Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

10. Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:21-39)

The formal naming of the baby Jesus took place at the time of his circumcision on the eighth day (Lk. 2:21). Until that time Mary probably called him her Immanuel. But now “his name also was called Jesus” (v.21; Gk text). It would not have been amiss, in a way, if the baby’s name had been Joseph, “after the name of his ‘father’”, for what more complete type of the Messiah is to be found in the Old Testament? Yet, in another way, this would have been anything but suitable, for it would have very misleadingly suggested to the world that Mary’s child was the son of her husband. The Bible mentions only four who were named by divine instruction before birth: Ishmael (a type of unbelieving Jewry; Jn. 8:33-42), Isaac (a type of Christ), John the Baptist, and Jesus.

This circumcision-performed, most likely, by Zacharias at his home-declared Jesus a son of Abraham: “This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; every male child among you shall be circumcised” (Gen. 17:10). Mede’s seventeenth century comment on this is worth quoting: “In circumcision was signified the taking away of the superfluity of sin in and through him who was yet in the loins of his ancestors. Hence Galatians 5:2: ‘If ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing’. Why? Because he that received circumcision did as much as affirm that Christ is not yet come.” And of course this was still true when Jesus was circumcised, for until his resurrection the full truth of the Lord’s work of redemption was not evident to men. But in his eighth day “thus early did he suffer pain for our sakes”(Farrar).

From this eighth day and for the rest of his days it was testified to Jesus that “every man that is circumcised ... is a debtor to do the whole law” (Gal. 5:3); and this Jesus did. Thus, “made of a woman, made under the law, he redeemed them that were under the law”, that any man bearing the mark of the law might “receive the adoption of sons” (Gal. 4:4,5).

Son of man

This circumcision also declared that this child of Mary, although of such a holy birth, nevertheless shared the nature of all other sons of Abraham. Any doctrine, which makes Jesus of a more pure, higher nature by birth than other men, makes this rite, applied to him, meaningless, and the record of it sadly misleading.

The same is true regarding Mary’s purification, which duly took place, according to the law of Leviticus 12, in the temple court at Jerusalem (v.22). Indeed, according to the overwhelming evidence of the manuscripts, this is specially underlined by Luke’s phrase: “the days of their purification” (RV). Here was Moses’ unflagging reminder of the “taint” about all human nature, inherited by Mary and shared by Jesus. Yet Rome talks about the “immaculate conception” of Mary, and all Christendom makes Jesus different in his essential nature from those to whom he brings redemption.

Mary’s time of uncleanness lasted for forty days, during which time she was not to go out of doors. But it is difficult to believe that she spent all that time where her baby was born. Presumably, as soon as possible, she and Joseph travelled to the home of Zacharias and Elisabeth, and spent the time there.

High Priest designate

Rather remarkably, when Luke purports to quote what is “written in the law of the Lord” about this (2:23), he includes a phrase: “shall be called holy to the Lord”, which is not found in any of the places where the Law speaks of the consecration of the firstborn. Yet this is an expression repeatedly used about the high-priest: Lev. 21:6-8; Ex. 28:36,38. Thus Luke hints at the truth which the gospel was to disclose, that through this child, later to become God’s High Priest, is a means of cleansing and redemption from all the defilement which is human nature.

Since the days of Moses the service of Levites was accepted in lieu of the firstborn (Num. 3:12,13). But since Golgotha, Levites can only find acceptance because of the Firstborn and the way in which he was (so very differently!) “brought to Jerusalem to be presented before the Lord.”

The kind of sacrifice made on Mary’s behalf tells much about this family into which Jesus was born. The offering of “a pair of (migrant) turtle doves, or two young pigeons” was the concession which the Law made to extreme poverty, where the restricted means of the family simply did not allow of the more usual offering of a lamb and a pigeon (Lev. 12:6).

Persons as devout as Mary and Joseph would obviously have brought the better offering, had they been able. So it may be safely assumed that the home in which Jesus grew up knew nothing of wealth, nor even of moderate middle-class respectability, but only a constant wearying struggle against poverty.

When Jesus was “presented unto the Lord”, would the standard redemption payment of five shekels (Num. 18:16; twenty days’ wages:Mt 20:2) be insisted on in the case of people so poor? Ginsberg is surely in error when he says that the payment was thirty shekels.


In the temple court they were met by a venerable old man who seemed to be awaiting them. This pious witness to the Truth of God lived only in the hope of seeing the realisation of the glorious promises of God to His chosen people. He “waited for the consolation of Israel.”

One suggestion (lacking complete proof) asserts that he was not only of the line of David (and therefore related to Joseph and Mary) but also son of the famous Rabbi Hillel and the father of the Gamaliel who made such a clever tongue-in-cheek defence of the apostles when the wrath of the chief priests had been stirred up against them (Acts 5:34-40). Yet that Simeon is known to have been President of the Sanhedrin in A.D. 7, some twelve years or so later. So the usual assumption of great age at this time would have to be discarded. His prayer: “Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace ...”, was probably a conscious imitation of Jacob’s when he again set eyes on Joseph (Gen. 46:30) -and that patriarch lived another seventeen years after that (47:28). It is rather remarkable that there is no mention of Simeon-ben-Hillel in the Mishna. Could that be because he is mentioned in Luke’s gospel?

