To outside observers, Mary and Joseph were just another Jewish family showing up at the temple for the purification rite. They were following the Jewish law. Seven days after birth, Jesus circumcised and thirty-three days after circumcision, Mary and Jesus were back here in the temple for the purification ceremony and the presentation of their child to the Lord for his service.
But here is where this moment is anything but ordinary. That baby, after all, is the Son of God, the one whose words breathed out creation, sculpted Adam and Even from the dust of the ground and breathed into his own parents the breath of life was publicly identifying with his people, Israel, by submitting to the circumcision. Jesus, perfectly submitting to the law that only he could perfectly fulfill, the spotless One identifying with the impure so that Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and all true believers might one day become pure.
Mary and Joseph carried with them two turtledoves as part of the sacrifice offering. There is, of course, deep irony here. Though they carried in their arms, the Lamb of God, they were too poor to purchase a lamb and instead, had to settle for the lesser turtledoves. It reminds us of the kind of people among whom God chose to dwell. The kingdom of Christ breaks in, not in the palaces or private estates of the powerful, but among the common, the meek, the kind of people who had to dig for enough shekels to afford turtledoves. And the baby held so tightly in their arms would one day become the perfect sacrifice for sins that these slain animals symbolized, the Lamb of God slain for the sins of the world.
Nobody in the temple that day was looking for a Christ child. Nobody was seeking a Savior. Nobody expected, on this of all days, a moment that would be written down later in ink by a doctor and preserved as Scripture for us to read today. There was a heaviness in Jerusalem that day and most days. It had been centuries since God spoke directly to his people. And every time Jewish people trudged past their temple, they had seen the Roman flag, flying high above their land, a recurring symbol of their lost glory.
Would-be messiahs had come and gone. Now they were ruled by men like Herod, whose corrupt ascension to power and ruthless leadership further disillusioned ordinary Jews. None of them thought the solution for the corruption in Rome and the malfeasance in Herod’s palace and the sin in their own hearts was resting, not a few feet away, in a carpenter’s arms.
Even the religious elites in this temple, who pored over the ancient books and prided themselves on knowing every last arcane point of theology, were oblivious to Jesus.
But among the crowds that day, not among the waiting parents, not among the religious leaders, was a mysterious old man. Unlike the cynics, unlike the religious leaders, Simeon held onto a seemingly impossible wish grounded in a radical faith in the Scripture’s promise of a coming Messiah. Would God appear in the flesh in their day?
He studied the Scriptures and the prophecies. But more than that, he listened to the voice of God’s Spirit.
Who is Simeon?
So who is this Simeon character who just kind of appears, from the shadows, into the gospel story? What’s interesting is that, 2,000 years later, we still don’t really know who he was. Luke, who wrote his eyewitness account with painstaking detail thought only one thing mattered in Simeon’s bio: “faithful, devout Jew waiting for the consolation of Israel.”
Simeon believed the promise of a coming servant-king, the son of David, threaded throughout the law and the prophets. He may not have understood everything he read, but he knew enough to believe. Simeon knew enough to listen to the Holy Spirit’s whisper and was more in tune with God than the scholars who were paid to study and the scribes who were paid to teach.
Imagine the scene in the temple that day. An old man, stooped and graying, coming every day to the temple, expecting the Messiah. The religious people probably think he’s an eccentric. They make jokes behind his back. There’s Simeon. He thinks the Lord is coming today.
Every day he scans the crowd. Every day he asks the Lord, “Is this baby the one?” and every day the Lord says, “No, Simeon, this is not the one.”
And then finally one day the Spirit of God whispers those words: This is the day. This is the one. You will meet the Son of God.
Perhaps he’s reminded of the way Israel’s last great king was chosen. A similarly aging man of faith approached Jesse’s lineup of young men, asking the Lord, Is this the next king? And the Spirit answers Samuel, each time, No, this isn’t the one. Until finally, David, the unlikely shepherd boy, summoned from the shepherds’ fields, enters.
Yes, this is the next king of Israel.
Imagine how Simeon’s aging heart leaped within him. “Can I hold your child”, he asks. And in his arms, Simeon carries the frail, newborn baby whose arms would one day carry Simeon from sin to salvation. He looks into the eyes of his tiny Savior, the same Jesus who holds up the universe with his power.
