It is a lovely dynamic to be involved in corporate worship, aware of and encouraged by those around you. At times in our own worship services, I like to stop singing for a few moments to take in the singing of the body around me. This helps me to be thankful for the fact that I am not alone in worship, but am surrounded by brothers and sisters who have gathered together to worship God corporately.
But I trust you have realised that the most intense worship happens usually when we become less aware of our surroundings and more aware of God. This can be a somewhat subjective experience, but the worshipper knows it when he experiences it. We suddenly become very aware that we are singing, praying, giving to and hearing from a living God. We realise with great awe that we are not hearing from a mere man, but from God Himself. It suddenly feels as though we are shut in alone with God. We sense powerfully the reality of God’s fatherhood, Christ’s elder brotherhood, and the Spirit’s assistance in our worship. Such experiences of worship are glorious.
Do you pray for such real experiences of worship? I trust that you do. As we do so, however, we need to consider three realities of life, each of which is present in our text in this study: responsibility, hope and contentment. There is no doubt much more that could be gleaned from our present text, but for our purposes these are the three takeaway concepts that I want you to look for as we proceed.
The elders of our church gather together early on Friday morning to pray. At a recent prayer time, one word loomed large for us: proximity. As a congregation, our lives are very much lives lived in proximity. As a church, we live in frequent contact with one another, and pastoral ministry is very much a ministry of proximity. As we pray and care for one another, these are very real ministries of proximity. We interact with and influence one another. There is a need for vulnerability in the local church, and for mutual beneficence as we relate to one another. Indeed, the concept of proximity is very relevant to our lives as a household of faith.
In the text before us, we can identify at least three instances of proximity, each of which gives us reason for analysis and learning. The picture before us can be divided into three scenes, each with a person or persons in proximity to the baby Jesus. First, we find Jesus with His parents (vv. 22-24). Second, we find Him with Simeon (vv. 25-35). Third, we find Him with the prophetess Anna (vv. 36-38). On a human level, Jesus, as an eight-day-old baby, was passive in these encounters, and yet nevertheless we want to consider the fact that He was dealing with those in His presence in each of these instances.
It would be entirely possible to deal with these three scenes in individual sermons, but for our purpose I want to take all three as a single unit.
Responsibility: Jesus and His Parents
The first scene painted by Luke is of Jesus’ interaction with His earthly parents: Joseph and Mary.
And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”
Jesus was now eight days old, perhaps still in Bethlehem with His parents. Since they still lived in an old covenant era, it was necessary for Joseph and Mary to have Jesus circumcised. This took place, according to the Mosaic law, on the eighth day after birth.
At the same time as His circumcision, a naming ceremony would also have taken place. Of course, the parents were not at liberty in this particular instance to name Him as they wished. They had been told by the angel in chapter 1 that they were to name Him Jesus. The name itself was not unique; there were many people named Jesus in that day. In fact, in various cultures around the world there are still people who bear the name Jesus. The name is simply a Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua.
Of course, though the name was not unique, the child was, and the name was highly symbolic. The name means “Jehovah saves,” and it was, of course, Jesus who was sent to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).
In addition to the circumcision and naming, mother and child also needed to be purified according to Old Testament law. It is incredible to think that the sinless Son of God needed to be purified, but it was nonetheless required in order for Him to fulfil all righteousness.1 Joseph and Mary seem to have been very aware of God’s Word and what was required of them.
Joseph and Mary were faithful parents. They did as they were expected to do. They did not question God’s prescriptions but humbly submitted to them. They simply obeyed God. Jesus was born under the law (Galatians 4:4-5) and it was therefore necessary for Him to perfectly obey the law. God gave His parents the grace to obey from the very beginning, and Jesus continued that obedience to the very end.
In addition to historically and theologically appreciating everything we see in this scene, we cannot walk away from a text such as this one without realising the responsibility that Christian parents have when God gives them children. We live in an age of parental neglect. This is true even in Christian churches. Parents stand before the church and ask the church to hold them accountable to biblical parenting, but their intentions and convictions quickly wane. But this text tells us something about the responsibility of parenting.
Furthermore, we should note that this text speaks to us about the responsibility of parenting in the midst of poverty. Joseph and Mary offered to God the sacrifice of poverty (pigeons or turtledoves). They could not afford a lamb for a sacrifice, but they brought what they could in obedience to the law. Jesus did not grow up with the trappings of wealth. He was brought into the world in the context of poverty, but in it all His parents fulfilled their responsibilities. I trust that Christian parents will come away from texts such as this one asking themselves all sorts of questions with regard to their own responsibilities.
