The Presentation of Jesus
We now come to the first Sunday after Christmas. This Sunday often sees a lull in attendance as people rest after all their Christmas preparations and celebrations. Christmas is but the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life. All the life of Jesus on earth is important for us to study. This morning, we will learn about two special people who got to see the baby Jesus. There is not much written about the early life of Jesus. Matthew records the Magi and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt and their return to Nazareth. Mark and John start with the ministry of John the Baptist when Jesus was around 30 years of age. Of all the gospels, only Luke records several events from the early life of Jesus.
The presentation of Jesus on the 40th day is usually celebrated in early February, 40 days from the date we celebrate as Christmas. (We do not really know on what calendar date Jesus was actually born, however.) This is known as Candelmas in some Christian traditions. So it seems odd that the lectionary selection for this Sunday seems out of place. Be that as it may, let us now take a closer look at the passage.
It is interesting that Luke 2:21 has been out of the selection. The text for Christmas ends with verse 20, and the text today begins with verse 22. This verse tells us that Jesus Christ was circumcised on the eighth day according to the Law of Moses. It was necessary that Jesus fulfill every aspect of the Law. But this is the only verse in the Bible which actually refers that Jesus was circumcised. What makes this more interesting is that Luke is traditionally thought to have been written to the Gentiles who were uncircumcised. As Luke was a companion to Paul who fought against the circumcision of the Gentiles, it seems odd that the circumcision of Jesus is mentioned in Luke and not at all in Matthew who is traditionally thought as being written to Jewish-Christians. Instead, Matthew records the visit of the Gentile Magi. Luke records the circumcision and presentation of Jesus on the 40th day according to the Law of Moses. We should really take some time to ponder this. What was the purpose of the Holy Spirit who is the author of Scripture in reversing expectations? Could it be that our expectations are wrong? Maybe Matthew wasn’t written to “Jewish” Christians at all but to the New Israel, the Church. Perhaps the presentation of Jesus being recorded in Luke was written to remind Gentiles that the Gospel they had been given to the Jew first and then to them. This would serve to keep the Gentiles from boasting of their receiving the word of salvation at the expense of the Jews. This is especially relevant when one considers the large number of Jews who had rejected the Gospel.
Mary and Joseph were Jews. As Jews, they were required not only to circumcise Jesus on the 8th day but also to present Him before the LORD on the 40th day when Mary’s days of purification were completed. As this presentation was to be done in the Temple, it involved a days hike from Bethlehem where they were staying. This also shows that the Magi did not come until later as the family had to flee to Egypt because of Herod. Jesus, being the firstborn son placed additional requirements on the family. When one goes back to the Torah, Exodus 13:2 states that all firstborn of man and beast were holy to the LORD. Numbers 3 records that the tribe of Levi was to take the place of all the firstborn of Israel and were dedicated to the service of the Tabernacle and altar. There were a few more firstborn in Israel at that time than Levites, so a monetary redemption of five shekels of silver was required of the surplus. Added to this was the requirements of Mary’s purification demanded that either a lamb be presented, or if the family was impoverished, two turtledoves according to Leviticus 11. So the King of the Jews, the Son of David, was indeed a king who knew earthly poverty.
The text goes on to introduce a man named Simeon. He takes the baby Jesus into His arms and blesses and prophesies over Him. We cannot know anything about Simeon for sure. Tradition says that he was the son of the famous Rabbi Hillel and the father of the equally famous Gamaliel who was the tutor of Paul. However, there is very little if any evidence to support the tradition. There is a possibility that he was a priest as he took up Jesus in his arms. This is a greater possibility, but we are not sure. He probably was elderly and had been waiting on the Messiah for a long time. What we do know is that he was a devout man who was waiting on the consolation of Israel. We also know that he had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the LORD’s Christ. This shows us that even though the Word of God to the nation had been silent for 400 years, since the days of Malachi, that the LORD still spoke to certain individuals in Israel. The Words of Yahweh had recently returned to the Israeli public in the words of Zachariah at the birth of John the Baptist. But it also seems that the LORD had made this promise to Simeon many years earlier. How long did Simeon yearn for this day?
Then one day, it happened. The Holy Spirit called Simeon to go to the Temple. There must have been dozens of children dedicated there that day from all walks of life. Those from richer families brought lambs. The priests would tend to gravitate to the richer families as they brought the greater income to them. Also, there was prestige in dedicating the children of influential parents. This goes on in the church with baptizing children as well. Only some one led by the Holy Spirit would seek out the child of a peasant family. What potential did a child have coming from such a background? If only they had eyes to see.
