This scene completes the account of Jesus’s infancy. His circumcision and naming echo those of John in 1:59–63, but, as with the account of his birth, the subsequent incidents are unique, and they lift the reader’s expectations and theological understanding to a higher level. This scene provides the setting for the third of Luke’s canticles in chapters 1–2, Simeon’s song of praise, the Nunc Dimittis. This song, with its explicit recognition that Jesus is to be the Savior of the world, not just of the Jews, brings into the open a theme that so far has been only hinted at.
According to Jewish law, forty days after giving birth a woman was required to offer a sacrifice for purification at the temple in Jerusalem. Mary brought two doves. This fragment from some type of stone vessel dated to the first century AD has simple line drawings of two dead doves and the Hebrew word for “offering” on its surface.
Historical and Cultural Background
Two different Jewish ceremonies are recorded in this section. The first, circumcision when the child was a week old (Gen. 17:12; Lev. 12:3), is linked here, as in 1:59, with the naming of the child, a link that is otherwise unattested for this period. The circumcision took place at home, but the second ceremony, when the child was forty days old, took place in the temple in Jerusalem (only about five miles from Bethlehem). Here Luke’s wording does not closely correspond to contemporary records, but he apparently combines two elements—the purification of the mother after the “uncleanness” of childbirth (Lev. 12:1–8) and the “redeeming” of a firstborn son (Num. 18:15–16)—since after the exodus every firstborn male belonged to God (Exod. 13:2).
The purification offering of “a pair of doves” is permitted in Leviticus 12:8 in a case where the family cannot afford a lamb, and this provides an interesting insight into the economic circumstances of Jesus’s birth.
In this section, as in the Magnificat, Luke’s account has several echoes of the story of the presentation of Samuel in the sanctuary at Shiloh (1 Sam. 1–2).
The Nunc Dimittis, like the earlier canticles, is full of Old Testament echoes, principally from the oracles of hope in Isaiah 40–55.
Key Themes of Luke 2:21–40
■ Jesus’s parents fulfill the customary rituals after his birth.
■ A routine family occasion is transformed by the prophetic utterances of Simeon and Anna.
■ The salvation that Jesus brings is not just for the Jews, but for the whole world.
■ Jesus’s ministry will bring division and suffering as well as salvation and joy.
2:21 he was named Jesus. For the commonness and the possible significance of the name, see above on 1:31. The words “Savior” (2:11) and “salvation” (2:30) show that Luke was aware of this meaning. But Luke’s concern here is primarily to inform us that, as in the case of John (1:59–63), the angel’s instructions were faithfully carried out.
2:22 to present him to the Lord. Luke does not mention the redemptive payment required in Numbers 18:16, and it has been suggested that he intends us to think that Jesus, like Samuel (1 Sam. 1:28), was actually dedicated to God’s service rather than “redeemed” for normal life. But although Jesus was welcomed into the temple by Simeon, he, unlike Samuel (e.g., 1 Sam. 2:11, 18), did not remain in service there; so probably Luke simply leaves the regular payment to be assumed.
2:25 Simeon. Luke tells us little about him, though the fact that he “blessed” the family may suggest that he was a priest, and most readers assume from the opening of his song that he was an old man. His status is not what matters, but rather his spirituality and his God-given insight.
waiting for the consolation of Israel. On “consolation” as a term for Israel’s hope, compare Isaiah 40:1, and note also Luke’s comment about people “looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38). Simeon and Anna are portrayed as loyal, patriotic Jews who know from the Scriptures that God has promised a better future for his people. In view of this further evidence of the firmly Jewish setting of these infancy stories, it is the more remarkable that this same Simeon will also celebrate the Messiah’s international mission (2:31–32).
the Holy Spirit was on him. By mentioning the Spirit three times in 2:25–27, Luke makes it clear that Simeon’s words derive from more than natural insight. The personal revelation that he had received concerning the coming of the Messiah in his lifetime suggests that he, like Anna (2:36), should be understood as a prophet.
2:27 he went into the temple courts. Luke indicates that Simeon encountered Jesus not by happenstance of being on duty at the time Jesus’s family arrived, but by special divine arrangement to ensure that he would “see the Lord’s Messiah.” This is what prompts his outburst of praise at God’s fulfillment of his promise. The meeting must have been in either the court of the Gentiles or the court of women, since Mary would not have been allowed into the inner courts.
2:30 my eyes have seen your salvation. Simeon echoes the Old Testament hope of “seeing” God’s salvation (Isa. 52:10; cf. Ps. 98:2), but now it is not in the future but rather in the present. The fact that God’s salvation is “seen” in a six-week-old baby born to parents who cannot even afford the regular sacrifice underlines the note of glorious paradox that runs through these first two chapters.
