A forgotten authority on Wesleyan hymns once commented, “There can hardly be a single paragraph of Scripture that is not somewhere reflected in the hymns of the Wesleys.” That observation was certainly accurate regarding the following two stanzas from Charles Wesley’s elegant 1744 Advent hymn:
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus, Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us; Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation, Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of ev’ry nation, Joy of ev’ry longing heart.
Born Thy people to deliver, Born a Child, and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever, Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all-sufficient merit, Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
Those beautiful lines summarize well the main sentiments of another impeccable testimony to the significance and validity of Christ’s birth—the aged, humble, and wise Simeon. Luke again reports on what happened and records Simeon’s prophetic words:
And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law, he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said:
“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,
According to Your word;
For my eyes have seen Your salvation
Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,
A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.”
And Joseph and His mother marveled at those things which were spoken of Him. Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (2:25–35)
The Man Simeon
Although very little is known about him except what Luke 2 records, Simeon was, as we shall see, a fascinating character. His name is certainly a common Hebrew name (it was the name of one of the twelve tribes of Israel; Gen. 49:5–7) that means, “God has heard.” When Simeon’s parents named him as a baby, the Lord prompted them to give him a name that wonderfully alludes to the result of his heartfelt cry for God to send a comforter and deliverer. That cry was certainly Simeon’s lifelong hope, and at the end of his life God graciously heard and sent the Messiah.
His Spiritual Character
The first biblical description of the man Simeon involves his spiritual character: “this man was just and devout” (Luke 2:25). As we saw regarding Joseph and Mary, that simple statement is loaded with meaning—as a just man, Simeon stood righteous before God. God had declared him righteous, as only God can, when he trusted in Him rather than his good works for the forgiveness of sin. Simeon recognized his sinfulness, cast himself on the mercy of God, and the Lord declared him righteous because Christ’s death on the cross would bear away his sins.
If Simeon was a just man, it follows that he was also “devout.” That word means he was righteous. If anyone is truly justified, then scripturally he or she is necessarily also righteous, or in the process of being sanctified. Even in Simeon’s day, still under the Old Testament economy, when God declared someone like him righteous, that person’s life changed and he became a lover of God’s Law (see Psalm 119 and David’s heart attitude toward the Law of God).
Simply stated, a devout man such as Simeon is primarily concerned about the things of God. In fact, the term rendered “devout” in Luke 2 is often more literally translated “cautious,” indicating that Simeon would have been very careful how he treated God and responded to His Word. He lived a careful, cautious, responsible life, one that was exemplary and conscientious to honor God and bring glory to His name. And that’s what defined Simeon’s character as a true Jew—a believing Jew—and a genuine member of the righteous remnant of Israel.
Luke 2:25 also indicates something important about Simeon’s theology: he was “waiting for the Consolation of Israel.” The word rendered “Consolation” is a direct reference to the Messiah. Thus Simeon had a hope for the coming of Messiah, the King who would bring in the promised Kingdom of Israel. And the only one who could fulfill that hope was the Consoler, the Comforter, the Helper—the Messiah.
But what was the source of Simeon’s great sense of hope? Undoubtedly, a major one had to be the Book of Isaiah. The second half of the prophet’s inspired writing contains a wealth of references to the theme of the coming Messianic consolation and comfort. Isaiah 40:1–2 declares, “‘Comfort, yes, comfort My people!’ says your God. ‘Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned.’” The righteous Jews looked for the time when Israel’s warfare would end and the Comforter (Messiah) would remove all sins.
The prophet goes on to say, “Behold, the Lord God shall come with a strong hand, and His arm shall rule for Him; behold, His reward is with Him, and His work before Him. He will feed His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those who are with young” (vv. 10–11). None other than God Himself, in the person of Christ, would come to rule and comfort His people, even as a shepherd helps his sheep and lambs.
Isaiah 49:8–10 provides further promise:
Thus says the Lord:
“In an acceptable time I have heard You,
And in the day of salvation I have helped You;
I will preserve You and give You
As a covenant to the people,
To restore the earth,
To cause them to inherit the desolate heritages;
That You may say to the prisoners, ‘Go forth,’
To those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’
“They shall feed along the roads,
And their pastures shall be on all desolate heights.
They shall neither hunger nor thirst,
Neither heat nor sun shall strike them;
For He who has mercy on them will lead them,
Even by the springs of water He will guide them.”