The Spirit led Simeon to the right place. He then told the LORD that He was good to die. The LORD had fulfilled His promise. Simeon had seen the LORD’s Christ. Here is a man who lived His whole life that he might see Jesus. All other things in his life were secondary. How wonderful it would be if we armed ourselves with the same zeal! It would be well if we “let goods and kindred go, our mortal lives also” that we might just hear the words: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” But unlike Simeon whose goal in this life was met and that he had nothing else in this life to live for, we don’t ask the LORD to dismiss us but to admit us into eternal life and the joy of the LORD. And we can rest knowing that Simeon will be there also. This is eternal peace.
Simeon lived long enough to see the baby Jesus who would later purchase our salvation on the cross. Then Simeon says something interesting. He says this Savior was presented before the face of all people, not just the Jewish nation. He was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah that the LORD would bring his light to the nations (Gentiles). Then He mentions it was also to be the glory of His people Israel. Who is Israel? Certainly, Simeon was one of them as he believed the promise of the Scripture concerning the Christ. All the Jewish believers in Christ are Israel. It would be through these believers that the promise of salvation would go to the ends of the earth. God would be glorified in them, and they would share in this glory. But when the Gentiles believed, they became Israelites on an equal basis. When we believed, we became Israelites too. And when we go out to the world with the message of salvation, we can glory with God in the increase. This is what this normal looking but poor child would grow up to make possible.
Joseph and Mary were pleased with the blessing. What comes next brings them back to reality. This child was going to be a disruptor in Israel. Many would believe in Him and rise, for sure. But many would reject Him and fall as well. Jesus would not be “good news” to everyone. It is indeed “good news” to those that believe. But for those who reject Him, there could not be any worse news. The gospel is a two-edged sword, and we are compelled to believe and live or reject Him unto eternal punishment. We often candy-coat the Gospel. We do not warn about hellfire and brimstone. Our preaching cannot be all blessing. We need to inform the world that unbelief has consequences as well. This is realistic preaching.
There is also a promise that Mary would personally suffer as a result of Jesus’ ministry. She would be stabbed in her soul as a result of His ministry. She would see the unbelief of the children she would bear later who thought Him insane. She would see betrayal as hearts and intentions were revealed. Finally, she would see Jesus on the cross in His final agony. The pain she would feel would be even greater than the labor pains she suffered having Jesus. That was terrible pain of the body. But to be emotionally stabbed cuts far deeper, to life itself. These words would have to be troubling to her as it is also to us. We will also go through times like this as disciples of Jesus.
There was another special person who was led to Jesus, a prophetess named Anna. Anna is short for Hannah, who was the mother of Samuel. Her song of joy over the birth of Samuel is much like the song Mary sang to Elizabeth in what is known as the Magnificat. (My soul magnifies the LORD.) The fact she was called a “prophetess” indicates that not all prophets were men. We must not that exceptional women were included in what was normally considered male ministerial roles. This means that we should not shut the door on female ministers. If they are truly called of God, they should be included. The other thing about Anna was that she was very old. She either was 84 years old, or she had been a widow for 84 years which would have made her a hundred years old or so. Either way, she had been a widow for a very long time. She probably had no means of support by either her husband’s family or her own family. Neither did she have children. Only widows without means of support were enrolled at the Temple. They were given tasks to do in return for their upkeep. Anna appears to have been spiritually gifted. She was a woman of prayer who fasted often as well. The gift of prophecy was given her by God as her special task.
Some traditions hold that Anna was actually the mother of Mary for which there is no evidence. Nothing of this was known until hundreds of years later. The same tradition said that her daughter Mary was specially raised in the Temple and groomed to be the mother of Jesus. Again, the evidence is that the Virgin Mary was a poor young woman from Nazareth, as ordinary looking and poor as her son Jesus. Indeed, all generations will always call Mary blessed, seeing that she was graced to be the mother of Jesus, the Son of God. Anna was just as ordinary and humble as Mary. Yet it was to her and not some potentate in the Temple that got to see Jesus that day. It was the ordinary Simeon and the ordinary Anna who would prophesy that day about Jesus and not the High Priest, notable Pharisee, or scribe.
We learn from this that our task is not to be great in this world but to be ordinary people whom the Holy Spirit uses to do great things. Few privileged and rich people get to do such great things for Jesus Christ. It isn’t necessarily the well learned who are called. Yes, there is the Apostle Paul, but most of Jesus’ Apostles were common Galilean fishermen who were called “ignorant idiots” by the keepers of the Temple. But these had spent three years learning at the feet of Jesus Himself, the great Rabbi. Even the learned Paul had to be taken aside for three years in the Arabian desert to learn of Jesus.
Let us not be discouraged by those who put us down. We have been given the privilege to see the LORD’s Christ. We have been given the true wealth and true wisdom. We have been given a sure hope and eternal life in Jesus Christ. Let the world continue to live in its illusion. We have reality.