Monday, December 17, 2012

The Nunc Dimittis: Simeon's Song of Salvation (Luke 2:21-35)

Throughout this Advent Season here at Immanuel, we’ve been exploring the wondrous songs that are recorded for us in Luke’s Gospel in the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Over the course of history, these songs have been given Latin names based on their opening words, so we’ve examined the Benedictus of Zacharias, the Magnificat of Mary, and today we come to the Nunc Dimittis, the song of Simeon. It is an appropriate song for us to examine on a day like today, in a service that consists of much music and singing, and a congregation that consists of people from many nations. Simeon’s song, more than any other of Luke’s Christmas songs, expresses the salvation that is offered through Jesus Christ to the entire world. Simeon was one of the first to recognize that Christ had not come for Israel only, but for all nations to know the salvation from sin that God offers to us all by His grace. “Simeon is the one who takes the gospel and makes it global.”[1]

Verses 21 and 22 describe two separate events. In verse 21, we read of the circumcision ceremony of Jesus, which customarily occurred on the eighth day of life. It was at this time that sons were given their names. Traditionally, a firstborn son would bear the name of his father. You might recall from the passage in Luke 1 concerning the naming of John the Baptist that there was some controversy about him not being named after his father. We must remember here that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus. Jesus had been conceived in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit while she was still a virgin. Joseph and Mary were not yet married and had not yet had physical relations. Jesus was not to be “Little Joe”; his name, like that of John, had been revealed from heaven. “Jesus” was “the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb” (v21).  His name means “Jehovah is Salvation,” and God had chosen this name and declared it through His angelic messenger, saying, “for He will save His people from their sins.”

Now in verse 22, we read of an event that took place several weeks later. After giving birth to a male child, a woman was considered ceremonially unclean for a period of forty days (Lev 12:1-4). When this time passed, she was required to bring the priest a sacrifice, and, after the sacrifice, the mother was declared ritually clean, and was permitted to enter the sanctuary again, and restored to the worshiping community.[2] The law prescribed a lamb to be brought for a burnt offering and a pigeon for a sin offering. If she was too poor to afford a lamb, she could bring two turtledoves or two pigeons. It is a demonstration of the poverty that Jesus was born into that we see in verse 24 that Joseph and Mary brought the birds because they could not afford the lamb. This also helps us to understand the timing of the events of the Nativity, for the magi from the east had obviously not visited yet to offer their gold, frankincense and myrrh. But, Joseph and Mary had not come merely to offer birds for their own cleansing. They were also presenting to the Lord a lamb, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

The offering of the birds was for Mary’s purification. But, we read in verse 22 that they also came to present the baby Jesus to the Lord, in accordance with God’s claim on all firstborn in Israel (Exodus 13:1-2; et al.). Every firstborn was to be dedicated to the service of the Lord. “Since the priestly tribe of Levi had been set apart” for the temple ministry, “the firstborn sons in other tribes could be ‘ransomed’ through the payment of a redemption price of five shekels which was to be paid to a priest.”[3] But you notice that Jesus was presented, but not redeemed with a price. There is no mention of the payment of five shekels. In a sense, they are saying, “Though He is not a Levite, He is nonetheless fully consecrated to the Lord’s service for the rest of His days.” And indeed, the Lord Jesus lived His entire human life in perfect obedience and submission to the word and will of God, His Father, to “fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15; 5:17). Thus, as we are redeemed from sin by His death on the cross, we are justified before God as His perfect righteousness is reckoned to us by faith.

