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Luke 2:22-40 Biblical Commentary:
LUKE 2. THE CONTEXT
Chapter 2 starts with the story of the birth of Jesus (vv. 1-7)—the familiar and beloved story that includes the angels and shepherds (vv. 8-20). It moves to this week’s Gospel lesson, the presentation of Jesus in the temple and return to Nazareth (vv. 22-40). It concludes with the story of Jesus’ visit to the temple at the age of twelve (vv. 41-51) and a statement about his growth (v. 52).
At the point of our text, Jesus is only a few weeks old, but he has been recognized by:
• Elizabeth, Mary’s kinswoman, whose baby, John, “leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She called out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!'” (1:41-42).
• Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, who prophesied that God “has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David ” (1:69).
• Angels and shepherds (2:8-20). The Wise Men will come later.
LUKE 2:22-24. THEY BROUGHT JESUS UP TO JERUSALEM
22When the days of their purification according to the law of Moses were fulfilled, they brought him up to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), 24and to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”
“When the days of their purification according to the law of Moses were fulfilled, they brought him up to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord” (v. 22). Purification applies only to the mother. Whether intentionally or not, Luke seems to be combining two rites here:
• One is the purification of the mother following the birth of a child (Leviticus 12:1-8). The mother is considered unclean for forty days following the birth of a son or eighty days following the birth of a daughter. During that time, she is prohibited from going to the temple or handling holy objects.
• The other is the presentation in the temple—a consecration and redemption of the firstborn (Exodus 13:1-2, 11-16) signifying that the child is “holy to the Lord” (v. 23). The redemption commemorates the deliverance of the people of Israel through the final plague—the death of the firstborn of Egypt. Henceforth, all firstborn of Israel (animals as well as humans) are to be redeemed. The price of redemption for a human baby is five shekels of silver (Numbers 18:15-16). The purpose of the ceremony is to “be for a sign on your hand, and for symbols between your eyes: for by strength of hand Yahweh brought us out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:16). However, Luke does not mention the redemption of Jesus here. He needs no redemption, because he will always belong to God (Farris, 302).
A third requirement for a baby boy is circumcision. That took place earlier, on the eighth day after Jesus’ birth (v. 21).
“according to the law of Moses” (v. 22b). Luke makes it clear that Jesus, from the very beginning, is obedient to the Law of Moses. He also confirms the devotion of Joseph and Mary to the law, mentioning the law three times in verses 22-24 and again in verses 27 and 39. Luke has already told us of Mary’s devotion (1:38, 46-55). We will soon learn that Joseph and Mary go to Jerusalem every year for Passover (2:41-42).
The law of Moses was God’s plan in the Old Testament for the salvation of the Jewish people. Jesus is God’s plan in the New Testament for the salvation of all people. It is fitting that Jesus, from the beginning of his life, has his roots firmly planted in God’s law. As he will later explain, “Don’t think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I didn’t come to destroy, but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).
“to present him to the Lord” (v. 22c). The Jewish people of Jesus’ day observed a multitude of ritual observances to mark significant passages of ordinary life. These observances served as a constant reminder of their relationship with God and encouraged them to regard all of life as sacred.
Today we often ignore such observances or handle them crudely—and we are thereby impoverished. God has planted something in our hearts that needs to find meaning amid the everyday events of life.
As the church, we need to help people to observe the passages of life (birth, coming of age, marriage, illness, death) in ways that acknowledge the Lord—and that lend those passages dignity.
As individuals, we need to make space in our lives to express thanksgiving for the blessings we have received—and to praise God for his mercies—and to ask God for guidance and forgiveness. Where possible, we need to eat together as a family, and we need to take the opportunity to express thanks for the food—and for the people around the table. We need to pray with our children, and teach them to pray. We need to make God a part of our daily lives.
There are several parallels between dedications of Jesus and Samuel, the great prophet:
• Eli told Hannah that Samuel would be born (1 Samuel 1:17), just as the angel told Mary (1:26-38).
• Hannah brought Samuel, as a very young boy, to the sanctuary to dedicate him to God’s service (1 Samuel 1:21-28).