If this identification is correct, then Simeon probably lived to be amazed by the remarkable promise of the boy Jesus in the temple just after his bar-mitzvah.

To this devout Simeon a divine revelation (s.w. Mt 2:12) had been given that he would live to see the Messiah. The divine constraint brought him in expectation into the temple court at this very time, so that he knew for certain that God’s purpose specially concerned the humble family presenting their offerings.

The Consolation of Israel

With bright-eyed gladness he took the child from his mother, and broke into a hymn of praise and thanksgiving: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all the peoples (i .e. the tribes of I srael)” (2:29-31).

Old Testament Expectations

This was not only the rejoicing of aged Jacob, but also, by the eye of faith, the fulfilment of a prophetic psalm (Isaiah’s?) which foretold the grand accomplishment of all that God had promised to the Fathers: “The Lord hath made known his salvation ... he hath remembered his mercy and his truth (i.e. his Covenants of Promise) towards the house of Israel: all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God” (Ps. 98:2,3).

Only profound insight into the purpose of God, harnessed by direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit, could have led Simeon to associate the tiny baby in his arms with the fulness of God’s redemption: “A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.” The order of the phrases here is to be noted-first, the enlightenment of the Gentiles, after that the manifestation of God’s Shekinah Glory in Israel. The literal expression used by Simeon, “the unveiling of the nations”, may have been used with direct allusion to “the veil that is spread over all nations”, the removal of which Isaiah foretold, when “death is swallowed up in victory” (25:8). Or it may imply the unveiling of God’s hidden purpose (mystery) that Gentiles should share with Israel the salvation He provides.

There are also remarkable contacts, both verbally and in idea, with other fine passages in Isaiah. Every phrase in Isaiah 52:7-9 seems to have special relevance:

Isaiah 52

Luke 2
Thy God is king
The Lord’s Christ
Thy watchmen lift up the voice

The waiting Simeon -

blessed God.

They shall see eye to eye
Mine eyes have seen thy salvation.
Break forth into joy, sing together

Simeon and Anna rejoicing together.

The Lord hath comforted his people.
The consolation (comfort) of Israel.

He hath redeemed Jerusalem
The redemption of Jerusalem.
. . .in the eyes of all nations
... before the face of all people

. . .shall see the salvation.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.

A careful reading of Isaiah 49, with the aged Simeon and Anna in mind, reveals many verbal resemblances and similarities in idea:

v. 1
“Listen, O isles” (shimu; Simeon = one who hears)
v. 1
“From the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name”.
v. 2
“My mouth like a sharp sword” (A sword shall pierce through thine own soul).
v. 6
“A light to the Gentiles”.
v. 6
“To raise up the tribes of Jacob” (the rising again of many in Israel).
v. 7
“The Redeemer of Israel” (looked for in Jerusalem)
v. 8
“In a day of salvation have I helped thee” (Mine eyes have seen thy salvation)
v. 9
“Say to the prisoners, Go forth” (Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace)
“The Lord hath comforted his people” (The consolation of Israel).
“Can a woman forget her sucking child?” (His mother kept all these sayings in her heart)
“Then shalt thou say in thine heart” (That the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed)
“I have lost my children and am desolate” (A widow of about four score and four years)
“They bring thy sons in their arms”.
“My standard (LXX: sussemon) for the people” (A sign -seme/on -that shall be spoken against)
“They shall not be ashamed that wait for me.”
“The prey of the terrible shall be delivered. . .I will save thy children” (Herod’s attempt on the life of Jesus).

Note also the references to babies (v.1,15,20-23;) and “preserve thee” (v.8 Heb. nazar; cp. Nazareth).

It is easy now to understand why Simeon ejaculated: “Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy spoken word.” He was alluding to the spoken word through the prophet (Is. 49:1).

Also, it was surely with reference to the Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 and his own belief in the Virgin Birth that Simeon declared: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign that shall be spoken against.” Yet how very apt these words are! Just as faithless Ahaz rejected the sign in his day, so also the nation of Israel with Jesus. It was only in mockery that they sought “a sign from heaven”, Instead they were given one out of “the depth”-the sign of the prophet Jonah. And through him-the baby now in Simeon’s arms-there will yet come a sharp discrimination between ‘those who “fall” (the Greek word suggests a corpse) and those who “rise again” (this is the usual word for resurrection).

It called for faith, truly, to believe that men’s attitude to this tiny infant was one day to settle the eternal destiny of every individual. “For judgment he was come into this world”-”that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (cp. Mat. 3:2).

Mary’s Great Test

Even his own mother was to be no exception to this searching test: “Yea, a sword shall pierce through thine own soul also.” The word “also” is important here, for it implies a sword in the soul of Jesus as well. This came to pass in a literal fashion in the piercing of his side on the cross. Figuratively its effect is to be seen in the tremendous spiritual tension which built up in Jesus as the end drew near: “Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? shall I say, Father, save me from this hour? but for this cause came I unto this hour.”

