widowhood and her regular ministry at the temple. She is full of thanksgiving at the arrival of the child who will complete God's promise, and she speaks about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. Her teaching would have been heard by all who frequented the temple. Her hope, like Simeon's, looks to the completion of what God is starting.Jesus' Growth (2:39-40)
Having obeyed the Mosaic law, Jesus' parents return with him to Nazareth in Galilee. There Jesus grows in strength and wisdom, receiving the favor of God. There he awaits the ministry that will fulfill what Mary, Zechariah, the angels, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna have proclaimed. God will fulfill his word and perform his plan.