God in effect reiterated the Abrahamic Covenant and promised to give Israel back her land. And along with that, the Lord pledged to minister a variety of compassionate favors. All of these prophecies foreshadowed the ministry of Christ as the Comforter of His people (Isa. 51:3; 57:18; 66:10–13).
So Simeon was a man who believed the Old Testament and took the prophet’s promises of consolation for Israel at face value. Simeon cared not only about his personal salvation, but also about the spiritual welfare of his people. His desire was very much a precursor to Paul’s decades later, when the apostle told the Roman believers:
I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen. (Romans 9:1–5)
In that sense, Simeon was a passionate true believer. And he even went Paul one better. The great apostle was not a member of the true remnant for his entire adult life and ministry; after all, he once persecuted Christians prior to his conversion from legalistic, lost Judaism. But Simeon always looked in faith to the hope of Israel’s comfort and consolation, the coming of Messiah. He longed earnestly for the fulfillment of the covenant promises; and the more his nation sank into sin, apostasy, unbelief, and legalism, the more his heart ached to see the Messiah deliver his fellow Israelites from all of that iniquity.
In addition to his exemplary character qualities and his adherence to biblical theology, Simeon was a remarkable example of divine anointing for extraordinary service: “the Holy Spirit was upon him” (Luke 2:25).
First of all, Luke’s statement about Simeon applies just as if he were speaking of any Old Testament-era believer. The Spirit of God had to work in his heart to save him—to enable him to believe that God would provide a sacrifice and would forgive his sins, and that it was all by grace through faith, not works. The Holy Spirit used the picture of the Old Testament sacrificial system to point Simeon and other true Jews toward Christ’s final sacrifice. He thus brought them to justification and began the ongoing process of sanctification in their lives. In Simeon’s life we clearly see that process at work in his devout character and careful obedience to God’s Law.
That the Holy Spirit was upon Simeon, therefore, was not an indicator of a brand-new phenomenon. The Spirit was always present in believers’ lives. Luke was simply saying that God had anointed Simeon for a special responsibility, much as He had done for certain Old Testament saints (e.g., Samson, Samuel, the prophets). Most often that responsibility involved speaking for God, as we’ll see when Simeon interacts with the young Jesus and His parents.
But before Simeon uttered any prophetic statements, the Spirit had to reveal certain truths to him. “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (2:26). Sometime earlier in his life God had revealed that amazing message to Simeon, which would have had some rare and unusual implications for his life.
God’s words probably created both exhilaration and tension for Simeon. Positively, they would have served as a wonderful milepost or terminus point around which he could have ordered his life. Imagine the incredible feeling of having precise insight into exactly what needed to occur before you could die. But such knowledge also undoubtedly resulted in some spiritual pressure for Simeon. The constant excitement of living in Messianic times and eagerly anticipating the appearance of Christ on any given day, week, or month must have been a powerful motivation for Simeon to examine his heart regularly. He wanted to be sure he was fully ready for the special event. We don’t know how long prior to Luke 2 that Simeon had known all those things, but the entire waiting process, however long or short, surely filled his heart with anticipation as he realized Messiah was coming in his lifetime.
Simeon at Last Meets Christ
Simeon’s sense of anticipation that he would actually see the Messiah, and his lifelong looking forward in hope to the consolation of Israel, finally culminated on a special day that coincided with Jesus’ presentation to the Lord. God providentially prompted his heart, and Simeon decided it was exactly the right time to go down to the temple: “So he came by the Spirit into the temple” (Luke 2:27). More precisely, the word translated “temple” means “big area” and refers to the Court of the Women, the outside courtyard that was the only temple-related place Mary could go.
God in His sovereign wisdom appointed a time and place for Simeon and Christ to meet. And the meeting occurred even though Joseph and Mary knew nothing of Simeon, and he knew nothing of them or how to identify the Child. However, the Lord overcame those barriers and brought the four people together. Perhaps Simeon approached the parents and initiated a conversation in this fashion: “The Spirit of God has led me here and has prompted me that it’s where the Messiah is. Can you give me some information?” To which Joseph and Mary may have replied, “Yes, here He is.”
