“Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace …” (Luke 2:28, 29). In this beautiful scene, the aged Simeon takes the Baby Jesus up in his arms and expresses his delight and joy to God in a brief prayer. We often picture Jesus taking little children in his arms, and we sing, “I would like to have been with him then …,” but this thought of another receiving Jesus into his arms is much less familiar to us.

The event occurred when Joseph and Mary brought the Child to the Temple to present him to the Lord, according to the law of Moses. The holy family had made its little pilgrimage from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, a distance of about five miles, to accomplish what was called the purification of Mary. This required the presentation of a lamb, or for those who were poor, of two pigeons. In addition, a gift of five shekels to the Temple was required as an acknowledgment of God’s claim over the firstborn male of the household; the child was thus redeemed from sacred duties to enter the secular life.

Out of their poverty, Joseph and Mary presented a pair of turtledoves and the price of redemption. No doubt they related to the officiating priest some of the things that had happened in connection with the birth of the Child, and Simeon, an old man who was awaiting the advent of the Messiah, overheard them. He then took the six-weeks-old baby in his arms. The picture presents the contrast of age and of youth, of one nearing the end of the journey of life and one at the beginning. The whole of the strange thing called life lies between the extremes in that picture. When that Child came into the world, he brought nothing but a soul. When that old man went out of the world he took nothing but a soul. How did he meet the test of life?

Reading this narrative, we sense that it was perfectly proper for this old man to take the Baby Jesus in his arms because of what he was and who he was. Simeon was described as “devout and just” and was a part of the remnant of God’s people. For these people, whether in Jerusalem or in other cities of the Holy Land, the sacrificial system of the Old Testament and the spiritual teachings of the prophets were adequate preparation for the coming of Christ. In these Old Testament types and experiences, they saw Christ. The redemptive offerings, the Day of Atonement, the Passover, all spoke to them of the coming Christ. The doctors of the Law may have been dead spiritually, but these remnant people, who saw the reality contained in the Law and the Prophets, were alive to what God was doing. Their hearts were right with God. They were devout in their worship and righteous in their dealings with their fellow men.

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When Scripture uses blameless or just to describe a man like Zacharias or Simeon, the word means more than just conformity to the Law, to all the commandments and ordinances; it implies the spiritual perception of the purpose of God in the Law and the Prophets.

Simeon believed in the imminence of the Messianic age. “He waited for the consolation of Israel,” the Messiah, the Lord’s Christ. Simeon had long searched the Scriptures and prayed and waited for the coming of the Messiah in fulfillment of prophecy. As a crowning reward of his life, God showed him that he should not die until the Christ came.

To look for the Messianic Age is a consolation to all believers in every critical time. That hope motivated the righteous in Simeon’s day to hold on to the things of God despite the terrible events happening round about them. The violations of the Law of God, the iniquity, immorality, and injustice of their day, only deepened their desire for the fulfillment of prophecies concerning the advent of the Messiah. The flame of hope must have been fanned by the report spread abroad by the shepherds of the events at Bethlehem just forty days before.

A similar hope is beating in many hearts today, even while the darkness deepens in political, educational, moral, and spiritual things. A remnant of God’s people are looking for another prophetic fulfillment—the advent of the Messiah in glory, attended by his angels, to establish justice and peace on earth. As in Simeon’s day, the message needed is, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.”

“The Holy Ghost was upon Simeon.” This describes a special experience of anointing known to a noble company of God’s people in all ages. The Spirit rested upon Moses, and his face shone like that of an angel. The Spirit rested upon Samson, and he did marvelous exploits. The Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost, and they enjoyed power. For the Holy Spirit to rest upon a man is the highest experience God has for him.

The Spirit gave Simeon divine revelation—“it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” The word translated “revealed” is actually “a divine response.” In the active tense the word means “to transact business,” “to make an answer to those who seek advice.” The use of the word in the passive bespeaks revelation made by God in response to the seeking of man. It shows that Simeon had received a gracious dealing from God in response to his own searching for divine guidance. Under the impulse of the Spirit, he had come to the Temple and was performing his devotions when Jesus arrived. When he heard the account given by Mary and Joseph to the priest, he interrupted the process of dedication by taking the Child in his arms and making a great spiritual prophecy under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

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Simeon declared, “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” The Child is here equated with God’s salvation. The neuter gender is used for the word salvation. Thus, Simeon was speaking not of the Saviour but of the apparatus fitted to bring salvation. This apparatus was prepared by God for the salvation of all people. A little Child who was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of a virgin was to be the means of the deliverance of God’s people. That Child, by the combining in him of a divine nature and a human nature through a virgin birth, was the prepared apparatus to work out salvation for the world.