Now, it is the scene that unfolds as they enter the temple on that day that captures our attention here in this passage. There in the courts of the temple we find this man named Simeon. What a remarkable man he is! He is described in four phrases. He is righteous, meaning that his faith in God has been reckoned as righteousness, just as was Abraham’s faith (Genesis 15:6), and just as we are reckoned righteous by faith in Christ. This righteousness was displayed in his devotion to God, as he is also described as devout. His entire life was lived as an offering, fully devoted to the Lord. Luke tells us that he was looking for the consolation of Israel. Times were bad in Israel, very bad indeed. They were oppressed by Rome, terrorized by their own cruel King Herod, their religion had denigrated to mere outward performance and legalistic regulations imposed by the scribes and Pharisees, and the Sadducees who held influence in the temple were very worldly-minded, and no prophet had spoken for God in the land in 400 years.[4] Yet in the midst of this era of dark despair, there were some like Simeon who had not given up faith in the promises of God to bring consolation to His people through a Redeemer. He didn’t just believe it, he was looking for it. And the Holy Spirit was upon him. In a way that few in his day experienced, Simeon had intimate communion with God through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit had revealed to him in some way that we do not know (either by dream, vision, word, or unction) that he would not die until he had seen Lord’s Christ, this Redeemer who would bring the consolation and salvation for which the world was longing. And on this particular day, Simeon had sensed the prompting of the Spirit to get to the temple, and he arrived in time to see Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to be dedicated.

And so it is for us, that the Holy Spirit will always lead us to encounter the Lord Jesus and make much of Him. That is just what Simeon did. As Mary and Joseph make their way into the temple, Simeon confronts them and takes the child in his arms and begins to sing this song of praise to the Lord. It is a song of salvation, and one that we can join him in singing when we come to behold Christ as he did.

I. We sing of salvation that has come in human flesh!

Bill and Gloria Gaither wrote a song that we often sing, called “Because He Lives,” and there’s a line that says, “How sweet to hold a newborn baby, and feel the pride and joy he gives.” You know, that’s true. Most of us love to hold babies. They are sweet and cute (when they aren’t crying at the top of their lungs). I don’t know about you, but when my kids were babies, I would just hold them and stare at them and study their faces. But Simeon knows that he is not just looking into the eyes of a baby. He is staring salvation in the face. He proclaims in song, “My eyes have seen Your salvation.” Salvation is a person, and that person is Jesus.

It is the meaning of His name and the reason why He came. “Jesus” – the name means “The Lord (YHWH, Jehovah) is salvation”; and here He was, Jehovah God in human flesh, come to save us. The prophet Isaiah said He would be called “Immanuel,” which means “God with us” (Isa 7:14). God has not sent an agent, He has come Himself to save us in the person of Jesus. Jesus is God in the flesh, and in this flesh, He would accomplish our salvation from sin. When we stare into the face of a baby, we often are captured with wonder at the potential and possibilities that lay before this child. When John the Baptist was born, the people wondered, saying, “What then will this child turn out to be?” (Lk 1:66). Time would only tell. But Simeon knew from the promises of God revealed in His Word and revealed to him directly by the Holy Spirit that this child would accomplish our redemption. Here wrapped in the flesh of this six-week old child was all of our salvation contained. These tiny hands, maybe wrapped around the old man’s finger, would touch the sick, the lepers, and the lame, and restore them. These feet would walk through the despised places proclaiming good news to the least of these. This mouth would utter the unfathomable riches of God’s truth. And then these hands and these feet would bear the nails that would fasten Him to Calvary’s cross, and this tiny brow would be punctured with the crown of thorns, and this heart that beat within Simeon’s grasp would be pierced with a spear as Jesus bore our sin and suffering under the judgment of God in our place as He died. This child would grow up to know unparalleled suffering. Isaiah said He would be a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isa 53:3). Simeon knew that, and he announced to Mary, that Jesus would be “a sign to be opposed.” And he even foretold that a sword would pierce her own soul. It would begin to cut her early, as He distanced Himself from her and devoted Himself completely to the will and purposes of His Heavenly Father. But the final stab of that sword would come as she watched Him die on the cross. This body that Simeon held in his arms would taste death for us, and be wrapped and entombed. And this body would rise in transformed glory in victory over sin and death to secure salvation for all who call upon Him. As Simeon looked at this baby, he knew that he was staring into the face of the saving God and beholding salvation itself in human flesh.

