George Booker
To Us A Child Is Born

(8) “The Consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:21-38)

The excitement of the shepherds’ visit to Bethlehem lasted only a few days. The registration was finished and the crowds of visitors dispersed toward their respective homes. But it appears that Joseph and Mary chose to remain and make their residence in Bethlehem. This is evident from several hints that come later in the story:

When the wise men finally arrive, they find the family in a “house”(Matt. 2:11);
Jesus is called a “child”, no longer a baby (Matt. 2:8,11);
Joseph, when bringing his family back from Egypt after their exile, first intends to go into Judea (Matt. 2:22).

Why would Joseph and Mary choose to begin their married life, after the birth of Jesus, in Bethlehem? For one reason, we can imagine that, in the absence of any other signal from God, they would conclude that the birthplace of God’s Son should also be his home. Bethlehem, “the city of David” their illustrious ancestor, with its proximity to Jerusalem, would strike them as the proper place. Then, of course, who could blame them for seeking a new home when Nazareth held memories of ugly gossip centering around their precious child?

Circumcision and sacrifice

“On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived” (Luke 2:21).

The circumcision of Jesus was a routine affair, probably performed by the rabbi of Bethlehem, with a minimum of ceremony. Little did he know that the tiny manchild who came beneath his knife would spend all his lifetime “cutting off the flesh” in the fullest, most spiritual sense, of which this circumcision was only a ritualistic shadow.

“Jesus” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name “Joshua”, which signifies “savior”. That name, Joshua, was rich in tradition. It had been used before, and would by itself attract no attention. This, too, was a part of God’s plan. If the child had been named Immanuel (or some other name taken directly from one of the Messianic prophecies), it might have been almost a public proclamation of his Messiahship. That, of course, would not have been desirable at that time.

When the days of Mary’s purification were ended (forty days in all: Lev. 12:2,4), Joseph brought her and the child to the temple at Jerusalem, just a few miles to the north. The purpose was twofold. Firstly, Mary must offer a sacrifice of cleansing from childbirth, in this case specified by Luke as two doves or two pigeons (the sacrifice of the poor: Lev. 12:8). The second purpose was to present Jesus to the Lord (Luke 2:22), and to offer a sacrifice of money (five shekels) for the redemption of a firstborn son (Num. 18:15,16). Jesus was born “of a woman... under the law” (Gal. 4:4), and therefore in need of cleansing and redemption himself. However, despite the best efforts of Joseph and Mary, this child could not be truly redeemed with any gift but the sacrifice of himself. This he would accomplish more than thirty years later, in a sacrifice sealed by his own blood. All the laws of cleansing and purification were mere pointers, down through the ages, to this one who would become the perfect sacrifice, accomplishing his own redemption (Heb. 9:11,12), and — wondrously — ours also.

The temple of God

Pause a moment to gaze upon Herod’s temple. It was one of the wonders of the ancient world, awesome and majestic, pure and white and dazzling. Into its beautiful courts comes a little family.

There are crowds on every side; moneychangers and cages of birds; sacrificial animals and rich-robed Sadducees. Here and there little cliques of earnest Pharisees engage in debate. We smell the odor of burning flesh from the altar, and in the background a choir sings holy chants. It is the house of God.

There are, however, two houses — the one house visible and ostentatious, richly appointed and luminous and lovely and altogether awe-inspiring... the other “house” a tiny child. The “temple of God” is held in his mother’s arms. The “mercy seat” has been fashioned by God out of a woman; that “mercy seat”, and not the golden one hidden behind the lavishly decorated curtains in the Most Holy Place, is the place where He will meet with man. The baby held by his young mother is to be — all in one — “altar” and “offering” and “priest”.

Stand up and take notice, you blind men! Then bow down before your king. But no... not yet... some years must pass first. Meanwhile Joseph and Mary prepare to offer the sacrifices of the poor before departing.

Jesus was poor

Jesus was poor. Surely, if at all possible, Joseph and Mary would have provided the very best sacrifice; not the poorest, since they knew what a unique child this was. They evidently had no choice.

What does it really mean to be poor? Since God would not deny His Son anything really necessary, then it must be concluded that it was in his best interests to be materially poor. Therefore, material deprivation is not poverty at all, Scripturally speaking. As Jesus grew older there were many things he could do without, that “richer” children might take for granted. He could not, however, do without a loving family, where parents placed the Word of God first every day. Are our priorities for our children the same as God’s priorities for Jesus?