Simeon described the Child as “a light to lighten the Gentiles.” The “Gentiles” refers to the nations other than Israel. The Child was to be the shining light that would dawn in human hearts over the whole of the earth. That light was symbolized by the Star of Bethlehem, which shone in the dark night when the Prince of Life came into a world torn by avarice, hatred, and war. The darkness of nineteen centuries has not been able to overcome that light, nor can the darkness of evil forces today extinguish the light of hope, faith, and love kindled by the coming of Jesus Christ.

Simeon declared the Child to be “the glory of thy people Israel.” That an Israelite should first mention Christ as the means of enlightening the heathen and then emphasize the glory of Israel was an unusual order in pre-Christian times and thinking. Simeon must have understood that Israel’s conversion would be realized only after the enlightenment of the heathen and the calling out of the Church. He saw that the fall of Israel would be the riches of the Gentiles and that Israel’s restoration will be comparable to a resurrection from the dead for the whole of humanity.

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As Joseph and Mary marveled at the things spoken of their Child by Simeon, they were blessed by him, and heard God’s purpose for the Child. Simeon addressed Mary with the words, “This child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel.” This was an application of the prophecy of Isaiah that the Christ was to be a rock of offense, causing the fall of many in Israel (Isa. 8:14).

Two kinds of persons were involved; first there were those who would apprehend Christ as the Rock and find in him a spiritual sanctuary; second, those who would reject him and find him a stumbling stone and a rock of offense (cf. Acts 4:11; 1 Pet. 2:7, 8). The very order of Simeon’s prophecy foretold that Israel would believe in this Child.

Then Simeon announced that the Child was “for a sign which shall be spoken against … that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” This also was a quotation from Isaiah (7:14). Never has there been a sign more “spoken against” than that of the Virgin Birth and its attestation to the deity of Jesus Christ, namely, that he is God with us, or Emmanuel. It was attacked by Porphyry and Celsus and other ancients, and many unbelievers center their attacks upon it today. It is sign that reveals the attitude of human hearts. Let a man be confronted with Christ as a supernatural person, one born without a human father, brought into the world through the womb of a virgin, as the apparatus of redemption, and he will reveal his own heart’s condition by his attitude toward this supernatural Christ. He will either accept him or reject him. Christ is the touchstone of human hearts.

Simeon suggested to Mary, “A sword shall pierce through thy own soul also.” He did not leave the parents upon the mount of elevation but included a drop of bitterness through the prophecy that this helpless Baby was to be the suffering and dying Messiah. As a sword would pierce his heart, so figuratively a sword of suffering would pierce Mary’s heart. Here Simeon looked across three decades to a picture of a Man hanging on a cross, dying for the sins of his people, and suffering the penalty of the Law, thus emptying death of its sting and the Law of its curse. He also saw Mary standing by that cross, pierced in heart at the suffering of her child.

When Simeon saw the Lord’s Christ, he took him up in his arms and blessed God, saying, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.” This taking Jesus into his arms was an act of the will by Simeon. The Spirit had prepared him to meet Jesus at the correct moment and had providentially brought them together. There are critical moments in life when everything depends upon immediate submission to the impulse of the Spirit. Thus Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, to be tempted of the devil. Thus Simeon was driven under the impulse of the Spirit into the Temple, and when he was confronted with the Christ Child, it was necessary to receive him into his arms, not doubting because of the poverty, the humility, or the insignificance of this family. This was Simeon’s one opportunity to see the Lord’s Christ. When the divine illumination concerning Christ comes to us, we too must act immediately in submission and receive the Christ.

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Simeon accepted the Baby Jesus as the Christ of God. There is a remarkable identity in the Greek between this phrase and Peter’s confession, “Thou art the Christ of God.” Simeon identified this baby with the pre-existent Lord of Glory, with the Christ of prophecy, the Incarnate God, the Saviour who was to work out the deliverance of the nations. What an act of faith that was! We know far more of Jesus through the New Testament revelation than Simeon ever could have known from the Old Testament prophecy, but do we embrace him in the arms of faith as the Lord’s Christ as Simeon did? If we do, we will rejoice as did Simeon on that occasion.

The nunc dimittis of Simeon emphasizes the end of a long vigil of waiting. “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” Blessedness and peace were his portion. Simeon represented himself as a sentinel whom his master had placed in an elevated position and charged to look for the appearance of the Star. Now he sees his long-desired Star. He proclaims its rising, and he asks to be relieved from the post he has occupied so long. At the opening of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, a sentinel, set to watch for the appearing of fire that was to announce the taking of Troy, beholds at last the signal so impatiently expected, and he sings at once, both of the victory of Greece and of his own release. Thus Simeon describes himself as free, released from the heavy burden of life.

Harold John Ockenga is president of Gordon College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Wenham, Massachusetts), positions he assumed after serving as pastor of Park Street Church in Boston for over thirty years. He holds the Th.B (Westminster Seminary) and Ph.D. (University of Pittsburgh).

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