Likewise, we can only imagine what Simeon felt as he took the baby Jesus out of Mary’s arms, pressed Him to his chest, and perhaps leaned his head down to kiss Him. We can only speculate concerning the magnitude of joy that must have flooded the old manheart as he realized God truly did fulfill His promises. At last, he was holding in his hands the Messiah, the Comforter and Consoler of Israel, the Savior of the world.
Simeon was filled with such great joy because he genuinely believed that Jesus was the Messiah. And he believed that because Joseph and Mary told him. They undoubtedly reported to him the amazing, miraculous ways in which Jesus’ birth had come to pass and reaffirmed to him how God had confirmed the truth of it all to their hearts. Simeon had long believed in the coming Messiah, and God was at that moment rewarding his faith by showing him specifically and unquestionably that the infant Jesus was the Christ.
Simeon’s Song of Praise
The moment Simeon realized that the baby he saw and held was indeed the Lord Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, he launched into one of the most well-known, beloved, and theologically rich songs of praise found in all of Scripture. It certainly marked the most magnificent and joyful moment in his life as he witnessed the fulfillment of God’s promise that he would live to see the Messiah. Simeon’s clear testimony, known liturgically as the Nunc Dimittis (from the opening two words, “now Lord,” of the song’s Latin translation), appears in four short verses: “‘Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel’” (Luke 2:29–32).
Simeon’s affirmation that God was letting him depart in peace is simply a Semitic expression that he was then ready to die. He was acknowledging that everything was right for a sovereign God to let him die in peace. And why was that? Because Simeon understood that God is a saving God (1 Tim. 4:10), and that he was seeing the arrival of God’s salvation in the person of Jesus, the Messiah (Luke 1:69; Acts 4:12). His praise flowed because God’s Savior had come and, therefore, God’s salvation had come—and with that great truth a reality, it was then all right for his life to end. Simeon had lived to see what God had promised him.
But Simeon’s testimony did not end with one statement. If he had merely added his voice to that of Zacharias, Mary, and Joseph and confirmed the truth of God’s salvation for His people, it would not have advanced the testimony about Messiah any further. However, Simeon did go further and prophetically declared a truth that was shattering to conventional Israelite belief: “‘For my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel’” (Luke 2:30–32).
Simeon’s additional words would have been truly astonishing for most Jews of his day. They believed someone would come as their Messiah, that he would reestablish the Kingdom of Israel, and with that kingdom that he would rule over the infidel Gentile world. But Simeon’s bold declaration said that God brought His Messiah/Savior to earth and prepared His salvation for all peoples without distinction—it is a light of revelation to the Gentiles, as well as being the glory of Israel.
Simeon’s statement was all the more shocking because even the remnant of Israel, those who believed and studied the Old Testament, hated what the term Gentile represented—no belief in the Scripture, desecration of the true and living God, disobedience to the commandment to love God above everything else, and violation of the prohibition against worshiping images of other gods. And as Gentiles became a more distinct group within Jewish society, members of the remnant seemed to resent the Gentiles’ blasphemy and idolatry more and more.
Even the most faithful and righteous of the believing Jews could not imagine that God’s salvation would include people beyond Israel. For example, when the shepherds heard the angels proclaim, “‘For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord’” (Luke 2:11; emphasis added), they assumed the “to you” meant them and other Jews. And when Mary and Joseph heard they were to name their son Jesus (“Yahweh saves”) because He would save His people from their sins, they understood “His people” to mean only Israel.
However, the numerous statements of the prophet Isaiah, uttered centuries earlier, contradicted such thinking. Isaiah 9:1–2 applies to Galilee’s honor at the time of Jesus’ ministry: “Nevertheless the gloom will not be upon her who is distressed, as when at first He lightly esteemed the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward more heavily oppressed her, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, in Galilee of the Gentiles. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.” Jesus actually did go to the other side of the Jordan to preach and serve. Those who lived in dark lands (Gentiles) experienced the light of the gospel.
Isaiah 42:6–7 says, “I, the Lord, have called You in righteousness, and will hold Your hand; I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people, as a light to the Gentiles, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the prison, those who sit in darkness from the prison house.” The prophet recorded a conversation between the Father and the Son that indicated God would use Christ, working through the nation of Israel, to be a light to the nations. That same expression (or one very similar), with the same meaning, appears four other places in the Book of Isaiah (49:6; 51:4; 52:10; 60:1–3; 45:25; 46:13).
