One of my older children recently posed an excellent question during our family worship time: “Is there a place in the Bible that gives a good, short summary of the real meaning of Christmas?” There are many, of course, but as a pastor tasked with preaching many Advent seasons through the years, I’ve discovered one that may be overlooked: the hymn that Simeon sings after seeing baby Jesus in Luke 2:29-32 and his subsequent words to Joseph and Mary in vv. 34-35. It brings the whole Bible together in a powerful summary.
Who is Simeon? The only time he is mentioned is when the baby Jesus’s parents present him at the temple for purification in accord with the law of Moses. We are only told that he was “righteous and devout” and came to the temple by the Spirit’s drawing. He was a Jewish man waiting for the “consolation” (literally “comfort”) of Israel. He took Jesus up in his arms and praised God for him, then spoke (or perhaps sung) what many scholars believe was a short hymn:
Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your Word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.
Naturally, Jesus’s earthly parents marveled at Simeon’s words. What he said next to Mary brought the ages together:
Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.
A remnant remained
When Jesus was born, the faith of Abraham was crumbling under the legalism of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Yet, even while the people of God suffered under the lash of Roman rule, God still had a remnant.
Simeon’s song is a good summary of the meaning of Christmas. In the span of these few words, promise and fulfillment collide to tell the story of Christ’s Advent. It tells us at least six things about the glorious hope of Christmas:
- This child fulfilled the promises of old
He was the promised consolation of Israel. God had fulfilled his Word and now Simeon could die in peace. Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises and is the key to understanding the Bible. He is second Adam who emerged, unlike the first Adam, without sin. He is the true Moses, who has gone into the promised land to prepare a place for his people. He is the true priest who is both our great high priest and the sacrifice itself. He is the final King, the promised relative of David and the ultimate heir to his throne. Jesus is the fulfillment of all the old covenant promises.
- This child brought salvation to all peoples
God has sent his son as a Savior for all peoples, both Jews and Gentiles. He was a light for the Gentiles, who had formerly walked in darkness. As the apostle Paul put in Ephesians 2:12-13, the Gentiles previously were “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus, those who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
God’s ethnic people already had God’s revelation and are the people through whom the Savior came. There is now one people of God. Christ has broken down the wall of separation that once divided Jew and Gentile and has made for himself one people out of two. J. C. Ryle’s words are poignant here:
The spiritual darkness which had covered the earth for four thousand years was about to be rolled away. The way to pardon and peace with God was about to be thrown open to all mankind. The head of Satan was crushed. Liberty was about to be proclaimed to the captives, and recovering of the sight to the blind. The mighty truth was about to be proclaimed that God could be just, and yet, for Christ’s sake, justify the ungodly … The first stone of God’s kingdom was about to be set up. If this was not ‘good tidings,’ there never were tidings that deserved the name.
- This child was appointed for the rise and fall of many
Christ’s arrival is good news. He is appointed for the rise — or literally, the resurrection — of many in Israel. Christ is the savor of life for those who believe in him (2 Cor. 2:14-16). Many who were once alienated from God by sin will now flee to him and find reconciliation with God. This is the good news of Christmas. Just as Christ raised Lazarus after he had been dead for many days, so will many sinners be raised to newness of life by the Son of God who is fully God and fully man. This good news links the Christmas story with Easter and shows how one is incomplete without the other.
While the good news rescues many, it is a word of judgment for the disbelieving world. God appointed Jesus for the fall (lit. “ruin”) of many. He is a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense for all who reject him as Lord and Savior.
- This child would be a sign that is opposed
He would be a mark for all the fiery darts of the evil one. He would be despised and rejected by men. This child and his people would be a city set upon a hill, attacked and hated on every side by all kinds of men throughout the centuries. He would wind up reviled, rejected, and blasphemed, a man of sorrows acquainted with grief. In their depravity, sinful men oppose this promised one. Thus, since Scripture here predicts that many will oppose Christ, we should not be surprised when the majority of those around us do not follow him. Love and compassion should compel us to keep praying and proclaiming.
- This child was born to die
Here is the good news of the gospel in miniature. How? Simeon foretells the sorrow that will come upon the Virgin Mary, picturing it as a deep-cutting and heart-piercing sword. This was fulfilled when she stood by the cross and saw her son hanging there, bearing the sin of his people. But her sorrow would turn to joy, for Mary was a sinner in need of grace every bit as much as we are. The sword that pierced her through in the death of her son turned out to be the salvation of her soul. The light has indeed shone in the darkness.
- This child would reveal sinfulness of human hearts
The gospel reveals the true heart of all people. Preaching the cross provokes anger and enmity in some, but agony over sin and repentance unto life in others. To some, it only increases the opposition and culpability, it further hardens their hearts; to others, it brings light to a dark place. To these, Paul’s words in 2 Cor. 4:6 are precious: “For God, who said, Let Light shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
For some, Christ is the light of the world; to others, he is a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense. Many who are righteous in their own eyes will have the truth about their hearts revealed in the light of Christ.
Go tell it
Simeon’s gospel is the good news of Bethlehem and Golgotha. The story of Christmas is never complete without Good Friday and Easter. This Advent season, as we gather to celebrate the Incarnation of our Lord, sing the song of Simeon far and wide — especially to those who still walk in the darkness.