• Eli blessed Elkanah and Hannah (1 Samuel 2:20) just as Simeon blesses Joseph and Mary (v. 34).
“as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord'” (v. 23). The law in question is Exodus 13:2, where Yahweh says, “Sanctify to me all of the firstborn, whatever opens the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of animal. It is mine” (see also Exodus 13:12, 15). This is in commemoration of the Passover, where firstborn Jewish males were spared death.
“and to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, ‘A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons'” (v. 24). The law requires a sacrifice of “a year old lamb for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtledove, for a sin offering” (Leviticus 12:6). However, there is a provision in the law for a woman who cannot afford a lamb. In that case, she is allowed to sacrifice two turtledoves or two pigeons (Leviticus 12:8).
This offering of two pigeons tells us that Joseph and Mary are poor. Jesus begins his life in concert with the poor whose cause he will champion throughout his ministry. He was born in a stable and was raised as the son of a carpenter in little Nazareth, far from Jerusalem and the temple—far from the center of wealth and power.
LUKE 2:25-32. LOOKING FOR THE CONSOLATION OF ISRAEL
25Behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, looking for (Greek: prosdechomenos—waiting for) the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27He came in the Spirit into the temple. When the parents brought in the child, Jesus, that they might do concerning him according to the custom of the law, 28then he received him into his arms, and blessed God, and said,
29“Now you are releasing your servant, Master,
according to your word, in peace;
30for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31which you have prepared before the face of all peoples;
32a light for revelation to the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
“Behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, looking for (prosdechomenos—waiting for) the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him” (v. 25). Luke emphasizes Simeon’s unusual qualifications. He is righteous and devout. He has spent a lifetime “looking for the consolation of Israel” (v. 25). The Holy Spirit rests on him, and has revealed to him that he will not die until he has seen the Messiah (vv. 25-26). The Spirit guides him to the temple, where he encounters Joseph, Mary, and Jesus (v. 27). He takes the baby in his arms and prays, “Now you are releasing your servant, Master, according to your word, in peace; for my eyes have seen your salvation” (vv. 29-30). God has fulfilled his promise, and Simeon has seen the Savior. Surely, over the years, he has prayed a thousand prayers, hoped a thousand hopes, and suffered a thousand disappointments. Finally, his dream is realized, and he can die in peace. God has rewarded his waiting.
We are a busy and impatient people. We expect instant gratification, and hate to be kept waiting. We know that “Anything worth having is worth working for.” We need also to learn that “Anything worth having is worth waiting for.” God works in a time zone where a day is as a thousand years. When our dreams don’t come true in a day, we need to keep in mind that God is still at work—still wrapping the package—still preparing the gift to fit our needs and preparing us for the gift. We need to pray, not just for the gift, but also for patience to wait for God’s unveiling.
“the Holy Spirit was on him” (v. 25). “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit” (v. 26). “He came in the Spirit” (v. 27). Just as Luke emphasizes the law in verses 22-24, he emphasizes the Spirit in verses 25-27. While the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day emphasized the law to the point that they killed the spirit, law and Spirit are hardly incompatible.
Now you are releasing your servant, Master, according to your word, in peace” (v. 29). Simeon’s First Oracle (vv. 29-32), known as the Nunc Dimittis (from the Latin words for “Now thou lettest depart,” the Latin translation of Simeon’s words, here translated “Now you are releasing”), has been used in Christian worship since the fifth century. In this First Oracle, Simeon praises God for allowing him to see “your salvation” (v. 30) and speaks traditional words of peace, salvation, and light.
“for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all peoples; a light for revelation to the nations, and the glory of your people Israel” (vv. 30-32). Then Simeon speaks less traditional words (at least for this temple where Gentiles are restricted to the outermost court), acknowledging that God has “prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (vv. 31-32a). Isaiah had earlier said that “all flesh shall see (the glory of Yahweh) together” (40:5)—and spoke of “a light for the nations” (42:6) and salvation that would reach “to the end of the earth” (49:6), but Judaism is still quite insular.
Luke will also write the book of Acts, and in that book will tell the story of the church opening its doors to Gentiles. Simeon gives us a very early clue as to the direction that salvation history will take. However, he is also careful to add that God has prepared salvation for “the glory of your people Israel” (v. 32).