In view of all those prophetic statements, no one should have been shocked at Simeon’s words. He could have had any one of the Isaiah references in mind with his declaration, which demonstrates again that Simeon was a man of God and a capable spokesman to announce the significance of Christ’s birth. In this case the significance is that salvation, brought by Messiah, has been prepared by God to be sufficient for the whole world because He loves the world (Matt. 28:18–20; John 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:1–6; 1 Pet. 3:9).
Parents’s Response to Simeon
As we’ve seen in our study, Joseph and Mary were already full of wonder and amazement concerning the incredible facts and miraculous circumstances attending the birth of Jesus. They realized they were the earthly parents of the Son of God, the Messiah, and the Savior of His people, all of which was beyond their comprehension. Then when they heard Simeon’s statement about the Gentiles, they were astonished anew and reminded afresh that the entire episode was entirely beyond their grasp (Luke 2:33). God had, as it were, placed in Joseph and Mary’s hands a Savior for everyone who believes, Jew and Gentile.
But the euphoria of that realization ended quickly for Mary and Joseph when Simeon concluded his pronouncement with this final, shocking statement: “‘Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed’” (vv. 34–35).
Jesus’ parents surely were taken aback when listening to those words, the tone of which they had not heard before. Simeon’s prediction constitutes the first negative note in Luke’s account of Christ’s birth. Until then it had been all a record of divine promises fulfilled and news of God’s salvation that brought a sense of peace, hope, joy, and praise for His glory. But then Jesus’ parents, particularly Mary, had to grapple with thoughts of Israelites falling and rising and a sword piercing Mary’s soul. They certainly were asking themselves what Simeon’s closing words really meant.
Simeon directed his sober forewarning especially to Mary rather than Joseph because he knew Joseph wouldn’t be present for the culmination of Jesus’ ministry. After Jesus’ encounter with the Jewish teachers in the temple when He was twelve, Joseph disappears from the record. (He might have died even before Jesus began His earthly ministry.) But Mary witnessed or heard about all the high moments and low points of her Son’s ministry. And Simeon foresees Mary’s experience according to three categories: separation, opposition, and affliction.
Christ Separates People
First, Simeon knew Mary would endure emotional conflict, pain, and suffering because Jesus would represent a line of demarcation in the lives of all who saw and heard Him. Some would respond positively and rise to the glories of salvation, but others would respond negatively and fall into the despair of eternal judgment.
Simeon was introducing a new concept. Mary and everyone else who heard his words confronted for the first time the new perspective that some—even many—Jews would be lost. Not all of them would rejoice at Messiah’s ministry. Again, Simeon could have drawn his thoughts directly from Isaiah: “‘He [Messiah] will be as a sanctuary, but a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to both the houses of Israel, as a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble; they shall fall and be broken, be snared and taken’” (8:14–15; 28:16; John 1:11; 1 Pet. 2:6–8).
The life and ministry of Jesus Christ would perfectly verify the words of Simeon and the prophets. The whole nation of Israel turned against our Lord, and ultimately the Jewish leaders persuaded the Romans to have Him executed—only a relatively small remnant of Jews received Him and believed unto eternal life. The rest would fall irretrievably over the “stone of stumbling” and “rock of offense.”
Christ Stirs Opposition from People
The division Messiah’s life caused among His people included overt opposition from many. He represented the light and righteousness that the average person hated (John 3:18–20). Eventually, as the Gospels clearly attest, the unbelieving Jews would contest everything Jesus said and did. The opposition began with indifference and progressed to hatred, plotting, insults, mockery, verbal vilification, physical torture, and abuse, and it ended with crucifixion.
It is hard enough for us today to believe that many of the Jews in Jesus’ time opposed Him so sinfully and completely. But Mary, who heretofore had done nothing but rejoice over the arrival of Messiah, had to be feeling shock and sadness over Simeon’s warning. Perhaps it would have been understandable if such future opposition had referred to the Gentiles; but it was unthinkable for her to identify it with the chosen nation of Israel.
But God’s sovereign redemptive purpose was again behind Simeon’s sobering declaration. His words could have wonderfully clarified for believing Jews like Mary the prophecy of Isaiah 53:3, “He [Christ] is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.”
Mary Experiences Affliction
Simeon’s prophecy then turned from addressing the nations to addressing Mary personally. He said, in effect, that before everything ended, Mary’s role as Jesus’ mother would become very difficult personally. “‘A sword will pierce through your own soul also’” (Luke 2:35).
