Commentary on Luke 2:21-38
The narrative begins eight days after the birth of Jesus and the visit from the shepherds.
The baby is named and circumcised — a rite that marks Jesus as Jewish, as part of the people that God has called. Circumcision is the sign of the covenant relationship that God established first with Abraham (Genesis 17) and then with his descendants, the people of Israel. Jesus is firmly located within the people with whom God has kept covenant for hundreds of years. In Luke 2:21 we also have the fulfillment of the angel’s instruction in 1:31 to name the baby “Jesus,” a name that means “God saves.”
Forty days after his birth, Jesus’ parents take him to the temple in Jerusalem. Leviticus 12:1-8 lays out the instructions for a woman who has given birth. After 40 days she is to come to the temple with a sacrifice. Those who could not afford to bring a lamb could bring two turtledoves or pigeons, as Mary and Joseph do. Mary and Joseph are faithful Jews who are careful to do everything that the Law requires.
In what is almost an aside, Luke 2:23 explains that the firstborn male is set aside as holy. The quotation from Exodus 13:2, 12 takes the reader to the Exodus story. God delivered Israel from the stubborn clutches of Pharaoh after the death of all of the Egyptian firstborn males, but God spared the Israelite firstborns whose doorposts were covered by lamb’s blood. This story is remembered in the sacrifice that Jewish parents make on behalf of their firstborn male children.
Jesus, like other firstborn males, is set apart for God as part of the special relationship that God solidified through his deliverance of Israel from slavery. However, this firstborn with the name Jesus, “God saves,” opens up a new chapter in the relationship between the God who delivers and all of God’s people — both Jews and Gentiles.
There are two characters that take center stage in the rest of the passage: Simeon and Anna. As will happen throughout Luke, both men and women are shown as significant actors in the story of God. These two are described in ways that highlight their righteous and devout living. Simeon has been given special insight by the Holy Spirit along with a promise that before he dies, he will be allowed to see the one whom God has chosen to rescue the world.
Simeon is a man under the influence of the Holy Spirit. He is described as one who the Holy Spirit rests upon, it is the Holy Spirit who gave the promise of revelation to him, and it is the Holy Spirit who brings Simeon to the temple at the right time. This continues an emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit that began in Luke 1. John the Baptist will be filled with the Holy Spirit while in the womb (1:15), Mary will conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit (1:35), Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and enabled to recognize the significance of Mary and her unborn baby (1:41), Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied (1:67).
Simeon is part of this unfolding work and direction of the Holy Spirit, a work that will be a significant part of both Luke and eventually Acts. It will be the Holy Spirit that rests on Jesus and enables his ministry (4:1-18) and who will give power for witness and growth to the church (Acts 1:8). When Simeon lifts up Jesus, he makes an amazing declaration about this six-week-old baby.
This baby is the one who will be the salvation of the whole world — not just Jews but also Gentiles. This theme has already been prominent in Luke. Mary sings to “God my Savior” (1:46). Zechariah sings of “a horn of salvation” and being “saved from our enemies” and the “knowledge of salvation” (1:69, 71, 77). Simeon now declares that Jesus is the salvation of the world — the rescuer from enemies, the source of knowledge about salvation.
But immediately after this declaration of salvation, Simeon turns to Mary and tells her that this salvation will not come easy. Jesus will be the source of rising and falling for people in Israel. This reminds us of Mary’s own song, in which she sang, “[God] has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree” (1:52). Jesus’ salvation will not be equally received. Joel Green states that “we gain sight of an ominous cloud, the first explicit manifestation of the reality that God’s purpose will not be universally supported, and the first candid portent that the narrative to follow will be a story of conflict” (149).1
Light is characterized in the Old Testament as both a source of deliverance but also as a source of judgment.2 This saying about rising and falling prepares us for incidents in the life of Jesus where secret thoughts of the heart are revealed. In Luke 5:22 Jesus will perceive the questioning of the scribes and Pharisees — their doubt about his identity and his capacity to forgive sins — and will show by a sign his capacity to forgive sin.
In this way Jesus’ presents a challenge to the leaders of Israel, a conflict that will raise up some and bring down others. This conflict will be a reality not only among the people of Israel, some of whom will oppose the ministry of Jesus, but also in the life of Mary herself who will find her heart pierced, perhaps because of the opposition faced by her son’s life and ministry.
Anna confirms the salvation message of Simeon by giving thanks to God and speaking about this child to all those who were looking for “the redemption of Jerusalem.” The metaphor of redemption is taken from the slave marked and indicates purchasing freedom. Early on, Jesus is seen as the one who will purchase redemption for his enslaved people and for the holy city of Jerusalem.
1Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).
2Ibid. See for example, Isaiah 10:16-18.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Glory of Israel,
The coming of your son, Jesus, broke open the heavens and prepared a way for all of your children to come home to you. Give us eyes to see your miraculous spirit moving in this church and in this world. Teach us to be proclaimers of your love to the nations, for the sake of the one whose name is redemption for the peoples, Jesus Christ our salvation. Amen.
The bells of Christmas ELW 298
Lord, dismiss us with your blessing ELW 545, H82 344, UMH 671, NCH 77
At the name of Jesus ELW 416, H82 435, UMH 168
Nunc dimittis Robert Scholz