One who waited

Before the little family could accomplish their purpose, however, there was enacted a scene of touching significance:

“Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25).

How often is waiting the lot of believers! How well do they wait? What do they wait for? Jacob had waited for the salvation of God (Gen. 49:18), as had Isaiah (25:9). David had waited on the Lord, to see His goodness “in the land of the living” (Psa. 27:13,14). The old man Simeon waited for the “consolation of Israel”.

The “consolation (or comfort) of Israel” is a phrase which recalls the words which open the second major section of Isaiah’s prophecy, after the historical interlude of chapters 36-39:

“Comfort, comfort my people ... speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for” (40:1,2).

Thus opens the great Messianic section of Isaiah’s writings, where, setting his eye on the far horizon, he contemplates the suffering servant of Yahweh, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.

Can we then imagine how Simeon had occupied his time as he waited, poring over the prophecies of Isaiah, studying that one book of Scripture practically his whole life, all for this one moment? Perhaps the stories of the Bethlehem shepherds had put him in final readiness for this day, and now it had finally arrived. Led by the Spirit of God, the old patriarch was drawn to the temple (v. 27). Can we imagine Joseph and Mary halting in their steps as Simeon approached them, in flowing robes, with white hair and fierce eyes, practically the reincarnation of Isaiah himself? He took the baby in his arms, with all the dignity and tenderness of a grandfather. There they stood, at the end of one age and the beginning of another. In Simeon could be seen the lingering twilight of a day that had waxed old and would soon vanish, along with its beautiful temple. The old man with wrinkled brow typified the nation and the law, long past their years of glory, and soon to be displaced. In the babe in his arms could be seen the first light of dawn of a new day of glory, a glory that would never fade away.

Everything that Simeon did and said here may be best understood within the framework of that most Messianic of the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah:

Luke 2:26: “The Lord’s Christ (or Anointed)”: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Isa. 61:1).

Luke 2:27,28: “He went into the temple courts... took him in his arms”: “The Lord... (in) the temple... Holy, holy, holy... for my eyes have seen the King” (Isa 6:1,3,5).

Luke 2:29: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, now dismiss your servant in peace”: “The righteous perish... and devout men are taken away... from evil... they enter into peace” (Isa. 57:1,2).

Luke 2:30: “For my eyes have seen your salvation”: “Her [i.e., Jerusalem’s] salvation like a burning torch... your Savior comes” (Isa. 62:1,11).

Luke 2:31: “Which you have prepared in the sight of all people”: “The LORD will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations” (Isa. 52:10).

Luke 2:32: “A light for revelation to the Gentiles”: “A light for the Gentiles” (Isa. 42:6). “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles” (Isa. 49:6). “Your light has come... Nations will come to your light” (Isa. 60:1,3).

Luke 2:34: “The falling...”: “For both houses of Israel he will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall... many of them will stumble; they will fall and be broken” (Isa. 8:14,15).

Luke 2:34: “...and rising of many in Israel”: “But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy” (Isa. 26:19).

Luke 2:34: “A sign that will be spoken against”: “A sign: The virgin will be with child” (Isa. 7:14). “I, and the children the LORD has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel” (Isa. 8:18).

Luke 2:35: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too”: “Pierced for our transgressions... oppressed... afflicted... cut off from the land of the living” (Isa. 53:5,7,8).

Simeon was ready to die after seeing the Lord’s Anointed, the embodiment of all his hopes. Today we have greater knowledge of the gospel of Christ, because the things still future to Simeon have been fulfilled and chronicled for us; but do we have the faith that he had? Some men, chained in the shadows of remembered misfortunes, grow cynical. Some are imprisoned by old failures and lose all hope. Some are greedy and self-centered; they feed upon themselves and grow old before their time. Other men, like Simeon, are always young; they live in hope of tomorrow, and they are lifted out of the tedium of daily life by great expectations.

Simeon boldly proclaims the offer of the gospel beyond the exclusive preserve of Judaism, to the Gentiles of the world (v. 32). His confidence and far vision pointedly contrast with the reluctance and indecision of Peter and the Lord’s other followers who had to be practically coerced into approaching the “common” and “unclean”.

The sword

“And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35).