Because Mary undoubtedly loved Jesus more than any mother ever loved a child, it was extremely hard for her when Jesus had to push her away on the human level. When at age twelve He had to be about His Father’s business in the temple (Luke 2:46–50), it was necessary, in a sense, to push Mary aside. Later, when He was doing His first miracle in Cana (John 2:1–11), Jesus didn’t call her “mother”; He called her “woman” (v. 4). And on another occasion, when Mary came to visit Him with His half brothers (Matt. 12:46–50), He said, “‘Who is My mother and who are My brothers?’ And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, ‘Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother’” (vv. 48–50).
Jesus gently but firmly nudged Mary from merely being His mother to realizing that she needed to depend on Him as her Savior and Lord. And after Jesus was hated, ridiculed, unfairly tried, physically assaulted, and crucified, Mary was standing at the foot of the cross, watching right up to the end of His life (John 19:25). Seeing Jesus suffering on the cross certainly would have rammed a sword through her maternal heart. In addition, Mary’s heart was no doubt pierced through because she, as a believing Jew, had to witness all the unbelieving opposition to Christ pour forth from many of her fellow Israelites.
Mary was an ordinary woman who dealt with enormous strain just being the mother of the Son of God. Her life accurately fulfilled Simeon’s admonition to her as she periodically felt bewildered by Jesus’ words and actions and certainly cut to the heart with emotional pain as she saw His rejection, suffering, and death.
The Revelation Simeon’s Words Predict
Years ago I read about a man who took a friend on a tour of Paris. They went to the Louvre and looked at all the great paintings there. That night they went to a concert hall and heard a wonderful symphony. At the end of the evening, the man asked his friend, “Well, what do you think?” And the friend replied, “I wasn’t all that impressed.”
In response, the man told his friend, “If it’s any consolation to you, the museum and its art were not on trial and neither was the symphony. You were on trial. History has already determined the greatness of these works of art and of this music. All that your attitude reveals is the smallness of your own appreciation.”
Likewise, Jesus isn’t on trial, but every soul is. Simeon declared, “‘This Child … is a sign which will be spoken against … that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed’” (Luke 2:34–35). When God prompted Jesus to begin His ministry, many people rallied to oppose Him. That opposition simply revealed the wickedness of people’s hearts. Specifically, it also revealed the apostasy of the Jews’ religion, with all its hypocrisy, self-righteousness, legalism, and shallowness. And that attitude is still prevalent today.
When considering the facts of Christ’s birth, many people think, You know, the baby Jesus was a sweet child. And when He grew up, peace, joy, and happiness followed Him everywhere. Jesus was really a good man, and everyone felt good about Him when He healed the sick and taught interesting parables. That’s the kind of Jesus I want to embrace.
But you must go far beyond that. To embrace Jesus by saving faith and enter His Kingdom, you must allow Him to expose your sin. That means you repent of your evil thoughts and deeds, come to Him for forgiveness, receive His justification, and begin to live a holy life. But if you hate Jesus for exposing your sin and refuse to repent, you’ll die in your sins and go to hell. So Christ’s life was and is a revelation. How people respond reveals the condition of their hearts.
The word Simeon used for “thoughts” in verse 35 connotes negative beliefs. He was indicating that Jesus would reveal the filth of sinful thoughts. Even the Son of God couldn’t have a ministry as He did and still make everyone feel good all the time. As we have seen, He created such hostility that the people killed Him. When one represents and teaches the truth of holiness, as Christ did, he exposes the evil of the human heart.
Some people today, as in Jesus’ time, will fall on their faces, repent, and believe. But many other people today, also as in Jesus’ time, will reject Him and refuse to believe.
In summary, Simeon’s testimony to Christ had far-reaching implications. Above all, it demonstrated the supreme joy of a righteous Jew whom God had allowed to meet the Messiah. The hope of Israel and the world was then realized—even though heartache and difficulty would result during the course of Jesus’ ministry. Salvation had come, and Simeon could die in peace. His task, though brief and contained in a small segment of Scripture, was of great significance. God used Simeon to give a powerful affirmation to the truth that the infant Jesus was the promised Christ.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). God in the manger: the miraculous birth of Christ (pp. 121–135). Nashville, TN: W Pub. Group.