“which you have prepared before the face of all peoples” (v. 31). Salvation is something that God has prepared. He intends this salvation for all peoples. Our first response might be that God is gracious to offer salvation to people who are not like us—but it should be that God is gracious enough to offer salvation to us. We are, after all, sinners—all of us (Romans 3:23). Our hope lies not in anything that we have done, but on God’s grace—mercy that we have not deserved but which Christ has made available to us.
LUKE 2:33-35. A SWORD WILL PIERCE YOUR SOUL
33Joseph and his mother were marveling at the things which were spoken concerning him, 34and Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary, his mother, “Behold, this child is set for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which is spoken against. 35Yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
“Joseph and his mother were marveling at the things which were spoken concerning him” (v. 33). Amazement is a frequent response to Jesus in this Gospel (1:63; 2:18, 47; 4:22, 36; 5:9; 7:9; 8:25; 9:43; 11:14, 38; 20:26; 24:12).
“and Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary, his mother” (v. 34a). Simeon blesses the Holy Family (v. 34), but then directs his Second Oracle (vv. 34b-35) to Mary. It is quite possible that Joseph dies before Jesus begins his ministry. If so, Joseph will not experience the events of this Second Oracle, which has an ominous tone. Simeon speaks of rising and falling—and opposition—and a sword.
The “Behold, this child is set for the falling and the rising of many in Israel” (v. 34b) could refer to the fact that some Jews will become Jesus’ disciples while others will oppose him. It could refer to families being torn apart as some choose Jesus and the rest turn against them. It could refer to the first who will become last and the last who will become first (13:30). It could refer to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
“and for a sign which is spoken against” (v. 34c). While Jesus is light (v. 32), “the inescapable fact is that anyone who turns on light creates shadows” (Craddock, Interpretation, 39). Jesus will be a friend to tax collectors and sinners, but religious authorities will oppose him and will finally succeed in killing him.
Simeon tells Mary, “a sword will pierce through your own soul” (v. 35a). There will be times during Jesus’ ministry when Jesus seems not to care about his family (8:19-21)—or when he seems to speak sharply to Mary (John 2:4), and those must be painful times for Mary. Also, Mary cannot fail to see that Jesus stirs great controversy, and must be distressed to know that it is the best rather than the worst of society that opposes him. At the cross, the sword that pierces Jesus’ side surely will not be as painful as the sword that pierces Mary’s heart. God has honored Mary by choosing her to be the mother of the Messiah, but the honor will not include an easy life. What could be more painful than a mother seeing her son executed as a common criminal?
“that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (v. 35b). Jesus will be able to perceive the unspoken questions of people’s hearts (5:22), and will scatter “the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” (1:51).
LUKE 2:36-38. THERE WAS ONE ANNA, A PROPHETESS
36There was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher (she was of a great age, having lived with a husband seven years from her virginity, 37and she had been a widow for about eighty-four years), who didn’t depart from the temple, worshipping with fastings and petitions night and day. 38Coming up at that very hour, she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of him to all those who were looking for redemption in Jerusalem.
“There was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher (she was of a great age, having lived with a husband seven years from her virginity, and she had been a widow for about eighty-four years)” (vv. 36-37a). Luke often pairs a man and a woman. Here he pairs Anna with Simeon. Other male/female pairings include (Johnson, 56):
• Zechariah and Elizabeth (1:5-24).
• Mary and Joseph (1:26-38)—although Joseph is only briefly mentioned.
• Jesus heals a centurion’s servant (7:1-10) and a widow’s son (7:11-17).
• Jesus heals the Gerasene demoniac (8:26-39) and a little girl and a woman (8:40-56).
• Jesus heals a crippled woman (13:10-17) and a man with dropsy (14:1-6).
• Jesus tells of a shepherd who has lost a sheep (15:1-7) and a woman who has lost a coin (15:8-10).
• Jesus tells of a widow and an unjust judge (18:1-8).
• Jesus denounces the scribes (13:45-47), and praises a widow’s offering (14:1-4).