How are sinners made right with a holy God? How is this salvation accomplished? Salvation is not a ritual, an action, a rule or regulation. Salvation is found in a person, and that person is Jesus. When we behold Him, we see that salvation in human flesh just as Simeon did. And we will sing this song of salvation with him.

II. We sing of salvation that has come for all the world.

The time surrounding the birth of a child can be a very lonely time for a mother. If she is not feeling well, she may not get out much, and others may fear disturbing her rest, so they leave her alone. After the child is born, often mother and baby spend hours alone each day leading some new mothers to experience tremendous depression. But Mary did not seem to have this experience. From early in her pregnancy, she had spent time with Elizabeth and Zacharias, and had travelled with Joseph to Bethlehem where she gave birth in a very public setting, surrounded by strangers. They did not have the sterile isolation of a private room in a hospital or even an inn. It was all so very public. In fact, as Paul testified before King Agrippa in Acts 26, he said concerning the very public life of Jesus, “I am persuaded that none of these things escapes his notice; for this has not been done in a corner” (26:26). Simeon said it this way: this salvation of which he sings has been “prepared in the presence of all peoples.” Soon, magi from the east will come to behold and worship the newborn Christ; and to protect His life, Joseph will take the boy and His mother away to Egypt before returning to Israel. All peoples of the world are getting a glimpse of the salvation that has come in the person of Jesus, for He has come to bring salvation to all the world. As we sing in our song, “Joy to the World,” “He comes to make His blessings known far as the curse is found.” This is truly a global gospel!

We all have a tendency to view the world in generalizations. No matter the issue, we tend to see “us” and “them.” We say things like this: “There are two kinds of people in the world: the kind who appreciate a good polka song, and the kind who don’t.” Well, for most Jewish people of that day, the line of demarcation was heavy and definite. There was “us,” Israel, and “them,” everyone else – the Gentiles. But Christ had come to bring redemption to all—not just “us,” and not just “them.” Simeon sings of the salvation that Jesus brings us as “a light of revelation to the Gentiles.” While the Jews had received by God’s grace all the light of His revelation through His Word, His prophets, and His acts of redemptive history, the Gentiles were viewed as those who lived in darkness. It was for this reason that Israel was chosen to be God’s own people. They were to be a light to the nations of the world. But because they had kept God’s revelation to themselves, the nations languished in darkness. But the prophets had foretold of a day when that darkness would be shattered by piercing light. Isaiah said, “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them” (9:2) And that light is the glory of the Lord Jesus. Just a few verses later, Isaiah spoke of the basis of the promise of light shattering darkness by saying, “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” Simeon knew that the baby in his arms was the Light that would break the darkness that blinded all the nations and kept them from knowing God. Here is the light of revelation that God was sending to the Gentiles. Very few, if any of us, here today are Jewish by birth. We are these Gentiles who would still be bound in darkness were it not for Christ, the Light of the World, coming to rescue us and offer salvation to every nation.

This salvation is not only a light of revelation for the Gentiles who dwelt in darkness. Christ is the glory of Israel! Israel had once known the gracious blessing of having God’s manifest glory dwelling in the midst of them. We refer to this as the “Shekinah” glory of God, which rested over the tabernacle in the wilderness as a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night (Exodus 40:34-38). When Solomon’s temple was built, this Shekinah glory filled the place so densely that the priests were unable to perform their duties (1 Kings 8:10-11). Now, centuries later, when the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem and deported the Israelites, the prophet Ezekiel was in one of the earlier waves of deportation. But in Babylon, he was given a vision of what was taking place in Jerusalem. He saw the Shekinah glory of God departing from the temple because of the idolatry that was taking place there (Ezekiel 8-11). And once the glory of God departed the temple and the city of Jerusalem, He allowed the Babylonians to make complete destruction of the place. In time, the exiles returned and rebuilt their temple. When it was constructed, the Lord spoke through the prophet Haggai, saying, “I will fill this house with my glory … The latter glory of this house will be greater than the former” (Haggai 2:7-9). But the Shekinah, the manifest glory of God never returned to that temple or to Israel at all, until this particular day when the manifest glory of God was carried in by a virgin mother and handed off to a spirit-filled old man who saw in this baby the fulfillment of all that had been spoken about the restoration of the glory of God in Israel. All the waiting was over. God had come back to the temple, just as He promised, only this time He did not come as a pillar of cloud or fire. He came in the form of a baby, and the glory that Simeon held in his arms was greater than anything ever experienced in Solomon’s temple.

