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).
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