Simeon, with greater vision than the later believers, saw also the sword. “Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house,” Nathan had told David (2 Sam. 12:10); and it was true. The sword will always remain where there is sin, since without bloodshed there can be no forgiveness of sins (Heb. 9:22). David himself, longing for the remission that only One could provide, saw the sword also:

“The man... must be fenced (mg. ‘filled’) with iron and the staff of a spear” (2 Sam. 23:7, KJV).

“A band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet” (Psa. 22:16).

The circumcision on the eighth day and the sacrifices on the fortieth day, with their bloodshed, were preludes to the scourge, the thorns, the cross, and the spear — pains felt keenly by Mary as she came to see more and more of her son’s mission.

Every mother knows that her child is born to die one day. Like it or not, there is a “sword” for each of us. We all bear our “crosses” every day, as we carry about these bodies doomed to death. We may, however, all choose what “death” we will die — either eternal death or the “death” of our ambitions and desires in this world:

“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39).

For each of us who seek to walk in Christ’s steps, salvation is on the other side of suffering — whether it be a brief and fiery trial, or long years of temptation and waiting. We cannot step around the sword or leap over the flames; we must walk straight forward, and Christ will walk with us.

“I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34) — a sword, so that “the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (Luke 2:35). So it was when the sword came — the innermost thoughts of each heart would be revealed. Peter, previously strong and fearless, would deny and weep. Judas, always cool and calculating, would betray Jesus and then, despairing, would hang himself. Strong men would flee in fear, while women would show surprising courage. A great counselor, who was afraid to be seen with Jesus when he was alive, would fling away caution and compromise, and boldly associate himself with an executed criminal.

It is the same for others. As men participate by faith in the fellowship of their Master’s sufferings, their own hearts are revealed. Those who thought they were strong in faith fall and rise again, finding a greater strength than they ever imagined through their own human weakness. Others betray Christ with a look or a word or meaningless affection, then find their pride to be an impenetrable barrier to repentance; they “fall” and never rise again.

One who served God

There was also in the temple an elderly widow named Anna (or Hannah). She was the daughter of Phanuel (or Peniel), and of the tribe of Asher. The three names may be taken together to present a pleasing thought: Hannah — grace; Peniel — the face of God; and Asher — happy or blessed. Hannah was blessed to look upon the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6), beholding the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

Jacob’s dying prophecy concerning his son Asher was: “Asher’s food will be rich; he will provide delicacies fit for a king” (Gen. 49:20, RSV). With Anna the moment had arrived for the fulfillment of Jacob’s words. Anna had devoted herself, after her husband’s early death (Luke 2:36,37), to a life of service in the temple. She had endured long years of barrenness, as she awaited the flowering of God’s promise. Never did her faith waver; like Simeon, she knew the words of the holy prophets. Now her hope had borne fruit; she who had hungered and thirsted after righteousness (Matt. 5:6) was now filled with “royal dainties”.

“Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).

The last Old Testament seer spoke of a nation that, in the main, had turned from God. Only a few kept their faith:

“Then those who feared the LORD talked with each other, and the LORD listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the LORD and honored his name. ‘They will be mine,’ says the LORD Almighty, ‘in the day when I make up my treasured possession [jewels: KJV]’ ” (Mal. 3:16,17).

More than four hundred years had passed since Malachi had spoken those words. But still a remnant was to be found: some young, like Joseph and Mary; some older, like Zechariah and Elizabeth; and some truly aged ones, like Simeon and Anna. “They shall be mine,” says the Lord, “when I make up My jewels.”

How much we need the older ones! They are there, at the meeting, week after week, often not in the best of health. They encourage us by their presence. Like Moses, they stand higher on the “mountain” and see more clearly the promised land. We too see the promised land, through their eyes.

Joseph and Mary take the child and leave the temple. This latest encounter, like the earlier ones with the shepherds, impresses upon them that the baby is no longer theirs alone. He belongs to God, and all the ages of the world.

Every parent must learn this lesson, like Hannah with Samuel, the asked-for son devoted to the Lord and His tabernacle at an early age. True love does not seek to possess another totally, but rather to give him up in devotion to a better cause, to see him fulfill his higher destiny. Such love is exemplified by God, who so loved us that He gave up His Son to death (John 3:16). We should so love our children that we willingly and eagerly give them up to God.

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