As a matter of interest, you may want to take some time to consider the significance of circumcision in the old covenant, and ask whether there is any enduring significance in our own time. Our church is a Baptist church, which means (among other things) that we baptise only confessing and willing adults. Baptism, we believe, is an ordinance that follows belief. But of course there are a great many churches that practise infant baptism, and who argue that infant baptism is the new covenant equivalent to circumcision in the old covenant.2 This is a question with which we would do well to wrestle.3
Whatever can be said about the merits of infant baptism today, paedobaptists and credobaptists alike agree that Christian parents bear the weight of great responsibility. Joseph and Mary received the wonderful gift of a son, and they realised that the privilege also bore great responsibility. Christian parents both bear great responsibility themselves and seek to teach their children the need to understand and embrace responsibility.
As you read these words, then, let me ask you, how are you coping with the reality of responsibility? Life is all about bearing and fulfilling responsibility. It cannot be escaped, denied or avoided. Regardless of your status in life, you have responsibilities. Parents have responsibilities, spouses have responsibilities, children have responsibilities, and single people have responsibilities. No one can escape the concept of responsibility. We bear responsibility with regard to stewardship, completing tasks and being productive. This is a big issue, and one that can be addressed endlessly. We must all face it, and all deal with it as biblically as we know how.
We could unpack this further by dealing with the issue of responsibility and obligation. Do you battle with the concept of obligation? Like it or not, that is what life is about! And the Christian life perhaps even more so, for there are obligations that flow from grace. Because God has given us what we don’t deserve, we have added obligations. It does little good to resent obligation; that is just what life is all about.
At the same time, responsibility raises the issue of sovereignty. These two realities are parallel to one another. God is sovereign and works out His purposes according to His own good will. But He does so through means, and one major means by which God works out His sovereignty is by faithful people who fulfil their responsibilities. God is sovereign, for example, in the salvation of your children, but He works most often through the means of faithful parents. Parents must face their responsibilities with joy, trusting God to work His sovereign will in the lives of their children as they fulfil their obligations. God’s sovereignty is what gives us hope in our responsibility.
Hope: Jesus and Simeon
The second encounter in our text is that between Jesus and aged Simeon.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
“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.”
And his father and his mother marvelled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
There is an unmistakeable shift in emphasis here. Dad and mom are suddenly out of the picture, and “there was a man in Jerusalem.” Now we are presented with baby Jesus and an old man.
We know very little of this old man. He is mentioned only here in Scripture. We know that he was old and that he lived in Jerusalem. His name was Simeon, and he was “righteous and devout.” This is a wonderful description of an old believer. I wonder whether the inspired writer would use the same terminology about you and me. Simeon was expectant, and, amazingly, “the Holy Spirit was upon him.”
There is some emphasis upon the Holy Spirit in the life of Simeon. Not only was the Spirit upon him (v. 25), but the Spirit had also revealed something to him (v. 26) and later spoke through him to Mary (vv. 27-32).
Simeon had waited a long time for this very day, and it was now upon him. He had a job to do and then he would vanish from the scene. He had an inspired song of praise—the Nunc Dimittis—to bring in worship. This is the fourth of the four nativity hymns in the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel. As we consider these words, we are filled with a sense of deep hope. Simeon had lived his whole life in the hope of one day seeing Messiah with his own eyes, and now that hope was realised.
The challenge from the text to our hearts is quite simple: Do you share Simeon’s hope? Do you have hope in the face of death? Simeon knew that he could now “depart in peace.” Having realised God’s promise to him, he could face imminent death with hope. Having encountered the Lord Jesus Christ, Simeon was ready to die. Hebrews 2:15 speaks to the fear of death that is natural to all men, but it seems that Simeon was delivered from that fear by his encounter with Jesus.
Perhaps as you read these words—even as a Christian—you know of a deep sense of fear at the thought of death. You read of violent crime in the newspaper or hear of a friend or relative with cancer and you are filled with dread. You can only be delivered from that fear by an encounter with Jesus.
Simeon did not want to die simply because he was tired of living. He didn’t want to die only because going to heaven was better than living in a sin-cursed world. He was ready to die because he had done what God had asked of him and he knew that the best lay ahead. He had hope beyond the grave, and the challenge comes to us: What hope do we have?