• Simon of Cyrene carries Jesus’ cross (23:26) and women beat their breasts and wail for Jesus (23:27).
• At the cross a centurion who sees Jesus’ death praises God and proclaims Jesus’ innocence (23:47). Women stand at a distance, “watching these things” (23:49).
• Joseph of Arimathea buries Jesus (23:50-54) and women attend to the body (23:55-56).
• Women discover the empty tomb (24:1-12) and Jesus encounters two men on the road to Emmaus (24:13-35).
These pairings reflect Luke’s uncommon regard for women in that patriarchal society.
“who didn’t depart from the temple, worshiping with fastings and petitions night and day” (v. 37b). Like Simeon, Anna is devout, old, and a prophet. Like Simeon, she recognizes this child as the messiah (Tannehill, 70).
• Simeon is in the temple because the Spirit guided him there.
• Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are there to fulfill the requirements of the law.
• Anna is always there. She “didn’t depart from the temple, worshiping with fastings and petitions night and day” (v. 37). She would have to do so in the Court of Women, one of the outer precincts of the temple, because the inner precincts are reserved for men. In this instance, “never left the temple” does not necessarily mean that she slept there, but only that she was constant in her worship at the temple.
Both Simeon and Anna have lived faith-filled, expectant lives. Simeon lived his life “looking forward to the consolation of Israel” (v. 25). Anna worshiped in the temple day and night. Barclay notes of her that “She was old and she had never ceased to hope…. never ceased to worship…. never ceased to pray” (Barclay, 23)—not a bad model for emulation!
“Coming up at that very hour, she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of him to all those who were looking for redemption in Jerusalem” (v. 38). Anna bears testimony about Jesus to the faithful people who were gathered in that place.
Earlier, Luke mentioned that Simeon was “looking for the consolation of Israel” (v. 25). Now he speaks of people who “were looking for redemption in Jerusalem” (v. 38). The parallel wording suggests that these two phrases are roughly synonymous. What these people expected is not clear from this brief phrase. Most probably thought of the redemption of Jerusalem in terms of freedom from Roman rule, but some would have had a grander vision—a vision of spiritual renewal.
LUKE 2:39-40. THEY RETURNED TO THEIR OWN CITY, NAZARETH
39When they had accomplished all things that were according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. 40The child was growing, and was becoming strong in spirit, being filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.
In closing his account of this passage, Luke establishes that Mary and Joseph “accomplished all things that were according to the law of the Lord” (v. 39)—another sign of their faithfulness to the law.
They returned to Nazareth where “The child was growing, and was becoming strong in spirit, being filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him” (v. 40). In a parallel verse, Luke said of John the Baptist only that “he was growing and becoming strong in spirit” (1:80). The stronger statement about Jesus is part of a pattern in all the Gospels—affirming John’s greatness, but establishing that Jesus is greater.
We also find interesting parallels to v. 40 in the following verses:
• “The child Samuel grew on, and increased in favor both with Yahweh, and also with men” (1 Samuel 2:26)
• “Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians. He was mighty in his words and works” (Acts 7:22)
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Arthur, John W. and Nestingen, James A., Lectionary Bible Studies: The Year of Mark Advent/Christmas/Epiphany, Study Book (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1975)
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible, The Gospel of Luke (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1953)
Bartlett, David L., New Year B, 1999-2000 Proclamation: Advent Through Holy Week (Minneapolis: Fortress, Press, 1999)
Brown, Raymond, “The Annunciation to Mary, the Visitation, and the Magnificat (Luke 1:26-56),” Worship(May 1988)
Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Craddock, Fred B., “Luke,” Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press,(1990)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Culpepper, R. Alan, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX. (Nashville: Abingdon , 1995)
Farris, Stephen, in Van Horn, Roger E., The Lectionary Commentary, The Third Readings: The Gospels(Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2001).
Gilmour, S. MacLean and Buttrick, George A., The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1952)
Johnson, Luke Timothy, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991)
Nickle, Keith F., Preaching the Gospel of Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000)
Ringe, Sharon H., Westminster Bible Companion, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)
Tannehill, Robert C., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996)
Thayer, Joseph Henry, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (NY: American Book Company, 1889)
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