2:31–32 in the sight of all nations … revelation to the Gentiles. The inclusion of all nations in God’s purpose of blessing for Israel was declared as early as the call of Abraham (Gen. 12:3). Here there is a clear echo especially of the role of God’s “servant” in Isaiah 49:6 (cf. 42:6), who, in addition to restoring Israel, will be “a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” Luke’s two-volume work will show how this prophetic vision began to be realized, in fulfillment of the apostolic commission in Acts 1:8.
2:34 a sign that will be spoken against. Simeon’s additional words addressed to Mary provide a sobering counterpoint to the exultation of the Nunc Dimittis. Jesus’s ministry will be uncomfortable and divisive. As he provokes opposition, people will be obliged to take sides (“the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” [2:35]), and there will be those who fall as well as those who rise. This dark side of the coming of salvation will be underlined by Jesus’s own words in 12:49–53.
2:35 a sword will pierce your own soul. Luke will not specifically mention Mary’s presence at the cross (for this, see John 19:25–27), but in Acts 1:14 she is with the apostles after Jesus’s resurrection, so that we may properly take Simeon’s words as looking forward especially to her experience of bereavement. Less serious instances of the pain of being the mother of the Messiah will appear in 2:48; 8:19–21.
2:36 Anna. Luke likes to place a male character and a female character side by side. Here the presence of Anna ensures the validity of the testimony of two witnesses (see Deut. 19:15) to the coming of the Messiah. Although Luke will record no actual words of this woman, he accords her a surprisingly full and formal personal description compared with Simeon. If, as the Greek more naturally says, she had been a widow for eighty-four years (cf. NIV footnote), she must be over a hundred years old, though it is also possible to read “eighty-four” as her total age. Clearly, she was a familiar and respected figure to those who visited the temple, and her words would carry weight. Simeon’s words may have been in private, but Anna spoke publicly.
2:40 the child grew. See on 2:52; these two rather broad summaries bridge over the “forgotten years” between Jesus’s birth and his public ministry. But this first summary also serves to prepare us for our one canonical glimpse into those childhood years, in 2:41–51.
This scene in the temple plunges us into the world of traditional Jewish piety and also into an atmosphere of prophecy. It is often said that the Jews believed that prophecy had ceased with Malachi, until John the Baptist revived it. But Luke here tells a different story, and modern scholarship agrees that there were strands of prophetic activity that were widely recognized among ordinary Jews in this “intertestamental” period. Whereas Matthew’s first two chapters concentrate on demonstrating Jesus’s messianic role from Old Testament prophecy, Luke claims also the testimony of contemporary prophecy.
After the strongly Jewish focus of the salvation celebrated in the earlier canticles, the Nunc Dimittis provides a manifesto also for the Gentile mission that will be so central to Luke’s developing account of the beginnings of Christianity.
Simeon’s words, with their strikingly contrasted themes of joy (2:29–32) and foreboding (2:34–35), offer a microcosm of the paradox of the gospel, which brings both joy and pain, and in which the triumphant fulfillment of God’s loving purpose is achieved through the rejection and death of his Son.
When Simeon sees Jesus he offers both praise to God and a prophecy concerning Mary and her baby. This scene of Simeon and Anna with Jesus in the temple courts has been the subject of many beautiful works of art. Shown here is a fresco from the Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence depicting the presentation in the temple painted by Fra Angelico (ca. 1437–46).
Teaching the Text
In some churches the events narrated in 2:22–38 are celebrated at the beginning of February in the festival traditionally known as Candlemas (the candles symbolize the “light to the nations”). Coming midway between Christmas and Easter, it is a bittersweet festival, looking back to the joy and hope of the coming of the Messiah, but also looking forward to the pain of Good Friday. Simeon’s words offer an opportunity to explore this paradox, as he both celebrates the dawning of the light of God’s salvation and warns Mary of the pain that she must expect and of the division that her Son will provoke among God’s people. A gospel of Christmas alone is not a whole gospel.
The Nunc Dimittis, with its echo of Isaiah 49:6, reminds us of a recurrent theme of the Old Testament (though one probably little noticed by most Jews of the time): God’s purpose of blessing extends beyond his chosen people, Israel, to include all the nations, which will be blessed through God’s blessing of Abraham. This theme became increasingly prominent in Jesus’s attitude toward non-Jews, and it would become a defining feature of the Jesus movement over against continuing Israel, leading eventually to the universal scope of the Christian church. Since most of our congregations consist of Gentiles, here is an opportunity to reflect on God’s grace, which has brought the light of the gospel to us as well, and on the church’s continuing task to bring that light to people outside our own “comfort zone.”
R. T. France