Do we really have hope in this life and the next? It matters not whether you are young or old, you are faced with the same question. Do you have hope? Do you have a sure future to look forward to? I am not talking of a future of financial security in retirement, or of moving one day to that house on the beach. I am speaking of real hope—hope in the face of death. Do you have the kind of hope that stands in stark contrast to the cynicism and unbelief of the world? Does your hope stand in stark contrast to the fear and anger produced by the world system? Do you have hope?
As you wrestle with crime, corruption, sickness and financial uncertainty, do you have hope? If you have not hope, what do you have? Simeon’s hope was attractive. People are attracted to hope, because hope and joy, hope and anticipation, always seem to go hand in hand. But such hope is only possible—as it was for Simeon—by an encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Having expressed his hope in the face of death, Simeon addressed Mary (somewhat negatively, it seems), and reminded her that her child was a very significant child. He was not only her responsibility and blessing, but was “appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
There are two groups of people in this world, each defined by their response to Jesus Christ. Some will fall, never to rise again, while others (who have already fallen) are given power to rise by grace. There is hope for the fallen, but only as they respond appropriately to Christ.
Contentment: Jesus and Anna
The third scene we find in our text records the encounter between Jesus and Anna.
And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Anna, like Simeon, was “advanced in years.” Like Simeon, Anna is mentioned only here in Scripture, and then she disappears from the scene. Her situation is something of a heart-wrenching one. She married as a young woman, but seven years later was widowed. For many years now, she had lived as a widow, remaining at the temple night and day in worship, prayer and fasting. Was she perhaps tempted initially, as so many are at the loss of a spouse, to despair and bitterness? Was she tempted to be angry at God? We are not told, but the picture painted of her here is one of great contentment.
At this point in history, true religion in Israel was at a low ebb, but here we find a woman in the temple, fervently worshipping her God. True religion had not dwindled in her heart. While so many other young women found their contentment in marriage and childbearing, Anna found hers in worship. Hers was a life marked by godly contentment. She needed nothing more than to be in the presence of God worshipping.
As we come to this text, we have opportunity to weigh our own lives. How does your life weigh up in terms of contentment? We are surrounded on every side by discontentment. That ought not to be the case for Christians!
When we get beyond the trappings of wealth and material self-indulgence, then we will realise, as Anna did, that life is really about worshipping, praising and praying to God, and proclaiming the good news of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. We will be content knowing that, through the Saviour sent by the Father, sinners can be reconciled to God for all eternity. There is no higher contentment than knowing and believing that.
And so we have responsibility, hope and contentment. Each of these characteristics, displayed by godly men and women in our text, ought to characterise the life of a Christian, but each is sadly countercultural in the world in which we live. How do you measure up?
Do you feel like a failure? Have you evaded responsibility? Do you live life in hopelessness and discontentment? Might I suggest, then, that you need the gospel! You need an encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ. Responsibility, hope and contentment are not ends in themselves; they are simply the result of the glorious gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
You see, Jesus was a man who fulfilled every responsibility laid on Him by the Father. He was a man who lived with great hope in the face of death. He was a man of utter contentment. He merited the Father’s favour, and now He makes available that merit to everyone who puts their faith in Him. Will you trust in Christ?
Have you failed in these areas? Then run to Christ. Be delivered by the gospel. Jesus merited the Father’s favour, and then He paid the price for our sins. That price was His very lifeblood. He shed His blood for His people. If you are one of His people, then you have no reason to feel the sustaining weight of guilt. Deliverance is available. If you will come to Christ for His righteousness, you can be completely delivered from your guilt. That is the gospel!
And so I say to you: Humble yourself afresh before God, admit your failures, and ask for help. Find your joy and your hope in Christ alone. He fulfilled responsibilities that we are unable to fulfil. In Him we can find the contentment that will carry us into eternity. May that be our experience!
- You will no doubt notice that there are at least five references in our verses to the law of Moses (vv. 22, 23, 24, 27, 39). ↩
- Is it perhaps significant that only male children were circumcised under the old covenant? Is there any Scriptural basis for paedobaptists to insist that female infants be baptised, if there was no provision for female circumcision under the old covenant? ↩
- In wrestling with these questions, we would do well to remember that Jesus was both circumcised as an infant and baptised as an adult. ↩