Mary too, in lesser degree, must face the same test. It is customary to seek the fulfilment of Simeon’s prophecy regarding her in the pangs of wretchedness and helpless sorrow which assailed her soul as she stood with the other women at the foot of the cross, sharing with her firstborn all the agonies of crucifixion.

This is appropriate enough. But there was another occasion when a much worse misery overwhelmed her. Mark 3:21 tells how the family of Jesus “sought to lay hold on him” because they were convinced that he was “beside himself.” Evidently Mary allowed herself to be overborne by this ghastly misjudgement: “Then came his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him” (v.31). They wished to take him home and keep him under restraint. It is only this which can explain the brusque reply of Jesus: “Who is my mother, or my brethren? And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren.”

Could there possibly have been any more bitter moment in the life of Mary than this when she was publicly thrust away by the son whose every word and slightest action had been the centre of all her waking thoughts for the past thirty years? Truly, on that day a sword pierced her soul as at no other time. Happily faith came again (one wonders just how? was John the one responsible for coaxing her back to faith in her son as Lord and Christ?), and she was with him at the end, sorrowing but now believing.


The little group consisting of Simeon, Joseph, and Mary with the baby in her arms were doubtless the centre of much attention in the temple court. But interest grew all the more when they were joined by the aged Anna, a well-known figure to multitudes, for she had lived a life of consecrated service and piety in the temple for about sixty years, so that without seeking it she had acquired a national reputation as an outstanding member of the minority in Israel who not only wished for but also devoutly prayed for the early redemption of the nation from its spiritual and political bondage. Paul refers to her as the outstanding example of one who is “a widow indeed ... making prayers night and day” (1 Tim. 5:5).

Amongst the numerous throng in the temple court those who especially looked for the redemption of Jerusalem gathered round Anna as she continued the fervent praise and thanksgiving which had just been heard from the lips of Simeon.

The description of Anna as a prophetess may mean that she was a singer in the temple choir and not one who regularly gave utterance to inspired messages from God. Otherwise it is difficult to understand why none of her prophecies have been preserved. On the other hand there is evidence that the praising of God in psalms and hymns was also spoken of as prophecy (see Notes). Luke’s record about Anna seems to imply the same idea here, for after her “giving thanks unto the Lord” (2:38), she “spake of him to all them that looked for the redemption of Jerusalem.” If this suggestion is correct, it may readily be imagined what a sensation there would be in the temple area when this fine old lady lifted up her voice in an ecstatic melodious psalm of praise. Well might Luke take care to mention that Anna belonged to the tribe of Asher, for Asher means “happy”, and Anna is the only member of that tribe to make any contribution to Bible history.

Phanuel - Peniel

Yet there is so much similarity between the characters and forward-looking spirituality of Simeon and Anna that one is left wondering why the account of both is included. Does the explanation lie in the significant detail that she was the daughter of Phanuel? This is probably the New Testament form of Peniel, the place where Jacob wrestled with the angel through the night and till the morning, ultimately overcoming through his wrestling in prayer: “(, will not let thee go, except thou bless me ... I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved” (Gen. 32:26,30).

Luke hints at Anna’s recapitulation of Jacob’s experiences-her “supplication night and day”; and beholding the baby Jesus she saw God face to face and by that very encounter knew her life to be preserved.

Joseph and Mary were already sufficiently conscious of the high responsibility committed to them in the care of the Son of God, but these experiences in the temple court must have sent them away in awe and wonder that they should have been chosen for such privileges as to make them almost objects of envy by people of the spiritual calibre of Simeon and Anna. Although they were the meek of the earth, their status in the sight of heaven could hardly be higher.

Notes: Luke 2:21-39

Said In the law. “Said “, because of Lev. 12:1.

Turtle doves or young pigeons. But why in Gen. 15: 9 one of each?
Waiting for the consolation of Israel. See also v.38; 3: 15; 24: 21; Mk. 15: 43; Is. 52: 9; 62: 6,7. In 8 NT passages out of 14, “wait for” refers to the kingdom.

Behold is Mt.’s characteristic interjection.
Lord. Gk. despotes. In LXX, 6 times in Dan. 9, the prophecy of Messiah the Prince.

According to thy word. Gk: spoken word—through Anna the prophetess?
Prepared before the face of all people should perhaps be read as meaning: ‘according to the prayers of all the people of Israel’.
Unto Mary. Observe how Joseph is ignored here.

Fall and rising again. The “and” here may imply Israel’s fall, through rejecting Christ, followed at length by their repentance and acceptance of him, after the pattern of Joseph and his brethren; cp. Is. 8: 13-15,18.
Prophetess. Praise of God is sometimes called prophesying: 1 Chr.15: 1; Ex.15: 20; Joel 2: 28; Acts 21: 9; 1 Cor. 11: 4.
Fastings and prayers. Rather remarkably, at Ex.38: 8 the Targum has “fastings” and LXX has “prayers”.
Redemption. The word means “atonement”.

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