What wells up in Simeon’s heart were words he had been preparing to share his entire life. A prayer that has been memorized, sung and framed from caves to cathedrals throughout church history:
“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.” (Luke 2:29–32 ESV)
I can die because I’ve seen your salvation. This, for Simeon, was no ordinary baby. He would not only be Simeon’s salvation, but the salvation of the world, people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. This is the one of whom God spoke to Abraham, when he promised that the patriarch’s heir would bless the nations. This is the one of whom God spoke to David when he promised the monarch an everlasting kingdom. This is the one of whom the prophets spoke, a lion of the tribe of Judah, a suffering servant, a conquering king.
Simeon had met Jesus, and Simeon was ready to die.
Death, of course, is a strange subject for Christmas. It doesn’t make for cozy Hallmark specials and singing Christmas trees. But Simeon knew he could face death—something every one of us will face one day—because he met the one who would conquer death.
There is so much for us to learn from Simeon’s life. His perseverance, his attentive listening to God in a noisy, cynical age, his worship of the baby Jesus. But what is most important about Simeon—and you—was his relationship with Jesus. Simeon could die, not because he checked off the right religious boxes or performed all the outward rituals of the Jewish faith, but because he put his faith in the God-man.
You, like Simeon, can be unafraid of death because you can know and understand that this baby is the triumphant, conquering Jesus whose own death and resurrection defeated the sin, death and the grave.
Don’t misunderstand: Simeon wasn’t seeking death. And neither should we. But there is a sweet assurance in knowing that if and when our time comes, whether tomorrow or in forty years, we can face death with peace because we know the Prince of peace.
In my experience as a pastor, the people who were most full of life, who walked through every day with joy and verve were those who were most at peace with their own mortality, who understood that this little baby in the manger we celebrate at Christmas defeated the grave. This is why Paul could say, of his own contentment, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” Either way, he has peace and Christ is glorified.
This is the central message of Christmas. No doubt, today as you read this, you are enveloped in the charm and the coziness of another December. But as much as we enjoy the season, let us not remember that we set aside time, as believers, not merely to gather with family or to sip warm beverages, but to acknowledge the central truth of Christianity: Jesus has come to save us from our sins.
This Jesus, Simeon knew, wasn’t just an ordinary baby. He may not have understood exactly how it would all play out, nor did he fully grasp the mystery of God becoming human (neither do we). But Simeon knew enough to know that Jesus would not only be the long-awaited Messiah every Jewish person longed to see; he would be “a light for the Gentiles.” This is repeated, often, in the gospel narratives of Jesus’ birth. In Mary’s song. In Zachariahs’ praise. In the words of the angel to Joseph.
Jesus is and was a Savior for the entire world. It’s important for us to understand this truth. Sometimes we are tempted to think Jesus came only to save people that look like us, but we are told, from the promise to Abraham in Genesis through the words of the prophets and on into the gospel narratives and on through the letters of Paul and into John’s vision in Revelation that the kingdom of God is made up of people from every nation, tribe and tongue.
And let’s not forget the great cost of our salvation. This day in the temple was a day of celebration and dedication, but Simeon’s words were not all pleasant for Mary to hear, especially his proclamation that “a sword would pierce” her soul. This is not what new mothers exactly want to hear about their motherhood, but Simeon knew that the promise contained both joy and pain, blessing and anguish. The baby whom Simeon held, who cooed and kicked and delighted his young parents would one day endure the unjust trial, motivated by blood thirsty crowds. The very people he formed as Creator would laugh at his cries of pain. The world he came to save would send him to his death. Most of all, the Father with whom he communed in all of eternity would see his son, not as the pure and spotless lamb, but as the embodiment of all the sin and anguish of a rebellious human race.
This sword was Mary’s unique calling. One day she would kneel at the foot of an ugly Roman instrument of execution: a cross. One day she would weep, with the others, as he lay dead in a borrowed tomb. One day she would question and fear and doubt the angel’s promise.
Simeon’s word to Mary was rooted in the prophet’s vision of a coming king who would both suffer and conquer, who would reign over his enemies and yet be pierced for the transgressions of his people. This is why Christmas is both wonderful and yet violent, far from the saccharine holiday we often celebrate. The kingdom of God was to first come through the violent death of the Son of God.
But Mary, like all of those who believe, could find hope that the baby she held would not only pay for the sins of those who nailed him to the cross, but would defeat death in his resurrection. Her son would endure all of this to reconciliation between sinners–like herself, like Simeon, like you and me–and God. Jesus’ future agony would be our salvation and God’s glory.
*This excerpt is an adapted excerpt from “The Characters of Christmas: The Unlikely People Caught Up in the Story of Jesus” (Moody Publishers, 2019).