It is no wonder that Simeon burst into song! And we who have come to behold Jesus as the salvation for all nations and the manifest glory of God who has come in fulfillment of all of God’s saving promises, we surely will add our voice to the chorus! And as we do, there is one more note that is left to sing.

III. We sing of salvation that has come to bring us peace.

We do not know how old Simeon was, but everything in the context suggests to us that he is an old man by this time. And like many godly people who are advanced in years, he may have begun to long for the day of departure from this life, knowing that the promise of heaven awaited him by faith. But God had informed him in some mysterious and miraculous way that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And on this day in the temple, Simeon has seen the Lord’s Christ! And so all that is left to do is to close his eyes to this world and open them to the presence of God in heaven. And so he exclaims in song, “Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace according to Your word.”

Imagine that there is a servant who is appointed by his master to stand watch through a long and dark night to wait for the appearance of one particular star in the sky. After many hours of waiting, he comes to report to his master that he has seen the star. And then the master says, “Thank you. You are now discharged of your duty and may retire for the night.”[5] That is what Simeon’s advancing years have been like. He was on duty for the Lord until he saw the Savior. Now that he has seen him and held him in arms, his shift has ended, and he is released from service. Simeon says, “Now, at this very moment, You, O Lord, are dismissing me from service.” This is where we get the Latin title Nunc Dimittis. It means “Now You are dismissing.” And having seen the salvation of the Lord, Simeon knows that he can now die in peace.

You see, Simeon was well aware that all human beings will see death. But, he knew something most of us don’t know. He knew that he wouldn’t see death until he had seen the Lord Jesus. And having seen Him, he knew he could die at peace with God. You see the fact of the matter is that all of us will die, and none of us knows when. But if you have beheld the Lord Jesus as the salvation of God – the Savior who has come to live and die for you to rescue you from sin – then you can face death like Simeon did, having peace with God.

The coming of the salvation of the Lord in human flesh for all the world forces a choice upon us. Simeon said “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many.” Because Christ has come, some will fall in the misery and shame of dying in their sins. But many will rise in the glorious death of a redeemed life that enters the eternal peace and joy of God’s presence. They will rise from death in resurrected glory into a life that will never end. The choice that we must make is what we will do with this Christ who has come to save us. Will we take Him as our Lord and Savior and rise, or will we ignore or reject Him and fall? Simeon said that in Christ, “the thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” What does your response to the Lord Jesus reveal about your heart?

Michael Card put this text to song a number of years ago, in which he paraphrases Simeon’s expression this way: “Now that I’ve held Him in my arms, my life can come to an end. Let Your servant now depart in peace. I’ve seen Your salvation—He’s the Light of the Gentiles, and the Glory of Your people Israel.” In the final stanza, Michael Card sings, “Now’s the time to take Him in your arms – your life will never come to an end. He’s the only way that you’ll find peace. He’ll give you salvation ‘cause He’s the Light of the Gentiles and the Glory of His people Israel.” If you behold the Lord Jesus as Simeon did, and see Him as the salvation of God that has come in human flesh for all the world, then your heart will sing because you are at peace with Him, and you know that when this life comes to an end, there is a greater life yet to live in His glorious presence.

[1] Daniel Doriani, Philip Graham Ryken, Richard D. Phillips, The Incarnation in the Gospels (Reformed Expository Commentary; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 127.
[2] See William Hendriksen, Luke (New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978), 163; C. Marvin Pate, Luke (Moody Gospel Commentary; Chicago: Moody, 1995), 84.
[3] Pate, 85.
[4] Hendriksen, 165.
[5] Adapted from Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), 118. 

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